Some people say we’re all in the same boat; others say no, but we’re all in the same storm. Wherever you choose to focus the granularity of your inquiry, one thing is certain: we are all embedded in, acting on, and being acted upon by the same nested networks. Our fates are intertwined, but our destinies diverge like weather forecasts, hingeing on small variations in contingency: the circumstances of our birth, the changing contexts of our lives. Seen through a complex systems science lens, the problem of unfairness — in economic opportunity, in health care access, in susceptibility to a pandemic — stays wicked. But the insights therein could steer society toward a much better future, or at least help mitigate the worst of what we’re left to deal with now. This is where the rubber meets the road — where quantitative models of the lung could inform economic policy, and research into how we make decisions influences who survives the complex crises of this decade.
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week on Complexity, in a conversation recorded on December 9th 2021, we speak with SFI External Professors Kathy Powers, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, and Melanie Moses, Director of the Moses Biological Computation Lab at the University of New Mexico. In the first part of a conversation that — like COVID itself — will not be contained, and spends much of its time visiting the poor and under-represented, we discuss everything from how the network topology of cities shapes the outcome of an outbreak to how vaccine hesitancy is a path-dependent trust fail anchored in the history of oppression. Melanie and Kathy offer insights into how to fix the vaccine rollout, how better scientific models can protect the vulnerable, and how — with the help of complex systems thinking — we may finally be able to repair the structural inequities that threaten all of us, one boat or many. Subscribe for Part Two in two weeks!
If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to Complexity Podcast wherever you prefer to listen, rate and review us at Apple Podcasts, and/or consider making a donation at santafe.edu/give. Please also be aware of our new SFI Press book, The Complex Alternative, which gathers over 60 complex systems research points of view on COVID-19 (including those from this show) — and that PhD students are now welcome to apply for our tuitionless (!) Summer 2022 SFI GAINS residential program in Vienna. Learn more at SFIPress.org and SantaFe.edu/Gains, respectively. Thank you for listening!
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Related Reading & Listening:
A Model For A Just COVID-19 Vaccination Program
Legacies of Harm, Social Mistrust & Political Blame Impede A Robust Societal Response to The Evolving COVID-19 Pandemic
How To Fix The Vaccine Rollout
Models That Protect The Vulnerable
Complexities in Repair for Harm (Kathy’s SFI Seminar)
How a coastline 100 million years ago influences modern election results in Alabama @ Reddit
🎧 Better Scientific Modeling for Ecological & Social Justice with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 7)
🎧 Cris Moore on Algorithmic Justice & The Physics of Inference
🎧 Mirta Galesic on Social Learning & Decision-making
🎧 Matthew Jackson on Social & Economic Networks
🎧 Luis Bettencourt on The Science of Cities
Johan Chu, James Evans, Sam Scarpino, Simon DeDeo, Tony Eagan, Matthew Jackson, Mirta Galesic, Stuart Firestein, David Kinney, Jessica Flack, Samuel Bowles, Wendy Carlin, Cris Moore, Miguel Fuentes, Stephanie Forrest, David Krakauer, Luis Bettencourt
Many additional resources in the show notes for the next episode! Stay tuned…
Machine-generated transcript provided by Podscribe.AI and edited by SFI's Aaron Leventman:
Kathy Powers (0s): We have this international trading system called the World Trade Organization that has what's called the Trip Agreement, trade related intellectual property, rights that was designed to protect multinational corporations, pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines and their investment and their patent rights so that they can make back the money. But should that be protected in times of pandemics and who has the power to decide that this is a pandemic and those who will not be respected.
And in the World Trade Organization, it takes 164 countries to unanimous approval of respecting or waiving those property rights so that generic versions can be made. And how often can we get agreement between two countries, let alone that. And there's like 260 agreements between manufacturers and developers that constitute a system of international treaties, which are international law that's managing a complex process of the science of trying to develop vaccines and then the manufacturing of those vaccines. And so we're talking about complexity within complexity.
