Complexity, Ambiguity, Perversity, Liberty

The pandemic uncertainty should lead each of us to hold our opinions more loosely - to be more gracious and charitable toward those who hold to ideas different than our own

Human beings exhibit wide variation in the way we calibrate acceptable risk in the face of ambiguity. Ambiguity, unfortunately, almost always increases as a result of complexity. It seems to nudge many people toward perverse behaviors and beliefs. Human beings love certitude. When our accustomed certitude goes up in smoke (e.g. Covid), the change in our ability to calibrate risk leads us to behave in ways that are...unflattering.

My own social circle contains people at both extremes, and everywhere in between, on the questions of vaccines and masks. Some of my friends embrace their inner authoritarian as a way to combat the ambiguity of our current moment. They close their eyes to the still very open scientific questions regarding the efficacy and consequences of masks, and to the uncharted frontier of the current mRNA vaccines. They sometimes act as if there are no open questions at all - that masks and vaccines are an obvious and unalloyed good. My authoritarian-minded friends embrace mandates, are generally blind to the reigning uncertainties, and incline toward framing their decision about vaccines and masks as reflecting a kind of moral virtue. (Full disclosure: I got both doses of the vaccine. I decided that the benefits outweighed the risks, but I don't kid myself that the risks are non-existent.)

I have more liberty-minded friends at the other end of the spectrum. They oppose the authoritarian instinct rearing its head. They emphasize the scientific uncertainty. Some of them go even further than that, going beyond merely pointing out the uncertainty to embracing conspiratorial explanations regarding vaccines and masks. This, I think, is their way of reconciling their love of liberty with their present inability to accurately calibrate risk.  By embracing conspiracies they can replace ambiguity with certitude.

Throughout my career I've had the great good fortune of getting to work on some of the most powerful and complex computing systems in the world. Even now, I'm involved in helping stand up what is expected to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world when it is turned on later this year.  What I have learned is that humility in the face of complexity is a prerequisite for any meaningful achievement. In this case, by "humility" I mean that you have to approach your work with the recognition that you don't really know what you're doing. You must distinguish between speculative answers (i.e. superstition) and empirical answers that only emerge from the hard work of digging data out of the complex systems you're observing. There are rarely any short-cuts to empirical answers where complex systems are concerned. Even so, the human aversion to ambiguity is so strong that even trained engineers will form superstitious explanations for visible phenomenon rather than do the hard work of prying actual understanding from the system.

At one level, the entire pandemic has been a global exercise in decision making in the face of uncertainty. Our love of certitude and unwillingness to accept the ambiguity of our current moment has lead to fractured relationships, divided churches, broken families, and lonelier lives.

C.S. Lewis said that courage was not just one of the virtues but was the form of every virtue at the testing point. (I think he was paraphrasing Aristotle, but I'm not positive.) We could really use more social courage right now. We need to courageously embrace liberty even in the face of the heightened ambiguity. Actually because of the ambiguity, more liberty is required. We need more political courage to resist the authoritarians in our midst, not least because they are too often blind to the shaky foundations of their own certitude. And anyway, the idea that safety is preferable to liberty is a Faustian lie: anyone who prioritizes safety over liberty gets neither.

But we also need to accept the damaged world for what it is. We now live with a slightly heightened mortality risk, especially for the elderly. But the elevated risk is not higher than it has been at many times throughout human history, and people didn't cower in their homes, or try to force others to cower, during those times.

My own view is that the vaccine is neither a panacea, nor is it a nefarious plot. It carries risks, but it also gives value. Whether or not the long-term value of the vaccine exceeds long-term downsides is not currently known. The good news is that the people most at risk from Covid don't tend to have a long-term horizon to worry about the effects anyway.

People should be free to take or reject the vaccine. That's liberty. People should be free to wear or not wear masks. That's liberty. People should be free to cower in their homes, or accept the risks and get on with their lives. That's liberty.  

But it's also the fact that because there is very real uncertainty, it should lead each of us to hold our opinions more loosely - to be more gracious and charitable toward those who hold to ideas different than our own. None of us really knows what we're doing. Recognizing this is the first step toward wresting success from the pandemic's dark complexity.

And by all means let us avoid the materialist superstition which, among other perversities, would have us view our fellow human beings as nothing more than walking bio-hazards. If you find yourself tempted to conceive of passing strangers as nothing more than mushy bags of viral contagion, you might want to reconsider your mix of social media influences.

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