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A Tale of Humility

In an interview for the BBC series Fun to Imagine, the philosopher amongst the world famous physicists, Richard Feynman, gets quite worked up when he is asked to explain why two magnets repel each other. The reason this is so difficult, he explains, has to do with the nature of the question why. “Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she slipped on the ice and broke her hip. That satisfies people. But someone from another planet would ask: why do you go to the hospital when you break your hip? […] When you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that allows something to be true. Otherwise you would be perpetually asking why. […] Why did she slip on the ice? Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask: why is ice slippery? That’s kind of curious. Ice is extremely slippery. That’s interesting. You say: how does it work? You see: you can either say, I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me, ice is slippery, that explains it. Or you can go on and say, why is ice slippery? And then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things as slippery as ice. […] The why question is so difficult because you have to know what it is that you are permitted to allow to be understood and known. And the deeper you go with the why question, the more interesting it gets.”

In the complex world, a world where there is much we don’t understand, the answers to sensemaking questions such as why? what for? what then? become more difficult, more ambiguous, more overwhelming the deeper we dig. The temptation to declare ourselves satisfied with the answer becomes bigger. And, again, the reason why we declare ourselves satisfied with the answer have little to do with the nature of the world, but much to do with our internal patterns of sensemaking. 

One such pattern is relative advancement. You have an answer one step further than where you were before, or one step further than people around you, and you are satisfied. I realise I fell into that trap during the Covid-19 crisis. I am no expert of epidemiology, nor of the health system. But I soon considered the issue to be touching the topic of complexity enough to be curious, and to claim a little step of advancement of my reasoned opinion. I remember feeling confirmed in my desire to research beyond the usual media sources when I found an article on Medium which explained a lot about how to interpret the available numbers. I also remember observing how people’s opinion seemed to be heavily influenced by their desire. “Do you really think the lockdown is going to last more than a couple of weeks?” “Do you really think that as someone over 80 I should stop doing the shopping myself, although I am very fit and healthy?” “Is it really going to be worse to our economy than the financial crisis?” Such statements provoked my firm and reasoned warnings. 

So how come it was only somewhere in April, five weeks into the lockdown, that I started thinking about the conditions of the pandemic after the end of the severe measures? If we understand the basics of how the virus spreads, it is one simple step to paint a scenario somewhere in the future, when life should be back to normal, from a sanitary point of view. Then, introduce just one infected patient in the region. And find that with the exception of a few percent of the population who may or may not be immune because they had already had the virus, the situation would be exactly like the one that led to our current lockdown in the first place. 

I had thought about the economy, but not about the virus.

Now, you could also ask yourself the same question concerning public opinion. How come this part of the problem was not visible in public debate and information in February or March, but only in April? But let me stay humble and ask the question concerning myself only.

Could it be that my view was influenced by my desire, too? It so happens that my business year heavily depends on a large number of face to face trainings which are planned in autumn. I had thought about the risk if they were to be cancelled, but dismissed it – how quickly?

And how come I continued to use the arguments from that wonderful in-depth article on Medium, but only by chance found out that the same author had published another article weeks ago which pointed to the exact situation I had overlooked, showing how governments may need to balance their measures against the development of contagions?

It seems that the feeling of satisfaction with the answers we have keeps us from continuing to ask our sensemaking questions. 

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