Sensemaking is the process of making a reasonably accurate mental model of the world. We have information coming in from all over: from marketing, from government sources, from campaigning, from what our neighbors and friends tell us, our own senses, from social media, etc. We use that information to make sense of the world, to then make choices that are aligned with our goals, values, and what’s meaningful to us. What we hope is that the information that’s around us is mostly true and representative of reality so we can use it to make choices that will be effective. Good sensemaking is necessary for good choice making. It’s hard to get to your destination with an incomplete or inaccurate map.
Good sensemaking has become incredibly difficult in this day and age. Misinformation and disinformation abound; the information ecology has become incredibly polluted. The coronavirus crisis is a great demonstration of why good sensemaking is necessary and why a polluted information ecology is dangerous.
My life-path has been rather twisty and windy, which has brought me into contact with a wide assortment of different kinds of people. Many of them are friends of mine on Facebook and as a result I have seen a huge variety of responses to the coronavirus crisis. Additionally, I live in an intentional community of 70 people and get to hear and witness how they respond.
What I’ve seen is that a large percentage of people were/are not taking coronavirus seriously, for a number of different reasons.
- Hoax/Conspiracy Theory
- It’s not a big deal
- Lack of care for others
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s start with the basic facts of the matter. (Schmachtenberger provides a much more in depth look here ) If you’re familiar with the scientific consensus about the virus, feel free to skip ahead to the ‘Sensemaking’ heading. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a novel virus that first showed up in Wuhan, China. Novel in this context means that no one has any immunity to it before being introduced to it which means that everyone can catch it and spread it. It is quite virulent, which means that it spreads quickly and easily. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Before going into the numbers, to avoid doing poor sensemaking ourselves let’s talk about how reliable the numbers are. The main statistics being reported are the number of cases testing positive, the number of cases that present severe symptoms, the number of deaths, and the number of cases fully recovered.
The first thing to be aware of is that the number of cases testing positive does not reflect the number of people who actually have the virus. Especially here in the US there is a severe shortage of tests. I can’t find the source now, but I’ve seen estimates from experts that say there are from 10 to 50 times as many people who actually have the virus compared to the number of cases tested positive. This number is increasing exponentially every day.
Next, not everyone experiences symptoms. According to Forbes about 18% of people who contract coronavirus will show no symptoms. These people will likely not get tested, and thus will not show up in the statistics. This has the effect of skewing the numbers to look more dangerous than they actually are. The only people who are likely to be tested are those displaying more serious symptoms. Thus the percentage of people who have severe symptoms or end up dying will be disproportionately represented in the official numbers for a while to come, causing the reported statistics to be higher than they are in actuality. Therefore the WHO’s reported mortality rate of 3.4% is likely to be higher than the actual mortality rate. People who do not experience symptoms are still contagious and can pass on the virus to others.
Furthermore, not every country is sharing their numbers. Iran has not been transparent in reporting cases, etc. and there are people casting doubt on the accuracy of China’s numbers.
Recognizing the inherent unreliability of the numbers at this time, it’s still worthwhile to explore them. According to the WHO: “while most people with COVID-19 develop mild or uncomplicated illness, approximately 14% develop severe disease requiring hospitalization and oxygen support and 5% require admission to an intensive care unit to try to prevent the most severe complications including septic shock — a significant drop in blood pressure that can lead to stroke, heart or respiratory failure, failure of other organs or death.” These are the statistics that make coronavirus so dangerous. They also mean that 86% of people will be fine, at worst getting bad flu symptoms.
The reason these are the dangerous statistics is that 14% of the entire country is A LOT of people. The population of the US is pretty much 330 million people. 14% of 330 million is 46.2 million people. The number of staffed beds in all US hospitals is 924,107. 5% of 330 million is 16.5 million. The number of ICU beds available is 97,776. It is easy to see that we have far too few hospital beds and ICU beds available to treat everyone who needs them should everyone get sick at the same time. It would overwhelm our hospital system. It is also worth remembering that coronavirus is not the only reason that people need to go to the hospital, and many of those beds are already occupied.
To avoid overwhelming the hospital system, we need people to not get sick all at the same time. To do this, we need to slow the spread of the virus. You may have heard this referred to as “flattening the curve.”
Slowing how quickly the virus spreads will limit how many people get sick at any one given time. As the people who get sick first recover, the bed they were using would then be available for people who are just getting sick. As long as the number of sick people at any one given time stays under the number of available beds, there will be no unnecessary deaths.
