My 2019 book “Before the Collapse.” In it, I examined several scenarios of the future of humankind. Was I able to predict the current pandemic? Of course not in the details, but I think that I did note an important facet of the story: epidemics are never very deadly when they come alone. They become true killers only when they are associated famines. In the case of the current coronavirus pandemic, the human population is not so badly debilitated by famines that we should have expected disasters comparable to those caused by ancient epidemics. So, we could have been better prepared if we had paid more attention to history. But the main thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history. And so it goes. This post includes a review of the book written by Daniel Ruiz.
After nearly one year from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, we can say that, at the very least, we learned a lot from it. One lesson was that we should be much more careful about “model hubris”, to think that because a model is complex and detailed, it can predict the future. This problem is well described in a recent paper by Saltelli et al. in a recent paper in “Nature.”
But perhaps the most important lesson we learned was how easy the future can surprise us and how our perception of it can be remote from reality. We tend to judge on the basis of our past experience, but our mental models are often poorly calibrated. When the COVID-19 started diffusing in the West, many people panicked, some seemed to think that it really was the end of the world. Maybe they had in mind as a model the great plague of the Middle Ages, an image that has been with us for centuries.
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