The Dangerous Rise of COVID-19 Influencers and Armchair Epidemiologists
April 22, 2020 9:07 AM   Subscribe

I find myself increasingly obsessed with the rise of the so-called “COVID influencer” or armchair epidemiologist. These men — and they are, largely, men — are legitimate experts in other fields. They are lawyers, former reporters and thriller writers, Silicon Valley technologists, newspaper columnists, economists and doctors who specialize in different parts of medicine. Their utter belief in their own cognitive abilities gives them the false sense that their speculation, and predictive powers, are more informed than the rest of ours.
posted by latkes (157 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
I found this suggestion from David Dunning to be a very wise one: "There are two things I wish media would do more. There seem to be one to two models that get reported on, and I wish the media would cast a broader range of credible-expert answers that might be true. Or emphasize more that there is uncertainty in everything, a confidence interval. Not the exact answer a model gives, but the boundaries of worst-case/best-case scenario. That’s what matters. Not the central estimate, but the confidence interval around it."
posted by latkes at 9:09 AM on April 22, 2020 [24 favorites]


The downside of having something named after you:

This effect has always been there. Now we have a name for it. Regrettably, it’s my name and Justin’s …
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:21 AM on April 22, 2020 [16 favorites]


Ubiquitous examples of dilettantes arriving at the peak of Mt. Stupid.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:24 AM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


I feel that people who have this belief belief in universality of their own expertise need to read Richard Rorty's work about approaching things with what he defined as a kind of ironic distance. It's healthy self-doubt that would keep them from having to scrape the stupid off the soles of their shoes every day.
posted by hilberseimer at 9:32 AM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


If you haven't read that interview with Richard Epstein linked in the article, give it a look. It's just absolutely bonkers rambling from Epstein as he is eviscerated by Chotiner, eventually devolving into this:
I know, but these are scientific issues here.

You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.

No. Richard—

That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?

I’m not saying anything of the sort.

Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.

I’m not saying anything of the—

Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?

No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.

Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.

What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

O.K. Can I ask you one more question?

You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?
It would be funny except apparently Trump and his circle were swayed by a mid-March article by Epstein in which he claimed the virus panic was overblown and there would only be about 500 deaths in the US.
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:40 AM on April 22, 2020 [74 favorites]


Elon Musk should be on the top of the covIdiot list too.
posted by Iax at 9:49 AM on April 22, 2020 [51 favorites]


I have a sister who is very much like this; convinced that (a) she knows more than everyone else in the room, (b) that she is vastly better at logical reasoning that everyone else and (c) that anyone who looks at the same data points as her and comes to a different assessment must be wrong.

Unlike Epstein, she will not engage with anyone on the meta-level of whether it’s possible she might be wrong - instead, she simply repeats ad infinitum her original position, as if repetition finalizes the correctness of her view. It is infuriating.

Only lately have I begun to wonder if I am seeing a wounded person whose only (or main) sense of self-worth is stuck in the 6th grade when she was the smartest kid in the class. (She is also the oldest sibling, fwiw), but she does this with non-family as well.
posted by Silvery Fish at 9:57 AM on April 22, 2020 [31 favorites]


People who are sure they're absolutely correct do seem like they're acting out some sort of necessary for their self-esteem/worth IMO. Or they're just that weirdly confident and oblivious. It seems both nice but also probably a real hellscape in their heads.

On the science front! There is a real proven tendency that an increase in expertise in one specific field negatively damages your ability to predict both in and out of that field. The central thesis was that as you build a complete framework, you begin to attempt to shove every problem into the same one no matter what. You build a round hole and when you see a square peg, well...

The book is Range by David Epstein. It's one of my favorite books ever. The chapter goes into how broad coalitions of dabblers have just crushed specialized predictors and experts over and over. They solve problems and look ahead by having a wide reference of possible experiences to draw on and no entire ego invested in one thing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:11 AM on April 22, 2020 [33 favorites]


Back in mid-March or so, I saw a comment, perhaps on facebook, that read: "I see that all of January's Constitutional experts have now become epidemiologists."
posted by bz at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2020 [132 favorites]


In some other time-line, there might still exist a space to have level-headed discussions with someone who would listen to reason and consider the sources of their information and/or that they might be wrong about their point of view. But I've given up on THIS time-line being that one.

I have tried to provide people links to journalism that is properly investigated and vetted, as well as academic institutions that use reason and good science to explore ideas and facts. But people will come back at you with "That's fake news. You're a liberal cuck." etc. At this point, it's just easier to put my head in the sand and hope that their ignorance doesn't cause harm to the rest of humanity.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2020 [10 favorites]


This has probably been posted to mefi at some point already but it's quite germane here, and hilarious: Flatten the Curve of Armchair Epidemiology
posted by ropeladder at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2020 [40 favorites]


One of my colleagues with whom I have a group call every morning is exactly this. They are the expert. Their views fluctuate wildly according to what they last read. The government is in control. The government is inept. Everything is an overreaction. We're not doing enough. The new hospitals are essential. The new hospitals are empty! It will all be over in three weeks. It will never end.

The most stressful part of my day is the first ten minutes of that daily call when he won't. fucking. shut. up. Data? That's not important. Having data explained by a data person? Fuck that.
posted by humuhumu at 10:18 AM on April 22, 2020 [17 favorites]


People who are sure they're absolutely correct do seem like they're acting out some sort of necessary for their self-esteem/worth IMO. Or they're just that weirdly confident and oblivious. It seems both nice but also probably a real hellscape in their heads.

I used to be one of these people. For me, it was because I was a) told constantly I was really smart, and b) absolutely ridiculed laughed at, and made to feel bad by parents, teachers and peers every time I was wrong about or didn't understand something. Can confirm hellscape in head. It was never nice, it's a continuing anxiety over every conversation.

Teach kids it's ok to be wrong and learn from it, otherwise a lot of people never grow out of this.
posted by mrgoat at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2020 [107 favorites]


> Back in mid-March or so, I saw a comment, perhaps on facebook, that read: "I see that all of January's Constitutional experts have now become epidemiologists."

Just wait until November when they're Constitutional experts again.
posted by ardgedee at 10:24 AM on April 22, 2020 [26 favorites]


There is a real proven tendency that an increase in expertise in one specific field negatively damages your ability to predict both in and out of that field.

If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
posted by Silvery Fish at 10:26 AM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


Their views fluctuate wildly according to what they last read.

Is this "friend" named Donald, perchance?
posted by tclark at 10:28 AM on April 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


I'm all for taking Richard Epstein to task, and of course quacks and opportunists are to be shunned, but I'm not on board with the armchair epidemiologist backlash.

A lot of "armchair epidemiologists" wrote important pieces at critical points in time the past few months, convincing people in power to do better. Zeynep Tufekçi wasn't a credentialed expert, yet she was one of the first and loudest voices in the West arguing for the use of masks. And she was prominently disagreeing with the most credentialed organization in this production, the WHO! Tomas Pueyo's articles explained the statistics and public health strategies in a helpful way to a large audience. These kinds of armchair epidemiology are a good thing, because they democratize the understanding of the situation and bring us all in as fully clued-in members of the team fighting this problem.

Remember, "armchair epidemiologists" includes those weirdos and techbros (ugh!) who were freaking out about this in January. The response from the CDC, WHO, Vox, Buzzfeed and many others was to poke fun at the people saying to treat this seriously. (Read this partial collection.) The idea that laypeople should abdicate responsibility for understanding this global crisis is insulting, after so many egregious missteps by experts in charge.

The armchair epidemiologists I've been reading have been right more often (and earlier) than their professional counterparts. The problem is not laypeople trying to understand the problem and get the word out, it's people who are wrong and who refuse to be convinced. The first kind of armchair epidemiology is to be lauded, the second defeated.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:28 AM on April 22, 2020 [62 favorites]


take pity on these folk; they are subject to Covid's Metamorphoses
posted by lalochezia at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2020 [16 favorites]


> I used to be one of these people. For me, it was because I was a) told constantly I was really smart, and b) absolutely ridiculed laughed at, and made to feel bad by parents, teachers and peers every time I was wrong about or didn't understand something.

What I've told coworkers who were trying too hard to bullshit their way through an issue they didn't understand: It's fine to say you don't know the answer to a question, just be sure to say you'll research it and follow up with an answer later.
posted by ardgedee at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2020 [20 favorites]


For me, it was because I was a) told constantly I was really smart, and b) absolutely ridiculed laughed at, and made to feel bad by parents

Same parents here.

I got lucky in a weird way: I started singing in a punk rock band, and the guys were very vocal to point out, “watch this! Doesn’t matter what you ask, Silvery Fish will have an answer! She’s not capable of saying “I don’t know!”“ I was shocked and ashamed at first, but then I got it, and realized that saying I don’t know is an incredibly liberating and equalizing statement and creates much more trusting and collaborative relationships. Still struggle with it tho.
posted by Silvery Fish at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2020 [48 favorites]


This thread has real potential to become self-referential.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:36 AM on April 22, 2020 [26 favorites]


When non experts are correct about something it's often down to chance and/or the fact that they are simply less cautious than people who have training, experience and professional responsibility. Sometimes Donald Trump even says something reasonable. That doesn't mean we should listen to him.

