Response to Cheong and Jones: The Role of Science in Responding to Collective Behavioral Threats


In our PNAS article “Stewardship of global collective behavior” (1), we describe the frantic pace of recent innovations in the field of information technology. This radical transformation did not come about through a directed effort to improve the quality of information or to promote human well-being. On the contrary, current technologies have been developed and deployed largely with the orthogonal purpose of keeping people engaged online. We cannot expect an information ecology organized around ad selling to promote sustainability, fairness, or global health. Faced with such obstacles to rational democratic action, how can we hope to overcome threats such as global warming, habitat destruction, mass extinction, war, food security and pandemics? We call for a concerted transdisciplinary response, analogous to other crisis disciplines such as conservation ecology and climate science.

In their letter (2), Cheong and Jones share our view of the problem, but they express their frustration at the lack of an immediately applicable solution to the enormity of the challenges we describe. They claim that “swarm intelligence starts now or never” and advocate a local, genuine and immediate “downscaling”. It’s an appealing thought: let’s thwart the pathologies of scale by somehow reversing the tide.

But it is not clear what this would imply in terms of practical, safe, ethical and effective intervention. Have there ever been successful, voluntary, large-scale reductions in the scale of any aspect of human social life?

There is also no reason to believe that an arbitrary, hasty and heuristically determined large-scale restructuring of our social networks would reduce the long tail of existential risk. On the contrary, rapid shocks on complex systems are a canonical source of cascade failure (3). Going fast and smashing things got us here. We can’t expect it to get us out.

We also do not share the optimism of the authors about what scientists can achieve with “a collective chorus … across all digital channels” (2). It is difficult to envision a stronger, more vehement and more coherent scientific response than that to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this unified call for basic public health measures, based on centuries of scientific knowledge, has nevertheless failed to mobilize political leaders and popular opinion.

Our views agree when it comes to the “now or never emergency” that Cheong and Jones (2) point out. This is indeed a key characteristic of a crisis discipline: we must act without delay to pilot a complex system, without having a complete understanding of how this system works (4).

As academics, our job is to bring attention to underestimated threats and provide the knowledge base for informed decision-making. Academics do not – and should not – engage in large-scale social engineering. Our well-founded view of what science can and should do in a crisis should not be confused with weariness or recklessness. Around the world, the unprecedented restructuring of human communication is having a huge impact on issues of social choice, often to our detriment. Our article aims to sound the alarm bells. Providing the definitive solution will be a task for a much larger community of scientists, policy makers, technologists, ethicists and other voices around the world.

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