Transcript of Extra: On Post-COVID-19 Impact with Simon DeDeo

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Jim: This is another of extra COVID-19 episodes. The sound quality won’t be as good as our regular ones, but the ideas will be coming fast and furious. Today’s guest is Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and on the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. He was also, by the way, the very first guest on the Jim Rutt Show, so if you want to go back and see episode one that was Simon. We had a great conversation. The reason I invited Simon onto the show for one of these short extra episodes is that he wrote a little paper, one of the Santa Fe Institute transmission series of short papers about COVID-19. It was titled Getting the Quarantined End Game Right. Means thinking about how to change thinking itself. Simon, say some more.

Simon: Hi Jim, it’s good to be back on with you just for this short little chat we’re having today. This was a piece that came to me in part because I was talking to an old friend of mine, Michael Chan who live in Hong Kong. He was telling me about how they were handling or had handled the SARS epidemic in the past. One of the things that struck me is that okay, at first you quarantine absolutely, you wait for this thing to stop spreading so that your risk is maybe going down a little bit, you’re staying out of the wind. Eventually you have to get back into real life. In order to do that you have to figure out who you’re going to spend time with. You have to figure out who are your kids going to go on play dates with. You have to figure out what kind of risks you’re willing to take.

Simon: When you do that you’re going to have to use a set of futuristics about your sense of risk, but then also the sense you have of the people you’re thinking about spending time with, what’s their sense of risk? How cautious have they been, how careful are there? How well do they watch their kids? Are their kids as risky as you fear, that kind of thing. It started me thinking that we’re going to have the same problem here. The world has changed, at least for now, and we’re asking ourselves questions that would have been… Well, at the very least Jim I think really offensive to ask a month ago. The idea that you wouldn’t spend time with somebody because you were afraid they’d have picked up some horrible disease and it was going to kill you. That wasn’t on our radar.

Simon: Now it is, and so I was trying to figure out what kinds of social norms arise around risk management for disease? That’s a little bit more than what’s the epidemiologically best practice way of handling your social life? Because when you’re making these decisions about who to spend time with you also have to make your excuses. If you judge someone to be high risk and you don’t want to spend time with them, but you’re otherwise let’s say socially connected to them, what kind of excuse do you give? How do you explain yourself to others when you’re making the kinds of decisions that in some sense we’ve never been had to make before at least in our living memory?

Jim: Yep, that’s a very good question. The other thing that plays into this, the biggest takeaways I’ve personally had from this experience is the astounding cognitive diversity of people who I would have thought at a high level at least were fairly similar. People about my age, about similar levels of education, etc. Some of them were still going out to dinner a week ago. Others of us locked down three and a half weeks ago. Some people are still not taking it all that seriously, some of the rest of us every time we go out we have masks and gloves and raincoats on. The spectrum is quite wide and that’s a big ah-ha for me. We were all presented with the same evidence, I’ve argued on some of these extra shows before that there’s probably a distinction between people who know how to think exponentially and those that don’t, but there’s other things too. There’s the big five personality models, there’s people who are more risk takers, I’ve been known to be a high risk taker but nonetheless I reacted very quickly, I believe strongly to this.

Jim: The other one I’ve noticed, interestingly has to do with our infosphere. That those who I would say are on the political right were late to get it, even if they were smart enough and educated enough to have the cognitive tools to get it. Because for a while the transmitter in chief on that side was not taking it seriously, so that was interesting how people became… Their views of a factual situation became entrained by the mutterings of a shall we say less than sharpest knife in the drawer.

Simon: It’s interesting Jim. I mean you’re bringing up some really great questions here. I mean just on the overall point of who was seeing this coming? Who was reacting in ways that looking back a year from now will say were the right ways to do it? Part of this was I think down to the capacity of the imagination. People who were willing not just to imagine, but I think also to act on their imaginations, were the ones who were I think more cautious ahead of time. They were the people [crosstalk 00:06:30] we’ll look back and we’ll say yeah.

Simon: One of the things that’s funny of course Jim is that imagination is not always a blessing. It can also be a curse. One of the things that I noticed and this is completely informally is the people who were really out in front of this were all the conspiracy theorists on the right wing. If you go all the way past what we think of the median right and get way out into the conspiracy theory world, those folks were actually pretty much in line with the epidemiologists.

Jim: Yeah, Steve Bannon was one of the first people to understand it, it was amazing.