I don't know jack shit yet I can't keep my mouth shut. I just lichee speculating. I should have a disclaimer tattooed on my forehead.
posted by klanawa at 10:37 AM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


Richard Epstein might not be a crackpot, but he essentially knows as much about epidemiology as I do - fuck all. I'm sure he'd be the first person having kittens if someone set themselves up spreading horseshit about torts on the internet.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:40 AM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


How powerful they are, see! They open their mouths and tens of thousands die!
posted by Oyéah at 10:50 AM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


I really appreciate your comment daveliepmann. I find this stuff confusing to evaluate:

On one hand there is a tendency, especially among people who already perceive themselves/are perceived as experts in another field, often because of race, gender and class privilege, to huberistically imagine that they have automatic expertise in other topics. This can be offensive and dangerous. Elon Musk is a great/terrible example.

On the other, true experts are constrained by the traditions/biases/institutional hierarchies of their own fields. So outsiders have a special value in being able to see the holes built in to expert perspectives. Tufekçi being a great example of this critically-thinking, informed outsider perspective.
posted by latkes at 10:51 AM on April 22, 2020 [17 favorites]


> The armchair epidemiologists I've been reading have been right more often (and earlier) than their professional counterparts

That seems extremely unlikely. Are you sure you are not falling prey to some kind of confirmation bias? Some amateurs will be right, some will be wrong. But without the benefit of hindsight, before we know who's right and who's wrong, are you arguing we should be listening to amateurs over experts? That makes absolutely no sense to me.
posted by grog at 10:52 AM on April 22, 2020 [42 favorites]


I think it's also important to think about the way that the Dunning-Kruger effect intersects with social status and experiences having expertise taken for granted. There's a reason we tend to think of the effect in the context of bosses or academics operating outside their zones of expertise or techbros handling topics they don't know about--these are all people who are generally treated as experts in their day to day lives, or viewed as people who Know Things in their social circles. By contrast, you generally do not see marginalized folks displaying these behavioral patterns as frequently--there's a reason this phenomenon is so very overrepresented among white men--and that's because marginalizations often present a much stronger vein of social feedback to the effect of "you aren't an expert, you are probably wrong, make sure before you speak up."
posted by sciatrix at 10:53 AM on April 22, 2020 [39 favorites]


i am prone to the analogous problem of believing nobody else doubts as sufficiently as i do. or maybe not.
posted by 20 year lurk at 10:54 AM on April 22, 2020 [10 favorites]


I didn't realize until today that Richard Epstein published his colossally bad predictions on the Hoover Institution website. I don't know much about the Hoover Institution, but I have read Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou, in which the Hoover Institution serves as the recruiting ground for the all eminent folks who joined the Theranos board and fully supported Elizabeth Holmes's sham. Seems like they're staying on brand.
posted by HiddenInput at 10:55 AM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]


In Seattle, at least, the early tech bro response was a response to a virologists’ warning, spread through local government, nonprofit, and board meetings. Also through our local paper!


Plus also, I like to think, a double understanding as Pacific Coast citizens and hardware developers that Chinese cities are modern competent cities and if they have terrible problems with a disease anyone would. But that isn’t as clearly documented as the chain of information from experts in disease and logistics.
posted by clew at 10:59 AM on April 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


i am prone to the analogous problem of believing nobody else doubts as sufficiently as i do. or maybe not.

Better start thinking about whether you'll drink the hemlock or let your buddies help you escape.
posted by star gentle uterus at 11:01 AM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


Without the benefit of hindsight, before we know who's right and who's wrong, are you arguing we should be listening to amateurs over experts?

No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that I try to listen foremost to the content of what someone says. I take someone's background (which is related to but distinct from their credentials) into account, but ideally this influences where I look for supporting or dissenting voices. This involves an enormous amount of effort because it requires actually learning enough about a topic to form an opinion and because it's not how our ape brains are designed to work. For that reason I frequently punt and try not to form an opinion at all, which is REALLY not how our ape brains work.

Experts have gotten it really wrong in some major areas of modern science and policy. The naive response to this realization is conspiracy theorizing and crackpottery. A rational response is robust skepticism.

Are you sure you are not falling prey to some kind of confirmation bias?

Did you read the article I linked?
posted by daveliepmann at 11:02 AM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


I visit HackerNews as well as MetaFilter, and it is remarkable how much the folks on the former site - largely libertarian techbros and entrepreneurs - find themselves to be experts on everything.
posted by splitpeasoup at 11:07 AM on April 22, 2020 [8 favorites]


They are lawyers, former reporters and thriller writers, Silicon Valley technologists, newspaper columnists, economists and doctors who specialize in different parts of medicine.

The article doesn't provide a list. It just mentions Epstein. Can you provide a list?
posted by Borborygmus at 11:10 AM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


I read that article, daveliepmann, and it indicts journalists for being wrong, not epidemiologists or virologists or public health experts.
posted by clew at 11:12 AM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]


This is a timely post. A friend sent me a link to a long, long article about what's happening in Japan. My friend did preface it by saying it was a lengthy, non-expert view, and he was right. The writer was some kind of software developer who is living there and he formed a Working Group (his term, with capitaliztion) with some other non-experts and they did some analysis and predicted that there were more cases than what was being reported, which is a true statement in every single country. It seemed like 90% of the article was the writer trying to establish that he was right all along - there was a sizable digression about how he posted a hash of a text file back in March as a way of "registering" his prediction which was the point I gave up on the article - and he wanted some kind of cookie for being right.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:18 AM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


I read that article, daveliepmann, and it indicts journalists for being wrong, not epidemiologists or virologists or public health experts.

Okay. I encourage you to form your own opinion of public health experts' efficacy as it relates to communicating risks and advising countermeasures like quarantines, widespread testing, contact tracing, and mask use, all circa January/February 2020.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:20 AM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


Experts have gotten it really wrong in some major areas of modern science and policy.

Sure, and did those same experts beforehand admit there were things they just did not know and were uncertain about because there were (and still are) gaps of knowledge because this is a new virus and a changing situation? Did those same experts say they were wrong when confronted with new evidence and quickly try to integrate this new evidence in their analyses?

Because I think doing that helps and that's what separates those are just trying to be a "crystal ball" or just want the ego boost from being right versus those that recognize the responsibilities of putting out information to the public at a time like this and weigh their words carefully.
posted by FJT at 11:25 AM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]


Engineeer's Disease has never been more lethal.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:25 AM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


I'm choosing not to do an effortpost on this because one, it's a goddamn pandemic outside, have you seen? so I'm conserving my energy, and two, I don't want to become the dissenting-techbro scapegoat of the thread. I will go so far as to recommend Tüfekçi's tweets, which do condemn many of the experts. Like her, I'm particularly concerned about censorship of posts that disagree with the WHO.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:25 AM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


I encourage you to form your own opinion of public health experts' efficacy as it relates to communicating risks and advising countermeasures . . .

But 'ability to communicate' is a different metric than 'understands the problem'. I can criticize a journalist for citing quack conspiracy theories, I can't blame the epidemiologist for not being able to broadcast their correctness to the public.
posted by Think_Long at 11:27 AM on April 22, 2020 [8 favorites]


The exercise is equally productive if you grade based on content of recommendation/judgment instead of efficacy of communication. That's what I meant.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:29 AM on April 22, 2020




Mask use recommendations from experts is something that's shifted dramatically. It's clearly been mitigated by cultural biases about acceptability of masks and by availability and supply.
posted by latkes at 11:30 AM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


The central thesis was that as you build a complete framework, you begin to attempt to shove every problem into the same one no matter what. You build a round hole and when you see a square peg, well...

I'm not sure how to wrangle this into an AskMe or if it really is appropriate for that subsite considering it has a potentially unbounded number of possible answers, but... I think some fields have a few Central Ideas that are connected to many other ideas in that field, and maybe those Central Ideas are a big part of defining those holes (which will be differently-shaped for different fields).

It's no good for a problem solver to have just one shape of hole they can fit their problem (or narrative) pegs into. So I want to know about as many of those Central Ideas from as many fields as possible. I want to gather them in one place, hopefully along with some explanation or elaboration. So maybe the Central Idea of applied math is "you can probably solve this with linear algebra"; maybe a Central Idea of geology is plate tectonics, or biology the connected stories of genes: their functions and their modification at the hands of selective pressures. How can I gather these ideas?
posted by Jpfed at 11:33 AM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


This utter fucking hack saying that he is qualified to give an opinion about this because "I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas." is the same thing as me saying that because I've watched a ton of medical procedurals on TV makes me just as qualified as they are to give a diagnosis or even an opinion on something medical that I have had zero organized education about makes me an expert, because I'm a lawyer makes me sick to my stomach. Hey, maybe he should perform a couple appendectomies cause you know, he's a lawyer. Since you're a lawyer, how about we attribute any deaths that result from people following your opinion to you directly.

The utter derision this fucking monster conveys with his comment "You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?" makes me want to drive to New York and punch him right in the mouth. Fuck your résumé you absolute fucking idiot. The simple fact that you think your profession is inherently better than another profession and that profession makes you somehow more worthy of having your opinion given a higher standing angers me to a point I thought I couldn't reach anymore.

Hot damn, shit like this really gets me going in a way that feels unhealthy.
posted by Sphinx at 11:34 AM on April 22, 2020 [24 favorites]


Scientists Are Tired of Explaining Why The COVID-19 Virus Was Not Made in a Lab

Scientists get blamed a lot for being bad communicators. How come we never ask people to be better listeners?
posted by bonehead at 11:38 AM on April 22, 2020 [43 favorites]


 The response from the CDC, WHO, Vox, Buzzfeed

Some of these sources are not the same. A couple I might trust to aggregate funny animal memes, but not much beyond that.