Michael Garfield (1m 43s): Some people say we're all in the same boat. Others say no, but we're all in the same storm. Wherever you choose to focus the granularity of your inquiry one thing is certain. We are all embedded in acting on and being acted upon by the same nested networks. Our fates are intertwined, but our destinies diverge like weather forecasts hinging on small variations in contingency. The circumstances of our birth, the changing contexts of our lives seem to a complex systems, science lens the problem of unfairness in economic opportunity, in healthcare access, in susceptibility to a pandemic stays wicked. But the insights therein could steer society toward a much better future, or at least help mitigate the worst of what we're left to deal with now. This is where the rubber meets the road, where quantitative models of the lung could inform economic policy and research into how we make decisions influences who survives the complex crises of this decade. Welcome to Complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week, we'll bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe. This week on complexity in a conversation recorded on December 9th, 2021 we speak with SFI External Professors, Kathy Powers, Associate Professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and Melanie Moses director of the Moses Biological Computation Lab at the University of New Mexico.
In the first part of a conversation that like COVID itself will not be contained and spends much of its time visiting the poor and underrepresented, we discuss everything from how the network topology of cities shapes the outcome of an outbreak to how vaccine hesitancy is a path dependent trust, fail, anchored in the history of oppression. Melanie and Kathy offer insights into how to fix the vaccine rollout, how better scientific models can protect the vulnerable, and how with the help of complex systems thinking. We may finally be able to repair the structural inequities that threaten all of us one boat or many.
If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to Complexity podcast wherever you prefer to listen, rate and review us @applepodcasts and/or consider making a donation at santafe.edu/give. Please also be aware of our new SFI press book, The Complex Alternative, which gathers over 60 complex systems research points of view on COVID-19, including those from this show and that PhD students are now welcome to apply for our tuition lists.
Summer 2022 SFI Gains Residential Program in Vienna, Austria. Learn more @sfipress.org and Santa fe.edu/gains respectively. And don't forget to check the show notes for extensive resources on Melanie and Kathy's work. Thank you for listening. Melanie Moses, Kathy Powers. I am delighted to have you on Complexity. It's a long time coming.
Kathy Powers (5m 13s): Thank you for the opportunity.
Michael Garfield (5m 14s): So this is an unfortunately persistent conversation that we're having today. This is a conversation I wanted to have both of you a while ago, and it just keeps rolling into something more complex and difficult and nuanced. And so we're going to get there, but first I would like both of you to introduce yourselves and to talk a little bit about your biographical history, what got you into doing the kind of research that you're doing, how you ended up at SFI, you know, humanize yourselves as scientists for us, please.
And Kathy, since we've had Melanie on the show already once before, why don't you go first?
Kathy Powers (5m 52s): Oh, okay. So hi, my name's Kathy Powers. I’m Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Mexico. I'm an External Faculty Member at the Santa Fe Institute. I'm an international relations scholar within political science. I'm interested in questions in politics of law of institutions, trade, war, human rights. And didn't know that I was asking questions related to complex science and found models that relied on sort of elegant explanations and they had their utility, but weren't sufficient for the questions that I was asking.
So I started out as an international trade scholar trying to figure out the evolving designs of trade institutions in the military areas and how that affected war between countries and the aftermath of mass human rights violation, post-conflict reconstruction role of transitional justice. So war crimes, tribunals, tooth commissions, reparations, and how do we deal with justice with a specialization in repair for harm globally as well as in the United States? So sort of two things that bring me into this work and SFI, one is I'm interested in complex systems of global reparations that underlie international relations that are hidden in plain sight that are connected to international security, the global economy, to climate change in ways that are not obvious, but fundamental to how they function. And then also Melanie invited me to be a part of the interdisciplinary working group on algorithmic justice. And so itI was part of my human rights interest to understand algorithmic bias, the conditions under which AI is useful for decision-making and when human bias is embedded and creates human rights violations.
So that's it.
Melanie Moses (7m 52s): Wonderful. I'll go ahead and talk about my background. So I'm also a Professor at New Mexico in the Department of Computer Science. I actually earned my doctorate in biology at UNM and have a secondary appointment there. So I work in computational biology and on the other side, biologically inspired computation, also External Faculty at SFI, which has really shaped my academic career. So I came to work in sort of this COVID space because one of the complex systems that I build computational models of is the immune system, which I'll throw out a challenge there.