What do I mean by unnecessary deaths? Some percentage of people will die despite getting the best treatment available. These deaths are unavoidable. There is another percentage of people that would live if they receive treatment, yet die if they don’t. These people are what all of the fuss is about. If someone dies from failing to receive treatment, their death was preventable. Unnecessary deaths = deaths that could have been prevented, but weren’t due to lack of treatment. So if the number of cases requiring hospitalization exceeds the number of available hospital beds unnecessary deaths are virtually guaranteed.
Slowing the spread of the virus so that the severe cases don’t overwhelm the hospital system is the only way to prevent these deaths. All of the measures being asked of us (handwashing, social distancing, closing businesses, etc.) are designed to slow the spread of the virus, and thus save lives. Thus us collectively doing these things is how we can best respond to this crisis responsibly.
Now, above I wrote “let’s start with the basic facts of the matter.” This brings us to the meat of this post. If we’re reading critically, we’ll see that I just brought in a number of assumptions. First, that there are such things as facts. This is an epistemological argument, and outside the scope of this post. Worth noting though. Much more relevant to the issue at hand is that by couching the information I share as facts I am claiming that they are true. By using the modifier ‘basic’ I am further implying that they are comprehensive and simple to understand. Now, I believe what I wrote above to be true. But what exactly does that mean?
The difference between true and truthful is an important distinction. When we say someone is being truthful, what we mean is, that what they are sharing maps to what they believe. There is a correspondence between the signal you’re communicating to me and what you believe is true. Breakdowns in truthfulness happen when people intentionally distort the information they give others. This can happen through lying, lying through omission, or lying through emphasis bias.
In general, if we say someone is saying that something is true, we don’t just mean that there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and what they think, but there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and independently verifiable reality. Someone can be truthful, meaning they’re saying what they believe, but what they’re saying is misinformed because it doesn’t correspond to independent reality. So they’re propagating the information honestly, but it is not true.
So these are two sources of misinformation: information that is untruthful, and truthful information that is untrue.
A third type of misinformation is representative. Which is, it’s possible for someone to be truthful – share exactly what they think is going on – and what they’re sharing is actually true – they’ve done epistemology and empirically validated what they’re saying, it maps to reality in some clear way – and yet the interpretation I get from that will still actually mislead me because the true information is not representative of the entire context – there is missing information.
For example in biotech, I can get a patent on a synthetic molecule but I can’t get a patent on a natural molecule. Therefore a lot more money is going to go into researching synthetic molecules compared to natural ones. Someone could then look at this and say, “There are not that many Phase III trials on herbs compared to pharma meds, so pharma meds must be superior.” Well, no, it’s a consequence of profit seeking in the pharmaceutical industry. Even with true information, preponderance of evidence will create problems for good sensemaking. This is true information that is being shared truthfully and yet is still misrepresentative of reality.
This then is the criteria for good information: it must be true, truthful, and representative.
This understanding established, I want to elaborate and say that the information I shared about Covid-19 is true to the best of my knowledge, that I’m being truthful and honest in sharing it, and that it is representative of the biological and social-health reality of the crisis.
But how can I claim that my information is true? I’m not a virologist. I didn’t count the hospital beds in the country. I’ve yet to personally witness anyone get sick. I am basing my information on what I’m being told by others.
This, right here, is the heart of the matter. How do we know what information to trust? This is what sensemaking is all about.
Broken information ecology means that we can’t trust that most of the information coming in is true, representative of reality, and will inform good choice making.
Where does information come from? Signals are being shared by people, and by groups of people that have shared agency like corporations, governments, political parties, religions, etc.
Why do people share information that is not true and representative of reality? This is a key thing to understand.
If I’m just in nature watching what’s happening with rabbits and trees and birds, I’m getting information about them that they aren’t even intending to transmit. So the information is just reflective of the nature of reality.
As soon as there’s an agent that can share information strategically, with an intention, then I don’t know if what they’re sharing is reflective of reality or if it’s reflective of what they think will advance their intention. The moment we have abstract signalling, which language allows us, along with the ability to forecast/model each other’s behavior, and your wellbeing and agency doesn’t seem to be coupled with my wellbeing and agency perfectly – there is now the incentive to mis/disinform. An example is cheating in a romantic relationship.
If I’m a marketer of a product, I want you to purchase it whether my product is actually the best product or not. Regardless of whether a competitor’s product is better, regardless of whether you need the product, I want you to think that you need it and that my product is the best.