Simon: Right exactly, yeah. Along with the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, if you can imagine that you’ve got a lot of capacity there. The other thing you bring up Jim is of course, the imagination’s of course not the only quality. There’s the extent to which, for example, you trust your reason, but all of those factors have meant precisely that we’re not on the same page collectively, and beyond that we’re not even on the same page within our social circles where we usually are. In my social world Jim, and I’m sure in yours, you don’t drive home drunk. That’s off the table. We all have a general consensus about the right spectrum of behavior we have for driving. That’s we don’t even have to think about it.

Simon: We don’t have to have that discussion, we don’t have to judge whether or not somebody’s going to be a dangerous driver that sort of thing. That’s pretty much how our world usually works, but given the extent to which we’re not in agreement and maybe we ought not to be in agreement right now because I think the most certain thing is the high level of uncertainty. But given we’re not in agreement how do we navigate the very out of equilibrium social environment? It’s not something that we’re very familiar with, it’s not something that we’re familiar with personally. I would say also it’s not something that the social sciences are very familiar with.

Jim: Indeed, in fact folks I’m talking with we are now using the model that there’s been no shock like this to the United States since World War II.

Simon: It’s interesting because in terms of existential threat we’re doing okay. We’re not going to speaking COVID in three years, but in another sense absolutely. It’s a huge social hit and it maybe more of an epistemic hit then a, I don’t know, autological one. Most of us are not at risk from this disease. I mean we worry about it, but what we’re really facing I think is a dual problem. One is the uncertainty about the biology, but the other thing that I think we haven’t talked as much about but you’re on this wavelength Jim, which is wonderful. Is we’re also really uncertain about the people around us. You’re quarantining, I’m quarantining, Carnegie Mellon is onboard with this so I’m not in trouble for not coming into work. I would be in trouble if I tried to come into work now.

Simon: But the broader world that we’re sitting inside of there’s a huge diversity of approaches and I think most of us, if we go downtown to pickup some groceries, will see a huge spectrum of beliefs about how we ought to respond. We have an epistemic uncertainty about what’s going on in someone else’s head? Not just what’s going on with the virus itself.

Jim: Absolutely, and as I said, my single biggest unexpected learning from this is how vast that cognitive model difference is between people who are sort of otherwise similar. It’s staggering to me. To me the evidence is stone cold clear. If you can do it you should absolutely isolate yourself to the maximum degree. But lot of other people don’t see it that way. I will say part of it is where you stand is what you see. As somebody in the lower end of the age danger belt, I have a different risk profile than a 22 year old. Assuming that they are a sociopath at least, one should assume that they would have a different behavioral pattern than me, but I suppose that’s the part that’s disturbing, the implicit sociopathy.

Jim: All right, I’m 23 years old and I’m a fraternity boy jock. My chances of having a bad outcome from this are pretty damn low, so I’ll go and hang out at the beach party and lick the eyeballs of the cheerleaders and all the things I usually do. They don’t consider their social obligations to not transmit, not to make R0 two and a half instead of 1.1, which has a gigantic downstream effect on people who are more vulnerable. I suspect casual sociopathy is much higher than one might think.

Simon: Well I think is a combination of two things Jim. I mean we probably saw the same video of the Florida bro. I catch co but I catch COVID, it’s going to happen. There’s a second step here. I mentioned this in the paper, but right when this was kicking off I was talking to a friend of mine here teaches philosophy [inaudible 00:11:56]. I was like, “Look, in any other year, any other month in this world, if I had told you hey I read some stuff on Twitter and now I’m staying inside my house and not leaving,” this would be a very bad sign for my mental health. Clearly I had made some bad judgements that day and something had gone wrong with my [crosstalk 00:12:20].

Jim: Or you’d done some very bad drugs.

Simon: Yeah exactly, so all of this standard rules of thumb that we’re using as a check on our own thinking, the error checking we usually do. I’ve come to this conclusion but let me check it for sense. All those sense checkers aren’t working right now. Because those sense checkers operate on a background of normalcy. Our ethical judgments I suppose is the right way to say, our ethical judgements are being convolved, are being stuck into a set of pretty abstract chunks of reasoning. Reasoning about R none and exponentials, whether or not the Florida bro who gets on the TV and is like, “I’ll catch COVID, whatever.” Whether or not that guy is actually a sociopath or not, it’s clear that he thought the social norm was that this wasn’t a problem. Maybe this guy also gets drunk and drives home, but he’s not going to say that on public television because he knows he ought not to do that even if he is.

Simon: What we can see I think in that television interview is not just that the guy is not thinking straight and maybe an ass, but also that the wider norm hasn’t kicked in yet. Simply because he felt that was okay, he had no sense that that was something he ought to be ashamed of saying.