I think the immune system is the quintessential complex adaptive system. It's sort of a poster child of a complex adaptive system. And so I have been interested in modeling disease and immune response to disease. And at the time that the pandemic broke out, I was also really interested in the social determinants of health. And for me, I came at it from very sort of personal reasons of being really concerned about family members who were going to be very vulnerable to this disease.
And so Kathy and I started talking about the impact, particularly in the African-American community of this disease that looked to be targeting and in fact, it was really far more deadly in African-American and in some cases, other Native American communities over time became evident in Latino communities. And it's been a fascinating journey to understand the ways in which the disease that I model at the sort of cellular scale or the way the disease spreads through the lungs really connects to the way that disease spreads through society.
I think the starting point of our conversation and the transmissions article that we wrote about the inequities associated with.
Michael Garfield (9m 41s): And I definitely want to make that hail Mary pass from the macro to the micro before we're done with this conversation, but because the two of you have written this series of articles that really address the complexities of inequity in this matter, I think it makes sense to start there. And it's just worth noting that I'm actually kind of excited to have an episode of this show that emphasizes a general audience writing that sort of works as a review of the literature on these topics.
And that these are very articulate, like aggregates of a lot of information coming from a lot of different directions on this. So it's going to be, I think, a bit more of a sweeping overview in some regards than we're used to, getting into sort of like one research paper, but granularly. But anyway enough about the meta here, I really want to start with the transmission that the two of you wrote last year about the importance of rigorous modeling and the protection of the vulnerable and how our epidemiological models were failing the people that were most at risk from COVID-19 and how the two of you identify it, those failings.
So, however you want to pick that up.
Melanie Moses (10m 53s): I guess for me, the starting point for this was the recognition that these epidemic models that we started seeing on the nightly news two years ago in 2020 as the epidemic was unfolding and there was a real need, like a desperate societal need, to be able to predict what might happen and how we might intervene. Those models in some cases, they were very simplistic and some cases they weren't, but most of the epidemic models that we use assume something called a well-mixed population. At first blush, anyone can infect anyone else in the population.
And even just that name of assuming a well-mixed population is something that I've been interested in in my own work. I'm interested in spatial dynamics. And so often people challenged the idea that anyone can come on contact with anyone else. People build network models or various approaches to add some sophistication to the idea that spread between two people happens at random. So certainly we've moved beyond that, but there is still an inherent assumption that classes of people sort of interact interchangeably in ways that just aren't true in reality. The segregation, the racial segregation in America is a really salient part of the dynamics of how things happen in America. And that had been sort of ignored in these models. And therefore these models weren't able to make a really important prediction, which is that people who had frontline essential worker jobs, weren't going to be able to social distance. The same people were going to be particularly vulnerable to severe disease because of lack of access to healthcare and potential co-morbidities that have arisen because of situations of poverty and racism in the U S and putting all of those factors together was likely to lead to really dire consequences.
We thought a lot about African-American communities and also native communities where it became evident quite early, that they were suffering many times greater mortality than the Americans at large. And so we really wanted to dive in to those issues and think about them and highlight the importance of considering these factors in epidemic spread. And so that's how we started. We sort of dove into this project. And the key idea was we need to face the reality that people are not equally vulnerable. They are not equally likely to come into contact with each other.
And we have a series of sort of confounding factors that we should address. And so that was our starting point. I think Taki came to it from her academic perspective, which is a little different than mine.
Kathy Powers (13m 20s): So human beings that we have interacting layered and layered identities. And so the ways that we interact with structures of power are different. And this is probably the essence of one theory that tries to get us some kind of some complexity, which is intersectionality. And that the ways in which we interact with the health system are different. The ways that our symptoms are interpreted are different. So there were problems in emergency rooms with an Anglo person and an African-American person showing up in an ER at the exact same symptoms, but the interpretation of the symptoms being different.
So the Anglo person would get treatment and the African-American person would be sent home. And there were many cases in which people went to emergency rooms multiple times. They were sent home and they died. And this was an ageist supply of essential workers, but people who were being impacted by multilayered households, where you have multiple generations that are living in a single household, which can be common, the African-American community, Latin X community, they found this to be the case in the Mediterranean that these family structures, where you had multiple generations, and you had people who were essential workers coming home, the method of transmission was different.
