The Virus and the Uncertainty Monster

So, it’s been a while. A long while.

I’m not sure why this blogging thing turned into such a difficult habit to adopt. Maybe I’m just bad at developing habits. Maybe it’s just hard to overcome the desire for perfectionism and producing something of value. I need to accept that the world is messy and not every single thing needs to be worthy of award and acclaim to have some value in discussion. Better to try to contribute to a conversation, than to not.

So, in the midst of a pandemic, let’s start again. I think my goals here are twofold. First, to share some of the extraordinary things we’re learning about the world, because it’s incredible, and inspiring, and I think science doesn’t always do a good job of reaching out beyond the immediate science community, and as an individual with interest and education in earth science and biology, I think my particular slice of interests doesn’t always get represented, especially in combination. Secondly, as a scientist-in-training, and a storyteller-in-training (and probably perpetually in training for both), I’m interested not only in the facts, but in how we engage with them: what narratives we build about the world, why we struggle with big issues, what biases we bring into our studies. By ignoring the very human storytelling, meaning-making impulse, be its products good or bad, I worry that we lose the ability to identify the ways we can make science/education/the world more accessible and understand how we got to where we are today.

And yes, it is messy and there are no perfect answers and I know nothing, really, but without digging in and starting conversations, I’m not sure how we can hope to grow.

And so, this pandemic! I’ve had this project in the back of my head for a long while about Frankenstein and climate change, exploring how/why we’ve employed analogy to Frankenstein to science, and the monster narratives around research and big scary issues like climate change that are full of uncertainty. But a lot of that material is applicable here, too, I think. I wanted, as a person who has spent some time in the land of viruses and vaccines, to do a sort of informational post about the situation, but honestly, there are enough voices and fact sheets on this already. Maybe I’ll do something more personal at some point, but not today.

Pandemics are confusing. We’re being accosted by something too small to see that we don’t even know is present until it’s far too late, that has effects that we don’t even quite understand. The rapid pace and openness of research right now is boosting our ability to respond, but also making it hard to keep up with information and revealing how little we know and how quickly what we do know can be overturned by a new experiment, and in general, our society isn’t fluent enough in that process to be comfortable with that uncertainty. More could be said here, but I feel like it has already been nicely summed up in other places (like here, for instance).

I keep returning to this idea of an “uncertainty monster,” which I was previously interested in through the context of climate change, but also puts useful language on the current situation. I think it’s a no-brainer that one of the worst parts of the pandemic, at least for those of us who are fortunately healthy and housed, is the uncertainty, not knowing what’s going on and what will happen in the future. But what’s really interesting is looking at how we talk about the pandemic, and which patterns of response we fall into. And I hope that by identifying these patterns we are better equipped to manage the flood of information and misinformation through awareness of the strategies used to communicate it.

To summarize (badly) the uncertainty monster (citations below if the link doesn’t work):

  • We like to be able to categorize and explain our world.
  • Things that don’t fit neatly into our cultural boxes (“monsters”) produce fascination and/or fear
  • Big issues (like climate change, new technologies with major ethical considerations, pandemics, etc) produce an “uncertainty monster” – we’re stuck in a grey space where we know enough to know there’s a problem but not enough to fix it, and have to navigate informational shortcomings, weigh our values, balance policy and research priorities, etc.
  • There are a few general strategies for transforming the unknown into something we can live with:
    • Monster exorcists try to get rid of the monster. They see the way we categorize our world, as inflexible, and thus anything that interferes with the status quo must be removed by any means. On the one hand, an exorcist might say that if we just do enough research and throw enough money at the problem, we’ll be able to fill all the gaps in our knowledge, and make the virus go away for good. On the more unfortunate side, monster exorcists might say things like “it’s time to go back to normal,” pointing to individual studies as adequate information to make a plan, ignoring the much greater complexities in play. Other monster exorcists who take issue with vaccines (categorical monsters in their own right, but that’s a side topic and please get your vaccines, dear readers) might co-opt the pandemic to further their anti-vaccination stance, using one monster to battle another. How do we make this nightmare, and everything it might imply about our weaknesses, go away?
    • Monster adaptors seek to adapt the monsters to better fit into our existing understanding of the world. On the good end of the spectrum, these include researchers and science communicators who try to put the pandemic into perspective. Another adaptation strategy is to try to transfer as much of our usual way of life to this new, distant and online format, proceeding to the greatest extent possible as normal to keep chaos from infiltrating every aspect of life. On the bad side, reframing it as “just the flu” and conspiracy theorists who concoct stories, say, about viral origins. Can we reframe the narrative to make lemonade from these viral lemons?
    • Monster embracers are eager and excited about the monster. And okay, I doubt anybody is happy about a pandemic, which is where this metaphor, originally applied to new technologies, breaks down a bit. But there’s plenty of people who are using their time at home to be more productive than they usually would be, or are finding value in the new mode of life that they hope to keep once “normal” returns. And there are a few who veer off course and rationalize the virus as due punishment for human action (i.e. the “nature is better off without us, nature defends itself” approach), accepting it as if not fantastic, justified. Monster embracing does not question why the monster is, but accepts it as it is.
    • Monster assimilators adapt the monster and our conceptions of the world. This balanced approach is best encapsulated by conversations that acknowledge both the current risk posed by the pandemic and the need for future resiliency. Monster assimilators may seek to understand the virus to minimize its impacts (through social distancing strategies, vaccines, medications, etc), but also believe there is no real return to the status quo. They may imagine ways to make society more responsive to crisis, and hope to use the current break from ordinary life as an opportunity to find solutions to the larger problems that play into the pandemic.

