A few weeks ago, I told you not to panic about the coronavirus. No, that’s putting it too mildly. In the big, screaming urgency of a New York Times headline, I all but commanded you not to panic about the novel virus threatening to spread across the globe.
To be totally fair to myself, my reasoning in that column was mostly on point: At the time, the new coronavirus appeared to be a far less worrisome danger than the flu, which kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world annually. The illness, since named COVID-19, had then killed fewer than 200 people, and the Chinese government’s late but immense efforts to contain it looked as if they might work. The bigger worry, I argued, was the threat of mass overreaction and panic — and the restrictions on civil liberties, especially to those of immigrants and other vulnerable people, that a frightened world might accept to prevent the disease from spreading.
Events have not exactly been kind to my thesis. I still think mass panic is a grave threat, but now that the number of COVID-19 deaths has risen to thousands and the illness has appeared on several continents, I’m starting to get straightforwardly scared of the virus and its potential lethality, too. Am I panicking? Not really, not yet. But after watching the stock market plummet on Monday and governments struggling to get hold of the contagion, I’ve begun to smell doom. This weekend, idly, I found myself looking for N95 masks online, and my wife and I began reining in family vacation plans for the summer. It’s all a swift reversal from the insistent, don’t-worry tone of my last column.
Now, I’ve been a pundit for a long time, and I learned early on not to sweat being occasionally wrong about the future. I figure if I’m not wrong sometimes, I’m probably thinking too small. What I do regret about my virus column, though, is its dripping certainty. I wasn’t just pooh-poohing the virus’ threat; using the history of two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, as my guide, I all but guaranteed that this one, too, would more or less fizzle out.
In retrospect, my analytical mistake is obvious, and it’s a type of error that has become all too common across media, especially commentary on television and Twitter. My mistake was that I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected “black swan” event that upends historical expectation.
A projection of certainty is often a crucial part of commentary; nobody wants to listen to a wishy-washy pundit. But I worry that unwarranted certainty, and an under-appreciation of the unknown, might be our collective downfall, because it blinds us to a new dynamic governing humanity: The world is getting more complicated, and therefore less predictable.
Yes, the future is always unknowable. But there’s reason to believe it’s becoming even more so, because when it comes to affairs involving masses of human beings — which is most things, from politics to markets to religion to art and entertainment — a range of forces is altering society in fundamental ways. These forces are easy to describe as Davos-type grand concepts: among others, the internet, smartphones, social networks, the globalization and interdependence of supply chains and manufacturing, the internationalization of culture, unprecedented levels of travel, urbanization and climate change. But their effects are not discrete. They overlap and intertwine in nonlinear ways, leaving chaos in their wake.
In the last couple of decades, the world has become unmoored, crazier, somehow messier. The black swans are circling; chaos monkeys have been unleashed. And whether we’re talking about the election, the economy, or most any other corner of humanity, we in the pundit class would do well more often to strike a note of humility in the face of the expanding unknown. We ought to add a disclaimer to everything we say: “I could be wrong! We all could be wrong!”
Since I don’t expect many of my commentating colleagues to do so, it’s best for you in the audience to remember this the next time you watch, say, veteran political pundits insisting that nominating Bernie Sanders would be insane: The world is strange! Odd things happen! And it’s possible, maybe even likely, that in 2020 nobody knows what they’re talking about. Like, at all.
I should note that there is some controversy about the thesis that black-swan events are increasing due to global complexity, and the claim is difficult to prove empirically. But there is theoretical backing to the idea that more-connected, complicated systems lead to more surprising, unexpected outcomes. And the claim makes sense intuitively, too. For instance, increased global connectivity is one of the reasons COVID-19 has been so hard to contain. (Authorities clearly weren’t prepared for the disease threat posed by the cruise industry, which has grown rapidly in China over the last decade.)
More than that, the growing unpredictability of human affairs is clear in the number of surprises we seem to be enduring lately. What was the 2008 financial crisis if not an out-of-the-blue event that stymied most prognosticators? Or, for that matter, the election of the first African American president, America’s hyper-fast flip on gay rights, Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, or the rise of Bernie Sanders?
And, sticking with politics, consider all the unknowns now clouding our picture of what might play out in 2020. Will Michael Bloomberg’s and Trump’s gargantuan levels of spending on digital ads substantially alter how elections work — or is it possible that we’re overhyping the role of ad spending? Will Americans really recoil from socialism, or do many of us not care so much about an outdated label? Will Sanders’ revolutionary army turn out, or stay home? Will our election survive malign interference or domestic ineptitude? How will the virus affect the economy and Americans’ sense of safety — and will that be good for Trump, or terrible for him?
I’ll lay my cards on the table: To me, Sanders is looking increasingly electable, the virus looks like it could reshape much of daily life at least in the short term, and the Trump administration’s response to it is bound to be bumbling and perhaps extremely scary.
Of course, I could be wrong. We all could be.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.