Jim: Yep, and to your point we’re in a place where the usual check sums don’t apply. We’re inventing them dynamically on the fly as our understanding… That was amazing thing from that seminar yesterday. Even the greatest experts, gigantic error bars on all the main parameters even now, and so people who typically have never thought for themselves… Okay this is interesting, this is an interesting road. Maybe this is the read distinction. The large number of people who never think for themselves, who essentially only react to local social norms and essentially follow their nose through life, if they have not yet received the signal they’re not going to do anything. On the other hand, people who’ve always been in the business, I’ve been this way since I was an obnoxious nine year old who think for themselves, my mother said, “Oh yeah, from the time you were 18 months old you were one of those you’re not the boss of me kids.”

Jim: We’ve always thought for themselves, I know you’re the same, and so we were processing the data that we got off Twitter, that we got off prowling the web and the CDC databases endlessly and we said, “Ah-ha, this is an exponential. Ah-ha, there are more than four hot spots in the United States. Ah-ha, the testing rate is way lower than it should be. Ah-ha, therefore the incident’s at least 10X what’s being reported. Ah-ha, we’re fucked.” Some of us came to it four weeks ago, some three weeks ago, but certainly two weeks ago we were all there. The other folks who have to wait for somebody else to figure it out and for it to propagate as a social norm are going to lag. I think that’s the model. What do you think of that?

Simon: Well you know Jim I may be a bit… I have maybe a slightly greater confidence in my fellow man in the sense that I think people actually do do a great deal of thinking for themselves. A lot of day to day life absolutely, social norms are things you and I don’t think about, we just do them. I don’t have to think about how to interact with my neighbors on a regular day. I think the average person, even if that phrase makes sense, we’re all extraordinary. Let’s take someone who runs a small business. In order for that to work it’s a complicated chunk of stuff. You do have to think for yourself. Maybe not in a technical domain, maybe not in a mathematical domain, but you’re constantly solving problems that require creative thinking, just maybe not the creative thinking that’s particularly useful if you’re looking at a spreadsheet of cases, let’s say.

Simon: I think we shouldn’t underrate the capacity of our fellow citizens for being able to think and for being able to think for themselves and for being able to reason. The unusual thing is that I think we’re asking people to reason in a domain that you and I are pretty familiar with, partly qualitative domain, but that they’ve never really had to encounter before. I think that’s really the issue here. It’s not between people who think for themselves, people who don’t think for themselves, but the kind of thinking for ones self that I think we have to do now or at least we have to get comfortable with is one that I think most people aren’t. You see this little bit, it’s funny, let’s talk about great minds learning to think a different way. I’ve been reading the William Manchester biography of Churchill. Churchill is the least numbers guy of all time, but by the time World War II rolls around this guy he’s really good at calculating tonnage.

Simon: He’s learned to think about shipping in a way that before that whole crisis began it was not something that was on his radar. I think we’re in partial agreement here Jim. I think [crosstalk 00:17:44]-

Jim: Okay, that’s probably a fairer way to do it. People who aren’t used to thinking quantitatively don’t even understand the concept of an exponential. I will say it’s a scream to me when I was talking to friends and family, “Oh there’s only 13 cases here and statewide.” I got, “Yeah, and if it doubles nine times what do we have?” They don’t think that way, so you’re right it’s probably they’re not prepared, don’t have the tools to think about exponentials and complicated scenarios like this. Then particularly if they’re embedded in a place, let’s say with people who are getting the broadcasts from the oh this is not a big deal, this is just the flu plus, then they don’t look out looking for signals elsewhere.

Simon: Absolutely, no I think that’s dead on Jim.

Jim: I think that’s pretty good. Are you ready? Do you want to go jump out into the void a little further?

Simon: Let’s do it.

Jim: Let’s do it. Well one of my things I’ve been talking about on these extra shows is the distinction between homeostasis and hysteresis. That a complex social biological system has two tendencies when shocked. One, homeostasis to return to its previous state, and clearly there’s a strong libido for that and a lot of the management and the management we talked about earlier before the show about the backside of the curve. A lot of it is aimed at homeostasis. On the other side hysteresis is a physics concept. Systems that are given a shock now become significantly determined by the shock itself and don’t tend to return to equilibrium. I suspect that this post-COVID-19 world is going to be a mix of homeostasis and hysteresis. Do you have some ideas on where the system will not return to the previous state?

Simon: Well okay we’re out in the void, right?

Jim: Absolutely in the void. You’re not responsible, this is not professional work. This is Jim and Simon bullshitting.

