Radical Uncertainty and Coronavirus
Book recommendation of the Day-
True ‘black swans’ are states of the world to which we cannot attach probabilities because we cannot conceive of these states. The dinosaurs fell victim to an unknown unknown — even as they died they did not know what had happened to them. Human extinction will more likely come about in another way. Martin Rees, a Cambridge scientist and the Astronomer Royal, has founded a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, to identify such potential threats and suggest measures to mitigate them. He warns of the possibility of runaway climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence and robots which run out of control. These are threats we can at least perceive. But the observation of a black swan was not a low-probability event; it was an unimaginable event, given European knowledge of swans. As the convict colonists boarded the First Fleet, no one would plausibly have offered, or accepted, a wager of the kind ‘I bet you one thousand to one all the swans in Australia are white’. Natural phenomena are more likely than social ones to be the result of stationary processes — the structure of the physical world changes less than do global business, finance and politics. But the impact of a pandemic is determined as much or more by the state of medical knowledge as by the pathogens of disease. The Black Death will not recur — plague is easily cured by antibiotics (although the effectiveness of antibiotics is under threat) — and a significant outbreak of cholera in a developed country is highly unlikely. But we must expect to be hit by an epidemic of an infectious disease resulting from a virus which does not yet exist. To describe catastrophic pandemics, or environmental disasters, or nuclear annihilation, or our subjection to robots, in terms of probabilities is to mislead ourselves and others. We can talk only in terms of stories. And when our world ends, it will likely be the result not of some ‘long tail’ event arising from a low-probability outcome from a known frequency distribution, nor even of one of the contingencies hypothesised by Martin Rees and colleagues, but as a result of some contingency we have failed even to imagine.