The Interface

The Way We Were

A new Santa Fe Institute book presents scientists’ evolving responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer, pictured next to SFI art installation “Niner Echo X-ray,” by artist Bob Davis, is one of many scientists whose thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic are featured in Complex Alternative. (Kate Joyce)

When a new coronavirus started pervading the news in February 2020, Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer was on sabbatical at Harvard. The severity of the situation hastened and, by March, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Krakauer swiftly decided to shut down SFI, where its networks of faculty and visiting scientists from across the globe left it particularly vulnerable to an unknown and swiftly spreading disease.

With the logistics sorted, the nature of the crisis and SFI’s suitability to tackle its myriad aspects became, he said, clear. “We work in immunology and epidemiology. We also work on economics. We also work on social collapse, etc. etc. This is what we are talking about, so it was obvious we were in the space and the question was: What to do about it?”

And so in March 2020, SFI began its Transmission series, essays and discussions introducing elements of complexity science and their relationships to the pandemic. Those essays, along with longer written pieces, podcasts and a symposium, comprise the contents of a recent 700-plus page book from the SFI press: The Complex Alternative: Complexity Scientists on the COVID-19 Pandemic, edited by Krakauer, who also holds the title of William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at SFI, and by SFI Shannan Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West.

In addition to sharing knowledge and ideas, Krakauer wanted to “experiment” with presenting science in “real time,” and share the concomitant and inevitable fallibility that is part of science’s underpinning.

“I was interested in that experiment in part because most science is very retrospective,” Krakauer tells SFR. “You wait a few years until the dust has settled and…you know approximately whether you were right or wrong. This is a different kind of thing. Let’s do it in real time; we’re probably going to be wrong at least half the time; what does that look like in a crisis?”

Krakauer wanted to both share those errors and reflect upon them. “One of the things I was very keen to ask was, ‘OK, this is what you said in April…what do you think now? Some people were willing to say, ‘Oops, I really did get it wrong.’ And others, ‘I got it right!’ So everyone is different.”

As such, the book includes scientists’ initial “transmissions” and their subsequent reflections.

For his part, Krakauer’s March 30, 2020 transmission, “Citizen-Based Medicine,” examined how behavioral changes by the populace—quarantining, social distancing, practicing hygiene, for example—could mitigate the COVID-19 disease. He contrasted that proposition with the reality of a disease such as cancer, writing:

“Imagine a world where one had the opportunity to prevent cancer. And that this involved no medication and could be developed by every one of us without any special training, entirely from home. And that by preventing the disease for several months we would provide researchers the window of time required to develop a treatment, and doctors, nurses, and hospitals, the relief to effectively deploy it across the global population.”

In October 2021, Krakauer revisited his initial essay, describing it as “an overly optimistic approach to the pandemic” and examines the factors that made such “collective-action measures” challenging (such as the politicization of mask-wearing).

This was not to say Krakauer no longer believed his original premise. Rather, he writes, “I just no longer believe that society can act rationally under pressure.”

And in turn, he believes science—scientists—need to do more to focus on preparedness.

“I’m not really thinking about COVID so much now as about what comes next. And what don’t we have in place?” Krakauer says. For instance: “It’s totally acceptable to be skeptical about an mRNA vaccine you’ve never heard about until you’re being given it. It’s completely reasonable.” However, he adds, “mRNA vaccines have been around for 30 years. Why aren’t we informing the public? And I’m thinking, ‘why is it all my friends can name every character in Game of Thrones, but they don’t know what an mRNA vaccine is?’ They don’t know what RNA is, period. What’s wrong with the world—or maybe not wrong, I don’t know—where we fill our heads with wonderful socially cohering thoughts but, on the other hand, these are existentially pressing facts and thoughts and yet we ignore them? It’s sort of peculiar.”

That realization, he said, made him ask what SFI could do “to diffuse these ideas before we need them. Because once we need them, it’s sort of too late.”

The book—available both digitally and as a heavy physical volume—is one way to diffuse those ideas and, naturally, tackles the pandemic from every possible angle. Naturally because Krakauer and his colleagues soon recognized COVID-19 was never just about epidemiology. Rather, it was a systems problem and, as such, one with interweaving, interdependent components that, as Krakauer and West write in their introduction, “we ignore at our peril.”

Thus, the book—which also contains equations, graphs and fine art—discusses R-naught and modeling, but also the pandemic’s interface with education, privacy, wildlife, investments and social media, to name a few subjects.

“I like the idea of this book as a kind of honest airing of both our expertise and ignorance and engagement with it,” Krakauer says, and one of his motivations is to help divorce expertise from authority.

You might think a scientist would appreciate having the phrase “follow the science” infiltrate current society, but you’d be wrong in his case.

“I absolutely hate it,” he says. “It’s a complete misunderstanding of what science is.” The expression conveys the idea of science as ”facts and certainty when it should be absolutely the opposite. The politicization of science is coming in part from experts who want to be authorities and we have to undo that.”

The Complex Alternative: Complexity Scientists on the COVID-19 Pandemic

David C. Krakauer, Geoffrey West, editors; SFI Press

Hardcover: $29.99/paperback: $16.99/epub: $2.99

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