Gaming the odds with every decision


Many of us may recall the legendary story of the “butterfly effect.” It goes something like this: A butterfly flaps its wings somewhere in the Amazon and that small disturbance of air changes weather patterns and causes tornadoes in Oklahoma. It’s a scientific parable of chaotic dynamics that illustrates how small disturbances or actions can cause massive shifts in complex models, or, in the data sets and modeling of things like the spread of viruses.

The advice and analyses by our best scientific leaders, people like immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, will always be compromised by chaos theory and game-theory interventions. Let me explain.

We have COVID-19 hot spots in New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco. These places are major destination points with high-density populations. Given infection rates and population data, you can plug that data into your favorite model. Sharpen it by what’s been learned in China and Italy; and viola, you have the best analysis and predictive validity available.

But the models don’t reliably predict hotspots in places like Decatur, Ind., or other more rural places in America. Decatur has a population of 26,000 people but an infection rate at almost half that of New York City. Did one lonely “butterfly” migrant or truck driver slip into Decatur? Who could have predicted that and how will it change the entire course of the pandemic in the Midwest? These “butterfly effects” create waves of chaos into predictions and management strategies of epidemics.

Game theory plays into the “butterfly effect.” Think of game theory as actions taken with knowledge of risk, reward or negative consequences. Imagine a rural town in Ohio in which there are reported 30 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus. John Doe is 20 years old, think’s he’s healthy and pretty invulnerable to diseases so he decides to go to a party one evening. Is there a risk? Yes, but the invincible young man says, no problem. The reward of partying is what he wants and the negative consequences in his mind are fatuously low. But at the party, John gets in the way of an a-symptomatic friend’s sneeze and contracts the virus.

In reality, we are all gaming the odds with every decision we make in these pandemic times. The more of us that take unwarranted risks, the worse the pandemic will be. Models and simulations will never be able to fully account for the impact of the chaos created by these singular “butterflies” or the chaos-creating risk takers. One thing, however, should be clear. Now is the time for all of us to be cognizant of how our actions, writ large, can impact the nation’s ability to overcome this insidious disease.

William Sims


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