Pandemic 01: Learning in a Time of Crisis

by Shane L. Larson

For many of us, we have not been under the tutelage or mentoring of someone in in a learning environment for a long time. Classrooms were a regular part of our lives years if not decades in our past. Once we left classrooms behind us we did not quit learning, we just changed what we learned, and we totally changed the balance of what we learned. 

Nowadays, you learn on the fly and on your own. Maybe you were tutored in your current job skills during your first week at your company. You’ve probably done a lot of learning by trial and error (especially on home projects, like building decks, learning to garden, or sponge painting a wall so it looks good). Maybe you learned through a lot of hard knocks, starting your own business and figuring out how manage employees, price products effectively, and manage supply chains. And perhaps you still learn by surfing the web when your curiosity gets the better of you and you want to know what the life-cycle of catfish are, or how they built the Grand Buddha at Leshan, or who invented waffles anyhow? You never stopped learning, you just stopped going to school.

But there is a simple fact here: you are plenty smart, and plenty capable of taking unfamiliar information, assimilating it, and working with it. Your everyday learning life says that very clearly, and it works great for most things, especially if they are low risk, meaning they don’t threaten life and limb. Small errors can be corrected, methods and skills can be practiced without terrible consequence. But what do you do when things get really complicated?

The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus outbreak has flooded all of our lives with new information. Daily infusions of numerical data, graphs, predictions, extrapolations, models, parameters, error bars, data quality factors, trendlines. If you don’t think about data and numbers and scientific implications every day, it’s all a bit overwhelming and has a tendency to exacerbate uncertainty that abounds with a crisis that is fast moving and constantly shifting as dew data and findings come to light.

My fellow scientists and I encounter this kind of data, and in particular this kind of data onslaught, every single day. We’ve spent our entire careers reading graphs, looking at numerical data, building predictions from that data, and assessing implications and possibilities.

But if you aren’t a scientist, how do you dip your hand into the COVID-19 firehose and gather enough information to help you feel informed, enough information to perhaps quell some of the anxiety you may feel, and most importantly make an assessment of risk to help yourself plan accordingly?

Some of you are lucky enough to know a scientist or medical professional, and you may have reached out to them to ask a question or two, dipping your toe back into that learning environment you left behind in classrooms long ago. For those who know me and have had the courage to ask, I have fielded many such inquiries, answering questions about how to understand data and the implications of data and predictions to the best of my ability.

The answers to those questions aren’t always clear, because for many aspects of this crisis we are simply still ignorant. For many other aspects of this crisis, we understand in crystal clear terms what is going on, but uncertainty hinges on the fact that what is to come is largely dependent on what we do now. Understanding that our knowledge about COVID-19 and the coronavirus is evolving is just as important a lesson as being able to read a graph or understand a trendline. Understanding there are incontrovertible uncertainties, and what it means for personal risk, is essential. Understanding that there are actionable things we can do to minimize risk is absolutely critical. All of these lessons are there, in the firehose of data.

So for the next few posts, I’m going to spend some time doing what I do — trying not just to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked, but also trying to remind you of the skills someone once taught you long ago in a science class. Back then, you might have asked why you need to know all this science stuff. THIS. This is why. Because sometimes life in the modern world requires you to think a bit like I think and look at graphs and data.

These posts will feel a bit like your old science class did, and some of you remember that you didn’t enjoy that class. I get that. But at this stage in my career, I have taught introductory science to thousands of students, and I’ve talked to thousands of you on the public talk circuit. In all of those  experiences, I have discovered a secret:

You can understand this, better than that little voice in the back of your head gives you credit for when it says “I hated science!

I know, because I’ve talked to you. So let’s talk about the Global Pandemic, and the COVID-19 crisis for a few posts. Your life, and the life of your friends and family depends on it.

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This is the first in a series of posts about scientific reasoning, instigated by the Global Pandemic of 2020. The links to the rest of the posts in this series are:

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