Hindsight and opinions with little heft can be dangerous things. Everyone has the ability to be an expert with their own news platform these days. If you come up with enough opinions, sometimes they're going to be right and the established experts wrong. In a developing situation, with data lagging events on the ground, public health agencies may appear to be incorrect. Inertia's one reason: in order to create an opinion, CDC can't just pull out its phone and tweet something: it needs consultation, data reviews, process. Another reason is responsibility: if the WHO says masks are recommended for the general public worldwide, you can be damn sure they've let manufacturers know such an announcement is in the offing and have considered global logistics for getting masks to people.

When the facts change, I try to emulate the famous economist and change my mind. It's not always easy, and there are confirmation biases I don't always get past. My opinion is the only thing I have control over, and I know it's not especially valuable to other people.
posted by scruss at 11:43 AM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


This is reminding me weirdly of the fluffy thread on presentism in costuming in movies. There’s such a powerful fiction narrative that truth and invention only come from maverick outsiders that I’ve had people who seemed sane, coworkers who were quite competent in their range, seriously argue that no formal study or engineering development should be done because it was only ever a drag on real innovation. (We were employed by a giant company, in one case, diligently termite-teaming our way to innovations that some of you are probably using still. The conversation trailed off in mutual incomprehension.)
posted by clew at 11:45 AM on April 22, 2020 [8 favorites]


Richard Epstein might not be a crackpot...

He is a crackpot though
posted by mr_roboto at 11:47 AM on April 22, 2020 [17 favorites]


Also, the pop articles explaining that panic was overblown, that are being cited as evidence that the authorities were wrong - they’re responding to claims that the Coronavirus was serious. That’s evidence that there were experts, and possibly journalists, who got it right even earlier, but that cherry-picking article doesn’t bother to mention them. Logically internally inconsistent.
posted by clew at 11:51 AM on April 22, 2020


This crisis has given me time to realize that all the self declared experts on social media know basically fuck all and I’m not helping by emulating time and sharing what I think is some distilled wisdom from late night obsessive readings of various news articles, scientific journals, etc. I am now channeling my inner Morty from this scene and watching tv.

https://youtu.be/E_qvy82U4RE
posted by interogative mood at 11:52 AM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


Richard Epstein was ridiculed because of his original projection back on March 16 that there would be only 500 deaths in the U.S.

By March 23 is was becoming clear that his estimate of 500 was radically wrong, so he posted a correction indicating that he made a simple arithmetic error of decimal places and actually meant 5,000 not 500. Okay, let's give him the benefit of doubt and believe this story about a decimal error.

But recently, as events has shown even that estimate was wrong, he has gone back to his original paper and reposted it saying that his original estimate was 5,000 but instead he meant 50,000. Now, this is not a correction. It is a complete fabrication and rewriting of history.

Richard Epstein is not a victim of Dunning-Kruger Effect, unaware of his own incompetence. He is something much worse. He knows he is incompetent and is instead a dangerous fraud and a liar quite aware he is pretending to be competent.
posted by JackFlash at 11:53 AM on April 22, 2020 [62 favorites]


Epstein: "And so I am truly sorry about that [five hundred] number. I regard it as the single worst public-relations gaffe I’ve made in my entire life. But the question to ask, Isaac, is not whether I chose the right number but whether I had the right model."


I'm sorry, you don't get that right. You never, ever get the right to take something back like that, not in the popular press. A good friend of mine was excoriated in the press for a number written on a whiteboard in a closed door session that one reporter got access to and took a photo of. That one number dominated the news cycles for weeks, and was held up as the US Federal government completely misjudging the situation. The value was, at the time, based on the best information they had (which was unfortunately wrong), but it wasn't going to be made public as they had very wide margins of error on it. But still, someone got a photo of the whiteboard, and the rest was history.

If my friend still has to wear that, and he does, a decade later, Epstein putting a number out there with full consideration has to live with that for the rest of his life.

You models matter not at all, if your inputs are garbage. Your ouputs matter not at all if you models are naive, simple or wrong. You especially deserve criticism if you've never tested the thing, and have never faced even modest peer review. The people I know who use models for response, models I contribute to, test, test and retest continuously. They compare them compulsively and are always having bake-offs for the best models. And even then, it's all about putting out the model "you least regret" as my friend has said.
posted by bonehead at 11:55 AM on April 22, 2020 [33 favorites]


I think sciatrix's comment is on point. There is room for anyone to raise critical questions, but the intersection of existing gender and race privilege with the hubristic idea that expertise in unrelated fields makes you an automatic COVID expert is a major red flag. Also, every non expert doesn't understand the parts they don't understand, which I guess is the basis of Dunning Keuger concept
posted by latkes at 12:05 PM on April 22, 2020 [16 favorites]


Ugh, I'm dealing with this every day in my job: we have one team member with a bachelor's degree in "Life Sciences" and a sister with a serious medical condition who has decided that this qualifies them to debate every point of public health advice we receive from our very credible and qualified experts. I finally told them that I don't want to hear it until they completes their MD or PhD in some aspect of epidemiology or public health.

That said, I'm torn when it comes to media articles because I don't think blind credentialism is useful either. But, there is a big difference between an opinion piece offering an analysis based on knowledge drawn from another field and questioning or offering another perspective on established wisdom, and the godlike pronouncements by some of these D-K cases.
posted by rpfields at 12:07 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


recently, as events has shown even that estimate was wrong, he has gone back to his original paper and reposted it saying that his original estimate was 5,000 but instead he meant 50,000. Now, this is not a correction. It is a complete fabrication and rewriting of history.

WTF? how "recently?" Why does he keep doing the same idiotic thing? It's 45,000 now, Epstein. (Oh, sorry, families of the 1400 people who probably died since I heard 45,000 this morning.) Hello, yoohoo, Epstein, how many times are you going to trot out the same risible lie about decimal points before you learn to stop talking and back away slowly and hide behind the drapes for the rest of your dickhead life?
posted by Don Pepino at 12:13 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


If my friend still has to wear that, and he does, a decade later, Epstein putting a number out there with full consideration has to live with that for the rest of his life.

If what you're saying is politically useful to someone, you'll continue to get cited no matter how many embarrassingly wrong predictions you've made in the past.
posted by Slothrup at 12:39 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


Of course when i say "lichee" I mean "love". In grad school, I had the "I Have No Idea What I'm Doing" dog as my desktop which I think set the tone pretty well.

---

Re: daveliepmann's link. If you take all of the early prognostications about COVID from the media, the experts and politicians and you cherry-pick the ones that played it down, you can build yourself a pretty tidy narrative. (We could look at the early reactions to any historical even and find some pretty wacky stuff. Remember when American Quakers thought the whole Nazi thing would blow over?) Similarly, you can cherry-pick the ones who, by chance, were "right." (Though frequently, as with Trump and his travel bans, they might be right for the wrong reason. He doesn't know or care if it'll help with the virus, he just wants to fire up his racist base.)

The problem is that everyone, from Donald Trump on up to epidemiologists were operating on close to zero information. Of course people speculated about the voids in their knowledge. Knowledge of the future is always a void, moreso when you're in the first days of a years-long event. Nobody with a platform got that platform by keeping their mouth shut when they didn't have enough information. Of course those people are going to have something to say and it's going to be wrong most of the time.

When you have zero information about a phonomenon the solution space is effectively infinite. The more you know, the smaller it gets. Even now, we know comparatively little about COVID relative to something like the flu or smallpox. That certain journalists want to turn this into a career-making the-conventional-wisdom-is-wrong soapbox isn't surprising. They're as predictable as the cranks and, I'd argue, in symbiosis with them.
posted by klanawa at 12:43 PM on April 22, 2020 [15 favorites]


Note that Epstein used the 500 number in a podcast interview, so the typo excuse the first time around was also demonstrably a lie.
posted by tavella at 12:49 PM on April 22, 2020 [12 favorites]


This mainly comes from the lack of trustworthiness/transparency of our experts. When the rest of the world was wearing masks, WHO & other US experts were saying that masks were useless with this virus, Faucii was repeatedly downplaying the severity of the virus on TV giving a false sense of security, both R & D leaders were encouraging people to go out spend, party and socialize. All the experts started to reverse positions only around March or so. Taiwan, Korea and everyone else started taking things seriously way before the US. The experts have let the US down and people naturally are loosing trust.
posted by asra at 1:00 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


I'm going to give a recent example from my life on why knowing how to use a particular tool and apply it to a given situation can be unproductive if you don't have the knowledge on which tool is best to use.

My project for the next few days is to make a planter for 25 strawberry plants that are on the way. I've decided to make a stepped planter with 3 rows of planter boxes. To get the size of the steps right I'll cut my own stair stringer and needed to figure out what size lumber to cut it out of (ie would a 2x8 or 2x10 be better). In my plan the steps were going to be 8 inches wide* and 6 high and I wanted the stringer to be at least 2 inches at its thinnest point. So basically I needed to know the what the length of the perpendicular line to the hypotenuse of this right-angled triangle, with a base of 8 and height of 6, would be. Initially I didn't want to think too much so I just drew the triangle on graph paper and measured my line to give me a rough answer. The line was a bit less than 5, so that plus 2 inches means a 2x8, which is a bit more than 7 inches wide, would work fine.

