2021/02/02 To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems | Zeynep Tufekci with Ezra Klein | New York Times

In conversation, @zeynep with @ezraklein reveal authentic #SystemsThinking in (i) appreciating that “science” is constructed by human collectives, (ii) the west orients towards individual outcomes rather than population levels; and (iii) there’s an over-emphasis on problems of the moment, and not enough on the history that brought us to that point.

Here are some notable excerpts:

EZRA KLEIN: What does it mean to think in systems? What’s even the alternative?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: When I say systems thinking, I’m saying looking at the whole and its interactions as much as possible to understand both each part of it, but also how it all comes together.


EZRA KLEIN: The difficulty of thinking in systems is that you need to learn about systems. And in particular, you need to learn about many different systems. So how do you do that? You’re a sociologist. I follow your work on politics. It’s very good. That’s my system that I know pretty well. You’ve been way ahead on coronavirus. You’re very good at moving into new disciplines and understanding how those systems work. And I’m curious what your approach to that is. How do you learn about new systems when you identify one you need to understand?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So I try not to move into completely new stuff, of course, because that’s how you get into epistemological trouble, where you try to think about things you don’t really understand well. And I did kind of move into pandemic writing, partly because there was an emergency. There needed to be more writing on certain aspects. And I was in a position with a platform to do so. So I ended up doing that.

And I don’t really have a formula, but one of the things I do, do is, I read a lot of things directly. I mean, I don’t just read newspaper articles or press releases about a paper. I go read the paper. And I have enough of a background to at least understand some of the statistics or methods, especially if it’s a field like epidemiology, which has a lot of relationship to sociology. And plus, it was something I taught a lot as part of teaching people sociology. I used to teach pandemics. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it.

And then I go out of my way to try to find experts in the field to keep asking questions, too. 


… there’s a principle called the “principle of embarrassment” when trying to understand the historical accuracy of stories, is that if a story is really embarrassing to the teller, you kind of think they might be telling the truth. Because otherwise, it’s the kind of thing that people don’t usually admit about themselves, or institutions.

So, when China was telling us after January 20th that it was spreading during the incubation period from people that didn’t have symptoms, that was actually making it look very bad because they had told us until then it wasn’t happening at all. And all of a sudden, they’re telling us something. And I thought, you know what? They’re telling us the truth. Because right now, they just really want to prevent the pandemic because they covered it up for too long. They kind of got caught. Now it’s going to spread to the world. And they’re going to get blamed for it. And now, they’re telling the truth.

So I had a completely different sense of what they said before January 20th when they lied and covered it up. And it was kind of not treated with the correct suspicion compared to what they said afterwards. Now the reason I’m telling you all this is, there’s these ways in which even if you don’t necessarily have direct evidence on the medical side, if you kind of understand how institutions and authoritarians work, there’s a way in which you get more information about their claims.


EZRA KLEIN: One of, I think, the more poisonous lines in this whole conversation is, we need to listen to the science. It is almost always said on things where the science cannot give you a full answer, where there are values that play differing equities, things that we don’t fully know.

But I think the idea of science operates on an undue level. There are things where the science really can tell us things, right? Do these vaccines work? The science has an answer. The science cannot tell us exactly how to structure who gets them first and who gets them next and which direction we go in. I have to think, though, there’s a difference between this idea of listen to the science, and then listen to the scientists.


EZRA KLEIN: You’ve done a lot of work on social media, on social media algorithms. How in the end did you feel about Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Well, let me say that to give an answer would be starting the story very late. So that’s the problem, is, by the time we got to the point of needing to deplatform the President of the United States, it’s almost too late to be talking about it. So whether or not one thinks it’s justified or not, the real question is, how on Earth did we get here? And what role did our information ecology from Facebook to Fox News play in this to the past decades of everything from the financial crisis to the Iraq War?

So I almost feel like we’re focusing on the period at the end of a sentence, rather than trying to understand how we got to that point. 


EZRA KLEIN: All right, what is the best book, in your opinion, about systems thinking?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: One of my favorite books I think is “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow, which is living with high risk technologies. And it’s about sort of accidents like Three Mile Island. But it’s really a nice sort of example of how things interact with each other. There’s a lot of concepts there about how things interact with each other in complex systems. And it’s looking specifically at systems that have potential catastrophic outcomes, but you don’t have to apply it just to that. You can apply that kind of thinking to a lot of things. And in fact, ideally, you’d have a field called systems thinking and how you think about these big systems, but you don’t.


Zeynep Tufecki, “To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems”, The Ezra Klein Show, Feb. 2, 2021, The New York Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-zeynep-tufecki.html


David Ing blogs at coevolving.com , photoblogs at daviding.com , and microblogs at http://ingbrief.wordpress.com . A profile appears at , and an independent description is on .

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One comment on “2021/02/02 To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems | Zeynep Tufekci with Ezra Klein | New York Times
  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.

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