Sat, Jun

Here’s a conundrum

“It’s quiet. Too quiet.” That stock phrase from the Westerns my dad binge-watched - before the term had been invented - sprang to mind when I contemplated the speed with which the coronavirus was emptying my diary. Obviously, there’s the trade shows. More than 440 of them have been cancelled or postponed globally, including Fespa, which I had pencilled in as the perfect excuse to visit Madrid in springtime and Sign UK, which I hadn’t pencilled in at all. Then there’s the meetings which metamorphosed into telephone calls which later metamorphosed into nothing at all. I’m not accusing people of panicking - pandemics are not the time for macho posturing - it’s that they are completely distracted by the uncertainty of it all.

A lot of my fellow printers blame the media for whipping up hysteria - and then spend half an hour describing precisely how bad things can get. I’ve not met anybody who thinks the virus is a hoax although the tattooed barman at my local insists it was a population control scheme by the Chinese government that got out of hand. Quite a few people have told me it’s no worse than the flu which is obviously rubbish because it’s what Donald Trump believes. What the coronavirus has shown is that, as a species, we are absolutely hopeless at coping with uncertainty and just as bad at understanding probability.

The American science writer Michael Shermer calls our failure to grasp probability “folk numeracy”, describing it as “our natural tendency to misperceive and miscalculate probabilities, to think anecdotally instead of statistically and to focus on and remember short-term trends and small-number runs.” With the coronavirus, the short-term trends vary wildly - not just in terms of the number of cases but in its impact on the world’s stock markets - and, with the daily infection count, we are encouraged to dwell on small-number runs. It doesn’t help that the information we have is incomplete - we are often told how many people have caught the coronavirus and how many people have died from it but not how many have recovered from it.

All of which makes it a) very hard for us to get on with business as usual and b) imperative that we try to do so.

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