SFI on Covid-19
Santa Fe Institute released a set of short essays on questions which arise from Covid–19, below are some highlights and links.
I learnt about this through this great conversation between David Krakauer and Michael Garfield on the Complexity podcast.
But there is a flip side to this entanglement of complex systems: transmission, unlike the complexity of genetics, and social systems, economies, and ecosystems, can be relatively easily understood, and, by extension, controlled.
We use our understanding of the common factor of transmission to our advantage: continue to mobilize the largest information-transmission network the world has ever seen – our technologies of communication — to enable the collective action needed to eliminate the transmission of the virus. Strategic isolation is our anti-viral flash-anti-mob.
Here, scientists face a clear tradeoff. Wide ranges are much more likely to be correct, but can offer limited guidance to policymakers. Narrow ranges facilitate political decision-making, but are more likely to be wrong. Thus, when scientists decide how to report results to policymakers, they have to balance the need for action-guiding advice against the risk of their advice being wrong. These are value-laden decisions that cannot be outsourced to policymakers. Thus, as politicians continue to call on the expertise of scientists in order to respond to the current pandemic, scientists must embrace the fact that they are being asked to make ethical decisions.
So what’s a complexity scientist to do? In our research group in Leipzig, we believe we can establish general statistical regularities using simplifying assumptions and procedures that can compensate for data fluctuations.
So what is the effect of group size on the transmission rates of infectious disease? This question raises many secondary questions. How long does one stay within a group — perhaps two hours at a ball game, but all day in kids’ classrooms — and how does that interact with group size? How thoroughly within a group does transmission occur? Surely somebody in the bleachers cannot directly infect someone in a box seat above home plate. And what about whether the group is indoors or outdoors; what about wind and humidity?
Our world mostly works. When you’re leaving the airplane, don’t think, follow: good design nudges you all the way to the taxi. The architect Christopher Alexander built a life’s work on showing how something as simple as the design of a home’s window seat has, over centuries, adjusted to a delicate balance of physical, psychological, and social needs. In equilibrium, good systems get you by on instinct.
Like the hiker who brought a can of espresso beans, however, many of us are now noticing how much of day-to-day mind-life has been cooked, not left raw. By choice, or by necessity, we’re forced to think about things we’ve usually left to the environment. As I asked a friend who teaches philosophy: have you ever done this much thinking before?