COVID19: need for future-tense science

My last post revisited an old discussion I had about different ways of thinking about science.   The main theme was distinguishing present-tense science from past-tense science and relating it to different ages.   Earlier age of science focused on the act of doing science: collecting observations and trying to find newer explanations that were either more comprehensive or more elegantly stated.   The current age of science is mostly enamored on recollection of past discoveries with emphasis now on computing the results from old theories.

My main point was that we might be better served by going back to the earlier era where we were suspicious of all of our past theories and sought fame from discovering something new instead of mastering something old.    I proposed that a different type of government, one based on data and urgency, would allow such thinking to flourish again because the foundation of this government is to put priority on observed data (bright data) than computations based on old theories (dark data).

In that discussion, I mentioned future-tense science without really defining it and for the good reason that I don’t have a good definition for it.    In much earlier writing, I proposed that the future tense science is the science of persuasion and leadership with an emphasis on the classical education of rhetoric.    This is what I still think applies to the idea of future-tense science even we normally think of rhetoric as something very different or even opposite from science.

Rhetoric is using persuasion and good persuasion can lead to finding something that is contrary to known science.   Persuasion of an anti-science conclusion most likely will lead to bad results.   My view of rhetoric is more optimistic.   I’m reasonably confident that the better argument will win and the better argument will lead to a better outcome that is most likely completely consistent with science.

Rhetoric is still important, even in this age of past-tense science.   We need to consider all the arguments that will include conflicting sciences such as the competing dire predictions of mass casualties from a pandemic and of mass casualties from economic collapse.   We need to make a choice.

In the current crisis, I feel like we have demoted all of humanity to be passengers of a vehicle operating on autopilot following the science the predicts the dire consequences in the nearest future.    The plan appears to be to prevent the early deaths and then to deal with the deadly consequences of our actions later.   This may be a good plan but I never heard the rhetoric to decide as a population which way to go.   It appears that from the very first discovery of a novel virus, everything was already predestined to follow only the one science that predicted immediate mass death.

I admit that my earliest reaction to the news of this new threat was consistent with the current reaction.   I wanted to pursue a plan that would contain the spread of the virus and then get it to disappear after the last infected person was no longer contagious.

I heard very early on that there were proposals to simply let the virus take its course.   The thinking was that it may be better if we just absorbed the losses to the point where most of the population would have acquired immunity or at least be more robust to future infections.   I first rejected this idea outright as did nearly everyone else on the planet.

After a few days, it became clear that the containment was not working.   The number of cases were too large and spread too widely to contain even though it was still in one province in China.   At that point, I began thinking that there must be some point where it is obvious that containment and disappearance is impossible.   When that point arrived, then it would make more sense to stop with attempts at containment and basically let the pandemic takes its course.   That is about the time when I began writing my thoughts on this topic.

There was a change in public policy goals away from containment to the idea of flattening the curve.   The idea was that we need to slow the spread to keep from overwhelming the medical systems.

This change of policy was like the first policy in that it appeared to be an autopilot based solely on the science of exponential growth and estimates of number of infections that would need in-hospital medical attention.   I don’t recall any rhetorical persuasion that considered the alternatives.   The simple illustration of flattening this curve was automatically persuasive: if we kept isolated, stayed far apart for each other, and washed our hands frequently, we’ll get to a point where new cases matched the resolved cases and there would be a steady load on the medical system.

The present forms of government are restrained to follow the science and even though humans had to make the policies, science of pandemics dictated the one choice available for them to accept.

We might have benefited from a more robust rhetorical debate.

The analogy of flattening the curve is like smoothing out the remaining toothpaste still in the closed tube.  The total volume of that remaining paste doesn’t change and likewise the total number of people needing hospital care will not change.