You also have the historical legacies that impacted whether or not people were willing to trust the healthcare system. And we saw this not only in the United States, but across the global south, especially African countries where unethical illegal medical experimentation had been done. And so even those who wanted to go to the hospital were afraid to trust the medical system. And they said, well, there hasn't been significant testing done. Are we going to be Guinea pigs? Will we be given the same medicine as everyone else or is this really a huge trial that we don't know about that has dire consequences? Like the Tuskegee experiments, which was found to not only have happened in the United States, but also in Guatemala and a much larger level, horrific methods of effecting people with syphilis, trying to look at to sort of black populations. They were indigenous peoples in Guatemala to see if the end point is death, how does syphilis evolve and who dies and who doesn't under what conditions?
And so initially for many African-Americans in the United States, this was a significant concern and why there is vaccine resistance. And then also on the African continent, we see this today, especially because as international rules, international law changes about whether and where pharmaceutical companies can experiment on vaccines, the level of medical care that must be offered to the participants, must it be the highest level of that country or the richest country participating has impacts.
And there have been COVID related constantly patients clashes around the planet over these questions and in local communities, protests that becomes violent across France that have happened in New York that have happened in Australia. We've seen violence toward, and this is during the Ebola crisis, medical facilities because people believe that they brought the virus. And one of my graduate students, Jennifer Kerner, is working on these issues. So they're the social, they're the political issues that shaped the context in which this pandemic happened quickly.
Maybe I should stop here because I have a lot to say about the decisions of countries and this article was really focused on these issues. And I'll share that I've had family members on both sides who've had it. I've had family members who've died from it. And so as far as the motivation for doing this, it was part these academic questions about spread and how it's not equal across all populations, but that also personal having a front row seat to what this looks like.
Michael Garfield (17m 32s): This is all important stuff, but I want to kind of like decompose it. And I want to like try and look at some of the stuff in a bit of a series here. Two of the things that come up from you listening to the two of you talk just now are one of history and early on in the pandemic, when we had Sam Scarpino on the show, one of the topics that we discussed was how often the communities that are at the greatest risk in an epidemic are the communities from which very little data is actually coming to inform public health policy, that these are blind spots.
It's kind of related to this meme that people keep sending me that was, I think originally an article in Forbes about how the Cretaceous coastline through the center of the country ended up leading to geographic deposits of fertile black land Prairie soil that had to do with where people settled the farm that had to do with where the slave populations were located. And then that ends up being where there are like large concentrations of black people and other people of color that then determine the outcome of elections.
And I know that brought up gerrymandering and the importance of the zip code in determining your exposure or your risk, so that's like one topic. And I think that to bring in that piece about how often the history is, you know, a major contributor to the challenges that we face and even adequately addressing these topics. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. And specifically in the context of remediation, regeneration and repair. By the time this comes out, the last episode will have been with David Krakauer and Geoffrey West.
And David's contribution to the reflections on the last 18 months was his confession that he had overestimated our ability as a society to coordinate in a disease spread mitigation response. And that he saw that maybe we shouldn't expect disease containment, flash mobs, and that this has to be a preventative thing. So like how all of these factors that you're addressing in this work inform strategy in terms of what it is and to what degree we can repair these things and where we need to be making more preventative action.
You save as much in this piece that the goal is not just to repair harm, but to make people in places less vulnerable to the next pandemic. So that's a giant ball of yarn. How would you untie that for people?
Melanie Moses (20m 11s): Well, let me, I will leave the discussion of repair to Kathy because that's her expertise, but let me just respond to a couple of things that you've said. So first I love that interview with Sam because it did highlight this issue that we face also in algorithmic justice and all sorts of other domains, where we forget that the data we have is not representative of the entire world or the triviality. And so we have these blind spots and we build models of the world and therefore solutions to problems ignoring the blind spots.