When there’s a breakdown between what seems to be in my wellbeing and what seems to be in yours, whenever there’s a conflict of interest and there’s the ability to share information for strategic purposes, then there is potential for there to be signal that’s being shared that isn’t truthful. Where is this happening? Everywhere.
When you’re playing poker you learn how to bluff, because it’s not who has the best hand that wins, it’s who makes everyone else think that they have the best hand. Poker is a zero sum game, my win does not equal your win, my win is going to equal some other player’s loss. Because of this, I have an incentive to disinform you because information about reality is a competitive advantage.
This is the key way of thinking about it. Disinformation even happens in nature, with other animals. There are caterpillars whose tails look like a head to disinform birds so that they go to peck at the false head and the caterpillar might survive. Camouflage is a type of disinformation – it’s an attempt to not signal – because there are rivalrous dynamics between the caterpillar and the bird in this scenario.
Market dynamics are fundamentally rivalrous, meaning my balance sheet can get ahead of your balance sheet and that my balance sheet can get ahead even at the cost of hurting the commons. The goal of marketing is to compel the purchaser’s action in a particular way. Which means that companies want to do sensemaking for us because they want to influence our choices. They’re not interested in our sovereignty nor in our quality of life. They are interested in us thinking that they’re interested in our quality of life. They’re interested in us believing that their product will improve our quality of life. But whether it actually does or not they don’t care.
If they can sell us food that is very addictive, or cigarettes, or social media, or media, or porn, or whatever it is that actually decreases our baseline happiness but makes us need another hit, faster, and is addictive, that’s really good for lifetime revenue of a customer. Because their fiduciary responsibility is to maximize profitability for their shareholders, and so they need to maximize lifetime revenue of their customers multiplied by maximizing the customer base, addiction is the most profitable thing they can get. But this is never in the best interest of the customer.
Agents of all different kinds have incentive to mis/disinform others to attempt to get ahead. As a result the information ecology is incredibly polluted. Little information can be trusted. This is the key understanding.
Consequences of a Broken Information Ecology
Now many people don’t have the words to put to the ideas I just shared, but they know they’re being lied to somehow. On top of this, the modern world is incredibly complex. Far more complex than any one person can make sense of. In the face of mass disinformation and overwhelming complexity, it’s no wonder that most people give up on doing good sensemaking. That’s when we get simple heuristics like, “Don’t trust the government” and “Don’t trust the media.” It’s because our information ecology is so broken that Trump can simply say that anything he doesn’t like is ‘fake news’ and get away with it.
Thus, it is sad yet totally understandable to me that so many people are not taking COVID-19 seriously. After years of being told to be afraid of SARS and zika, etc. how is this any different?
This crisis highlights just how dangerous this can be. Because the truth (see what I did there?) is that there is a base reality that doesn’t care what you believe. Lots and lots of people are going to die unnecessarily due to our broken information ecology.
Especially towards the beginning of the pandemic I saw and heard quite a few people dismiss the reality of COVID-19. Claims that this was a cover-up to arrest pedophile elites, or just a ruse to introduce totalitarian measures.
From Charles Eisenstein:
Because Covid-19 seems to justify so many items on the totalitarian wish list, there are those who believe it to be a deliberate power play. It is not my purpose to advance that theory nor to debunk it, although I will offer some meta-level comments. First a brief overview.
The theories (there are many variants) talk about Event 201 (sponsored by the Gates Foundation, CIA, etc. last September), and a 2010 Rockefeller Foundation white paper detailing a scenario called “Lockstep,” both of which lay out the authoritarian response to a hypothetical pandemic. They observe that the infrastructure, technology, and legislative framework for martial law has been in preparation for many years. All that was needed, they say, was a way to make the public embrace it, and now that has come. Whether or not current controls are permanent, a precedent is being set for:
- The tracking of people’s movements at all times (because coronavirus)
- The suspension of freedom of assembly (because coronavirus)
- The military policing of civilians (because coronavirus)
- Extrajudicial, indefinite detention (quarantine, because coronavirus)
- The banning of cash (because coronavirus)
- Censorship of the Internet (to combat disinformation, because coronavirus)
- Compulsory vaccination and other medical treatment, establishing the state’s sovereignty over our bodies (because coronavirus)
- The classification of all activities and destinations into the expressly permitted and the expressly forbidden (you can leave your house for this, but not that), eliminating the un-policed, non-juridical gray zone. That totality is the very essence of totalitarianism. Necessary now though, because, well, coronavirus.