Later I wanted to see what the exact answer would be so knowing the side lengths and one of the angles I proceeded to use my calculator and its inverse sin functions to first calculate the other angles and then the length of this perpendicular. I get my answer, 4.8, and then realize that I could have easily solved it using similar triangles (the big triangle and the two smaller triangles created by making the perpendicular line are all going to be similar to each other) and the ratio of the lengths of the sides. Then I asked my wife to calculate it and she did so by calculating the area of the whole triangle and doubling it to arrive at the area of the rectangle with the length of the hypotenuse and width of the perpendicular line I'm trying to find.

All three of these approaches yielded the same correct answer but the first one I tried involved me using a calculator and taking extra steps that weren't needed. If I had thought of one of the other two it would just be a calculation or two in my head.

So this is my long-winded way of saying that people not in the field might have access to and familiarity with some of the modelling tools, but there may be other discipline-specific knowledge that would guide people to selecting the right tools and using them appropriately. That isn't to say that the arm-chair epidemiologists might not be right, and even for the correct reasons, but my worry would be that they're missing something that someone in the field would catch, or that they're adding extra steps with added potential for error.

* in retrospect 8 inches is also too small for the width of the steps - if the planter boxes are only that big front-to-back there won't be enough space for the roots to spread. 12 inches makes more sense for what I'm trying to do.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:01 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]




Only lately have I begun to wonder if I am seeing a wounded person whose only (or main) sense of self-worth is stuck in the 6th grade when she was the smartest kid in the class. (She is also the oldest sibling, fwiw), but she does this with non-family as well.
Is your sister my brother?? He's doing this exact thing for the exact reason and it's making me crazy. His position is that none of this is really happening- the imperial model was debunked! People aren't dying more than usual! They're counting people with the virus who died from something else! The excess deaths are happening because of the lockdown! Social distancing is MEDIEVAL TECHNOLOGY (which means BAD. Masks are also from the Middle Ages but he wears one because he doesn't want to get sick ..) Any stats or articles I send are either from bad sources, people he's blocked on twitter or "just anecdotal" (like accounts from panicking doctors in overflowing hospitals, and also "doctors are stupid". Which is like yeah I know, about *some* things, that doesn't mean *all of them are lying*.
I have just resigned myself to subtweeting him instead.
posted by bleep at 1:34 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


Oh yeah I forgot the biggest one is that this is a conspiracy to collapse society rather than a response to something that's really happening and he's the only person on earth who understands this and it's like DUDE. FALSE. INCORRECT. TWO THINGS CAN BE TRUE AT THE SAME TIME.
posted by bleep at 1:36 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


>>Back in mid-March or so, I saw a comment, perhaps on facebook, that read: "I see that all of January's Constitutional experts have now become epidemiologists."

>Just wait until November when they're Constitutional experts again.

I've come out even (no profit, no loss) on their expertise in oil futures contracts.
posted by k3ninho at 1:40 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


Thesis: Relax! It's Just the flu bro!
Antithesis: We're all gonna die! Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye!
Synthesis: ??????
posted by eagles123 at 1:41 PM on April 22, 2020


I agree with daveliepmann partially here but some of those tech guys are flattering themselves too much in their assessment of how far they were ahead of the curve. The biggest leap in my understanding of how big a deal this was likely to be - that lack of testing meant it was already likely to be far more widespread than assumed - came in February, from following individual expert commentators. The thing about talking to scientists is just by nature they're not inclined to express certainty about things so sometimes you have to make your own assessments of risk based on the data and principles they've described.

The "experts" who have been most underwhelming are the public-facing sides of agencies like the WHO and the CDC, because they are supposed to communicate information to the public in an actionable way, and I think they have not done a great job at that (or at communicating uncertainty in a way that conveys the precautionary principle) on certain subjects.
posted by atoxyl at 1:49 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


I didn't see experts claiming that "masks were useless with this virus" in February, I saw a reaction by medical professionals saying N95 masks need proper fitting in order to protect the wearer and epidemiologists alarmed by the global shortage trying to head off more panic buying. Masks have been sold out in my city (part of LA County) since late January, as people bought them up to send to family in China and Taiwan.

Zeynep Tufceki points out (and has been pointing out for a while) that the confusion over mask wearing is because people have been confused as to the goal of mask wearing. Of course lots of regular people primarily understand masks as protecting the wearer (and it does a bit), but the public health rationale has been stronger on preventing transmission from the wearer, as well as signaling to society at large that you take the matter seriously.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:54 PM on April 22, 2020 [21 favorites]




I work in public health and I'm going back to school to become an epidemiologist instead of a lawyer. My family had no idea why I was changing my career trajectory ("but lawyers make more!" UGH) until this happened. Now I'm getting buried in an oversaturation of this crap. RANDOM EXPERT GUY SAID THIS WHAT DO YOU THINK!! or the pendulum swings the other way and it's a torrent of bullshit about some random person outside the field is totally running circles around experts.

I keep my phone on silent now and answer questions about work with "it's fine".
posted by Freeze Peach at 2:08 PM on April 22, 2020 [9 favorites]


I totally called this.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:11 PM on April 22, 2020 [10 favorites]


I vaguely resemble this stereotype, so take this comment as part mea culpa, part defensive response.

Credentials: I know math. I do machine learning in my day job. I can find my way around numpy and related tools. Also, I have a facebook account, which makes me abundantly qualified to comment on *any* subject. :-/

When the first cases broke out in Washington state it became important to me to express to my friends and family that what was happening in Europe was soon going to happen to us. This didn't take any understanding of epidemiology, just an understanding of exponential growth. I made some plots and shared them. "How many days are we behind Italy?"

One or two friends muted me, because I was triggering their anxiety (and also sniggered about armchair epidemiologists). Others would ping me if I skipped a day without updating the plots. There was clearly some interest among friends in getting some information they weren't otherwise finding (or even searching for). I posted my code for everything I did to github so other folks could see what I was doing.

In a couple cases, and mainly for my own learning, I fit sigmoid curves to the data. When I shared them I took pains to clarify these weren't real models (not even close) and shouldn't be interpreted as such. Likewise, when I took the real-time R_t models developed by some billionaire savant and adapted them for Canada I was careful to explain that they're not predictive, and might not actually reflect anything real.

I think there's a genuine hunger among my friends to hear about what's going on from someone they trust. I try to present information they can digest, and try to just show what the data is telling us mathematically. I take pains to tell people to listen to medical authorities, and try not to make predictions about what will happen. I hope from this perspective my efforts are valued. In the worst case, and as the article points out, some of us do this just because it helps us cope with the unknowns of the situation.

In a few cases I've reflexively shared medium articles from various armchair medical experts and my more astute friends on the center-right have pushed back and held me accountable. I really appreciate that they do this because it makes me look closer at the source and try to understand the underlying biases that might be at play.

In any case I continue to post the plots and occasionally experiment with new visualizations. I don't mind being called out for applying my relatively narrow area of expertise to the data, as long as it's understood that I have no medical insights to share.
posted by simra at 2:14 PM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


I didn't see experts claiming that "masks were useless with this virus" in February, I saw a reaction by medical professionals saying N95 masks need proper fitting in order to protect the wearer and epidemiologists alarmed by the global shortage trying to head off more panic buying. Masks have been sold out in my city (part of LA County) since late January, as people bought them up to send to family in China and Taiwan.

This. No experts said "masks were useless with this virus". From the beginning, they were saying "Holy shit, we do not have enough PPE. Please don't waste N95 masks that you don't even know how to wear properly on a trip to grocery store. Please save the real PPE for healthcare professionals." The experts are still saying this. They have for at least a month been encouraging you if you absolutely must leave home to wear a homemade, non-PPE mask instead.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:21 PM on April 22, 2020 [31 favorites]


Film & TV also encourage the idea that experts in 1 thing are experts in all things. Take Tony Stark & Bruce Banner in the Marvel movies. Between the 2 of them, they are masters of pretty much every scientific discipline (and Tony's also a brilliant business- and Ladies-man too). Stark can code an advanced AI, engineer weaponry, solve the problems of time travel...
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:27 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


In any case I continue to post the plots and occasionally experiment with new visualizations. I don't mind being called out for applying my relatively narrow area of expertise to the data, as long as it's understood that I have no medical insights to share.

Respectfully, and it does sound like you couch this in appropriate disclaimers, but what purpose does this serve if not to disseminate perceived epedemiolgical expertise? You are creating infographics without any foundational understanding of the problem. Even though you are broadly 'correct' in your interpretations, doesn't this just allow others to do similar manipulation with their own expertise and come to the wrong conclusions?
posted by Think_Long at 2:28 PM on April 22, 2020 [10 favorites]


Reading the article linked by star gentle uterus above--and interview with Richard Epstein:
I understand that, but the point about that is that, first of all, there was a simple stupid error, which is you would never want to put it in a model that total deaths in the United States relative to the world would be one per cent. . . . And, so, the situation that you get is you cannot use any exponential system because essentially then everybody is going to be dead, because things just keep doubling, doubling, and doubling. . . . .And so you take a population like in Kirkland, which is fragile and old, you get somebody in who has a strong version of the virus, and the thing will just absolutely rip through the population and kill everybody in it within a very short period of time.
This guy is just literally dumb as a post. It is hard to understand how he holds down a job or gets a single article published on any subject.

Like, I'm sure he is smart in some area of the law or whatever--something very, very far from science or logic or engineering or number type things*--but he doesn't understand the first thing about communicable diseases or how they work or what a mathematical model is or how it works.

This is indeed the prototypical example of Dunning-Krueger. The guy is so dumb you literally could not explain to him how dumb he is because he is too dumb to understand the explanation.

