To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems

Good interview and insights by Tufekci that applies in so many areas, including racism and discrimination:

As a million media theorists have argued, in a few short decades (or, at most, centuries) we’ve moved from information scarcity, the problem that defined most of human history, to information abundance, the problem that defines our present. We know too much, and it’s paralyzing. The people worth following right now are those who seem able to find the signal in the noise. Few have a better track record of that in recent years than Zeynep Tufekci.

As my colleague Ben Smith wrote in an August profile, Tufekci has “made a habit of being right on the big things.” She saw the threat of the coronavirus early and clearly. She saw that the public health community was ignoring the evidence on masking, and raised the alarm persuasively enough that she tipped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toward new, lifesaving guidance. Before Tufekci was being prescient about the coronavirus, she was being prescient about disinformation online, about the way social media was changing political organizing, about the rising threat of authoritarianism in America.

So I asked Tufekci — who is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, as well as a columnist at The Atlantic and a contributor to New York Times Opinion — to come on “The Ezra Klein Show” for a conversation about how she thinks, and what the rest of us can learn from it.

Tufekci describes herself as a “systems thinker.” She tries to learn about systems, and think about how they interact with one another. For instance, she studied authoritarian systems, and one rule for understanding them is that “you want to look at what they do and not what they say,” she said. So when China, after downplaying the severity of the virus early on, locked down Wuhan, she took it seriously.

“If a country like China is closing down a city of 11 million,” she told me, “this is a big deal. It is spreading, it is deadly, and we’re going to get hit.” Even then, many public health experts in the United States thought the Chinese were wrong, or lying, when they warned that the virus was spreading through asymptomatic transmission. But Tufekci knew that authoritarian systems tend to hide internal problems from the rest of the world. Only a true emergency would force them to change their public messaging. “There’s a principle called the principle of embarrassment,” she explained. “If a story is really embarrassing to the teller, they might be telling the truth.”

Here are a few other frameworks Tufekci told me she finds helpful:

  • Herding effects. Public health experts — including figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci who are lauded today — were slow to change guidance on disruptive measures like masking and travel bans. That led to a cascade of media failures that reflected what journalists were hearing from expert sources. One reason Tufekci was willing to challenge that consensus was she saw experts as reflecting social pressure, not just empirical data. “The players in the institution look at each other to decide what the norm is,” she said. The problem is social frameworks “have a lot of inertia to them,” because everyone is waiting for others to break the norm. That cost precious time in this crisis.
  • Thinking in exponents. The difficulty of exponential growth, as in the fable of the chessboard and the wheat, is that early phases of growth are modest and manageable, and then, seemingly all of a sudden, tip into numbers that are shocking in size — or, in this case, viral spread that is catastrophic in its scale. “My original area of study is social media,” Tufekci said, and that’s another area where the math tends to be exponential. This was, she said, a reason some in Silicon Valley were quick to see the danger of the virus. “A lot of venture capitalism, the VC world and the software people, they’re looking for that next exponential effect … so they had some intuition because of the field they were in.”
  • Population versus individual. In clinical medicine, Tufekci said, “we tend to really think about individual outcomes rather than public health and what we need at the population level.” But thinking at the population level changes the situation dramatically. For instance, a test with a high rate of false positives may be a terrible diagnostic tool for a doctor’s office. But if it could be done cheaply, and repeatedly, and at home, it could be a very useful tool for a population because it would give people a bit more information at a mass scale. Thinking in individual terms versus public health terms is, Tufekci said, why the Food and Drug Administration has been so resistant to approving rapid at-home antigen testing (though that is, at last, beginning to change).

There’s much more in our full conversation, of course, including Tufekci’s systems-level view of the Republican Party, why she thinks media coverage of the vaccines is too pessimistic, why Asian countries so decisively outperformed Western Europe and the United States in containing the coronavirus, and her favorite vegetarian Turkish food. You can listen by subscribing to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or pressing play at the top of this post.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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