And as you pointed out, the blind spots are often truly the worst part of the problem. And I think that relates as well too, it's sort of this exacerbation of people without privilege that lack of privilege or the societal harm is sort of amplified because their position is unrecognized. And one of the conversations that Kathy and I had that really sort of settle this home is about vaccine trust, trust in vaccines. That is also a case where the more you've been harmed and therefore the more vulnerable you are, the less likely you are to trust in the solution.
But it's in fact, a privilege to be able to trust that what your society says, this is what you should do is actually what's best for you because you have this history of society, not actually looking out for your best interest. And so if your society has not provided you with adequate health insurance, why should you suddenly think that the governmental response, it says, “oh, this is what you should do to take care of yourself.” Where was your government when you had cancer and no insurance?
Where was it when your mother died and you're still paying off those bills? And so I think that what maybe people have not recognized enough is the way that the solutions can sort of amplify and reinforce that the inequities that exist in society. So I think the blind spots are an example of that sort of even the logic behind being able to trust vaccines or other things in the system are really examples of that. And then when you have this sort of growing inequity and growing different perspectives, these diverging sort of polarized perspectives on what's the problem, who's looking out for you, and who's able to fix it, then a societal level of response that we really need.
We really do need this cooperative societal level response. And it spreads among us. It started off difficult. And I think it's become harder because the obvious solution to the problem from some perspectives is really not tenable from other perspectives. And we don't necessarily recognize that. Kathy, I did want to say, in that first piece that we wrote and said, we'd know we'd make progress when the next pandemic comes along, but the template of vulnerability didn't look the same as it always has historically, but it wasn't the same vulnerable people suffering the most disease and death. We've sort of had the next wave after wave of this pandemic.
And we are probably facing yet another wave of this pandemic. And there has been a little bit of progress with there have been a few bright spots. For example, the Native American community was at the start, the most vaccinated population in the U S and people made real efforts to make sure that there were trusted messengers bringing vaccines, for example. And it had a huge difference. The subsequent waves after the first wave native American communities were far less hard. I just read about fabulous stories in Mississippi about individual people who are going through door to door. There is great story of an African-American woman who basically was walking rural community where she lives and talking to her neighbors to get vaccinated.
And so African-American vaccination rates now in Mississippi have actually surpassed white vaccination rates in Mississippi. Now, neither of those was particularly high, but it is demonstration that these things can be overcome. I think maybe some of what's missing is addressing some of the systemic issues. Kathy can probably speak more articulately about it.
Kathy Powers (24m 10s): So let's just start with some ways that this has been considered in repair for harm. So let me probably take a step back. And what does that mean? So in human rights work, understanding that parts of the violation that you experience, it can be the physical integrity of your body. It can be your cultural beliefs. It could be your mental wellbeing. And so in the aftermath of such harms is repaired for harm potentially using reparations truth-telling institutional reform, are these ways that we could repair the harm?
And should that even be the goal? Is it possible to repair or to compensate part of repair for harm use and reparations is called rehabilitation. So rather than a payment that we tend to think of in the west, especially the United States as reparations, that may be access to healthcare for a lifetime could be reparations, psychological and medical care. This is prominent in places like Peru, for example. This is being used in the Chicago police torture case several years ago, where police detectives had torture in the south side and west side of Chicago.
And so part of the repair for harm was access to community level health care. But this is sort of difficult in the case of COVID because what does that look like when you have such a combination of factors that have led some people to be more vulnerable and others not. And vulnerability leads to either a higher risk of getting COVID and, or a higher risk of dying from it. So these are two stages we have to think about. So we need to think about or apply sort of complex ideas and systems theory, I think, to thinking about the complexity of harm, which we talked about in the article and how might we craft approaches that recognize that. What might that look like?
So for example, like Melanie's talking about the community level connection, do you have to bring in trusting people at first, convince them to then go out and talk to people? And what does that look like? Do you have to retrain healthcare workers and how symptoms look in different people, or there are assumptions about the same sense of self present the same way, but the people are different. So is it about institutional reform of our medical care system as a form of repair for harm?
And let me say this to, repair for harm, it needs to be custom built depending on the experience of the community. So for example, there was this discussion will, could a form of reparations be that African-Americans get the vaccines first? And given the historical context, it could be interpreted as a mask for experimentation first. So in the cultural historical context of the relationship between the community and the healthcare system, that might not be the best approach for that community, but the best one for maybe the Native American community.
