There was a note on John Naughton’s Memex blog this week in which The Economist quoted Yale University sociologist Nicholas Christakis on the legacy of the pandemic:

So far it looks as if the legacy of covid-19 will follow the pattern set by past pandemics. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University identifies three shifts: the collective threat prompts a growth in state power; the overturning of everyday life leads to a search for meaning; and the closeness of death which brings caution while the disease rages, spurs audacity when it has passed. Each will mark society in its own way.

Well, maybe, and I wondered if Christakis is being misrepresented by The Economist’s glib summary that it “will follow the pattern set by past pandemics”.

And whether it is true or not, the analysis probably needs a bit more work than this.

Thinking in time

This reminded me of a model I haven’t used in years, published in the book Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May. Neustadt and May were academics who had also worked in the Kennedy Administration. May was a historian, Neustadt a political scientist, and the book emerged from a course they taught together at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Thinking in Time set out to help policy-makers use history more effectively—since they’re going to draw on historical analogies regardless.

There’s a good review of the book from the 1980s in Commentary magazine:

In particular, the authors of Thinking in Time wish to help decision-makers become more attentive to the proper “uses of history.” When they consider the pressing matters before them, officials frequently have historical analogies in mind. These analogies help shape the way they look at, judge, and act on the problems at hand. But Neustadt and May find that often the analogies do not fit or are improperly applied to contemporary situations. The result is a distortion of policy.

Thought processes

The diagram below is my synthesis of the process they lay out in the book. These elements are built up from a series of what they call ‘mini-methods’. The colours on the chart are down to the rather garish brand palette of the business I was working for at the time.

Source: Andrew Curry

As the diagram shows, it’s a process that invites participants to reflect on what they know, what they don’t know, and also the assumptions they’re making; then take care to identify both similarities and differences of the present situation with the analogies being explored; then review the issue history again, explore options, and retest assumptions. As a process, it’s designed to slow down thinking and check for biasses.

I can’t put my hands on my copy of the book right now—it may be one of those that I lent to someone; who knows—but there’s a helpful short discussion of the process at the US military website Field Grade Leader.

And I should be clear here that the book isn’t just about military issues. As well as discussing the decisions to defend South Korea and South Vietnam, the books also discusses the swine-flu program of 1976, and the Social Security reform of 1983.

Situational analysis

The left hand side starts with a situational analysis: what you know, what you don’t know, the assumptions that you might be making about the situation. It’s a focus on the evidence:

For military planners, this concept should sound familiar, as it echoes one of the actions of Mission Analysis during the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), that of identifying Facts and Assumptions. According to Neustadt and May, this basic but necessary step is “nothing but an injunction to get the facts straight before acting;” physically listing out the Known from the Unclear and the Presumed grounds the situation and focuses on matters of evidence.

The next step is to review the analogies that are in play in the room. There may be several of these: when considering Korea, “Truman recalled the Manchurian Incident of 1931-32, Italy’s 1935 aggression against Ethiopia, and the 1938 Anschluss.”

While history should inform contemporary planning and decision making, Neustadt and May offer a warning to guard against the “seductive influence of an analogy.” This does not mean that one shouldn’t use historical analysis; rather, it is a reminder to not use history as a shortcut for analysis.

Hence the importance of the analogy assessment process.

Context matters

But context also matters, and here Neustadt and May recommend a set of simple methods that could he used more widely. The first is the Goldberg Method, named for Avram Goldberg, the former CEO of the New England grocery store Stop and Shop:

Rather than asking a manager “what is the problem,” Goldberg would ask them to “tell me the story.” While pausing to ask what the problem is before acting is always preferable, Goldberg’s request to hear the story, not just the current problem, is the first step to make sure that understanding the current obstacle is placed in context.

The other two methods are the timeline—writing a sequence of events that goes back to the earliest date that seems relevant—as well as the rest of the traditional news reporter’s questions of “when, where, what, who, how, and why?” Taken together these provide the wider, and longer, context.

And that should provide enough of a springboard for an options discussion., which may require you to go round the cycle again. It’s worth noting that this whole process starts with the particular and fans out to the contextual. Typically futures work would go the other way, and start with the context before driving to the particular.

What’s missing

So what’s missing in the Economist summary about pandemic at the top of this article? I haven’t done a full review, but just looking at similarities and differences from previous pandemics is helpful.

There are several similarities missing. One, pandemics lead to increased inequality, depending on social safety nets. Two, they tend to lead to social unrest, as they did repeatedly during the 19th century and again after the Spanish flu. Three, they encourage the spread of misinformation and rumour.

What are the differences? We’re in a different era in terms of state power; we’re more likely to see increases in state capability. But the biggest difference is that COVID-19 has been much more likely to kill the old than the young, unlike the Spanish flu. In that respect, it is maybe the first pandemic of an ageing world. Which may mean that we don’t see “audacity when it is passed”.

A version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.

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