Seeing Coronavirus Like A State

People who analyze or manipulate data on a regular basis very quickly figure out how imperfect data can be. Scott Alexander has a great post about this. Take surveys for example. The data can be screwed up in many ways. People can misread and misinterpret questions; willfully lie in their answers, either to troll the survey-taker or because they’re embarrassed by their answer; or answer as their idealized self as opposed to their actual self. Usually, this doesn’t matter because if you collect enough information, you’ll generally be able to sort signal from noise and draw some conclusions. But, sometimes being off just a little can lead to mistaken beliefs that have dire consequences (see Brexit or Donald Trump’s election).

Now how does this relate to coronavirus? Well, take the CDC’s website for example. It tells you on May 9, 2020, there were 1,274,036 cases of coronavirus and 77,034 deaths. The precise count leads you to think that the numbers are accurate, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though these numbers are prominently displayed, if you click on the “About the Data” footnote, it brings you to a section explaining that those numbers are based on “confirmed & probable cases”. Don’t let the word probable fool you. For a probable case to be reported, someone had to say, “this has not been confirmed by a laboratory test, but they displayed the symptoms for it.” This means that a large number of asymptomatic cases go uncounted and who knows how many deaths. On a theoretical level, we know that the reported cases aren’t accurate, but we don’t really grasp how inaccurate they are. We probably think, “Okay, so obviously there’s not exactly 1,274,036 cases and 77,034 deaths, but that means that there’s probably around 1.3 million cases and 80k deaths.” But the reality of the situation is those reported cases can be off by orders of magnitude. Instead of 1.3 million cases, there could be 2.6 million, or 3.9 million. Instead of 80k deaths, there could be 160k deaths, or 240k deaths. We just don’t know. With deaths especially, we won’t know the toll until months later when we can compare how many people have died compared to the baseline. And that’s the problem. You might say that those are just numbers I made up, and I would concede your point. But, what’s important to remember is that the numbers reported by the CDC everyday is the absolute baseline. A year from now, we might discover that there were actually 160k or 240k deaths by May 9th caused by coronavirus, but we will definitely no discover that there were less than 77,034. Fog of war is dangerous indeed. Here, we mistake precision for accuracy.


Okay, so what’s the point of writing this article? What’s the punchline? Is it to say that the CDC’s data collection is useless? No, that’s not it at all. I’ll get to the punchline but first I want to emphasize that it is important to be collecting this data and even though it’s inaccurate it’s better than nothing; what I want people to understand though, is that these numbers serve as a base and can be off by many orders of magnitude. So now the punchline.

There are two main points that I want to get across. The first is just how important it is for government and people to act once just one case has been reported. We already knew that coronavirus was a big problem in Wuhan, so when the first case was discovered in the U.S., we should have started taking precautions and creating contingency plans. To be clear, we shouldn’t have panicked at that time, and shouldn’t even panic now. But, once the first case is officially reported, it should be clear to everyone that there is already many more cases in the U.S. Just because the CDC says that as of a certain date, there is only one official case in the U.S. doesn’t mean that there is only one case in the U.S. I hope my previous sections make that clear. This virus and other viruses can remain asymptomatic for multiple days, so if we discover just one case, we have to think about not only all the people who have symptoms who just haven’t been discovered yet, but also the asymptomatic carriers. The ship has sailed for this pandemic but it’s a lesson we should learn for the future.

The second is to emphasize how inaccurate comparisons to the flu are. During the early stages of the coronavirus, people would compare the reported numbers to the annual flu numbers. The only problem, as pointed out by an ER doctor in Scientific American is that the flu statistics are estimates, not actual cases. He details how he’s only seen one person die of the flu in all his years as an ER doctor and that his colleagues have had similar experiences. What he ultimately realized was that the 25,000 to 69,000 annual flu deaths number cited by Trump is an estimate from the CDC based on multiplying reported numbers by a coefficient determined by an algorithm. That ultimately represents our best estimate for annual flu deaths, but comparing that number to reported coronavirus deaths is irresponsible. Actual annual counts of flu deaths over the last six years range from 3,448 to 15,620, much lower than the estimates.