Simon: Well let me make a metapoint very quickly Jim before I do the harder thing of making a point. That kind of question you’re asking is A, a question that many people in my social world and your too I’m sure are finding fascinating, scary, and also potentially exciting. It’s awful to have any kind of positive sense for the crisis we’re having because people are dying. This is a moment for people to think a little bit differently about what kinds of equilibrium do we want to come out the other side being inside of. We came out of World War II with a set of institutions, many of which were extraordinarily functional. We came out the other side with, I don’t know, let’s say an expanded public education system. We built the modern state university as part of that. No one would say World War II was a good thing, would prefer it not to have happened, but what we did with that with some imagination was pretty remarkable.

Simon: I’m all in favor of asking the hysteresis question and I’m also in favor of maybe asking it in a positive sense to say what do we want coming out the other side?

Jim: Absolutely agree that there are huge number of positive possibilities. There are also some negatives but hey, let other people dwell on the negative, let’s think about the positive ones. Do you have some positive ideas?

Simon: Let me think for a second here Jim.

Jim: Fair enough.

Simon: Let me kick something out there Jim and this is something that I’ve noticed really clearly somebody said all of these blog posts that are coming out from corporations that have done all of this informal contact tracing. You’ll have some company say, “Check it out. We’ll show you how all the guys on Florida Spring Break where they went the next night, where they went the next month, and how they spread out over the country.” They have these wonderful heat maps. Somebody pointed out wow, every company is now reframing the extent to which they’ve been capturing high resolution data on our behavior as a social positive.

Simon: If a company two months ago had said, “Here’s our map of where everybody is going right now,” we would have been horrified. Now we’re impressed and maybe slightly pleased that that map is there. One thing that’s done I think is really hit home for everybody in the country something that you and I have problem known for a long time, which is that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. We might try and edge around government restrictions, we might say, “Okay we don’t want the government to keep this,” but every corporation that has any kind of social media contacts, anything that runs on a smartphone is gathering so much data that your life is tracked, my life is tracked. Maybe not yours Jim, maybe you’re able to disconnect but most of us we can’t. We’ve signed some agreement, we’ve clicked through some agreement. I think people now realize that. They realize that we have no electronic privacy. You might call it childhood’s end.

Jim: Oh I like that because yeah, I was involved with businesses that did direct mail in the 90s where you could buy for $.10 270 data items on anybody you wanted. I knew in 1995 there was no privacy. But of course now we go even further to the dynamics of where we are at any given place and time.

Simon: I mean yeah, and I mean everything down to what’s in our brain. One of the things that hit me years ago was when I learned that if you type something in the search box in Facebook but don’t click return, Facebook still captures that, they can see what you typed and decided not to send.

Jim: Ah interesting. I did not know that, oh my God.

Simon: Yeah, there you go.

Jim: If I type in fuck face Zuckerberg and don’t hit return he gets the message, I’m going to do that.

Simon: Yep. We know this because there was a terribly ill-judged article by some academics who worked with Twitter who looked at the tweets that people decided not to send. Which we should probably have more on. That’s the background here. Now we all know and I think there might be a really interesting question coming out the other side, which is people saying, “Okay, this data’s here. It unavoidable that we know you have it.” We also know that it can be used for good as well, and we may see a… To me somewhat unimaginable shift from privacy advocates who say, “Delete everything about me.” Not possible. To another sense of well I have this data that belongs to me and okay fine, I want this to go here, I want this to go there, but I don’t want it for that, I want it for this.

Simon: The sense that the data we have on ourselves is now maybe some kind of public good and we’re public good that we haven’t really seen before, it’s a dangerous one. Powerful, something we want some people to use for some purposes but not others. We may and this may be a mark of our, I don’t know, some new kind of maturity in the information age where we start to think really clearly, not just technically, about what the fact that you and I are shedding terabytes of data a day.

Jim: I love it, that’s a beautiful insight. One I have not heard from anybody else and it’s a classic example of hysteresis. We had this resistance around perceived privacy, even though we both know it’s not true, but a lot of people acted as if it was or at least we wish we could recover it, paradise lost. We’ve now actually seen the good that this can do and it begs some questions. There is this data, this dynamic move data but it’s escrowed only to the epidemiology director or something. We know it’s hugely valuable for that, but now when we see it in operation we know it’s also hugely subject to abuse in all kinds of ways. It’ll make us think about this in a radically different way that is frankly more realistic then the stupid dialogs back and forth like you say. I want all my data deleted, wrong not going to happen.

Simon: Yeah.