This is juicy material for conspiracy theories. For all I know, one of those theories could be true; however, the same progression of events could unfold from an unconscious systemic tilt toward ever-increasing control. Where does this tilt come from? It is woven into civilization’s DNA. For millennia, civilization (as opposed to small-scale traditional cultures) has understood progress as a matter of extending control onto the world: domesticating the wild, conquering the barbarians, mastering the forces of nature, and ordering society according to law and reason. The ascent of control accelerated with the Scientific Revolution, which launched “progress” to new heights: the ordering of reality into objective categories and quantities, and the mastering of materiality with technology. Finally, the social sciences promised to use the same means and methods to fulfill the ambition (which goes back to Plato and Confucius) to engineer a perfect society.
Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. For them, Covid-19 shows how necessary that is. “Can we afford democratic freedoms in light of the coronavirus?” they ask. “Must we now, out of necessity, sacrifice those for our own safety?” It is a familiar refrain, for it has accompanied other crises in the past, like 9/11.
To rework a common metaphor, imagine a man with a hammer, stalking around looking for a reason to use it. Suddenly he sees a nail sticking out. He’s been looking for a nail for a long time, pounding on screws and bolts and not accomplishing much. He inhabits a worldview in which hammers are the best tools, and the world can be made better by pounding in the nails. And here is a nail! We might suspect that in his eagerness he has placed the nail there himself, but it hardly matters. Maybe it isn’t even a nail that’s sticking out, but it resembles one enough to start pounding. When the tool is at the ready, an opportunity will arise to use it.
And I will add, for those inclined to doubt the authorities, maybe this time it really is a nail. In that case, the hammer is the right tool – and the principle of the hammer will emerge the stronger, ready for the screw, the button, the clip, and the tear.
Either way, the problem we deal with here is much deeper than that of overthrowing an evil coterie of Illuminati. Even if they do exist, given the tilt of civilization, the same trend would persist without them, or a new Illuminati would arise to assume the functions of the old.
True or false, the idea that the epidemic is some monstrous plot perpetrated by evildoers upon the public is not so far from the mindset of find-the-pathogen. It is a crusading mentality, a war mentality. It locates the source of a sociopolitical illness in a pathogen against which we may then fight, a victimizer separate from ourselves. It risks ignoring the conditions that make society fertile ground for the plot to take hold. Whether that ground was sown deliberately or by the wind is, for me, a secondary question.What I will say next is relevant whether or not Covid-19 is a genetically engineered bioweapon, is related to 5G rollout, is being used to prevent “disclosure,” is a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government, is more deadly than we’ve been told, is less deadly than we’ve been told, originated in a Wuhan biolab, originated at Fort Detrick, or is exactly as the CDC and WHO have been telling us. It applies even if everyone is totally wrong about the role of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the current epidemic. I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can, amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumors, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the Internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as to those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.The Coronation
It’s not a big deal
Probably the most common thing that I’ve seen/heard is that people just don’t think COVID-19 will be a big deal. This is due to ignorance, both true and willful. For whatever reason, these people can’t be bothered to look into the issue themselves, and dismiss the attempts of others to get them to take it seriously. This is what happens when people give up on sensemaking.
This is further complicated because all of the preventative measures being asked of us are precisely to make it not a big deal. If quarantining is successful, and the curve is flattened, then those who didn’t take it seriously will be able to point to this and say, “See, told you.”
Lack of care for others
This is actually not bad sensemaking at all. Whoever that young person is, it’s hard to argue with their logic. This became especially more poignant with the many calls from conservatives to sacrifice lives to protect the economy.
What does good sensemaking look like?
- Being open to being wrong
- Understanding logic and rationality, when they are appropriate, and how they are to be applied
- Being curious
- Checking your sources
- Questioning information you receive
- Looking at both sides of an issue
- Being aware of confirmation bias
- Finding people/sources who themselves do good sensemaking
- Asking yourself if new information is compatible with what you currently believe to be true
Why we need good sensemaking
As a species, we’ve developed the capability to drastically affect each other and the rest of the biosphere. The Bomb, CRISPR, AI, rearranging entire ecosystems – we’ve gathered the power of the gods. For this to not be disastrous we must therefore have the wisdom of the gods.
The power we wield is largely collective. Climate change is due to the actions of no one individual, but instead the cumulative actions of each of us. This pandemic is the same. No one person is responsible for the spread of this illness – it is the result of many people’s actions.
