Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Our febrile world is not normal.

The big picture: The precautions that we're taking against the spread of COVD-19; the way in which the president of the U.S. delights in violating political norms; the fires, hurricanes and other signs that catastrophic global warming has arrived; the virulent spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory — all of these things, and many more, represent a stunning break with the world as we knew it.

Why it matters: Society is made up of what Santa Fe Institute president David Krakauer calls "collective public ledgers." Many of those institutions have "tipping points" — the rate of surface change can seem slow, even as deeper underlying dynamics set the stage for a sharp or violent change in public opinion.

What they're saying: "You can think about bodies of belief like a huge public ledger," says Krakauer. Every individual inscribes their opinions into the ledger, and most of the time the ledger itself moves much more slowly than private opinions do.

  • Depending on where you set certain initial assumptions, ledgers can be largely static, they can evolve slowly, they can flip back and forth in a predictably volatile manner — or they can flip suddenly, like a phase change from liquid to gas.

Between the lines: It's easy to think of public opinion about wearing masks, for instance, as a top-down function reflecting the differing messages sent by various public figures. That's easy to believe in the U.S., where attitudes to mask-wearing align strongly with political beliefs. But it has a harder time explaining why, say, only 58% of people in Italy regularly wear a mask, compared to 93% in Spain.

Krakauer has spent his career studying complexity, which is a defining feature of the pandemic — and of the whole world, at the moment.

  • The virus is a great example of a stochastic disease, as Zeynep Tufekci explains in The Atlantic. "Randomness plays a much larger role," she writes, "and predictions are hard, if not impossible, to make."
  • The QAnon conspiracy theory is similarly complex and unpredictable, morphing from its far-right roots to infect wellness influencers and left-wingers like Piers Corbyn, the brother of former U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The bottom line: After the "black swan" and "25 standard deviation events" of the financial crisis, followed by the victories for Brexit and Trump in 2016, and now a global pandemic, society has started to expect the unexpected and embrace the irrational.

  • People now rationally expect that unlikely fat-tail events will happen multiple times per year. That expectation in turn makes it much more likely that they will rewrite the ledger of societal institutions.

Go deeper

Poll: One-third of Americans are open to QAnon conspiracy theories

A car with references to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which the FBI identified as a domestic terror threat, before a Trump rally. Photo: Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images

More than one-third of Americans think it's possible that elites in Hollywood, government and the media "are secretly engaging in large scale child trafficking and abuse," according to new polling for a U.K.-based anti-racism advocacy group reviewed by Axios.

The big picture: New findings by the group HOPE not Hate show 1 in 10 Americans say they are at least "soft" supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement and suggest that distrust in U.S. political systems could fuel further unrest in a fraught election year.

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Politics: Ex-FDA chief: Pence campaigning after COVID exposure puts others at risk — Mark Meadows: "We are not going to control the pandemic"
  2. Health: 13 states set single-day coronavirus case records last week — U.S. reports over 80,000 new cases for second consecutive day.
  3. World: Australian city Melbourne to exit one of world's longest lockdowns — In photos: Coronavirus restrictions grow across Europe
  4. Media: Fox News president and several hosts advised to quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure
  5. Nonprofit: Rockefeller Foundation commits $1 billion for COVID-19 recovery
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In photos: Coronavirus restrictions grow across Europe

A skeleton is placed at a restaurant table in Rome to protest Italy's restrictions that'll see gyms, movie theaters and pools close and bars and restaurants required to shut by 6 p.m. until at least Nov. 24. Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Restrictions are returning across much of Europe as the continent faces a second coronavirus wave.

The big picture: Spain and France each surpassed 1 million cases last week, and both countries have implemented further restrictions on citizens. Italian officials announced strict new measures, effective Monday, to combat another cases spike. From Denmark to Romania, take a look at what steps countries have been taking, in photos.