We must stop relying on predictions: How the coronavirus pandemic humbles us

This article first appeared on Medium.

Models have been bandied about in the UK which have cost lives, in recent weeks. Reliance on models always carries with it that kind of — deadly — risk.

It can seem as if there is no alternative. But there is. We are mostly not aware of the alternative, because we are consumed by the scientistic idea of reliance on predictive models, and because we have become complacent about our ability to predict and control the world through techno-science.

The alternative is radical. It is to seek to reduce (not eliminate, that’s impossible, but reduce) our exposure to the uncertain, through acting in ways that will be protective against the worst threats we face regardless. This is the Precautionary Principle.

The idea of the precautionary principle is that we are always living in a world that we cannot fully understand, and we have to try to guard ourselves as best we can while being sanguine that that kind of guarding will never be completely successful. The precautionary principle, tragically, is exactly what was abandoned by the UK government in its approach to coronavirus, and we’re reaping the consequences already (and they’re going to become worse in the coming weeks).

This pandemic itself could not possibly have been predicted, and to be precautious we need to stay ahead of the virus, which invariably involves staying ahead of the data (while also seeking data, via mass testing for instance).If we rely on evidence and predictions only, we are always liable to be lagging behind the moving edge of the pandemic.

This kind of pandemic is however a completely predictable outcome of economic globalisation (and it was in fact in broad outline predicted by my colleague Nassim Taleb); by which I mean, there’s never been a pandemic before at a time when the world was so super physically interconnected and that’s why it was so dangerous and why it was likely to spread so fast and why it was necessary to take strong precautionary action to slow down that spread before we knew even all about its detail; of which, of course, we’re still finding out now. Precisely because we are living in a new world — a hyper-physically-connected world — we needed to move fast pre-emptively to guard against the exponential potential harmfulness of this new virus, Covid-19.

Some countries have been a lot better than others at taking that kind of protective precautionary action. The countries that have moved fast, not waiting for evidence, not relying on models, are the ones that have protected their citizens best.

There is a broader moral here. If, rather than thinking that we rule the world and are on the edge of being able to understand and predict it completely, we were to recognise that we’ve just been humbled by something microscopic, and that this will happen again, and worse, unless we draw the moral, then we’d be in better shape to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable, than we are today.