Summary: The information superhighway provides us with data on a scale unavailable to anyone before the modern era. Unfortunately, it appears to be making us dumber. Seeing our responses to COVID-19 shows how. We can’t afford this.
Lost in the weeds
One of the great oddities with many major events is that the reporters outnumber the participants. There is not only a massive overcapacity of news media vs. their audiences – the competition making them often desperate for clicks – but there are too much news media and vs. the available news even during the crisis, making them desperate for something to say.
So the major media floods us with trivia about COVID-19. Every case is reported. Countless people give analysis and make predictions. Some are experts in the field. Some are experts in somewhat related fields. Some are absurdly confident amateurs. All get reported like certainties. This produces a cacophony, confusing more people than it illuminates.
Update – Others have seen this. See “Dangerous Curves” by Julie Kelly at American Greatness – “If this is the new normal, where incomplete data and media-fueled panic rule the day, that is an even more frightening prospect than what’s happening right now.”
Worse, they give authoritative messages telling us what we want to hear – no matter how bogus. For example, see this Wall Street Journal article saying that China’s response was “slow.” In fact, it was fast. Far faster than that of the US, although in January they had far less information about the threat than the US had in February. This ignorance about context is a common feature of stories, even in the major media. Compare China’s response to COVID-19 with America’s much slower response in 2009 to H1N1 influenza (aka swine flu). That is progress, but you will not learn this from the press.
Worse, too many people pick the views that match their political biases, making effective leadership more difficult – and fracturing our social cohesion (people cannot act together if they see different realities).
Building big conclusions in the air
Perhaps the most common result of the flood of data about COVID-19 is the construction of castles in the air. Much of the data is of low quality and rapidly changing (a core reality in both wars and epidemics). In today’s America, competition is fierce in almost every field. The temptation to experts is great to use this kaleidoscope of data to produce exciting stories and get their 15 minutes of fame.
We see this with the exciting news stories of models’ forecasts about COVID-19. The models are valid but their assumptions are guesses. Modeling the spread of COVID-19 in an unprepared population is relatively easy, assuming one can accurately predict the deterioration in fatality rates as infection rates rise. But how to model the spread in a population taking large-scale but varying protection measures – from more washing of hands to social distancing to sheltering-in-place? The modeling quickly becomes garbage-in, garbage-out. Worse, journalists often ignore the experts’ caveats and report them like prophecies.
Update, an example – A paper dated March 16 by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team said that “in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.” The internet went wild! Now the lead author Tweets that the model’s code is not open, reproducible, or even documented. He wrote it 13 years ago, and has no idea if it is any good – or if it even if works as reliable code. But it got him fame and funding. So it was a success!
Amateur experts are a bigger problem. They take the numbers and produce big bold conclusions, mostly gibberish since they do not understand what the numbers mean. They usually report their conclusions with mad confidence.
Their most common error is assuming that key epidemiological factors are constants – and crunching the numbers to declare that the experts’ numbers are wrong. But these numbers represent conditions only of a specific time and place. R0 is affected by the population’s density, age distribution, health, and social behaviors (see the CDC page explaining how it is “easily misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misapplied.”). The case fatality rate is affected by the population’s age and health plus the effectiveness of its health care system – and by the definition and methods of identifying a “case” (e.g., clinical criteria, testing of the ill, mass serological screening – all give different counts of cases and so different fatality rates).
Both R0 and fatality rates are affected by measures to defend against the virus. Calculation of these numbers is not like counting apples.
Actual experts stress that we know little and most of the numbers carelessly thrown about are very rough estimates. For example, see “A fiasco in the making?” by John P. A. Ioannidis (professor of epidemiology, Stanford) at STAT – “As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.” Of course, by the time decision-makers get the firm numbers he wants, this probably will be over, one way or another.
Now for the bad news
“Bad money drives out good.”
— Gresham’s Law (1860).
All of these dynamics generate “content” that is reported, misreported, and exaggerated across the internet.
Now for the bad news. This mess of misinformation often displaces authoritative information in the public spaces, just as bad money displaces good money in the marketplace. People travel the information superhighway to become better informed. They often become less well-informed than when they began.
Update – The clearest example of this is a common response by Americans to news that China has responded better to COVID-19 than the US: THEIR NUMBERS ARE LIES. This is daft for several reasons. First, foreign survey teams have verified that the epidemic in China peaked roughly February 1; they are having difficulty even finding new cases for their drug trials. Second, the US response is clearly less effective than China’s despite having 2 months to prepare (vs. none for China). This is a blind refusal to learn, which has become a characteristic response by America to challenges (e.g., our refusal to learn from the far superior public-private health care systems used by our peers).
The saddest aspect of all this is that the essentials of the COVID-19 epic are reported daily in a clear and concise form by the CDC and WHO. People could learn more in less time than they spend surfing the net and getting misinformation (and technical information beyond most people’s ability to understand).
It’s easy to follow the COVID-19 story
The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public. These are the best sources of information.
- There is their daily situation report, with detailed numbers.
- The Director-General of WHO gives frequent briefings, which are quite insightful.
- Their daily press briefings have more information. An audio goes up quickly afterwards. A transcript is posted the next day.
Posts about effects of COVID-19
- Hidden news about the epidemic sweeping across America! – Fake news drives out good news.
- Lessons from the coronavirus about climate change.
- A devastating epidemic spreads across America – An epidemic of panic and ignorance.
- Soon we’ll see if the US can defend itself again COVID-19.
- COVID-19 will hit the world economy hard. Here’s how.
- Seeing what went wrong can help us beat COVID-19.
- COVID-19 shows the new center of the world.
- Prepare now in case they close the stock market.
- The key to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Useful information amidst the flood of chaff & guesses about COVID-19.
For More Information
- Important: Marx was right. Social class explains American politics.
- Important advice: Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America. About “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.
- The missing but essential key to building a better America – Clear sight about our condition.
- Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
- We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today.
- American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly.
- Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic.
- The secret source of fake news. Its discovery will change America.
A medieval city defeats a plague
By John Henderson (2019), professor of Italian renaissance history at U of London.
I strongly recommend reading this fascinating review of it in the London Review of Books, with its great excerpts. From the publisher …
“Plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to many epidemics are often judged. Here, John Henderson examines how a major city fought, suffered, and survived the impact of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals.
“From the evocation of the overcrowded conditions in isolation hospitals to the splendor of religious processions, Henderson analyzes Florentine reactions within a wider European context to assess the effect of state policies on the city, street, and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, this book unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and of those who were left bereft and confused by the sudden loss of relatives.”