Exponential Blindness

Our inability to understand the exponential function.

China reported the very first Covid case on December 31st, 2019. Just 483 days later, 903,000 new global Covid cases were reported - for that day alone.

That is nearly a million times growth or, in percentage terms 100,000,000%.

At the start of 2019, Covid took 11 days to go from 1 to 100,000 cases, then took another 11 days to get to the next 100,000 cases. Then just four more days for the third 100,000 cases.

But, the world’s most powerful leaders did nothing. They had the data, but they didn’t react. Like a boiling frog, a frog brought to the boil from cold water doesn’t jump out but instead cooks to death.

If the most powerful leaders in the world, with all their advisors, don’t understand exponentials, we humans must have a blindspot, Exponential Blindness.

Exponentials are hard to comprehend because they are hard to visualise. So even as I write this, trying to explain our inability to understand the exponential function, I would be lying to myself if I said I really understand it.

Try to think of something physical that grows exponentially, and you’ll come up short. In our natural world, we are surrounded by things like trees that grow and stop. 

But, exponential growth exists in non-physical places we find hard to see. We saw it with Covid cases. We’ve seen it with internet adoption, and it is currently happening in Crypto. In the financial world, Einstein explains:

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”


How to Avoid Exponential Blindness

Step one, check the data. If the data shows exponential growth, even at small numbers, maybe there is something here. 

Step two, is there a limit? Is this something that could just keep growing, or is there a natural limit? 

Step three, sense check. Does this make no sense at all? If so, then chances are something is happening. We are quick to discount things we don’t understand. So if the data is promising, we must force ourselves into the dark areas to learn. This is the crucial part: do not discount the data because you cannot fathom why it is growing so fast.

Step four, honesty. Even when you find something growing exponentially, remember you still won’t be able to picture how huge it will become. So it’s possible to be aware and still suffer from Exponential Blindness.

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