I think it’s also interesting that these categories can all be effective or harmful depending on the context and application. So, what monster strategies do you tend to fall back on? What narratives are you consuming, and what’s their underlying focus? How do these strategies differ in the face of different problems (linking to the uncertainty monster & climate change below).

  • Smits, M. “Taming Monsters: The Cultural Domestication of New Technology.” Technology in Society 28, no. 4 (November 1, 2006): 489–504.
  • Curry, J. A., and P. J. Webster. “Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 92, no. 12 (August 8, 2011): 1667–82.
  • J, van der Sluijs. “Uncertainty as a Monster in the Science-Policy Interface: Four Coping Strategies.” Water science and technology : a journal of the International Association on Water Pollution Research, 2005.

Names, True and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about names. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given that I’m either doing science, which is rife with complicated names and nomenclature, or writing stories where names are just part of the process of building a world.

I think the thing that got me started on this tangent was discovering this app, Seek, that tries to identify plants and animals from your pictures. It’s something I’ve kind of wanted to exist for years, and while it’s not perfect, it does a pretty good job, especially with plants with flowers and things that hold still long enough to get a good picture. As a person who mostly knows a molecular world, it’s been fun to learn the names of things around me I didn’t know about – names like Farewell-to-Spring, Love-in-a-mist, Redclaws, and Heart’s Ease. Red Hot Poker and Pride of Madeira and Hound’s Tongue. Brass Buttons and Blue-eyed Grass.

The names are wonderful. They provide insight into the nature of a thing, what it looks like, what it’s good for, where it came from. But beyond the fanciful descriptions and hints at stories behind the names lies more than simply strings of words. I’m now hooked on identifying random plants in my neighborhood because they make me stop and make sense of seemingly small things around me. They ground me in place. A name suggests a thing’s significance and thus knowing a name gives access into an overlooked world full of importance outside of one’s self and species. A good name is like a signpost in the mental map of the world, saying here is a thing that matters, here is thing to remember.

And you know, everything really matters, and humans name absolutely everything, given the chance.

It really all reminds me, while scrolling through the list of flowers, algae, fish, and fungi I have observed through this app, of how prevalent the idea of true names is in fantasy. The idea generally shows up in the magic system of a story world, where a character must know the true name of a thing in order to have power over it. I can think of half a dozen examples of this trope without working at it, but my favorite is of course in the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin (favorite series by favorite author), where there is great emphasis on restraint and balance in how you use the knowledge and power you gain.

What interests me then, is that there’s this whole understanding of the power of names and yet, despite this, we have serious societal amnesia when it comes to knowing something about the world around us, especially the natural world. Plant blindness. We don’t know the names of the organisms that co-inhabit our cities let alone those that live wild and unseen. I don’t mean to say this in a kids-these-days kind of way, or imply that it’s a failing of individuals exactly. The world is changing, and fast-paced life with high demands on time and limited opportunity to interact with nature doesn’t exactly facilitate environmental education. And there’s so much information to process, that of course we get overloaded and processing plants of all things on top of it all is a bit too much. Add into this an unequal access to green spaces, and it feels like something vital is cut off from a wide swath of the population.

I want to say there’s something about nature and imagination and having variety and other living things that is good for a person, and it’s not that one can’t be imaginative and healthy and full of a sense of place where nature as generally understood is not, but it feels like there is something inherently displacing about urban spaces when they lack space for life, green or otherwise. I love my biology/geology education for giving me a sense of place – it’s difficult to feel lost or ungrounded or adrift when you can look around and see the long geologic history of the earth beneath your feet and identify the organisms that are living their lives around you. But this tapestry of interaction is only appreciable when you can see it – I may be enjoy a coastal meadow, a tidepool, a deep forest, but what does this knowledge mean to somebody who lacks access to even manicured and fairly sterile city park? What good is an app to identify wildlife if the only habitat available to them in your neighborhood is one of concrete and glass?

A name can reveal a history of injustices and misunderstandings. In that way the real world will never work out as neatly as it does in stories (there are no True Names), but it does reveal hidden narratives that can be brought to light and reexamined. There’s that difference between the scientific name and the common name – the scientific name has purpose in the cataloguing of things, but it doesn’t capture everything, and doesn’t always pay homage to the names that came before. Neither do common names. What we see is, like much of history, a story written by those in power, with all too often the names given to plants and animals by the people native to a land overwritten by those of the people who drove them out. I think of endangered languages, so many names and so many stories lost, so much of humanity.

It’s all thorny territory. I look again through my list of plants, and see so many that are invasive. What does it mean that my vegetal landmarks, contributors to landscapes I love to live in and admire, have strangled a landscape I never had the chance to see? My baseline for this place is already one of destruction. How can we rebuild an environment when we don’t really understand it’s history? When the names and the knowledge has been lost?

I don’t know how to fix things, but I do believe that it’s here, in the names and narratives, in the language we use, that the roots lie. Understanding the stories we tell about places, why a thing is called by X name instead of Y, who came before us and how they spoke of the place, is a powerful thing.