So it's gotta be custom fit. So on one hand, we have repair for her, maybe access to healthcare, but there's transformative justice, which is changing the structures of society that allow for this and contributed to this. And so an example would be how do we engage in institutional reforms in the healthcare system? We're seeing this, for example, in another area, DOJ investigations for police brutality. So in the Albuquerque and the APD case, this is exactly what's going on.
Activists wanted the DOJ to take over the police department. Constitutionally that can happen. They want a criminal prosecutions of some police officers. The DOJ said, we're just doing a systematic investigation and writing a report about the truth. And so what ended up happening is institutional reform of the police and how they were trained. And so this is a common form of redress is institutional reform of the structures of society that allow for a shift or a created who has power, who does it.
And what does that look like? So I would say there has to be a combination of repair for harm and transformative justice. And it has to be tailor made for the communities that we're talking about, depending on the historical experience they've had in the ways that they're vulnerable,
Michael Garfield (28m 52s): There is not one medicine to rule them all. That does seem like a sort of fundamental complexity insight. And for people listening to this and inspired by what you're saying, I just want to make sure that we note that you gave a talk at SFI on complexities of repair for harm. And that will include a link to that in the show notes, because you go into considerably more detail in that talk. And I found it really helpful for me to wrap my head around just how much more nuanced this conversation can and should be.
But that said in thinking about this stuff, another thing that comes up is helping people develop an intuition about complex systems and their dynamics. One of the things that comes up as kind of some of my friends would call it metanoia, seeing the constellation of causal influences as a symptom of something else. And in fact, Simon DeDeo who we recently had on the show wrote his reflection on this very thing about how in a weird way at COVID was a crash course in complex systems for the general public.
And suddenly everyone was looking at COVID as a symptom of other things of structural racism, of economic problems, of the impingement of human society on wild spaces, et cetera. I'll link that to Anthony Eagan's reflection in which he was talking about the way that our digital communications infrastructure has led to all these divergent narratives and that it's in the divergent narratives that we can revisit this issue of trust. So I'm very interested to lean on Melanie Moses's selection of the immune system as like the target, the model, a complex system that there's something about going to the tribal elders first and working with them first, that looks like the body's immune response, like you've got the T helper cells and all this stuff, except everything else I just said, which is that we're in a kind of social auto-immune disease situation here, a disease of our social epistemology.
And that one of the things that seems like it's sort of up for grabs right now is how do we navigate the complexity of the information space required of us to make these informed, intelligent decisions. I'm thinking one of the themes that I've been really prosecuting on the show lately has to do with the paper James Evans coauthored on how larger scientific disciplines end up leading to over-reliance on popular credentials, people that are publishing in peer reviewed, oh, that's where I know to look for good stuff.
And so you end up actually with this sort of like grinding incremental progress in scientific research, rather than the kind of transformative change that you're talking about that's easier and more possible in smaller disciplines. I see what you're talking about here as a problem, akin to the problem of halting social innovation broadly, and the question of how do we work together to cut through the noise and actually affect some of this stuff and how that's kind of related to, I don't know if this is as true elsewhere in the world, but it definitely seems that in the west there's been a considerable erosion of the very idea of eldership in the first place.
Michael Garfield (32m 27s): To the point of trying to train all of these converging lines on the horizon of a general theory of how do you kind of navigate these complexities? I'm curious, I guess, to pluck one strain of that, that the strain would be the strain of trust and the restoration of trust, and you've addressed this to some degree.
Melanie Moses (32m 52s): I think a fundamental understanding that we have now that maybe we didn't before the disease really is an emergent phenomenon. It doesn't make sense to just say that the virus SARS Covid 2 causes these symptoms. It causes a set of symptoms in individuals that have a particular immune response in a particular medical history and a particular social history. It gets there in the first place because of transportation dynamics. And there's a very complex interaction between the virus itself, the hosts across scales, sort of a nanoscale of the virus attaching to a cell and getting into it all the way up to the macro sort of global scale of where are we in travel bands and where we don't.