That whole interview is exactly that--him demonstrating that he has so little grasp of the subject that he can't even discuss it intelligently in any way or understand (let alone respond to) questions or criticisms of his "method".

*You know, the type of thing where if your model or calculations or ideas are wrong the building or the bridge or whatever falls down and kills a lot a people. So you can't just spitbull a lot of random ideas, you have to actually be certain--100% certain--that your calculations and models are right. He's literally living in a universe where you can just make facts up and then go ahead and work with them. And you know--in some areas of thought and creativity, that does in fact work.
posted by flug at 2:47 PM on April 22, 2020 [4 favorites]


I assume we consider, or at least used to consider, the CDC to be experts? Their mask guidelines really were basically "masks won't protect you so don't do it", not "masks work but we need them so don't use them because there is a shortage." Really, I know because I argued about it pretty consistently in a place where a lot of mefites will have seen it. We ended up calling it MASKGATE.

The "actually experts were saying good things about masks" is a retcon. The official recommendations were just short of blatant lies and that was obvious well before they changed them.

What they said was "we do not recommend masks for the public and they will not protect you from covid-19". What they meant was "we need the masks, so we're telling you not to use them so we can have them". Which, yes, they needed them more. They should have just said that instead of misleading the public.
posted by Justinian at 2:50 PM on April 22, 2020 [38 favorites]


Think_Long, that's a fair criticism, but I hope I can communicate clearly that I'm applying mathematical expertise and not epidemiological expertise. My plots mainly aim to show "what happened" or "how things are", using fairly well-developed principles of data visualization.

If conclusions are made from data they need to be couched in a lot of caveats and expressed with an appropriate degree of uncertainty- even (especially) if you're an expert in epidemiology. There's a need for us all to develop a spidey sense about *any* conclusions drawn from data. Who is making this claim, how do they stand to benefit, etc.

In the past week I've dialed back the set of plots I post to focus on visualizing the recent history of new cases by country, and by state or province. In principle this is a middle school charting project, and it really cuts closest to what people care most about- are new cases increasing or decreasing in my area? From that they might draw their own conclusions about when restrictions might be lifted.

Some related posts on this topic that I've found helpful:
r/physics
nature.com
posted by simra at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


So when the giant radioactive insects attack, don't expect me to come to your aid.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


Think_Long I didn't answer your specific question: what purpose does this serve?

The original purpose was to help understand "what is happening?" and I think that's still the purpose. I hope the plots shed some light on that question without projecting too much about what might happen, or what should happen.
posted by simra at 3:05 PM on April 22, 2020


No experts said "masks were useless with this virus".

I know time dilation is getting pretty bad these days, but this representative article was published just three weeks ago: Should you wear mask in public if not sick with coronavirus? (Lauren Neergaard, AP, 31 Mar 2020):
“[T]here is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit,” Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s epidemics chief, told reporters Monday.

“In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite,” he added, noting risks from an improperly fitted mask or touching the face while taking it off or putting it on.
Obviously lots of people, including many other experts (and many entire countries), recognized that this was wrong. But Ryan would surely count as an authority in the field by any reasonable definition.
posted by Not A Thing at 3:08 PM on April 22, 2020 [24 favorites]


This reminds me a lot of Seth Abramson and the way a lot of people became Russia experts. Leave this to the people who actually have experience in the field, please.
posted by schroedinger at 3:21 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


Zeynep Tufceki points out (and has been pointing out for a while) that the confusion over mask wearing is because people have been confused as to the goal of mask wearing.

She also wrote an op-ed for the NYT saying exactly what Justinian said: there were, in fact, numerous messages from the WHO, CDC, and other experts that masks aren't needed right by regular people or don't work. She notes that the messages were often contradictory, saying both that masks don't help but also medical workers need them.These messages both confused the public and undermined faith in experts.

Saying that the experts never said masks don't work is flat-out wrong. They did, repeatedly. They seem to have done it in an effort to save supplies for medical workers, but they fucked up badly by confusing and outright lying to the public about them.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:29 PM on April 22, 2020 [30 favorites]


Another famous example of messaging about masks (from late February):

Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!

They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!


This does get at some of the core issues, but it doesn't really explain why masks might be ineffective for members of the general public and it ignores the possibility of a communal benefit of widespread face protection entirely. My family has a lot of biomedical scientists and an immunocompromised member so we had masks early on and I definitely had people in real life ask "don't they say those don't do anything?"

So I think there were attempts to communicate the nuance but it was not well done because:

a.) mixing the cautious message with "masks are for assholes" mustered the power of social shaming in the wrong direction.

b.) what I presume were concerns about giving people false confidence in the effectiveness of improvised face coverings overshadowed the common sense positives from the standpoint of the common good and common courtesy.

c.) the whole message aligned unfortunately with the incentive for businesses to restrict employee use of PPE so as not to scare off customers. The more I think about this specific intersection the more it really pisses me off, actually.
posted by atoxyl at 3:29 PM on April 22, 2020 [9 favorites]


Maybe we can just call this the "Jared Kushner Effect."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:29 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


The article is fine, but the associated meme frankly pisses me off.

It's February 1, 2020. I live in Santa Clara County. It's fucking obvious that there is a substantial chance that COVID-19 will be endemic in my community in the next months. The best estimate of how lethal it might be if the hospitals are full is ticking up to 5%. To a close approximation, my professional media and government doesn't give a shit about informing me of anything. What, exactly, should I be doing besides "armchair epidemiology?"

Where the fuck are all the "professional epidemiologists" telling me whether I should buy masks? Whether I should buy this or that drug? Whether and how I should disinfect surfaces? What the risk of everyday activities is? Whether my family should cancel their plane tickets?

I have to make actual decisions about these things! Most people make those decisions by looking around and doing kind of whatever seems socially acceptable based on the tone of their Facebook wall, plus listening to loud authorities. When I make the decisions by reading studies, reading remarks by experts, talking to my other scientifically literate friends, and making statistical models for myself, that's supposed to be somehow stupid -- compared to what? Is it still stupid when I make retrospectively correct decisions about all those things, while the people using the listen to loud authorities strategy appear to have fucked them all up?
posted by value of information at 3:31 PM on April 22, 2020 [17 favorites]


The takeaway I got from the masks discussion was that a mask won't protect you but you could be an asymptomatic carrier and should wear a mask in public to protect others (by providing some marginal level of containment). It's a perfect example of experts revising their guidance based on new evidence. We need to get comfortable with the fact that new evidence might cause the CDC to change course.
posted by simra at 3:33 PM on April 22, 2020 [11 favorites]


Where the fuck are all the "professional epidemiologists" telling me whether I should buy masks? Whether I should buy this or that drug? Whether and how I should disinfect surfaces? What the risk of everyday activities is? Whether my family should cancel their plane tickets?

By the way, I'm not denying that professional epidemiologists expressing an opinion about this existed. I am definitely denying that professional epidemiologists succeeded in collectively expressing a justified position on these things, in a way that individual people could correctly apply to their situations, in a single place that a layman could look at without synthesizing information for themselves.
posted by value of information at 3:34 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]




It's a perfect example of experts revising their guidance based on new evidence.

I don't think that's the case at all because, as noted above, experts in countries other than the US have been advising mask use since day 1. We should have been doing the same without question. The exact level of their effectiveness with this virus is irrelevant because people wearing them would help in general, in the same way we tell everyone to wash their hands even though most people do it wrong. People should have been told to wear masks from the very beginning.

This isn't about new evidence at all, it's about them badly botching communication. They wanted to preserve supplies for medical workers, which is fine, but they chose a very bad way to express that goal. The experts should never have said not to wear masks or that they don't work, they should have been consistent in saying we need to save them.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:44 PM on April 22, 2020 [12 favorites]


This has been a diverting derail, but I wonder if we're drifting a bit from the topic here when we talk about whether we should leave "this" (whatever "this" is) to the experts. The OP isn't so much about nonexperts working things out for themselves by applying critical thinking to the best available information -- something that I imagine we can agree is as necessary as it is challenging -- but specifically about people like R. Epstein arrogating unearned "expert" status to themselves.

Regarding whom:

I'm sure he is smart in some area of the law or whatever

I'm not. He's a law professor. Occasionally the system messes up and allows someone with actual expertise to hold such a position (this is more common at low-ranked law schools where standards aren't enforced as assiduously). But Epstein seems unlikely to have been such an exception.
posted by Not A Thing at 4:05 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


The takeaway I got from the masks discussion was that a mask won't protect you but you could be an asymptomatic carrier and should wear a mask in public to protect others (by providing some marginal level of containment). It's a perfect example of experts revising their guidance based on new evidence. We need to get comfortable with the fact that new evidence might cause the CDC to change course.

And that takeaway is incorrect. A mask will protect you. Just not 100% perfectly.
posted by srboisvert at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


in the same way we tell everyone to wash their hands even though most people do it wrong

Yes! This is a point I've made because it cuts the "people don't have their masks fitted by a professional" objections or whatever off at the knees. People suck at washing their hands and do it terribly and yet the CDC and experts didn't throw up their hands and decide not to recommend hand-washing because people sucked at it.
posted by Justinian at 4:30 PM on April 22, 2020 [8 favorites]


Our common humanity’s exponential growth bias apparently hastens pandemics AND causes exponential growth in mask-splaining, epidemiolo-splaining, and (the dreaded) stats-splaining.

