AMONG THE PROFESSIONAL hazards faced by Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, is that he is often asked where the Covid-19 pandemic is heading. The question comes in many variations—what next week will be like, or the next school year, or the next winter—and has so for as long as the virus has been with us. But recently it has gained a certain fervor. Bergstrom works at the intersection of two relevant subjects: how sentient beings like ourselves act on information, and how biological phenomena like viruses spread. So if anyone’s your answer guy, it’s him.
Lately, he’s been replying with a blunt take: “I don’t know.”
It’s a short answer that conceals a good deal of nuance. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the job of disease modelers has not been to tell us precisely where we are going, but to prepare us for many possible futures. This is a fraught business. Offering multiple options in a crisis invites people to run away with one conclusion or another as it suits them, leading to too much sacrifice or too much wishful thinking. (Remember when the Trump administration seized upon the most optimistic forecasts to declare that the pandemic would be over by summer—that is, last summer?) Models can help policymakers decide where to put resources, and they can also help people like you and me find some mooring in an uncertain world. Oracles, however, they are not.
Read the full article in Wired.