Ultimately, I believe that having data on coronavirus across the U.S. is helpful, but citizens should remember that those numbers are not a representation of reality and definitely should not compare those numbers, which are most likely undercounting as is, to estimates. The map is not the territory.

Mask Protocol: A Quick Summary

This is my attempt to summarize all the latest info on the efficacy of masks against the coronavirus. In this post, mask = surgical masks and respirator = N95 respirators.

You should wear a surgical mask. All evidence points to it. Whether it’s effective in protecting you from the coronavirus is debatable, but the evidence points to it being better than nothing. Where it’s most helpful is in helping contain the spread. Many people with coronavirus are asymptomatic, so the mask does a ton in preventing them from spreading coronavirus to others. If everybody wore masks, the virus would probably spread a lot more slowly. In fact, we should probably wear masks all the time when we’re in a public space in the future, like they do in Asia.

You should not wear a respirator. If your local hospitals are short on respirators, you should donate them. Respirators are hard to put on properly and even doctors that have been trained in putting them on have problems wearing them properly, so you probably are not using them right. It’s much better for society if you just don’t buy them at all, given the shortage, and buying masks instead will give you basically the same results and save you money.

Yes, the media was misinformed when they said that you shouldn’t wear a mask. To be fair, it wasn’t really their fault as they were just relaying the message of the central medical authorities. Maybe the authorities thought that the public couldn’t handle the nuance between buying and wearing masks vs. not buying respirators.

So, should you buy and wear masks? Yes. Should you buy and wear respirators? No. Should we wear masks in the future after the coronavirus blows over? Yes. Will we (we in this case being Americans)? Probably not.

Against Appeals to Credentials

On the Media, a podcast that I really enjoy, recently released an episode where Ryan Broderick, one of the guests being interviewed, criticized the discourse surrounding the coronavirus. His complaint was that too many non-epidemiologists were publishing videos and articles about the coronavirus. In the episode, he specifically calls out venture capitalists, economists, “finance bros” and pundits in general, and his core disagreement is not with what they’re saying but rather that they lack the relevant credentials to say it.

For example, Broderick cites a massively-viral Medium article, published before we were panicking in the U.S., that talks about all the precautions we should be taking in the face of the coronavirus. His main issue was not that the article was wrong; he states in the interview that everything in the post was correct, yet he still has an issue with the fact that it was published by someone without a background in science. Broderick claims that this viral, perfectly-factual Medium post allowed others to publish Medium posts that were factually incorrect and gave those same people an opportunity to be featured on Fox, where they would spread misinformation on a large scale. I could not think of a more incorrect conclusion to draw from this. The original Medium post warning of the coronavirus was a great service to the U.S. Since the post went massively viral, a lot of people probably changed their actions as a result of reading it, allowing lives to be saved and the virus to be more contained. Furthermore, what Broderick should be objecting to is the fact that others published Medium posts filled with misinformation instead of objecting to the fact that they were not epidemiologists. In fact, we should be encouraging all kinds of influencers to warn their followers of the dangers of coronavirus because they’ll probably be able to reach many people that otherwise would have just ignored what the epidemiologists are saying. We should only criticize people if they spread misinformation, not if they simply have the audacity to opine on the coronavirus without the relevant credentials.

On a separate note, I don’t know which economists, venture capitalists, and bloggers Broderick reads, but the ones that I follow, like Tyler Cowen, Slate Star Codex, and others have been some of the most helpful in my understanding of the coronavirus. Ultimately, I’m not really sure why Broderick insists on people having the proper credentials before they speak about the coronavirus. His job, as a journalist, literally requires him to write or speak about subjects in which he’s not the expert in. He’s able to do this by talking to experts and collecting their opinions, but I don’t know why he would think that others can’t do the same. After all, aren’t venture capitalists and economists some of the best judges of risk? Who better than them would understand the power of exponential growth, of black swans, of seemingly small things having an outsized impact? I’m so indignant about what Broderick said on On the Media because I hate appeals to credentials in general. To me it is about as good of an arguing tactic as ad hominems. If Broderick is trying to say that we should listen to epidemiologists more, then yes, I agree with him, but if that’s the case, then I think he’s going about it wrong.

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