The O-micron moment

Indy Neogy
Indy Neogy
4 min read

Side note: I only learned recently that the two Greek letters Omicron and Omega can be thought of in relation to the words micron and mega.

This piece by the author Steven Johnson along with the reporting of a possibly important new strain of the coronavirus (Omicron) got me thinking about all the different assessments that this pandemic has required us to engage with.

As Johnson says at the end, crucially this is about the ongoing challenge of operating in an environment where: "the underlying information is noisy. You can’t be perfect at it, by definition, but you can get better at it. And maybe that’s another potential long-term positive outcome from COVID that would be worth rooting for: that it compels us to teach risk analysis and probability more widely in our classrooms, and to talk about those crucial life skills with our kids."

I'd argue that it's not just for kids, we've all had to confront the idea of risk analysis a lot more than before and will continue to need to do so. This is most obvious from the Johnson family case - if something is a bit different about your situation, then the general advice cannot just be followed without thinking. And one thing the pandemic has revealed is how many people's situations just aren't average, one way or another.

We do need to acknowledge is that the raised profile of risk assessment is extra work and this can be tiring. It would not be surprising if this is one of the sources of "pandemic fatigue" - just think about a family going to a restaurant, in the "before times" you might be weighing up the monetary cost, whether everyone will find something they like on the menu and whether everyone has the time for the trip. Now, there may be an added layer of questions about safety - do we trust the protocols of that particular business, are any family members particularly vulnerable, who has been vaccinated, what is the general case level out there?

I've touched a number of times (e.g. Editions #007, #008) on decision fatigue and despite my dissatisfaction with the state of research, it seems obvious that adding all of these extra decisions can make what was previously simple now a tiring thing to think through.

At the same time, there is an opportunity here. First of all, to be thinking about risk more generally is to think about both taking and not taking risks. It's not just about not doing things, it's about consciously choosing to do things. This is perhaps, part of living a more "mindful" life. It is, as mentioned above, more work, but if we are choosing rather than just going with the flow, the seeds are there for us all to make better choices in all sorts of ways.

Secondly, in recognising the ways our own personal circumstances may not fit with "guidance for the average public" we might also recognise that this is the case for many others as well. I might hope that through this we can develop a better understanding when others make different choices.

Beyond this, the pandemic situation has highlighted some of the challenges we need to address in practical thinking.

1) Information. The obvious challenge here (as often mention in "critical thinking" discussions) is to identify reliable information in a sea of opinion and possibly intentionally misleading statements.

However, as Steven Johnson identifies, there is another challenge, which has been very present in this pandemic, the incompleteness. This is, as the phrase went in 2020, a "novel coronavirus" - something new which the whole world has been learning about as we go along. Even reliable sources have not had the whole picture available "on demand." As a result we have to find ways to make decisions with incomplete information. We might think about risk or probability - some distance from the certain building blocks of formal logic discussed here.[]

2) Risk. It is obvious when you have thought or learned about it, but risk contains two different things. The probability of something happening and the consequences of it happening. Covid-19 has been a painfully good illustration of this - the question is not only "how likely am I to catch it?" but also "how badly is it likely to affect me?" We make these judgements instinctively in normal life, but this virus has asked us to think. If we are likely to suffer greatly, then we may weight even a small chance of catching it as too much.

Further, the possibility of catching it is mostly related to situations and behaviours, while the severity of illness is not obviously in our control. (Of course in time, this may change as our medical scientists learn more about the virus, but it is the situation as of now.) This shifts the focus of our decisions on to our choices about the situations where we may catch it.

As of now we think that the word "situations" covers a number of factors - Is the space enclosed? Is there enough ventilation? Are people wearing masks? How many people are there? Have they been vaccinated? What is the general level of infection in the populations?

Once again, we see how practical thinking is much more complex than our logic building blocks, we are juggling a number of factors, some of which trade off against each other. We think for example that masks are less important outdoors as it seems the accumulation of virus in the air is part of transmission. We can extend this to well ventilated rooms inside but of course, the risk is a bit higher.

Finally, the issue of masks raises an extra dimension. The main value of the typical consumer mask is not to protect the wearer from virus circulating in the air. It is to lower the amount of virus the wearer expels into the air, if infected. This means that mask wearing is something we do for others and the value of the action depends on others doing the same for us. This unusual situation is most relevant because Covid can infect someone "asymptomatically" (without perceptible symptoms), so we cannot simply ask those who know they are suffering to wear a mask.

In summary, the challenges of the pandemic reveal the possibilities of a more mindful approach to life, but also how we need more than simple logic for practical thinking.

Building Blocksriskprobability

Indy Neogy

Indy Neogy is the main author of Mind Atelier. He is a coach, consultant and thinker about better thinking using tools, spaces and principles for thought.