When really flattening one end of tube, the bulk will just move to the other end.   The analogy doesn’t quite match but we are now seeing signs of something like that happening.   In order to keep new cases to the minimum, we had to close down other hospital services for routine screening and management of chronic diseases.   If these do not resume soon, we will start to see an increase in otherwise preventable diseases or an increase in number of chronic diseases advancing to become more difficult to manage or even more likely to end in death.

The choice to move from containment to flattening the curve occurred with this kind of debate at least at the general population level.    We never allowed the persuasion to happen so the default decision of continued tunnel-vision focus on just the pandemic was the only decision available to us.

I’m convinced we will regret not having a healthy rhetorical debate starting from the very beginning.   I struggle to describe my reasoning but it comes from a form of science that is neither the past-tense variety (looking up existing theories) or the present-tense variety (act of discovering new science).   It is more than just rhetoric of persuading between choices of competing sciences of either or both varieties.   There is a third variety of science, future-tense science.

I mentioned before my interest in computer simulations that translates past-tense science into algorithms and recent observations to generate new data that was not observed.   This is the data I call dark data because it is not observed.   Dark data fills in gaps in our observations such as interpolating values between measurements or extrapolating trends beyond the period of measurement.    Simulation can fill in details in the present or the past, but my experience was in using it to predict the future.

Using past-tense science and recent observations to drive a simulation to predict the future is just a way of creating additional data to consider, dark data to complement the bright data of observations.

Future-tense science is very different from dark data.   Future-tense science involves rhetoric and persuasion but also includes

  • Analysis of Alternatives: listing all the alternatives and considering their outcomes
  • Assessment of risks and options for mitigating those risks
  • Cost benefit analysis or return on investment, what is the value of the lives lost in the near term as compared to lives lost in the future

I recall my earlier education a term called decision science that I recall basically covering all these topics, but I may be mistaken or the term may mean something else now.   Future tense science is the science of making a risk-based decision.   A risk based decision requires a good understanding of the risks involved and it requires accepting that risk.    Such a decision requires rhetoric to persuade all the stake holders that this is the risk they will all need to live with.

The COVID19 pandemic is an extreme example of having to make choices for a situation forced upon us, something that we would prefer never to have happened.   The situation presented by the pandemic is an inescapable risk.   Dealing with this risk requires us to make choices that added new risks.

Examples of added risks of the current policies include:

  • Flattening the curve to stay below current hospital capacity may cause us to run out of resources to sustain that capacity so that even the flattened rate would overwhelm the system and result in the higher fatality rates we tried to avoid initially
  • Denying routine health screening and routing chronic disease management in hospitals will increase future deaths or complications that could have been avoided otherwise.
  • Locking down the economy will retard the development of careers and wealth-building of our younger generations that need to be prepared to take over later on.  We can end up handing over government and economy to a generation less prepared to run things than they otherwise would have been.
  • Supply chains that are shutdown in the near term may take much longer to return to their earlier production rates, leading to shortages or even famines.
  • Social isolation will result in decreased mental health leading to decreased physical health and even death especially for the vulnerable population we are trying to protect: the elderly and those with preexisting conditions.
  • Lost jobs and job opportunities for the younger generations will lead to mental health problems, suicides, or violence and social unrest potentially leading to conditions that would allow the virus to spread as quickly as it would have at first.

We did have another choice of accepting the consequences of allowing the pandemic to take its toll.   The risks are obvious: a large death toll in the short term that would come as a major shock to a population accustomed to low fatality rates for nearly a century.   The risk-based decision could also consider the mitigation of avoiding the above added risks.

The COVID19 example in particular presents a stark trade off.   The near term deaths are predominately of the population that is no longer productive to society.   Most of the at-risk elderly or pre-existing conditions are no longer working or spending much money.  In addition, many of them will die in the next decade any way.

The present course of government actions made the decision that penalizes the future in terms of suspending young people’s development of their potential and in terms of draining the wealth available to them in the future.   The pay off is to extend the lives of people who likely will not be around or not be politically relevant in the future when the younger generation must deal with the consequences of this decision.

