The Uncertainty Mindset 2019-2020

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#18: Coronavirus

Vaughn Tan4th January 2021 at 11:34am

This issue is about coronavirus as an illustration of the dangers of treating truly uncertain situations as if they were simply risky—in other words, the dangers of having the risk mindset in truly uncertain times. (Also see, of course, risk vs. uncertainty.)

Highly complex systems made up of many interdependent and interconnected subsystems are inherently more uncertain.

Interconnectedness means that something which destabilizes one subsystem is more likely to destabilize other subsystems. Interdependence means destabilization is more likely to spread quickly through the connections between subsystems. A profusion of subsystems makes the system as a whole more likely to be destabilized by a perturbation. In turn, this means that accurately predicting the behavior of the complex system or any of its subsystems becomes nearly impossible.

Coronavirus simultaneously perturbed multiple subsystems of the world system that we all live in, often in ways that are still poorly understood even a year into the pandemic. It represents a situation of enormous true uncertainty—where the future is truly unknown—yet the response at the time was to treat it as something well-understood and susceptible to risk-management and optimization.

At the time (March 4, 2020), I wrote, "Approaching the inherent uncertainty of a potential coronavirus pandemic with a risk-management mindset is likely to be a recipe for disaster."

You can find it here: #18: Coronavirus