On February 28, I was delighted to vote in person for the first time ever. I wrote about that here.
By then, I already had enough information to know this was Not A Good Idea.
The signal just wasn’t on my mind.
About a week before I voted, I was talking with a fellow fan of author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I asked if she followed him on Twitter. I explained I’d stopped scrolling through his tweets several weeks back, but that he remained my favorite author and tweep.
“Ah, yeah, he’s just freaking out about that coronavirus thing these days,” she said.
“Huh,” I replied, before our conversation moved on.
Between that conversation and my voting, my husband mentioned he’d read something troubling about coronavirus. I waved him off, focused on other things, saying I was sure it was no big deal.
I did this despite having read all of Taleb’s non-technical books several times. Which, both embarrassingly and amusingly, exemplifies one of my key takeaways from Taleb’s books:
Humans are terrible at understanding reality! Nevertheless, despite ample evidence our linear-mindedness makes it hard to grasp consequences in a complex world, we foolishly persist being confident that we understand it quite well, thus stumbling into catastrophes we could have avoided with a little humility and understanding of our human fallibility.
But, yeah. My husband was alllllll wrong to be concerned.
A few days after voting, I thought about what my husband had said. I thought about what my friend had said about Taleb several days beforehand.
I loaded Taleb’s Twitter feed and was, within a couple of minutes, kicking myself for not having done so earlier. For if Taleb’s “freaking out” about something, it’s much likelier I’m misunderstanding than he is.
In late January, more than a month before I checked his Twitter feed that early March day, Taleb et al had published a note on coronavirus. For one who’s read a lot of Taleb, one paragraph especially jumped out at me:
Historically based estimates of spreading rates for pandemics in general, and for the current one in particular, underestimate the rate of spread because of the rapid increases in transportation connectivity over recent years. This means that expectations of the extent of harm are underestimates both because events are inherently fat tailed, and because the tail is becoming fatter as connectivity increases.
My layman’s translation was: In this highly connected world, the longer we wait to take precautionary measures, the more screwed humanity will be globally.
I began taking coronavirus seriously, in concept.
In practice, I changed nothing.
On March 13, my kids’ school notified my husband and I that school would be closed for at least two weeks.
My husband and I, having talked about Taleb many times over the last few years, were crystal clear that our kids would be home longer than two weeks.
The next day, we began seriously limiting our ventures into the outside world. We took another few small precautions outside that.
About a week ago, I said I needed to start covering my face when I go out. Still, I only had a handful of face masks left over for use when allergies are making my asthma especially difficult, and I was reluctant to use them for walking around the neighborhood.
A few days ago, though, I got to telling my husband about how many dog-walkers my sons and I are seeing on our twice-daily walks. “I’ve never seen nearly so many people out walking their dogs!” I said. “I think this means I really need to start putting something on my face, pronto. It’s all about asymmetry of consequence. Worst-case scenario for wearing it is I look silly and nothing else changes; there’s no benefit. Worst-case scenario for not wearing it is hurting–or even inadvertently contributing to killing–someone else. With such asymmetrical costs and benefits, it’s dumb to be walking around out there without some stopgap barrier.”
This morning, then, I put bandanas on my children and myself before we went on our walk. My younger son hated how it felt. My older son hated how it looked.
“Risk getting seriously sick, or have a neighbor or two quietly giggle at us?” I said to the older one.”
“Risk it!” he said enthusiastically.
“You’re wearing the bandana,” I replied.
Are bandanas everything my family needs them to be? No. Are they better than nothing? Yes. They add another barrier between us and those around us.
Are we stopping at bandanas? No. They’re a stopgap. My husband, ever crafty, is going to make some face masks for us.
That’ll be better still.
Contemplating writing this post (another “just a quick one, hon!”–ha!), I pulled out Taleb’s Antifragile. I tried to find a couple of specific passages on how to measure health risks in complex systems.
Unable to find them quickly, I went to his Twitter feed. I instantly smiled; while, overwhelmed, I haven’t been following Taleb closely the last couple weeks, the very top (re)tweet in his feed was about just this mask-y point: “Smart people I follow here — @nntaleb and @chrismartenson — have been saying for weeks that everyone should be wearing masks.”
I scanned further down to see if I could find anything on masks and asymmetry. Sure enough, I found a tweet perfectly addressing the asymmetry situation I’d described to my husband. Wrote Taleb, “Now I am not saying that masks work there, rather that owing to an asymmetry you MUST wear one. Decision-making in real life is based on asymmetries. That’s the entire message of the Incerto!”
I hadn’t explained it totally wrong! More to the point, unlike me and my risky voting-in-person decision, I not only got it in principle but reflected the comprehension in action.
step bandana in the right direction!
Asymmetry means small steps can have many more profound, consequential benefits than our human minds can easily grasp … and that the consequences of not taking them can be at least as outsized. This being so, we ought take the small, easy steps we can to make the worst case scenarios less likely. Early.
So if I were to recommend anything right now, it’d be this: Cover your face before you step outside!
And if I were to recommend one more, it’d be this: That you don’t take my word for it, but read some Taleb yourself.
Who knows what unforeseeable, potentially lifesaving good could come from it?!