Our power as a species comes from our coordination. Coordination comes from the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Money is a story. America is a story. Capitalism is a story. What we are witnessing are the consequences of the stories that have driven our social world for the last several millennia. The old stories are no longer serving us, and have actually been harming us for quite some time. And the stories we believe shape our actions.
The problems facing the world today are problems that are and will affect all of us. Climate change, automation, growing economic inequality, ocean acidification, desertification, risk of nuclear war, financial collapse – these are all systemic problems caused by the collective actions of many, if not all, of us. Their only solutions lie in similarly collective action.
Collective action requires coordination. Coordination can only truly come from voluntary assumption of roles and tasks. Coercion can also shape collective action, but there must be agents applying that coercion and these agents must voluntarily agree to do so.
Coordination requires communication and agreement. A goal must be agreed upon. A strategy must be agreed upon. A plan of action must be agreed upon. Those who agree to executing an action must actually follow through with it.
To gain this agreement without coercion, people must buy in to a story. So, what story is the right one? That is the purview of sensemaking. Before people will agree to a plan, they must agree to a story. Covid-19 as virus calls for very different action than Covid-19 as hoax. Before you can get people to voluntarily take on quarantine measures, you must convince them why they must take on quarantine measures. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the work of good sensemaking, so that we can make responsible choices. As more and more of us do proper sensemaking, the information ecology will become healthier and healthier, in turn making good sensemaking even easier.
The spread of Covid-19, especially here in the US, is far worse than it could have been. There are many measures that could have been taken to greatly reduce its impact on our country. The reason that these actions weren’t taken was due to poor choice making, which in turn was due to poor sensemaking, which itself in turn is due to the difficulty of good sensemaking in our polluted information ecology.
Yes, Trump failed as a leader, especially by down-playing the severity of the crisis until its reality was unavoidable. That said, we, each of us, are sovereign individuals. We could have taken action ourselves. We didn’t. Government (coercive) quarantine wouldn’t be necessary if people would voluntarily self quarantine.
We will only come to collective action if we can find a collective story. Until now this has seemed unlikely, as social discourse has become increasingly polarized. Perhaps this crisis is the wake up call we need.
Covid-19 as Example
Covid-19 is a global crisis. As such, it is simply one of many. What makes it stand out is its immediacy. Unlike climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation (etc.), Covid-19 is fast acting and highly visible. And, as bad as it is, thankfully it seems to not be all that incredibly deadly. As such, it offers a great window into how the world can and will respond to future crises.
Just as the leaders of the US failed to handle this crisis well, global leaders are failing to handle the other crises bearing down on us. Let’s look into climate change as a counter example.
Just as there were people casting doubt on the validity of Covid-19, there are people casting doubt on the validity of climate change. Just as many governments around the world were too slow to act in responding to Covid-19, governments around the world are failing to act in time to avert climate change. Just as it takes a critical amount of people cooperating by quarantining to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve, it will take a critical amount of people making the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce the impact of climate change.
Covid-19 highlights the interconnectedness of the modern world. We are dependent upon each other. Quarantining to slow the spread only works if enough people do it. It takes a critical number of us. If only one person quarantined, it would be ineffective. That one person’s being responsible would be negated by everyone else’s being irresponsible. Same thing for climate change. Only one person giving up driving a car and flying on planes is not enough. In this connected world, certain of our actions are only effective if a large enough number of us do them.
Charles Eisenstein recently shared a phenomenal essay about Covid-19 (which I already quoted from above and very much recommend). It’s long, but it does a beautiful job of highlighting how Covid-19 has disrupted most of the habitual actions of our global civilization. This disruption gives us the chance to reconsider our habits and ask if they are serving us. We could try to return to the way things were. We could be facing increased totalitarianism and social control measures. Or we could decide that the old way of things was not working. Hopefully, this crisis has shown enough people that the human world is a socially constructed one, and is only upheld by enough people agreeing to those social constructs. So many things that those in power told us would be impossible to do were done quickly when they were threatened. The fact that people staying home from work has tanked the stock market shows that the true power lies in the people. The 1% need us, for they live only off of us. They don’t create value themselves, just appropriate it from others.
I do not believe that those currently in power are looking out for the well being of all. Meaningful change will not come from the top. If it is to happen at all, it must come from each of us.
In order for us to take our power back, we must come up with a new global story that we can all get behind. Only then will we be able to take the collective actions necessary to face the coming crises that will make this one look tame in comparison. To come up with this new global story we must first do good sensemaking, individually and collectively. So, what do you believe to be true, and why do you believe it? Are you open to being wrong? Are those you trust worthy of that trust?