The Dangers of Systems Illiteracy

Review by Carol Dumaine: “In 1918, as the Great War was coming to an end after four bloody years of brutal conflict, an influenza pandemic began to ravage societies around the globe. While in Paris negotiating the terms of the peace agreement in the spring of 1919, evidence indicates that US president Woodrow Wilson was stricken with the flu. 

Wilson, who had been intransigent in insisting on just peace terms for the defeated nations (what he called “peace without victory”), underwent a profound change of mental state that his personal physician and closest advisors attributed to his illness. While sick, Wilson suddenly agreed to all the terms he had previously adamantly rejected and approved a treaty that made onerous demands of Germany. 

Wilson’s reversal left Germans embittered and his own advisors disillusioned. Historian John M. Barry, who recounts this episode in his book about the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, observes that most historians agree “that the harshness toward Germany of the Paris peace treaty helped create the economic hardship, nationalistic reaction, and political chaos that fostered the rise of Hitler.” 

This anecdote is a vivid illustration of how a public health disaster can intersect with world affairs, potentially sowing the seeds for a future of war. Converging crises can leave societies with too little time to regroup, breaking down resilience and capacities for governance. Barry concludes from his research into the 1918 pandemic that to forestall this loss of authority—and perhaps to avoid future, unforeseen repercussions—government leaders should share the unvarnished facts and evolving knowledge of a situation. 

Society is ultimately based on trust; during the flu pandemic, “as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.” Barry continues, “Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”

Charles Weiss makes a similar argument in his new book, The Survival Nexus: Science, Technology, and World Affairs. Weiss contends that the preventable human and economic losses of the COVID-19 pandemic were the result of politicians avoiding harsh truths: “Political leaders suppressed evidence of virus spread, downplayed the importance of the epidemic and the need to observe measures to protect the health of the population, ignored the opinions of local experts, and publicized bogus ‘cures’—all to avoid economic damage and public panic, but equally importantly to consolidate political power and to show themselves as strong leaders who were firmly in control.” …(More)”.