And so I think that the analogy though, that I think you were sort of hinting at that, can we think about a societies and our societal response and kind of compare that to the immune response and you pointed to both the trust issue and the trusted elders as two components of that. I do think there are some lessons from the immune system that are useful for thinking about our societal response and maybe diagnosing what we can describe as auto-immune disease and our societal response. So the first is just an ability to adapt quickly. In the U S we can talk about it as a political failure, but our initial response to this virus was not as good as we would've hoped right out of the gate. There was a new pathogen. We didn't know much about it, and we responded largely in ignorance. We let ourselves not test for months while we had this business circulating. We're still not testing well. And over and over and over again, we've declared premature victory. And we've failed to recognize things that may have been helpful. And the original strain, they may still be helpful, but just not enough. There's a phrase I keep having echoing in my head.
So if you'll indulge diversion for a second, a famous football game, this is a Cal Stanford football game, 1990. I'm not even much of a football fan, but there was this great big game that was the big football rivalry. And with 12 seconds left on the clock, Stanford was down by one point and missed the conversion. And so the Cal fans were the local fans, rushed the field celebration while there were still 12 seconds left on the clock. And so the announcer repeated over and over again, please clear the field.
The game is not over. I have that echoing in my head every time we say, oh, well this, you know, our sixth wave, oh, we're done now. You know, oh, we can relax. Let's take the outdoor tents by the restaurants down because we don't need outdoor dining anymore. Let's relax. The mask mandate. Let's pull back on all of these things that have been effective. And we keep doing that before the game is over. One of the things that's really interesting in the immune response, one of the reasons vaccines work so well is that each repeated exposure to a package, your immune system gets more specific.
It develops antibodies that are better at sticking to the proteins on the external pathogen and also more diverse. It creates a greater diversity. If you face another variant of the virus that is different, you've got broad coverage. So this is not your immune system's first rodeo. It's been evolving for hundreds of millions of years. It knows if you see a virus once you might see a slightly different virus next time. And so it prepares for that and that kind of proactive preparation, where we sort of double down on the things that have worked before and make them better over time and simultaneously look for what's the next thing that we can do that's a little bit different that might handle the next problem. We just don't seem to do that. And this isn't just a U.S. problem. I mean, globally, we just haven't managed to do this very well at all. And we're left with countries like the control happens in China which takes a very draconian approach that we for good reason don't want to happen here. Or the approach of island nations like New Zealand, where you just block it out. There were a few countries maybe South Korea is a great example where you maintain the freedom of the society, but you keep improving your contact tracing and you get your vaccinations and rates up and you have a foundation of societal trust.
So that actually works well. What we don't do well as a sort of layered approach. So many people have probably seen the Swiss cheese model. The Swiss cheese model of pandemic defense and preparation, which is every solution is imperfect. And you accept that it's imperfect, it's got a little hole, like a piece of Swiss cheese. So you have another layer that takes care of that. The immune system works very much like this. So in our case, it's vaccinations, it's good, high quality masks, it's air ventilation and cleaning, and humidity control, which is particularly important in New Mexico.
It's frequent testing and testing for different purposes testing to know whether you're actually sick, testing to know whether you're likely contagious. All of those pieces need to be in place. And we need to be able to flex between which ones we use when, and I think that our inability to do that, the immune system has all kinds of different offenses that relate to each other. You have an innate immune response that quickly comes in as soon as you're infected and tries to control the infection. And as it fails, it essentially sends messages to your adaptive immune response.
Your antibodies, if you've been infected before, are there to keep you from getting infected and therefore they're helpful for blocking transmission. Your T-cells are there, deep in your tissues to protect you if those fail and that many layered approach is just something that we've sort of lacked in I think having a coherent strategy to have all of those pieces in place and kind of adapt. And I do think maybe the most fundamental reason that we don't do those things well is the lack of trust because you've got to trust the experts actually know how to these pieces together that when something is put into place and it's not useful, we stopped doing it so we can stop Clorox wiping every surface.
And instead clean the virus over the year. But we're not changing guidance. And so I think that's part of the reason for lack of trust.
Michael Garfield (38m 52s): Kathy, I don’t know if you wanted to weigh in on any of that before I raised another question, but please do.