If that’s a thing. The exponential growth bias, I mean.
posted by abuckamoon at 4:33 PM on April 22, 2020


When I saw the topic I thought this would be a more unifying thread than it's turned out to be. Suppose it's not surprising when there's so little known that there's differences on which specific things count as obviously wrong (except Epstein, who everyone can tell is obviously an idiot.)

I will say personally I'm in an age bracket that is at somewhat elevated risk, which is unfortunate. The flip side is if the 25 year old me were the one encountering this situation I'd probably be sharing every half-assed interpretation I come up with and be dying of embarrassment some time next year, when a few facts are actually available..

One more thing on this topic: The baseline "this is reproducible" rate for new and surprising discoveries that make it through peer review and end up in a prestigious journal in the life sciences is something like 25%. That's under good conditions when people do follow up experiments and spend years working towards a conclusion. Right now everyone is trying to glean information from any preprint anyone with a credential is willing to toss out there. Any guesses what fraction will hold up? Nothing we deduce from them is on solid footing. And everything that makes scientists look bad--the file drawer effect, bad stats, ad hoc endpoints, self-hype, media amplification--is going to be on display in a big way.
posted by mark k at 4:56 PM on April 22, 2020 [9 favorites]


The chapter goes into how broad coalitions of dabblers have just crushed specialized predictors and experts over and over.

I vaguely recall Redditors getting on the hunt for someone (the Unabomber?) and deciding that they had found him. But they hadn't, it was just that the mutual reinforcement provided by the forum led them to magnify the significance of the "evidence" they found. And a lot of dabblers are apparently convinced that Trump is sending them messages about Hillary Clinton abusing mole children in a pizza shop? My point is, that when armchair experts are correct vs. actual experts their successes are magnified, but when they're wrong they just get dismissed as being obvious cranks. When you look at the success/failure ratio of predictions overall I think it's clear that genuine experts win hands down.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:56 PM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]


There are lots of different things going on here:

- Experts in the field faced with a novel situation with many unknowns
- Public health officials making recommendations in part in response to PPE and testing supply constraints, and also in the context of their own biases and information gaps
- A very scary and deadly and contagious new disease
- Large amounts of new data being learned and shared daily
- Bad actors attempting to intentionally manipulate the public

In this environment, it makes sense we all would seek answers. And I think what this article speaks to is the phenomenon that certain people will then just jump in and GIVE those answers even when they clearly don't have them, and sometimes dangerously misunderstand the science.

Given sexism and racism and such, it's only fitting that the people who are used to being seen as authorities - more often than not white men who are already treated as 'experts' in some related field, jump in to the spotlight, assuming that expertise applies where it doesn't.
posted by latkes at 5:15 PM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]


The mask thing has been really intersting to watch. I'm a nurse! But my own assumptions about this have shifted a lot over the last few months.

At first I objected to people using N95s. There's limited evidence this is airborne and as mentioned above, to be effective they must be fitted to your face. I was retweeting people who were saying the sane policy is surgical masks only in the healthcare setting (except for aerosolizing procedures). But as I've watched my fellow health workers being routinely denied PPE, and subsequently getting sick and dying, it's became very clear that 'safety guidelines' for health workers are following supply constraints, not the true need. First federal guidelines degraded, and now California, which has a much stronger OSHA program, also loosened safety guidelines. This is backward. We should be harnessing the supply chain, not just pretending things are safe that aren't.

As far as public masking, I definitely had an irrational bias against it. I found it uncomfortable emotionally, to see people with their faces covered! I have totally gotten over that in the last month, in part due to Tufekçi's advocacy. The reality is we don't know for sure the impact of public masking, but there is enough evidence that it helps, especially in reducing asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread that it's obviously the best public health policy, given what we know now. Almost no US born North American public health experts would have said that in February.
posted by latkes at 5:22 PM on April 22, 2020 [24 favorites]


One thing about masks, is there is not that much doubt about the science and the "facts".

That is to say, N95 and such-like masks provide very good protection when used properly. That makes them absolutely essential in situations like working day in and day out with who have or potentially have the virus. But--they are currently in very short supply.

Also, they don't work nearly as well for the general population as there is a complex and very important set of testing procedures and protocols to adhere to when using this type of mask. If you're not going to follow those protocols and procedures--and the average person has no way to do so even if they would like to--then there is little utility in using this type of mask.

Cloth masks made out of everyday materials provide some degree of protection, ranging between barely helpful at all to stopping maybe 75% or maybe even 80% particles similar in size to CV19.

Pretty much every study on the various type of homemade masks comes to the same conclusion: N95 (& similar) masks work; cloth masks work partially at best. So in a medical setting use N95 masks and never use cloth masks as they are pretty well guaranteed to fail. But . . . even in a medical setting, if you're absolutely out of N95 masks then you might consider cloth masks as a last resort as they do seem to be better than nothing.

So I don't think there is substantial disagreement on any of those basic facts.

Also as far as I am aware there is no definitive study showing that population-wide wearing of cloth masks will reduce the transmission of a virus-born disease in that population. (If such a thing exists I would love to see it.) So as far as definitive evidence "this works for the general population" there is something of a vacuum.

So there are the the facts and also a central issue which lacks definitive evidence.

So where there IS disagreement is in how to translate these proven or accepted facts along with a very important area of very incomplete information into a coherent public health recommendation for the general public.

The larger point I'm driving at is that this is the type of area where the public health authorities "fall down". It is precisely the area where results are mixed, inconclusive, or incomplete. You're going to get no recommendation, a tentative recommendation, or maybe shifting recommendations as evidence and calculations as to relative risk change.

This is, to a great degree, how science and actual research works.

Where the "ding-dong experts" fall down is in the opposite place--they rush in with great confidence to make recommendations in areas where they are literally too ignorant to even understand how wrong they are.

TLDR: Actual medical and scientific experts and Dunning-Krueger-style "experts" can both be wrong and both change their recommendations for various reasons.

But it's a real false equivalence to then draw the conclusion that neither knows what they are talking about.
posted by flug at 5:32 PM on April 22, 2020 [28 favorites]


> When I saw the topic I thought this would be a more unifying thread than it's turned out to be.

One thing we can definitely conclude is that a worldwide pandemic, massive changes in the economy, layoffs, etc, and a month or more of stay-at-home/isolation/quarantine has frayed everyone's nerves quite a bit.
posted by flug at 5:36 PM on April 22, 2020 [22 favorites]


You forgot the part where Epstein says "I'm not a lawyer. I'm a law professor."
posted by JackFlash at 5:38 PM on April 22, 2020 [6 favorites]


I don't think that's the case at all because, as noted above, experts in countries other than the US have been advising mask use since day 1. We should have been doing the same without question.

up here in Canada where we've certainly done better with regard to Covid-19 than the US of A (so far), it was only in the past two weeks that our top medical officer finally, officially recommended wearing a mask in public. All the reasons for the delay have already been covered in this thread. Foremost among them:

A. limited availability of masks,
B. confusion as to what kinds of masks are best, worst etc
C. concern that wearing masks might give people a false sense of security

But in the end, the success of mask use elsewhere (any kind being better than none at all) seems to have swung the decision. So far, the fallout in response to this "indecision" seems to have been fairly muted but it will be interesting to see how this all gets discussed in future.
posted by philip-random at 5:39 PM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


There's also the president and Executive Branch's downplayed, vague, and conflicting messages that was the result of Trump himself, a lack of preparation, and the factional infighting he's had simmering since he was elected. I think that weakened any chance of a unified message and created a vacuum that both had independent and state actors to try to fill the gap and allowed bad actors to come in.
posted by FJT at 5:39 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


Also, they don't work nearly as well for the general population as there is a complex and very important set of testing procedures and protocols to adhere to when using this type of mask.

You're stating that definitively but isn't the truth closer to what you said later; we don't know how well they work for the general population when they haven't been fit tested because there haven't been widescale studies?

Note that the testing procedure is as you say relatively complex but the actual fitting procedure is easy and straightforward. You can see videos of it for, say, the 3M 1860 n95 health care respirators on Youtube. It's basically "hold the mask to your face, move the straps into place while doing so, then adjust the nosepiece with both hands and not one hand." That's the entire fitting procedure.

Will lots of people do it correctly? Probably not. But we don't, so far as I am aware, actually know that "they don't work nearly as well for the general population" given the goal is to reduce community spread rather than near-complete protection for an individual health care worker as used in that setting.
posted by Justinian at 5:47 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]


I'm an epiphytologist, so I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not qualified to have opinions on, like, *animals*. However, I do have to wear N95 masks, and I do work in a BSL-3 lab, so I wasn't bothered by the mask advice. I understood the caveats.

Still, it's really strange to see disease progress curves all over the front pages. It's horrifying to see it with humans and not carrots.
posted by acrasis at 5:54 PM on April 22, 2020 [19 favorites]


Yeah, I'm still wearing my 3M dust mask for the weekly grocery trip tomorrow, and will be happy if 90% of the people in the stores are wearing some sort of mask...
posted by Windopaene at 5:55 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


*fistbumps acrasis* Day to day, I do like.... effects of adipose signaling on the brain and acoustic analysis of signals kinds of stuff; I have no real special expertise in infectious disease either. But having worn n95s all the time (we're BSL-2, but the IACUC is convinced all our animals have hantavirus unless confirmed otherwise)... I wasn't really bothered by expert advice on masks when the advice really was "don't wear them, please" because of concerns about people eroding self-isolation after feeling safe. (And I don't think masks should make anyone feel safe, frankly, because mask protocol among the general population is appallingly bad and it makes me twitch on the rare occasions I've been able to venture outside recently.) I was worried about supply issues early and I wanted to reserve masks for people who knew how to use them.

