Convolvulus, Coronavirus & the Thomas theorem, or when stuff gets real

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequence”.

This little known sociological formula from the late 1920s, known as the Thomas Theorem after husband-and-wife research team William and Dorothy Thomas (I wish I could claim a level of ownership but no), helps us understand how and why the perception and interpretation of events determine the impact of such events in a media world.

And it’s not hard to see why there might be a problem when ‘situations’ arise from mis- and dis-information.

For almost four years now, the SmallDataForum has been mulling over, musing on and opining about the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business and public life – and with Brexit and Trump perma-themes on our show, mis- and dis-information have always been top of the bill.

No surprise, then, that our latest podcast – recorded in splendid self-isolation in our respective home offices – was largely about the misinfodemic of COVID-19.

Watching the informational mayhem unfold from the comfort and safety of our virtual deckchairs. In some cases this was followed by trips to the supermarket to experience the reality of virulent panic-buying (as in my local Sainsbury’s Superstore in New Cross, here’s  the pasta aisle):


How fascinating to see the constructed realities of MAGA, getting Brexit done and taking back control collide with the lethal biology of a virus and its real-life consequences.

No tweet, no dog whistle, no underhand journalist briefing seem to be able to shift the sheer reality of the beast, and the un-spun reporting of it.

For once, a narrative arc not crafted by a/b tested targeted messages, but merely by Macmillanian “events”.


Suddenly, Prime Minister ClassicDom’s superforecasting misfits and weirdos appear somewhat less well equipped than scientists and medical experts.

Although, at the time of typing this (early morning of 16 March), official UK coronavirus response policy still appears to be what Harvard professor of the evolution and epidemiology of infectious disease at Harvard thought of as “satire”.

And so, in between playing Working from Home during a Global Pandemic Bingo, we engaged in some (very limited) sense-making: if a virus threatens to become real in its consequences, even anti-vaxxers might call for the cure.

We’re not holding our breath, though: yes it’s still delightful to watch Sam’s hero,  astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson slamming flat-earther BoB on The Nightly Show in January 2016. However, since then we’ve had more than three years of presidential anti-science, been told that the public had enough of experts, and learned that lowering common denominators to brain stem levels is the path to power.

As per this excellent piece by misinformation expert Carline Orr, COVID-19 is scary, but the global war on truth might be even scarier.


Neville shares how he has curbed his social media diet, and how he has become a lot more selective in the sources he trusts. And yet we know that same process creates hermetically sealed echo chambers of anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and other ‘alternative theorists’.

Since Kahnemann (or Feldman-Barrett, or Sperber & Mercier), we know that we make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. Unfortunately, it seems that us and them populism is owning the space where decisions are made, as much as Sam appeals to a balance of rationality and emotions and “parking our tanks on the lawn of the system 1 populists”.

But perhaps one of the many side effects of COVID-19 will be a rebalancing of leading expertise from Dr Dominic Strangelove to the likes of Dr Whitty,  Dr Fauci, and Dr Tedros.

Meanwhile, PR Week have published another ‘better predictions with data and software’ piece and I seem more jaded than my two esteemed co-podders, having heard so much, and yet so little new, in this space.

Yes actionable intelligence is a good idea (yawn), yes crises happen faster (zzz), and yes software still needs the human touch (snore). Neville is more upbeat in his continued belief in AI as augmented intelligence, and Sam is literally in the process of having a book (his second!) published on How To Be Insightful. I for one look forward to having my cynicism curbed by my very learned friend.

How To Be Insightful

In the end, we take solace from the wisdom of the superforecasting capabilities of Asterix and his indomitable Gauls: how else to explain the eerie foresight of the 37th book of the series, Asterix and the Chariot Race (published October 2017), which features the Roman competitors Coronavirus and Bacillus …

Reassuringly, just as the aforementioned ClassicDom lookalike, Tortuous Convolvulus from Asterix and the Roman Agent, Coronavirus meets his comeuppance in a mighty little Gaul.

An omen, perhaps, Monsieur Macron?

Listen to Episode 33:

(Asterix “Coronavirus!” image at top in fair non-commercial use via The Connexion)

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