I’ve decided to put my trust in the reader and dispense with long introductions and explanations. If you care what a micromort actually is, you’ll follow the links. If you don’t understand big numbers, you’ll be in good company.
Today is the day we should have reached unorthodox Canterbury after walking out from Manchester on April Fools’ Day. Instead, like so many, I’m curfewed.
And from my place of curfew, this is the fiftieth post of this journal series. If I was managing for search engine optimisation, I could tell you about my central themes. But I’m not and I can’t. All I can say is that it started as practice and discipline for blogging the walking journey that would take about 140 days. Then the world changed. And I continued journalling. About whatever I wanted.
There will be no long distance walking this year. Even my walking buddy caught Covid-19 and isn’t over it four weeks later. Millions of other people are known to be sick. At least 160,000 people have died of the virus since this journal began. Fifty percent of the global population are curfewed and perhaps as many as twenty percent are unable to work. These are big numbers.
Our resident little dinosaurs were fussing in the kitchen ceiling this morning. Still nest building. I wondered how they dealt with avian flu last year? ‘Please don’t feed the birds’ said signs in parks and I often saw elderly walkers abiding by the signs. A year on, there’s a masked, goggled and hatted seventy-something woman we see when we take Gus the dog for some daily exercise around the neighbourhood. She always has a slice of bread in her left hand for the poultry cooped at the end of her road. We see her every day yet we don’t walk at the same time every day.
She wasn’t there today.
I came to an early understanding of big numbers because I studied geology. I quickly learned that big numbers can be rendered comprehensible by careful expression. The bedrock of our home is 10% of the age of the planet. Easy to understand but is it a useful explanation? It’s probably 460 million years since the granite was emplaced. That’s tougher to grasp but a more useful description.
I practiced my entire career as a geophysicist. I had to be comfortable working in multi-disciplinary teams and conversant with magnitudes, from the truly minute time intervals of microseconds in geophysical data to the eons in geological time scales. I even had to understand that gravity plays a part in dilating the time of the GPS signals that drive your satnav. There was a time we needed to know if it had rained on a coastal mountain range 132 million years ago in order to estimate the volume of sand likely to have been eroded and flushed by a river system into subsea canyons to fan out onto a sea floor to later be entombed by millennia of more rain-driven sediment falling between drifting continents under gravity to create a kitchen of ever higher pressures and temperatures which would distill any organic material into volatile liquids that could float on connate waters and migrate along indurated cracks to collect in a sealing trap which could be located with geoscience, pierced by engineering and siphoned off to alchemists to transmute and transport it to run our motors and form the soles of our shoes. A sentence where each word lasts a million years?
And then there are the computers with which we travelled back in time, for that’s what happens as we use echoes to make images of the rock layers below. Forty years ago, anything ‘mega’ in computing was a big number. By the time I stopped practising, our machines needed to be immersed in baby oil to remove heat from computing a ‘peta’ world. And we were on the cusp of stepping up yet another order of magnitude without consuming the same amount of power needed to run a city of 5 million inhabitants. That’ll be an ‘exa’ world you can enter if you know how to grasp 10 followed by seventeen zeroes (and have a few power stations locally available).
So here it is. A scientist who has been dismayed for much of the last fifty days by the utter innumeracy of global leaders. I assume that truth continues to be told to power. How come the numbers repeated to us rarely make sense? In fact, I’m not even sure governments still know how to count.
And yet, a feature of the pandemic has been the massively improved popularity ranking among the good, the authoritarians, the demagogues and the dictators alike. This suggests mathematical illiteracy is effectively universal.
And this must be a problem. The innumerate politicians may be getting in the way of global health and the economic consequences might be horrific. Aided and abetted by a majority of media that’s populist (if not state directed) and only rarely informed and analytical let alone objective.
The micromort is a statistical or actuarial measure. It’s the probability of death measured as a one-in-a-million chance. I don’t want to digress too much but your reading on wikipedia will inform you that hang gliders have eight chances per million of dying per flight. A more topical summary is Tim Harford’s recent article ‘How do we value a statistical life?’ The micromort can be valued and an approximation is sufficient to give us a grasp of the scale of the economic damage done by the pandemic. The detail is not important, what you need to see is the magnitude. Trillions. Incomprehensible. ‘If an economic lockdown in the US saves most of these lives, and costs less than $20tn, then it would seem to be value for money.’ Go read Harford.
I used to have a role in incident response and disaster recovery. I embraced Smaug for the duration, not Tolkien’s dragon but an acronym for Seriousness, Manageability, Acceptability, Urgency and Growth. I knew that plans, procedures and improvisations are the watchwords of disaster management. Effective coordination relies on truth to power. Successful actions rely on truth and the ability to improvise if information changes. But what if the powerful are inexperienced and incompetent in disaster management? What if the elected executive holds too much power over the career administrators and a weak legislature?
Negligence is a breach of duty. I may be extreme but I think that governments have a duty of care. And to fail to provide that care is in my mind a dereliction of duty. Genocide and crimes against humanity were concepts of criminal behaviour that did not exist before the Second World War. Could someone please ask The Elders if dereliction of duty by governments is a concept that could be considered as a crime against humanity? What’s acceptable to the government of one nation might be creating a disaster in another. Damning the stream in one country might bring drought to a neighbour. Inward focussed nationalism and autarky are incompatible with globalisation.
I hear and see many politicians for whom rewriting history is more important than planning. John Berger wrote that ‘Publicity speaks in the future tense and yet the achievement of this future is endlessly deferred’ in ‘Ways of Seeing‘ (1972). Publicity misdirects us. A central tenet and heuristic of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) is that ‘A reliable way of making people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.’
‘So the first lesson about trusting your senses is: don’t. Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it’s true, that doesn’t mean it is true.’ (from Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman).
Trust but verify is surely the modus operandi for this crisis. Else habituation will prevail and the opportunity for improvement will be squandered. ‘Test, test, test’ like the man from WHO said.
And I’ll close today with the last paragraph of the Chapter called Life in Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018). Pinker was writing about the prospects for postponing death in Life. I’m lifting the notion to apply it to pandemic. ‘In my view the best projection of the outcome of our multicentury war on death is Stein’s Law – Things that can’t go on for ever don’t – as amended by Davies’s Corollary – ‘Things that can’t go on forever can go much longer than you think.”