Various sayings go like those who forget the past are doomed to forget it. It is one of those sayings that I took to be self evidently true, at least as far of my attempting to verify it myself. The statement is almost a tautology in that it is a definition of learning from mistakes we all take for granted. Someone should learn that a cardboard box can not support his weight the moment the box crushes under his weight when he tried to reach a light bulb: next time don’t try using a cardboard box as a step stool.
A counter example is tasting something new and finding it repulsive but later developing a craving for it when the taste works well. Recently, I tried some unsweetened pure cranberry juice that was very tart. I initially poured a glass and could not drink more than sip. Based on the above recommendation, I should have thrown it out because clearly every future sip would be equally repulsive. Instead, I noticed that while I didn’t crave an entire glass, I rather appreciated the taste of the sip. In particular, I noticed that it was useful to signal that it was time to stop eating. Typically after having something very satisfying to eat, there is a temptation to continue on eating either a second serving or something promising to be equally satisfying such as a dessert. The sip of very tart pure cranberry juice quenches that temptation.
This is also a description of learning from the past. But this is one of learning from the past in order to be doomed to repeat it. I doomed myself to repeatedly tasting something too tart to enjoy in quantity but proved to be good antidote to overeating. Assuming that this is sustainable, it is a benefit of repeating a past experience of distasteful consequences.
The second part of the saying needs qualification. Sometimes it is beneficial to repeat the past that we continue to agree has the same distasteful consequences. The saying is a warning to avoid is something bad with no counter-balancing good qualities.
Accepting that qualification, I now wonder what in the past has had no redeeming consequences. For example, World War II (the actual battles irrespective of the underlying politics) opened the potential for consumer economies to develop that raised the quality of life for the entire world’s population. Of course some countries benefited much more than others, but the population of nearly every country is better off now that it was before the war and probably better off than it would have been without that war. A similar war should be avoided due to the catastrophe it caused for the people living at the time. Despite that past error, future generations born long afterwards enjoyed a benefit from the consequence of the war.
The further qualification of the saying is that it only applies to the present.
Those living right now who ignore the lessons of history where things had entirely bad consequences will be doomed to experience similar bad consequences for those living right now.
In the COVID19 crisis, we must act in a way to avoid repeating what happened in the 1918 flu pandemic where the consequence was losing a significant fraction of the population living at the time. Ignoring the historical evidence of the 1918 flu epidemic could doom us to repeating it except with much higher death quantities due to the much higher total population.
This is a compelling argument. I am living right now, and I’m probably in a high-risk group either to be affected myself or to have people close to me being affected.
But, I was not alive in 1918 and yet I live today and my life is quite comfortable despite the fact that that that pandemic occurred. Even looking back in history, the 1918 pandemic was followed by an extraordinary economic boom of the 1920s. Even recognizing that the 1920s economy might have been a bubble that burst within a decade, the generation that most benefited from the boom were among the older generation that probably was most at risk of death during the pandemic. By the time the bubble burst, that generation had lived through the peak of their careers and life enjoyment during a bountiful time.
I am not suggesting that the 1918 pandemic caused the following economic boom, but it appears it did not damage things to the extent to prevent the boom from occurring. That pandemic caused the premature deaths of a significant fraction of the worlds population. This was tragic for the people involved at the time, but it did not have tragic consequences to the future.
History could have been different if the population at the time did the same thing we are doing now. At the very start of the pandemic, the world could have shut down all of their local economies by shuttering small businesses, demanding social distancing and isolation, and essentially forbidding social association in crowded venues. If that happened, it is not unreasonable to think it might have put a damper on the prosperity potential of the following decade.
This observation is another illustration of what I described in my last post where the goal of the policy is to preserve that past instead of to optimize the future potentials. When making policies constrained by widely-accepted proper diligence, there always remains a choice between nearly opposite directions: whether to restore the benefits that current people recently enjoyed, or to optimize the benefits available to the people who will be living in the future.
For COVID19 crisis, remembering the relevant past includes remembering the lessons of the 1918 pandemic. What exactly are we supposed to learn from this past? A lot of people lost their lives prematurely due to lack of government shutdown of local commerce. A decade of widespread enjoyment of good living occurred because the government did not interfere with the economy in its response to the pandemic.
This blog obsesses over the true value of past information compared to present observations and future considerations. The past information includes our cherished experimentally tested scientific discoveries. Such science is relevant to the present by computing its defined relationships with current observations to produce what I call dark data. Dark data is inferior to bright data of current observations because dark data comes from science proven before the current observations were available. There may be some new science that better explains what is happening than what the old science could predict because that old science never had access to the present observations.
We are currently observing the spread of a pandemic that initially had a very high fatality rate. The people who died had confirmed infections of the virus and thus we conclude that the virus much be particular fatal. Many of the fatalities occurred in hospitals following accepted good practices to treat a contagious disease. One of those practices involved treating hypoxemia where less intrusive methods like CPAP and BiPAP were immediately ruled out due to their risk of producing aerosols that could spread the contagion. The result is that many patients were immediately intubated for ventilators that greatly increased the risk of complications.
There is evidence that such protocols would cause more deaths especially for COVID19 patients with happy hypoxia, having low blood oxygen levels and yet remaining fully coherent and expressing no discomfort.
We may have attributed many early deaths to the virus when in fact the deaths were caused by the invasive ventilation either due to exacerbating the condition or by the damage done by the ventilation itself. For mortality statistics, it may be valid to attribute the death to COVID19 even when the actual cause was the following of established protocols that turn out to be inappropriate for this disease.
There is a danger to remembering the past. Attempting to avoid the mistakes of the past could lead to making mistakes in the present. In this example, the past justified the procedure to quickly escalate to invasive ventilation but his may have contributed excess deaths. Clinging to the justification of the procedure mislead us into believing that the virus is deadlier than it actually is when the real deadly factor is the past-justified procedure itself.
Concerning the saying about remembering the past in order to avoid repeating it, many of the examples come from experiences in the 20th century. Among the examples are examples of central planning especially among communist or socialist countries, especially in cases where central planning mistakes led to widespread famine and deaths from starvation or deprivation.
It is incorrect to blame these catastrophes on the philosophy underneath the government. In many of these cases, the central planning delegated decision making to well credentialed bureaucrats who either had scientific training themselves or they followed the advice of respected scientists at the time. Many of these disasters came from policies that were based on good science, backed by prior testing, and projected forward with the goal of achieving good results for everyone. The responsible entity for these disasters frequently was science itself instead of the governing philosophy. At worst, the central planning authority enabled science-backed policies to be carried out efficiently and comprehensively.
Our current COVID19 response closely resembles the response of these communist examples. Nearly the entire globe has efficiently and comprehensively enacted a science-based policy that is mostly blind to current contradicting observations.
The communist-associated famine catastrophes had at least the benefit of being local to just one government. Most of the other countries in the world at the time had their own policies where most of them had good results that somewhat mitigated the local capacity by offering food surpluses to share.
We never before had a central planning decision based on science that effected the entire globe with just few nearly insignificant exceptions. We may be about to learn that the real danger is following the science that we cherish so much and applying it for the sole purpose of restoring the comforts of a point in the past.
The real lesson of past cases of government-caused famines and mass homelessness may be the risk of paying too much attention to the past, accepting the past’s guidance in the form of tested hypotheses, and the prioritization on restoring a past.
From this lesson, I might conclude it is better to demote the primacy of science and of past conditions and instead focus on finding new science that explains the current reality and offers consistent recommendations with the objective of bringing the best possible prosperity to the future.
One thought on “The risk of remembering the past”
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