Apollo 13, CoVid-19, and Core Concepts Needed by Citizens

Democracies are careening toward a fork in the road.
One path will make their institutions better able to solve problems and to remain responsive to the desires of their citizens.
The other may lead to a future where policies are set by autocrats and unaccountable technocrats, or by those promoting seductive-sounding (but often evidence-free)

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.

A half-century ago  John Swigert, Apollo 13’s Command Module pilot, calmly alerted NASA Mission Control that something unexpected had occurred.  400,000 specialists – engineers, scientists, technicians, and other astronauts – mobilized to diagnose the problems and cobble together the solutions that brought the three astronauts safely back to Earth.   It was only then that NASA faced two more challenges: identifying the failures of human and technical systems that had caused the oxygen-tank explosion, and rebuilding the public confidence in the space program that had been been shaken by the near-tragedy.

The CoVid-19 pandemic is orders of magnitude more dangerous than Apollo 13’s loss of oxygen.  Many millions of lives are in danger (not just 3) and the livelihoods of billions of people disrupted (not just the thousands involved in the Apollo program).  Despite this difference in scale, Apollo 13 and CoVid-19 share several similarities.

More tellingly, there are two major differences between the two events.

Both events: arose unexpectedly, threatened lives, involved uncertainty and constantly changing information, captured the world’s attention, and mobilized vast numbers of people with specialized technical skills.

But whereas the three astronauts had a shared understanding with the experts who saved them, there is a gaping abyss in communication and trust between much of today’s general population and CoVid-19 experts.

And although NASA leadership hadn’t been able to predict the explosion, they had prepared in advance for the likelihood that would possibly go wrong with one of the mission.  In contrast, most governments around the world ignored the advice of public health specialists that a major pandemic was inevitable and neglected to invest in preparations to respond to the pandemic when it arrived.  Since the public didn’t understand the looming danger, there was no political will to spend the modest amount of money to prepare for a foreseeable event.   Research on vaccines and treatments was curtailed, budgets of public health departments reduced, and inventories of critically important but inexpensive supplies (eg. masks, gloves, and gowns) mismanaged.

When leaders and the general population lack the core concepts and language used by specialists, policy errors are inevitable. 


The result is that while the astronauts trusted their experts, many (including some politicians, business and opinion leaders, and those with advanced degrees, as well as college students on Florida beaches) continue to misunderstand or ignore ours.  This has greatly increased the immediate danger to themselves and others, and has put our economic well-being at risk.  It has also exposed the existence of “concept gaps” that threaten the future of liberal democracies guided by the will of their citizens.

Three CoVid-19 related examples of concept gaps have been especially striking.  People unfamiliar with exponential growth and asymptomatic transmission are still being lulled into deadly complacency until people near them are hospitalized with CoVid-19.  And many people, including politicians and journalists, don’t seem to realize that computer simulations are tools that provide essential insights into the workings of complex systems (like the interaction between a virus and human societies).  Instead they treat simulations as oracles predicting the future, to be fully embraced or rejected based on intuition.  When, inevitably, reality turns out to be different than the models “predicted”, trust in the value of all models erodes.

These sorts of concept gaps exist for issues beyond CoVid-19.  And at least some of them will cause the same sort of belated policy response and the resulting human suffering that we are seeing with CoVid-19.  Green-house gas emissions, overuse of antibiotics, erosion of personal privacy, and reliance on nuclear weapons are just four of the most serious.

The middle of a pandemic is not the time to teach people the core concepts underlying exponential growth and disease transmission.


The primary cause of concept gaps is societal, not individual, complacency.  For decades, as the world changed dramatically, we have neglected to ensure that our schools (including colleges) equip students with the background that they’ll need to understand the major challenges that they’ll face as citizens.  We haven’t even clearly identified what these concepts are, assuming that the basic literacy and arithmetic of the 3r’s would be enough.  This probably was true in the era of telegraphs and railways.  It no longer is.

For many decades we have asked our schools to focus on filtering students by interest and ability, and then giving them the specialized training needed for a career.  This approach has been spectacularly successful, driving explosive innovation, dramatically increasing life span, slashing infant and maternal mortality.  But in the process of creating specialists (be it in medicine, engineering, or law, music, marketing, or sports) we have created the unsustainable situation of having a multitude of silos, each with its own language and core concepts.  The gaps separating silos do more than undermine communication.  They also fuel discord, mistrust, misinformation, and erratic, ineffective, and costly responses in times of crisis.

We pride ourselves on traveling the world to experience foreign cultures; there is less appetite to explore disciplines in which we lack training


The solution cannot be to abandon the focus on training the specialists on which our societies depend.  Rather, we must embed the identification and training of specialists in a curriculum that also provides the concepts needed by engaged citizens in an accountable democracy.  Every student, regardless of their aspirations or interests, needs to be given a solid understanding of the core technical and cultural concepts that they’ll need to participate meaningfully in civil debates about public policy.  Implemented properly this change of mandate will likely result in students being exposed to a greater number of disciplines and expand their career options.

(While many of these concepts will be related to the maths and the sciences, the goal should not be to give students the specialized skills needed to become a mathematician, epidemiologist, or programmer.  If fact it is likely that some of the current maths curriculum – such as solving trigonometry and quadratic equations – will not make the core concept list as they rarely play a role in public policy issues.  This would make room for concepts that have more of an impact on make sense of today’s issues.)
This failure has set democracies careening toward a fork in the road.  One path will make their institutions better able to solve problems and to remain responsive to the desires of their citizens. The other may lead to a future where policies are set by autocrats and unaccountable technocrats, or by those promoting seductive-sounding (but often evidence-free) schemes.

Which path we follow will depend in part on our commitment to re-define for our schools their central mandate: to provide both specialist and citizenship training.  The first step in this process is to identify which core concepts are most important to establish a communication bridge between specialists and non-specialists about critically important issues facing us.  The second will be to revise the curriculum and reform our schools to fulfill this new mandate.  Kick-starting this redefinition, revision, and reform is the goal the PostPandemic Curriuclum Project.


Fortunately, developing a Post-Pandemic Curriculum Project won’t require an Apollo-sized budget, just the participation of people with a broad diversity of backgrounds, interests, and skills. Paradoxically, CoVid-19 has made this possible.  Due to self-isolation and social distancing, you might be one of millions of people around the world who have time on their hands.

The goal is to have a curriculum that not only identifies and trains specialists, but also equips students with the concepts needed by engaged citizens in an accountable democracy.