Jim: Yeah, that’s a good one. I often use a more prosaic one, which is that I suspect business travel will never come back. Not to say it’ll totally go away but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that airplane business travel falls by 50% in a year or two after this thing is over. This has been a potentiality for the last 10 years, since Skype basically, now Zoom, and WebX, and all this stuff. This stuff’s damn good and it’s damn cheap and business travel… Me flying to California to have a two hour business meeting with somebody and then come back that’s three days out of my life, $2,500, waste of time, energy, and effort. We could have gotten a hell of a lot more done with two two-hour Zoom calls. We were locked into this signaling behavior, game theoretic signaling behavior. I’m showing you respect by flying out to you and sitting down and talking to you about the business deal here. Now that we do it by Zoom we go, “Shit, this is so much more efficient.”

Jim: I was also talking to another professor at another well known university and he was saying some pretty heretical things. He says, “My classes are actually going better on Zoom then they did in person. The kids are way more willing to ask questions, they seem much more engaged. Of course I make them keep the video on so I can tell if they’re paying attention or not. I’m not sure I want to go back to live lectures.” What a radical thought that might be.

Simon: That’s interesting Jim. 50% is a pretty bet. I don’t know if you’ve made some investments in airlines on the basis against it.

Jim: I’ve voted again. I fortunately didn’t have many in my portfolio but I cleared out the little bit I had and I’ve also cleared out mid-tier hotel chains.

Simon: Wow, okay there you go. Let me follow up on this. I mean to me it makes total sense. I love my colleagues in Europe, I love Europe. I was meant to fly out to give some lectures in Austria, that was obviously canceled and I was like, “Wait, I now have four days to do something else.” I was going to give four hours of lectures max maybe, so that’s a pretty inefficient way to use time and [inaudible 00:29:05]. Let’s flip it around and say, “Okay fine, we stop all of our useless travel, so what happens instead?” What do we do with… What does the frequent flyer gag do with all that spare time? What do we do if we’re not flying to give talks every month or flying for business meetings every month? What do we do with all that time?

Jim: That’s a great question. Hopefully we use it to improve the world or improve our business or improve our research or improve our marriages. On the other hand, we might spend it smoking dope and playing video games. It’s up to us.

Simon: Yeah, I think the Zoom… I don’t know, the Zoom era is… From the point of view of educator you can run a seminar on a computer and honestly you’re not going to miss much. I used to take classes at St. John’s back in Santa Fe, which I love, you sit in a seminar for three hours and focus intently. But we’re not touching each other, we’re sitting in chairs around a table. There’s again with a slightly better interface, I’m not sure we needed to be there in person. Then what does that do? What are we going to do with all the real estate that’s owned by the universities them?

Jim: You make it into homeless shelters. Really fancy expensive ones that have banging pipes.

Simon: Yeah, some old radiators in Harvard Yard.

Jim: Exactly. I think these are examples of potential hysteresis that things could change in a fairly major way. We think about these fancy universities that a lot of us went to, what the hell do they cost? $250,000, $300,000 a year for a four year undergraduate degree? What the fuck, right? Maybe this will also provide a way to rethink all of that.

Simon: Okay, one thing I will predict is Harvard’s tuition will not drop. Okay, that’s-

Jim: Harvard won’t but it’s always been we’re on the curve, can you get away with hosing people so that you can build up a $20 billion endowment. It falls off pretty quickly but today it’s 100 places that can fuck you good. Maybe it’s only 20 places that can fuck you good in the post-crisis world.

Simon: So then okay, if you were to play that out Jim a major socialization for whatever, the middle class and up, is there four years drinking at a university. If that’s now happening online it’s potential, it’s possible that you decoupled your educational experience from your social experiments. That your social world and your educational world may actually become very different. That’s something that affects a small fraction of the country, I don’t know how many people go to a four-year college in the US these days.

Jim: About 30% end up with a BS degree by the time they’re 30, 35%, something like that.

Simon: Got it, yeah. The four-year college experience from the movies is becoming increasingly rare.

Jim: Yeah, and also keep in mind that so-called elite colleges, which including the top, University of Michigan, University of [crosstalk 00:32:19].

Simon: Yeah right, Indiana.

Jim: Top research… yeah, research universities is only 10% of the BA. We’re talking 3.5% of Americans have a four-year degree from a tier I research university.

Simon: Right, so yeah I mean those are… Maybe I think Jim one of the things we need in those cases is more novelists to tell that story because that’s a war gaming the outcome of dramatic shift in how we produce the elites. No longer sitting on a campus, that’s a surprising shift to me. I don’t even know how to think about it.

Jim: Okay, that’s a cool one. Well Simon we’re just about out of time here.

Simon: Thanks Jim, yep.

Jim: I am dedicated to keeping these things short. Do you have any final thoughts or do you want to just wrap it?

Simon: You’ve given me a lot to think about Jim and I really appreciate the time to do a little imagination in the mornings, thank you.

Jim: As always with Simon it was interesting. One of my very favorite people.

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