On the other hand, I was also very okay with the cost-benefit calculus that swung over to "actually, you know what? go ahead and wear home-made masks, would you?" later on, in the hopes that droplets would escape from apparently-healthy-potentially-infected folks less frequently. I think those ideas took longer to occur to our epidemiologists, too! And it's...

...look, do you have any idea how badly the CDC and the WHO have been financially struggling these past four years? Eight years, really, because I remember the sequester and how bad it scared my roommate from college who had gone on to work for the CDC before starting her PhD on hemorrhagic fevers; she was just... without pay for two weeks, and that kept on fucking happening.

Slow response to crisis from scientists is what happens when you live in a country that periodically defunds us, undermines our stability, refuses to support us, and refuses to invest in basic research infrastructure. The confusion about masks is, essentially, a crumbling bridge collapse. Without upkeep, our institutions don't function. Why is this a surprise, and why on earth are scientists expected to also be PR geniuses as well as research experts? Is our work important? Well, why can't we fund some science communicators to do clear communication? That's supposed to be the job of both the CDC and the WHO, but when the money isn't there... who does the job?
posted by sciatrix at 6:29 PM on April 22, 2020 [60 favorites]


I'd like some masks with "Slow response to crisis from scientists is what happens when you live in a country that periodically defunds science" printed on them.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:41 PM on April 22, 2020 [26 favorites]


The new Steak-umm Bless Blue FPP has a very relevant contribution to this discussion:
outliers attempting to counter global consensus around this pandemic with amateur reporting or unverified sourcing are not collecting data. breaking news stories that only relay initial findings of an event are not collecting data. we have to be careful in our media consumption

it can be difficult to know what to believe in a time when institutional trust is diminished and the gatekeepers of information have been dismantled, but it's more crucial now than ever before to follow a range of credentialed sources for both breaking news and data collection

all we currently have are limited and evolving metrics that experts are deciphering and acting upon immediately to the best of their ability. this terrain leaves many openings for opportunists and charismatic manipulators to lead people astray by exploiting what they want to hear
posted by sjswitzer at 7:25 PM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


I keep thinking about certainty. People want some level of certainty - especially in a crisis. The problem is certainty is very, very rare - to the point it's debatable if certainty is really achievable in a practical way.

Science and these various "experts in stuff" both operate in uncertain environments, but treat uncertainty in totally opposite ways.

Science seeks to minimize uncertainty. They show that such and such a conclusion follows from a data set and is reproducible - but then list all the caveats they can think of. The idea is the next researcher will dig into those caveats and slowly remove a few of them. Eventually, only a couple trace set of unknowns remain and the conclusions are accepted as scientifically sound enough we can call them "true" in colloquial speech.

Experts in stuff, on the other hand, use uncertainty as a means to an end, so they generally try to increase it. Since science shows its cards with regards to uncertainty, they can always argue a reasonable level of skepticism of science. Then they can turn around and present some alternative facts and arguments about their own position on the matter. The idea isn't about the next researcher, or a process to eliminate uncertainty, it's simply to be convincing. They don't care if they are right - only if they are perceived as right.

This is why these "experts" can be so troubling to deal with. They'll stake a claim against anything, as long as it gets them to their goal. Sometimes it's just to be respected, but sometimes it can be much darker.
posted by elwoodwiles at 7:45 PM on April 22, 2020 [14 favorites]


I vaguely recall Redditors getting on the hunt for someone (the Unabomber?)

There have been several but you're probably thinking of when they pinned the Boston Marathon bombing on a missing person who was later found dead (presumably by suicide).

(Reddit wasn't around for the Unabomber.)
posted by atoxyl at 10:20 PM on April 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


> Will lots of people do it correctly? Probably not. But we don't, so far as I am aware, actually know that "they don't work nearly as well for the general population" given the goal is to reduce community spread rather than near-complete protection for an individual health care worker as used in that setting.

My goal here isn't to re-litigate the whole mask/no mask argument.

Rather it's to make the much larger point that we could and likely should forgive a scientist or agency--especially an extremely underfunded and overall neglected one, as sciatrix points out--for not having an exact policy worked out in an area where the evidence is thin and somewhat contradictory. And where things like cultural mores and the ability or inability of the general public to more-or-less adhere to various protocols and practices is as important as the actual science or studies in the area.

Above I asked for any study or evidence that the public wearing masks actually helps and here are the studies that Dr Tufekci links in her article NYTimes op-ed about mask wearing, linked above: #1. SAGE Journals, #2. Annals of Internal Medicine.

In one small study, the mask-wearing looks modestly promising. In the other (also small) the mask-wearing + hand-washing group actually did worse then the hand-washing-alone group. Both did a little better than the "do-nothing" group. But--none of those effects rose to statistical significance (again, it was a very small study). Both studies are nice starting point/pilot study type things and suggest more research is needed and that if that further research is done, one or more of the interventions might actually be proven effective. But neither is anything close to a sterling and unequivocal positive result or recommendation for mask wearing.

Point is, this is where scientific advice gets a bit muddled or can go either way--when the facts themselves are far from clear.

RE: the fitting of masks that you mention, part of the issue is the physicians, medical workers, and such know the masks in the context of careful fitting and testing. If the fitting fails, you can't use it. Because in the medical situation, having those leaks and breaches of fitting protocol is disastrous.

Disastrous in the sense of, if the fitting fails you're very likely to become infected with something you really, really don't want to be infected with.

And based on the little reading I've done on fit tests (would be happy to have someone knowledgeable about this jump in), some very large proportion of the general population who just slap a mask on would totally fail a fit test. 60%? 75%? 90%? 95% would fail? Something like that.

So from the perspective of someone planning to work for a few weeks in a ward full of patients with some highly contagious disease, those people wearing non-fitting masks are all "fails" who might as well not be wearing a mask at all.

My point there is again not to re-litigate the mask issue but rather to point out that it can be a bit hard for scientists and medical workers who are used to thinking about mask usage in those rather black & white terms to switch over to thinking more along the lines "Aha, the public wearing these masks isn't going to totally prevent the virus from transferring to or from this person. Rather the goal is to reduce transmission among members of the public by 1% or 2% or maybe 5% or maybe 0.5% and even though it almost certainly won't pass a fit test at all, the mask as worn by the general public might indeed work for that purpose. Even though we don't know for sure maybe that is a bet worth making now."

Finally, everyone seems to be extremely upset the someone or some agency didn't recommend mask wearing by everyone and their pet starting on day 1 of the Covid-19 situation.

But I'll tell you, if the CDC had come out in December with the recommendation that everyone in the U.S. wear a mask to prevent the spread of flu this year, they would have literally been laughed out of the country and definitely would have been completely ignored.

Part of the calculation that has changed is, we're turning our lives and our jobs and our businesses and our schools and our economies upside down to try to prevent the spread of this virus, so why not wear a mask, too--it might help a little and also it's a very, very small additional thing to do on top of everything else we're doing to stop it.

That sort of massive shift in public attitude is exactly what science can't really help out with, and it's pretty hard to blame scientists or even the CDC for not being able to predict that public opinion and acceptance of this would change so dramatically in such a short time.

Point is, there are probably far more productive targets for our anger around CV19 issues than scientists who gave a somewhat muddled recommendation on a somewhat muddled, difficult, and unclear issue that involves a lot more than just scientific facts.

Coming back to the actual topic of this post:

Recommendations of scientists and health agencies are not and should not be immune from criticism and discussion.

But those good-faith, science-backed recommendations are in a vastly, vastly different category from those of the dilettante know-nothing advice givers who are the subject of the article linked in this post--a category so different that we really should not be discussing the the two things together at all.

They are not the same thing or even closely related things.
posted by flug at 11:01 PM on April 22, 2020 [23 favorites]


atoxyl, I only agree with daveliepmann partially here, going by what it seems people think my views are. The dynamics of a thread like this can make it seem like I'm an anti-WHO crusader, which I'm not. I'm actually making quite a narrow and mainstream claim, which I think is best described by Not A Thing's insightful distinction:

...we talk about whether we should leave "this" to the experts. The OP isn't so much about nonexperts working things out for themselves by applying critical thinking to the best available information -- something that I imagine we can agree is as necessary as it is challenging -- but specifically about people like R. Epstein arrogating unearned "expert" status to themselves.

I agree strongly. My concern is that the term "armchair epidemiologist" encourages an unjustified backlash against the former instead of the latter. Early adopters of masks and self-quarantine, early sharers of models, anyone visualizing the data independently, folks who point out policy inconsistencies and shortcomings — these all qualify under the now-meme-level phrase. That's not who we want to target with our ire and derision, is it?

It's cathartic to play the blame game indiscriminately, but I'd prefer a term that distinguishes better between Pueyo and Tüfekçi on the one hand (who, again, are clear examples of armchair epidemiologists, and yet they did great work that we should laud, not vilify) and stubbornly wrong anti-experts like Epstein, anti-vaxxers, and miracle-cure hawkers on the other.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:00 AM on April 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


Yeah amateur science is fine, and I think part of what makes an Enlightened civilization. What's not fine is bad amateur science.

The idea that only expert in X can openly talk about X is not my experience of how science actually works... It's like a TV caricature of science, filmed using a classist/neoliberal/bureaucratic lens filter.

