Can experts solve COVID-19?
Likely, but not soon. The intervening time will be troublesome.
Expertise is a condition we often don’t think about. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume it is someone highly skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced in a particular, limited field of study. A cardiologist will know a great deal about heart disease, but not so much about neonatal care. More than you or I by far, but at something less than at the expert level.
Assume the problem we consult about is known, clearly defined, and within the range of the cardiologist’s skills. In those cases, we can expect a reliable answer. The expert has seen the situation before, knows what tests and procedures will conclusively establish its nature, and knows what to do once the problem is precisely defined. Their expertise is valid here.
The requirements are
In medicine, generalists deal with some conditions and refer you to specialists for others. General practitioners are good at diagnosis but are more limited with their approaches. They are wider and shallower than specialists. We need people who can fill this role throughout society.
Generalists are better than specialists at multidimensional problems.
Complex problems are a bit like 6-year-olds. They are not predictable.
Expert value deteriorates when the problem is not from the standard set of their experiences. New problems don’t make them useless, but those challenges make their intuition less reliable.
They are still the most likely candidate for finding an answer but, it will be less conclusive. If the known problem, single discipline situation exists, they may be 98% right. The novel, single-discipline situation drops it into the 50% right category. Maybe lower.
They will likely get much better, but not right away. We should look to experts for an answer, just not soon.
Few problems are fully defined and within a particular body of knowledge and experience. What happens?
Suppose the problem is known and it involves several areas of expertise. We could expect a workable answer from a single expert. Maybe the 50% good level again. Knowing the confines of the problem helps assess ways to proceed.
The Covid-19 case couples the novel problem with required knowledge from several disciplines. In this case, everyone, not just the experts, is lost.
There are many aspects and no experience to help assign weight to one viewing point or another. Everyone is an amateur. Some will adapt quicker, but no one starts with the answer or even necessarily with a solution vector.
There will undoubtedly be conflict as different viewing points vie for primacy.
I am reminded of “expert” Richard Feynman’s thought on this,
“A scientist thinking about non-scientific things is just as dumb as the next guy.”
More generally, an expert outside their field is no better at finding answers than anyone else. Maybe worse because their field of view is narrower.
Experts have limited knowledge of Covid-19. When they overreach, they often present answers based more on their own self-confidence than objective reality. If a particle physicist offered you income tax advice, how carefully would you listen?
Having been right in the past, but in dissimilar situations, is not the place for confidence in your current answer. This is where we see the reason behind the argument flaw, “Appeal to authority.” You never know for sure the authoritative expert knows as much as they claim.
Humility will go a long way to addressing a new and complex problem.
Unfortunately, we have an experiment underway as you read this. It addresses the question of how should we manage Covid-19?
Start with what we know:
Our next step is to apply the resources that help.
There are at least these identifiable disciplines involved:
Politicians are supposed to be doing something, and so they picked medicine because it looked right. In many ways, it was, but it narrows the definition of the problem. Confined this way, it cannot supply a more complete explanation leading to a better solution.
Multidimensional problems don’t solve in conventional ways. There is no ability called “Multidimensional problem-solving expert.”
Businesses have been doing it for years, probably forever. Most of their problems are multidimensional–manufacturing, customers, engineering, R&D, employee relations and HR, legal, finance, transportation, supply chain management, procurement, and marketing to name most.
By defining viewing points and by confining discussion. Viewing points are necessary because the problem changes its nature as you look at it from different places.
General managers know they must address viewing points serially. If they don’t, the most dominant expert will steal the show.
They don’t convene a single meeting with all the people there. They have several meetings with all the people present. Today we will see the problem as a marketing issue. All departments participate but only in the context of marketing. This afternoon address the engineering issue. Later on, deal with each of the viewing points.
The idea is to allow the problem to be “cross-pollinated” by ideas, perspectives, and limits.
Eventually, executives make a decision that has a reasonable foundation and can be planned forward to tactics.
Knowing what they don’t know and must find out is a good start. After the process, executives know how to weigh the parts and assign resources. They know what is likely to change in the future. They know who will buy in and who won’t. They understand the nature of their SWOT situation and have filled the boxes. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They have preliminary approaches to internal difficulties and to addressing external realities.
I hope you don’t. It wasn’t. There is far more information now, but not much has changed. Maybe it will soon.
In the beginning, no one knew enough. “It looks like a medical problem. Let’s invoke the medical experts.” Fair enough.
It should not have stayed so narrow.
The medical-political solution generated a four-fold error:
The result. We got ideologically-leavened, medical-dominant thinking. That seems a weak way to assess and deal with any problem, never mind one that is a potentially serious threat.
In the absence of a cure, as the disease developed the emphasis became preventing infection. Experts came up with isolation tactics, social distancing, masks, shutdown of many businesses and other institutions like churches and schools. The theory seemed to be, “If no one gets the disease, a non-existent cure won’t be a problem.”
The politics hide the inherent fallacy of the approach. Part of the politics was to ignore that many of their former actions left us vulnerable. Not keeping PPE supplies in inventory, for instance.
Success was never possible. The chosen system requires perfection. In virology and its treatment, perfection is a scarce quality. The outcome is as you would expect – no real value.
Choosing the wrong target leads to a miss of obvious sub-targets. There was spectacularly poor management protecting the most vulnerable in long-term care. Experience in Italy showed it was an immense problem. They did not notice or ignored it. The result was catastrophic. Several facilities lost more than 40% of their patients. More than 2/3 lost none. Did they study the differences? I hope so, but it is hard to find out.
