Twenty years on, apparently the Y2K bug has gotten a reputation in some circles as much ado about nothing. At least to the point that articles have been commissioned to explain that, no, really, actual problems existed that needed to be solved. For those who didn’t live through it, the year 2000 represented a challenge for computer systems programmed to use only two digits to store the year to save space; turns out that knowing whether it is 1900 or 2000 can be pretty important. Billions of dollars were spent hunting for potential problems and fixing them; it was a big enough effort that at least one Hollywood movie had a plot which hinged on the fact that banks would have to test their new Y2K-compliant software.
As global challenges go, the Y2K bug was a fairly tractable problem. We had a clear timeline and knew the cause and the solution. As a result, the remediation was largely successful (which is good news, because other smaller-scale time bugs still linger). Since many of the widely discussed problems were averted and did not manifest, no one had to experience the consequences of those problems. Those consequences exist only in some parallel world in the multiverse of possibilities. And so it is easy to discount them, to be skeptical that there ever was a problem (or potential problem) in the first place. After all, that’s not what my empirical investigation of the world reveals. And isn’t that what science teaches us to trust, observations of our shared external reality?
Observations certainly play a crucial role in science. They keep scientists grounded. At the same time, science is about exploring that multiverse of possible worlds. In a way, scientists need to make observations of those other worlds as well, and observe them closely enough to figure how they differ from ours. Of course, those observations can’t be the familiar sort, via sight and sound. Instead, they are mediated by models and simulations and thought experiments. And thus in a sense they emerge from individual scientist’s subjective inner experience. Sure, others can check their math, validate the reasoning and all the other aspects of peer review that are so widely touted. At the same time, when it comes to communicating with a wider world, I don’t think we should underestimate the degree to which projections and forecasts can come across as travelogues from a journey of the mind. How can that seem real to folks who cannot take the same trip?
Maybe you’ve guessed–these issues have been on my mind because my most frequently asked question is whether COVID-19 is really just hype. Even as case counts grow, relatively few people have direct personal experience of the disease and even fewer of its more severe complications. By contrast, many have directly experienced the significant cost of stay home orders, sudden unemployment and isolation from support networks. And in the best scenarios, that is all many of them will ever experience. Their skepticism is understandable, and probably feels somewhat aligned with the observational, objective principles of science. And yet, unlike with the Y2K bug, their participation in the solution is critical to its success.
As usual, I have more questions and musings than answers. I expect building trust and providing education with humility will go a long way, and many folks seem willing to go along out of solidarity even if they have questions and doubts. So I’m not pessimistic. I just want to understand where folks might be coming from to better answer their questions.