Kathy Powers (38m 56s): And these are just thoughts from all that Melanie said, from my perspective, there are these multi-dimensional processes happening at the same time. So there is the emergence of the virus, the process by which is transmitted. And then from my perspective, the mechanisms that transmitted across national boundaries, where we go from a single country, that's trying to manage an outbreak to a global pandemic that requires a response from countries.
And so part of what we're dealing with today is what Melanie alluded to, when it initially hits the United States, you have the question of whether or not state governments will acknowledge that the virus exists, period, which we had a period where they didn't and that it had crossed national boundaries and that it was possible to reach their country and when it reached their country, acknowledging that there are cases, all of that, each stage was months that were lost.
When the World Health Organization developed one of the first tests, countries refused to use it because they wanted to develop it itself, that their pharmaceutical companies did that they had some sovereign rights over it that also lost time and facilitated the spread. And these are choices that actors are making in the international system that facilitate an environment in which it can continue to spread quickly across national borders. So you have sort of the game that's being played among countries.
And then you have the decisions that people are making about whether or not they believe that there's actually the virus, that it works the way they're being told, that they are actually vulnerable to it. Do they believe that the vaccine works or not? Some people believe that you will be in a fertile that you will die, that you'll get other illnesses. How do you deal with, as you said, the information that people are getting and whether or not it's accurate. And then there's also the decisions of corporations, the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the vaccines.
Once we've gotten to the point, and remember we had a period with nothing. So now that we have vaccines, who has the power to decide, who has the power to decide who gets the vaccines that exist? And so we have this International Trading System called the World Trade Organization that has, what's called the Trip Agreement, trade related intellectual property rights that was designed to protect multinational corporations, pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines and their investment and their patent rights so that they can make back the money.
But should that be protected in times of pandemics and who has the power to decide that this is a pandemic and those will not be respected? And in the World Trade Organization, it takes 164 countries to unanimous approval of respecting or waiving those property rights so that generic versions can be made. And how often can we get agreement between two countries, let alone that. And there's like 260 agreements between manufacturers and developers.
And then that constitute a system of international treaties, which are international law. That's managing a complex process of the science of trying to develop vaccines and then the manufacturing of those vaccines. And so we're talking about complexity within complexity, and there was a presentation today at SFI was really interesting that was talking about what does it mean about the Nobel Prize and how does that affect complex science?
And what was being contested was a fundamental assumption that simplicity leased the complexity and the discussion was complexity breeds complexity? And we're talking about multiple levels from the science of the virus itself and how it moves is spreads and the way that it makes us interconnected to each other that we have to allow for. And how do we fight this? It can't just be…you're taking a vaccine for yourself, but also for other people.
Well, how do you get people in a society that's based on an individual sense of rights to recognize their collective responsibility in order to fight a virus and countries doing the same thing? So for instance, former President Trump said in his last speech in the United Nations General Assembly, it is a world of…We should all just protect ourselves. But how does that work with a global pandemic that requires that we understand our interconnectedness among countries, that we may have to give up some sovereignty or authority to an international organization to help facilitate cooperation among states to fight it?
So that's a whole other discussion. And then getting down to the individual choices that people are willing to make for each other, not just for themselves, that's tearing apart the fabric of society. And Melanie and I were talking about this. So the fundamental unit of societies is the family, but when you have families torn apart on these questions, what does that mean for how society reorient itself? So for instance, the pods that are starting to be formed of like-minded people who say my family no longer shares my perspective on this.
So I'm going to form communities with like-minded people. And what does that mean for the reordering of the fundamental structures of society upon which are structures of power, knowledge, science are all based. I'll stop because I can keep going.
Michael Garfield (44m 54s): You're awesome. And you led me into one of my favorite questions of all time, which has to do with the latencies inherent in the coordination of all of these different agencies at all of these different levels, both individual and institutional and whether or not those latencies are fit to task for the response to a problem like this problem. Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico.
For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts, visit Santafe.edu/podcast. And one more time, subscribe to complexity podcast for part two of this conversation and our ongoing inquiries into the complex interrelatedness of urgent and timely issues.