One of the many curious (to use the politest word possible) features of the corona event has been how seemingly all the institutions of society failed at the same time. Governments failed to use their power to counteract the hysteria leading to a panic response that has made everything far worse than it needed to be. Opposition parties failed to critique the government’s failure. The media has resembled a rabid mob egging on a fight in a high school playground. With a few exceptions, the courts have done nothing to protect civil liberties. And the public has also done nothing to stop the worst excesses of the government response, although last weekend’s huge march in London may signify a change there.
As somebody who works in a field where we build systems, I can say from experience that what you really don’t want to do is to change too many things at once. Too much change creates uncertainty and uncertainty itself creates its own problems in what becomes a positive feedback loop. Uncertainty is where we are now. Politicians, who have been making it up as they go for more than a year now, are still flailing around for something to say that will alleviate the anxiety caused by uncertainty. This is leading to radically different rhetoric depending on where you are. In Texas and other US states, things are pretty much back to normal. Meanwhile, Canada has gone into an ultra-strict lockdown apparently having decided to wait for the virus to become endemic before doing so. In Australia, we continue to plumb new depths as the government made it illegal for citizens of the country who have been in India recently to return home adding to the large list of Australians waiting abroad to return to the country that is supposed to protect them. At this point, being the holder of an Australian passport probably affords you less rights than the average North Korean.
In a story that I found mildly amusing, the Mayor of Melbourne this week announced her intention to continue wearing a mask even after corona is defeated (whatever the hell that means). Her reasoning? People are not returning to the Melbourne CBD and it must be because they are still afraid of viruses. So, the Mayor will encourage continued mask wearing to get people to return. Of course, as I noted in my post on the economics of pandemic, the real reason people aren’t returning to the Melbourne CBD is because the Melbourne CBD has been an unpleasant place to go to for almost a decade. Well before corona hit, I was having discussions with co-workers about how you couldn’t get on public transport and you couldn’t even walk on the footpath anymore because there were simply too many people in the city. I’m sure that was great for business and great for the council’s revenues, but it wasn’t good for the workers. They had to keep coming though because of a peculiar quirk in Australian culture which holds that if you are not in the CBD of a capital city, you pretty much don’t exist and can’t possibly make a meaningful contribution to national life. Now that workers have an excuse not to go to the CBD, they are gleefully refusing to go. This has actually led to a boom in business for suburban cafes and restaurants who are more than happy to provide newly localised office workers with their daily food and drink. But the Mayor of Melbourne is being paid not to understand such facts. Being unable to face reality she will continue to wear her mask. Who knows what will come next? Perhaps we will have the Mayor sacrificing a chicken or doing a “people dance” to try and get the consumers to return and once again fill the cash registers of Melbourne city traders.
Of all the institutions of society that have failed us recently, I actually feel for the politicians who have an almost impossible job to do at the moment. The reason why Texas and Florida can do what they have done is because the citizenry in those places allow, if not demand, it. It’s possible the Mayor of Melbourne hates wearing a mask but that is the only thing to be done politically in the current climate.
There is one other group that I believe have found underwhelming in their response to corona and that is the public intellectuals. I exclude from this group the op-ed writers who earn their living from the mainstream media as they are part of the general failure of the media. What interests me more are the independent intellectuals and there are three I will single out here as I think their response to corona possibly reveals something interesting about making predictions. Note that this selection is a very specific set and I make no claim to its general validity, although, with a few exceptions, I have found very few public intellectuals who have done well at helping the public contextualise events. Rather, this group simply represents a few of the intellectuals that I happen to follow. The three in question are Nassim Taleb, John Michael Greer and Chris Martenson.
The latter two of these are members of the peak oil scene, that group of intellectuals who reason about the downward trajectory western civilisation is on caused by the fact that we are still wholly dependent on the finite resource of fossil fuels. Within that scene, Greer is a member of the ‘slow decline’ group while Martenson, if I remember correctly, is more of a ‘fast collapser’. The end result is the same, the difference is merely on whether you believe things will fall apart quickly or slowly. Taleb gained fame partly due to being one of the people to predict the GFC and, apparently, to profit handsomely from it by shorting the market. I outlined Taleb’s response and my main problems with it in part 3 of this series.
Let’s very briefly summarise the position of the three. Martenson responded to corona early on by starting up a daily youtube channel where he spent half an hour or so running through the latest ‘case’ numbers as they grew in various countries. This was in line with his numbers-based approach to collapse. His weekly newsletter at Peak Prosperity features a list of articles each week all showing data points as evidence to why collapse is right around the corner. He used the same format to report on corona. In doing so, he didn’t, as far as I saw, question what a ‘case’ was, how an increase in testing might affect case numbers or what it meant for the virus to be ‘new’. He simply took these as given and began counting. He was doing this well before the mainstream media took it up and as a result was at least somewhat responsible for fueling the panic early on.
Taleb also took the news that the virus was ‘new’ at face value. In his mind, it was because the virus was ‘new’ that no chance could be taken and his interpretation of the precautionary principle was that because the virus could in theory kill you, you must act as if it would kill you. Accordingly, he recommended the public to panic. He showed pictures of himself in an aircraft wearing an N95 mask and face goggles and excoriated anybody who dared suggest that we were overreacting. In so doing, he also contributed to the panic early on.