We have not made a proper risk based decision of the choices we are making up to this point.   There has been no public debate at the level where it would make a difference: a debate between our elected representatives.   The present form of democratic-republic form of government prevents that debate because the lives at stake are politically important for the coming election.   This form of government is also prevented by the pretense that good government must follow the calculations based on past tense science.

Our current governments must make evidence-based decisions instead of risk-based decisions.  As a result, the governments had no choice but to make the policies they made, and they have no choice but to continue those policies indefinitely in the future.

We have already resigned to the notion that we can never return to what we once considered normal.   We will never be enjoy large gatherings such as busy nights in restaurants or bars, or such as large sporting events, concerts, or rallies.   We will always have to walk around keeping 6 foot separation form each other including standing in outdoor queues waiting for our chance to enter a store that can only allow a certain number of people at a time.   We will always walk around in public with our faces covered in masks and have to shout out each other to make ourselves understood through the cloth and distance.

This is what we accepted without every really debating the alternative.

My fantasy government of dedomenocracy makes policies only when there is sufficient urgency and then only temporarily and based on data with a preference of recent observations over past theories.   In my last post, I described this as a return to an earlier era when our ancestors practiced present-tense science rather than past tense science (because at the time they had learned to not trust old theories).   I think that approach alone would be more appropriate for the current situation of a very new form of virus possibly designed in a lab specifically to attack humans.

Nothing in our past-tense science prepares us for this new threat so we should discount its relevance in our decisions.  A present-tense science approach would be better in that it will allow us to find new science for how best to adapt to the new situation with the least impact on our way of life.

Another advantage of the dedomenocracy is that it would allow more vigorous future-tense science of making risk based decisions.  Like for present-tense science, this is a subtle consequence of how the dedomenocracy would operate.   The dedomenocracy only enforces rules for the short period of time that the population expresses an urgency for such action.   This gives the population to opportunity to decide that when the urgency is over.

At this point (later part of April 2020), the threat of this disease is better understand.   It is still awful, but it is something many may consider that it is something that we can live with.   It is like accepting things like modern transportation or extreme sports.   Sometimes people will die who otherwise would not have died if those things didn’t exist.   The occurrences are both tragic and acceptable.

In particular, we have not made a duly diligent risk based decision to back up the recently conceived differentiation of commercial and behavioral activities between essential and non-essential.    We immediately declared a wide range of businesses, jobs, and activities as non-essential and essentially outlawed them by police enforcement.

We are learning that the idea of non-essential business or activities is a falsehood.  In our economy, everything is essential, including and perhaps especially the hospitality industry.    These so-called non-essential businesses kept the economy going:

  1. maintaining a constant flow of producer goods consumed at these places, allowing for producers to continue earning money from producing their goods including foods
  2. the operation of automobiles consumed the gasoline that is a byproduct of diesel fuels needed for cargo transportation
  3. The transportation of goods for these so-called non-essential businesses financed the transportation industry to have the necessary spare capacity to deliver the must smaller declared essential good such as medical supplies.
  4. The employment in the non-essential businesses contributed to financing health care through their insurance premiums and financing government through taxes as well as not needing government payments

Significantly, the declared non-essential businesses are needed to give relaxation and comfort to the declared essential workers.   The doctors and nurses busy taking care of the pandemic patients need a comfortable place to come home to and have something rejuvenating to do during their off time.    This situation can not last long, certainly not as long as we are currently projecting: 18 months to two years.

Without a thriving non-essential economy, the capacity of the essential economy will decline to non-existent very quickly.

This describes the calculations of the future-tense science.   It is the calculation of coming to a risk based decision that fully understands and accepts all the consequences of that decision.   Our modern governments are incapable of future-tense science of risk-based decision making in addition to being hampered from present-tense science of discovery.

We are stuck following the guidance of the past-tense science.

Past-tense science only considers the interests of the past.  Future-tense science considers the interests of the future.


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