Covid-19: Don’t Look Back in Anger, Managing the Mess

April 7th, 2020

I have thought in the last two blogs about life beyond the current situation, but engaging with other researchers, keeping up with published research and absorbing slightly more news and social media than is really healthy, I am triggered to think about how we might manage and modify our expectations during the crisis.

We are faced with a challenge, described as unprecedented, which has the character of being life-shortening and life-threatening for some, life changing for all. Our national leaders and their scientific advisers are addressing this with all the tools, knowledge, expertise available to them. They are engaging with clinicians, scientists, and engineers across all disciplines. They are collectively modelling the situation, generating, analysing, synthesising, extrapolating, normalising, regressing to the mean, aggregating and inverting all of the data available to them. That data is changing by the minute, some confirming established thinking, some challenging it, some no doubt doing both and some neither.

Now, think about this.

Stafford Beer in about 1985 said “a model is neither true nor false, it is more or less useful”. We can be confident perhaps in only one thing – that there is some gap between the actual situation (whatever and where ever that may be) and the situation as it is perceived and represented in the models which act to underpin the decisions. That is not a criticism, it is a statement about the nature of all models. They are necessarily selective abstractions from the situation being observed of those characteristics of the situation which are both observable and perceived by the observer to be important. Once a model is created it becomes increasingly difficult to add to that model some component which was originally excluded. That exclusion was often based on either the absence of any relevant data (we didn’t think to include it because it didn’t exist) or because our then assumption  was that it was not significant. However, Russ Ackoff in about 1974 said: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems. I choose to call such a system a mess”.

So, here is a reality check. There is as yet no compelling evidence of any one solution or approach substantially out performing any other, the varying definitions, reporting cycles, social and demographic contexts of each nation will always render some strategies apparently more or less successful than others. For our national leaders and their supporters there is no solution other than to continually re-solve the problem of Covid-19 drawing on the latest evidence available. Some decisions in retrospect will look wrong but they will only do so in the light of changed evidence. Now is not a time for the wholesale adoption of the approaches of others nor for linear interpretations – ‘if it works for A it must work for B’ – but for both continually and discontinuously rethinking. We cannot know and use information not yet available to us so we must not later attack people for not using it, only for failing to faithfully use what they do have and/or failing to make a judgement. The only wrong decision is no decision.

Let us be thoughtful in our critique of their actions and decisions, let us be thankful it is them not us.