Greer’s position was more nuanced but could best be summed as silence. In one of his monthly open posts, he even forbade discussion of corona. He suggested that a couple of weeks lockdown would do people good and encourage them to reflect on their lives and maybe even lead to meaningful change for the better. He also predicted that the matter would be over quickly, a prediction with some basis in epidemiology (in fact, some epidemiologists pointed out that it would be over quickly if we didn’t lockdown and that the lockdowns would only drag things out unnecessarily. In hindsight, they were correct). All three positions were wrong but it’s not the fact that they were wrong that I think is interesting. After all, who could possibly have gotten it right? Rather, what is interesting is that they were wrong in quite specific ways relating to predictions that each man had made.
I’m not aware if Martenson made any specific predictions about a pandemic or about the year 2020. He is, however, a part of the fast(-ish) collapse school and so when things started to take off he applied that lens to what was happening. Accordingly, he predicted supply chain breakdowns and other disastrous outcomes. This was in accord with many other members of the doomer-prepper community for whom corona was finally the thing that would prove them right. The GFC didn’t quite do it. The housing bubble didn’t quite do it. But it would be a pandemic that would do it and trigger a global collapse. Taleb is on record as having predicted a global pandemic, something he was not shy about reminding us all about early last year, while Greer has made it a habit for some years of predicting the year ahead and he also does astrological readings about the fates of different countries. Unless I missed it, there was nothing in either his predictions or his astrological readings that suggested something like corona would happen early in 2020. Thus, all three men interpreted corona according to their predictions. Greer’s insistence that it would be over quickly and we would return to business as usual was in line with his predictions for 2020. Taleb’s insistence that a Spanish flu-style global pandemic was breaking out was in line with his prediction. Martenson’s insistence that supply chains were about to break and financial markets with them was in line with his broad predictions.
To be clear, my point here is not that they were wrong but how they were wrong. Taleb and Greer are the more interesting examples because their position was also out of character. Taleb could normally be relied upon as a consensus-breaker. Especially in the case where klueless government bureaucrats and other establishment ‘experts’ are running the show, Taleb for years would apply rigorous critical thinking to a subject and often find the main point of weakness where the argument would collapse. In the case of corona, that weakness is primarily the whole concept of a ‘new’ virus and the PCR test which purports to find that virus. Instead of finding those weaknesses, Taleb took it for given that the virus was ‘new’ and then went way off the deep end by promoting panic.
Greer, on the other hand, could have been forgiven for engaging in a massive exercise of I-told-you-so. Having been one of the most acute observers of the decadence of western civilisation in the last decade or so, all of a sudden all the neuroses, political corruption and propaganda came together at once. Many of the themes that Greer has talked about over the past decade were right at the fore most notably the corruption of institutionalised science, the rising fear and paranoia among the population and the grasping after solutions that benefitted large corporations at the expense of the general welfare. I initially thought Greer’s dismissive response was therefore an act of humility on his part. Rather than sink the boot in, perhaps he was choosing to remain silent and allow his past writings to speak. Another explanation, thoug, is simply that he had not predicted such a world changing event and his position was therefore to downplay the matter.
Of course, this is largely speculation. There may, of course, be all kinds of personal reasons that explain the behaviour of each man but those are not possible to know. Rather, it looks from the outside like a case of rigidity of thinking caused specifically by being a public intellectual engaged in making predictions. To be sure, this is one of the occupational hazards of that job. I have seen this play out on a small scale within my occupational field. What always seems to happen is that a public intellectual gets surrounded by a group of sycophants. This causes a number of problems. Firstly, the intellectual is given levels of adoration or respect that are almost guaranteed to cause ego problems. Secondly, the intellectual is never exposed to dissenting opinions and over time loses the ability to engage in critical thinking. Thirdly, the intellectual is drawn into having opinions about things outside their realm of understanding. Imagine being able to say anything and have a group adoring fans tell you you’re a genius every time. That is certainly a psychologically dangerous position to be in and it’s not hard to see how people might go off the rails or at least be led into error. Taleb definitely seems to have fallen into that trap.
It’s a dangerous business to make predictions and one of the reasons is that in the real world you can get state changes where all the old rules become redundant. Unless you know in advance what those rules are, any prediction you made is likely to be radically wrong. To my mind, this is what is behind the error made by Chris Martenson and others who try to predict what life will be like as peak oil bites. They tend to extrapolate forward based on the current rules. However, what is almost certain to happen is that the rules will be changed. Corona has already shown that as governments have implemented rules nobody would have though possible beforehand. What is perhaps the most surprising is how quickly many people treat the new rules as perfectly sensible and rational. One of the most ridiculous justifications I have heard to defend the current behaviour of the Australian government in leaving our citizens in the lurch overseas is that those citizens knew they were taking a risk by going overseas and now they have to wear the consequences. Really? Who on Earth could have predicted the government would arbitrarily make it illegal for certain citizens to return home or that State Premiers would close borders preventing people within Australia from returning to their own houses? Nobody could have predicted that and nobody did. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most egregious form of post hoc rationalisation. But that is what is going on now. People are furiously making up stories for why the new rules make sense. They don’t want to admit the truth which is that the world is a chaotic place and becoming more chaotic. For that reason, it’s impossible to know what is going to happen in the next little while. All of the old rules are up for grabs and God knows what new ones will fill their place. This was, in fact, exactly Greer’s message in a post towards the end of last year. Now more than ever it’s wise not to become attached to predictions but to stay mentally lean and be ready for anything.
All posts in this series:-