entangled thinking

If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s that experts disagree, nobody has all the answers, and we are mostly making things up as we go. In a crisis it is important to act but even more importantly to learn as we take action. Add in the human factor that some people are always trying to take advantage of any situation and we start to float in a liquid surround of misinformation, propaganda, half-truths, and sometimes utter crap of the post-truth machines.

As of yesterday our government started to promote the wearing of non-medical masks in public. Last week our public health experts said that people did not know how to wear masks properly so they should not wear them. Overnight we have become professional mask wearers, as we are all expert hand-washers.

In the meantime a standard, and cheap, malarial drug is being promoted in some corners for COVID-19 treatment. Other medical experts say it is not appropriate and perhaps dangerous. Meanwhile some countries are stockpiling the drug and some companies are ready to make a profit. But this is a cheap drug and bigger profits would be made from a new drug.

If you want to know why most decisions are made — follow the money. Researchers want to discover breakthrough drugs. Pharmaceutical companies need profitable drugs. Usually governments want what is best for citizens, but this is not always the case.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” —Einstein [attributed]. We are at the end of The Enlightenment — and all the institutions and scientific disciplines it fostered — and  entering The Entanglement.

“As we are becoming more entangled with our technologies, we are also becoming more entangled with each other. The power (physical, political, and social) has shifted from comprehensible hierarchies to less-intelligible networks. We can no longer understand how the world works by breaking it down into loosely-connected parts that reflect the hierarchy of physical space or deliberate design. Instead, we must watch the flows of information, ideas, energy, and matter that connect us, and the networks of communication, trust, and distribution that enable these flows.” —The Long Now Foundation 2019-12-26

Experts and expertise are not enough for our society to make sense of the complexities we have helped to create. For example, complex scientific fields are the realm of research institutions, like universities.  It takes a long time to gain expertise, and competence is conferred through peer review. But peer review has its problems and much of the research is published in the language of specialists that only the select few can decipher. There is also little incentive in the highly competitive (for research funding) fields of scientific research to publish widely or to synthesize research so that it is understandable by the average adult. Each silo of research is loyal to itself.

To connect disparate fields there is a growing need for neo-generalists, trusted filters, and the breaking down of silos. Entangled thinking requires diversity. It also requires individual thinking, especially in chaos. General Roméo Daillare suggested in a radio interview this morning that in times of chaos, it is often best to go with our gut instinct — especially if we have a good understanding of the current context, and perhaps a better understanding than the experts.

For instance, we started wearing non-medical masks in public last week. My reading about transmission of the virus by non-symptomatic people had me conclude that if everyone wore one, there was a good chance that it would slow the spread. Wearing a mask cost me little, was not a danger to me,  and did not hurt anyone else. However, several medical experts warned that wearing these masks was not a good idea and repeated advice to not wear one. As of yesterday, that expert advice changed. It reminded me of the expert advice not to go down the stairs during the 2001-09-11 Twin Towers explosion and fire. Many of those who ignored this advice survived.

I am not saying that we should ignore all expert advice. However, we have to think for ourselves every day and help make our networked society smarter. An expert is merely one node in an entangled knowledge network.

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