Once it became apparent they had accomplished nothing, the offering became “flatten the curve.” Let’s not overwhelm what medical support we have. Looked good for a while, but the problem recurred, and identical solutions reappeared. Why?
Did they have no new data to temper their response to the second outbreak? They should have had by then. Save for the more intense application of the first-tried methods, nothing changed.
The politicians and their medical “experts” confined the narrative. They dismissed anyone who brought up other aspects. That was destructive in the context of finding a better answer. When you have a problem, never stop looking for a better solution.
We know there are alternatives. Maybe Ivermectin works, not as a cure but as a preventative. It has been used for decades in Africa for other reasons. People have discovered a correlation between its use and the spread of Covid-19 that looks interesting. Maybe a scientific study is in order. Is anyone doing one? No! You might want to ask why not?
Take a look here.
Becoming more assertive about one answer when that answer doesn’t work is galactically dumb.
Businesses would be more thorough. They would look for other possibilities, even as they tested their expedient first approach.
Suppose a business has a brilliant opportunity. Marketing is super-supportive, engineering has it partly developed, manufacturing knows it’s possible. Easy decision, right?
Except! It would be near impossible to finance, and it is likely illegal.
Businesses would listen to divergent views–even seek them. Governments did not seek other options and did not listen when the ideas imposed themselves.
Sure they could have, but the problem was unknown in the beginning. Any judgement around how the outcomes could have been better then relies on hindsight. Unknown problems have no hindsight available to help solve anything. January 2020 was not an exception. No one knew what was best or even adequate.
“Should they have” is the better question. I submit that until May 2020, they should only have been better at shutting down air traffic and minding long-term care facilities. Both of those were clear given observations in Europe. Beyond that, I’ll give them a pass.
But not after. The decision-makers failed and did not correct.
There is one strategic or process mistake that was and remains serious. The process didn’t change as data came available.
No problem is unsolvable if the solution keeps improving based on observed and sought-after information.
No one did it, and by summer, people who supported the initial reaction were changing their minds. People might have agreed until July 2020 or so, but not likely after. The path followed in early 2020 proved inadequate if you consider more than the “flatten the curve” variable. For all we know, that might have happened anyway.
Were governments co-operating and sharing information that might have helped? Maybe they did through WHO, The World Health Organization, but that is not a place to go for solutions. Too political. They have reduced their credibility to near zero.
Did anyone do an honest cost/benefit study of the approach they took?
First of all, it would be expansive. It would consider costs not found in the medical-political solution.
There are several compelling costs presently unaddressed:
The mental health of people adversely affected by shutdowns.
The economic effects on people
The effects on children and their future.
Education will change
Society will be different
Ultimately, the questions will become:
Governments behave as executive decision-makers but are not skilled at such decisions. They have too many stakeholders to make it easy, and they hate to have a decision turn out wrong. Should the decision, as in this case, turn out to be inadequate, they do not willingly back away from it.
Good decisions admit the possibility of failure. They address urgency first. Then seek more and better information. so the likely-wrong urgent response can be repaired. They minimize the harm while finding a durable solution.
Big one-size-fits-all solutions don’t fit in the prototype. Learn, revise, retest learn before a final solution is implemented. The application of one solution to all is a political preference, never an executive choice. For executives, solutions providing equal pain for all is of no advantage. Different kinds of outcomes help them.
A simple examination of the minimal data available demonstrates that conditions are not the same in every health unit in Ontario. I would be shocked if that observation was untrue anywhere. You get different outcomes when the local conditions are different.
We know cases in the large centers are at least 50% higher per capita than in less concentrated areas. I doubt the reasons for that would be hard to establish. There is little similarity in the local factors, so the contrast should be easy to discover and assess. It could be industry or high-rise buildings. Maybe public transportation. Data science and AI could do this in a few days once reliable data was made available.
The universal solutions decided and executed so far have no compelling evidence or rationale to support them. There is no published data, never mind evidence, that supports any of the conclusions and decisions. I expressly point out that models are not evidence, and expert opinion beyond their knowledge silo is nearly valueless.
Early decisions should have been treated as prototypes. Aimed at gaining information so a better approach could be crafted. They were implemented as top-down “solutions.” Now they are hard to back away from.
We cannot waste expert help. We just need to know how reliable it is likely to be. Daniel Kahneman has outlined three conditions for when you can trust experts.
Those conditions are missing in the COVID -19 situation.
Experts are not as helpful as they promote. Do not confuse confident statements with knowledge.
We are intimately involved in this problem. We have decision-making defects too. Many have lost awareness of the meaning of expertise. People have become “experts” in many areas. Access to the internet can easily lead one to a condition of “knowledge illusion.” The progress is 1) fact discovered, which becomes 2) opinion, which becomes 3) expertise. We feel so good about knowing something that we tend to make it highly valuable. In many ways, we are like young people who know everything but only to a very superficial level.
Understand how you fit into the Dunning Kruger hypothesis. Humility matters in foggy times. Be careful, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Charles Darwin
We can criticize those with more profound experience for over-claiming their position. We should notice the same tendency in ourselves.
We are gradually losing the ability to think. Thomas Sowell has observed many people confuse feeling with thinking, and so misjudge situations. The center of the current failure is expertise, especially false expertise. The key to becoming more proficient is to know what you don’t know. At least know there are things you don’t know. Be curious. I expect real experts are doing that.
When you learn there is much you don’t know, you will have a sense of when others are overreaching.
A rule for life, “In God we trust, everyone else must provide both evidence and reasoning.”
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