That is, to do science, your credentials do not matter. The quality of your ideas does, and if it's bad quality, and manipulative of others' time and attention, then maybe that behavior should be viewed badly and boundaries have to be drawn. Dunning is clear that all people, including scientists, are vulnerable so we need to help each other out on this more, by practicing intellectual humility.
posted by polymodus at 12:13 AM on April 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


acrasis: "It's horrifying to see it with humans and not carrots."

QFT
posted by chavenet at 1:16 AM on April 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


A lot of "armchair epidemiologists" wrote important pieces at critical points in time the past few months, convincing people in power to do better. Zeynep Tufekçi wasn't a credentialed expert, yet she was one of the first and loudest voices in the West arguing for the use of masks. And she was prominently disagreeing with the most credentialed organization in this production, the WHO! Tomas Pueyo's articles explained the statistics and public health strategies in a helpful way to a large audience. These kinds of armchair epidemiology are a good thing, because they democratize the understanding of the situation and bring us all in as fully clued-in members of the team fighting this problem.

I think we can distinguish between several categories here:

1) Credentialed experts
2) People who are not credentialed but who have developed expertise through other means
3) People who understand the principles and mechanisms of science but who have no specific background (i.e. understands what a clinical trial is, knows what an exponential curve is)
a) such people with an important skill in communication who can communicate ideas to the public
b) people without such skills
4) People who are clueless about both the specifics and the general principles of science and medicine

Obviously our leaders should be taking their guidance from people in category 1. Category 2 includes people like Bill Gates and Laurie Garrett (who started a PhD in immunology but has been a journalist for decades).

I've pointed out errors in Tomas Pueyo's work in the past (and I'm not an expert either) but I would put him in category 3a as a communicator.

I think a lot of engineers and physicists are in category 3b but think they are in category 3a (everyone must listen to my opinions on the latest research) or category 2 (I have unique insights of my own to contribute).

A lot of what we've been arguing about in this thread is about distinctions between 1 & 2 and people have rightly pointed out that you don't need credentials to do science. What you do need is knowledge.

Physicists have made contributions to many other areas of science, but pretty critically all those people spent quite a lot of time learning the material first, they didn't just decide to opine.
posted by atrazine at 1:46 AM on April 23, 2020 [7 favorites]


Adding on to sciatrix' point, the fields that (IME) have a bad habit of members believing they are experts in other fields (physics, economics, engineering) are dominated by men. Epidemiology is closer to 50/50, and junior epidemiologists are mostly women. Other people have made the point that the public health experts who we are seeing are nearly all women (at least, in Canada nearly all of the top public health officials (other than Quebec's) are women). I do not think this is coincidental.

Also from what I have observed, people believe that masks will protect them, and are modifying their behaviour in response ("I will do this risky thing but I'll wear a mask"), and are using them badly (I'm awful at it). I think that's entirely predictable and nearly all of the reason why officials have been reluctant to endorse mask wearing. Again, I'm only speaking about Canada because that's the media I've been consuming, but one fault of the official messaging has been a bent towards paternalism.
posted by quaking fajita at 5:24 AM on April 23, 2020 [8 favorites]


Adding on to sciatrix' point, the fields that (IME) have a bad habit of members believing they are experts in other fields (physics, economics, engineering) are dominated by men.



I thought this was kind of funny making that same point, tangentially, ie: that epidemiologists and scientists are not experts at IT Security, about a hack by Right Wing Terrorists of the WHO, CDC, and other groups:

"According to the Washington Post, Robert Potter, chief executive of Australian company Internet 2.0, verified that the WHO email addresses and passwords were real and was able to gain access into WHO computers using those credentials. “Their password security is appalling. Forty-eight people have ‘password’ as their password,” Potter told the Washington Post"
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:38 AM on April 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


It was the Boston Marathon Bomber, Joe in Australia (they caught Ted Kaczinski in 1996, almost ten years before Reddit even existed).

Ooop on preview what atoxyl said
posted by aspersioncast at 9:11 AM on April 23, 2020


No experts said "masks were useless with this virus".

I know time dilation is getting pretty bad these days, but this representative article was published just three weeks ago: Should you wear mask in public if not sick with coronavirus? (Lauren Neergaard, AP, 31 Mar 2020):
“[T]here is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit,” Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s epidemics chief, told reporters Monday.
Dr. Ryan's statement is precise and I believe it was factually correct when he made it. The quoted text definitely does not say "masks are useless". I understand that this point is probably lost on the general public and it speaks to the communication challenges alluded to in this thread. For my own part, I interpreted statements like this as "masks probably don't help" and I acted accordingly.

In this thread we have identified at least two risks in widespread mask usage: people might believe that the masks protect them and be less careful, and it could result in a mask shortage. In light of risks like that whose impact is hard to predict and which could make the situation worse, I don't fault experts for sticking to the facts.
posted by jomato at 9:36 AM on April 23, 2020 [8 favorites]


Facts aren’t recommendations, though, and simply “stating the facts” doesn’t necessarily accomplish what we expect from public health orgs, and just stating the facts forced people to draw their own conclusions (like the folks in the Covid threads on this site that were adamant that a mask in the hands of an untrained civilian was basically “radioactive” in terms of danger).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:42 AM on April 23, 2020 [5 favorites]


And based on the little reading I've done on fit tests (would be happy to have someone knowledgeable about this jump in), some very large proportion of the general population who just slap a mask on would totally fail a fit test. 60%? 75%? 90%? 95% would fail? Something like that.

Having taken a fit test, I would like to point out that they expect failure from people who come in for one. First you put on a big hood like this one and a bitter chemical is pumped in, and you confirm you can smell it. (It is gross.) Then you put on your n95 mask and the fit tester peers at it to make sure you knew to pinch the nose piece closed and that there aren't any obvious gaps. Then you put the hood back and they pump in the bitter smelling stuff again. If you can detect it at all, they take the hood away and you re-adjust. Sometimes they tell you you need a smaller mask than what you're wearing.

The whole process is troubleshooting until you work out exactly where to pinch and how to adjust the damn things so that an airtight seal actually is being created and know what that feels like. I would say that 95% incorrect fitting on an n95 without a fit test is probably about right--and that's not even touching what the general public is currently doing.

I see a lot of people wearing masks without their noses being covered, which at best does jack shit. I see a lot of people dropping masks to dangle around their heads when they think they're "safe", which is also a bad idea from the perspective of wearing a mask as PPE for bioagents--if the mask is contaminated, not only have you destroyed the "safe" vs "dirty" airtight barrier but also now you're holding the contaminated, dirty mask up close to your mouth, so if you weren't already infected and there's infectious material on the mask, it has a better shot of getting picked up. I see a lot of reused masks, which blows my mind from a PPE best practices perspective (although obviously, we are not in best practices territory anymore, and won't be for a long time).

Now, all of this is still thinking about mask wearing to protect the wearer not the people around said wearer. That is no longer where and why we are wearing masks. But North American health professionals will be used to thinking about masks and PPE exactly as I am, because we culturally have not used masks to protect people around us in the same way that they are used in East Asian countries, and that adjustment in thinking takes a minute. *shrugs* That's what I meant about keeping people strung out and underfunded and deprived of resources, though. If you are constantly trying to justify your relevance and funding, it's hard to pause and really re-work your thinking to accommodate big shifts in perspective and changes in framing. High pressure does not make good science.
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on April 23, 2020 [19 favorites]


Facts aren’t recommendations, though, and simply “stating the facts” doesn’t necessarily accomplish what we expect from public health orgs, and just stating the facts forced people to draw their own conclusions

(this is not directed at you, a box a and stick.)

I think one of the communication or public perception issues that we have is the idea that an expert should always have a clear answer to important questions. What I recall hearing—and what Dr. Ryan seems to be saying in the quote upthread—is "we are not recommending that people use face masks at this time". I'm a former government statistician myself, and the distinction between "we are not recommending X" and "we are recommending not X" is clear as day, but I know that's not a universal.

I wish more people appreciated a scientist being clear about what they know and don't know, because then maybe people would listen when there was a decisive scientific consensus. Instead, I think a lot of people prefer a non-expert to loudly say what is "obviously" true, evidence or no, and they will use the benefit of hindsight to validate this way of thinking.
posted by jomato at 2:15 PM on April 23, 2020 [3 favorites]


I see a lot of reused masks, which blows my mind from a PPE best practices perspective (although obviously, we are not in best practices territory anymore, and won't be for a long time).

Yeah. Hospitals are reusing disposable masks right now though so....

(I'm still trying to figure out if there's any reasonable way to sanitize a "disposable" N95 at home.)

But North American health professionals will be used to thinking about masks and PPE exactly as I am, because we culturally have not used masks to protect people around us in the same way that they are used in East Asian countries, and that adjustment in thinking takes a minute.

I agree with most of what you say and I'm not, like, a mask truther but there are a few reasons the muddled recommendations bother me:

a.) I don't really expect doctors to be thinking so much in terms of "lowering this coefficient by 10% might translate to thousands of lives saved" but isn't that exactly the domain of the field of public health?

b.) there's a certain arrogance in being so dismissive of what is customary in other countries.

c.) everyone seemed to agree immediately that there were going to have to be categories of people who would continue working in contact with the public, and yet we didn't think to ask the public to take small steps to protect these people?

(b) and (c) just seem like they don't reflect well on our society in general.
posted by atoxyl at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2020 [8 favorites]


I think one of the communication or public perception issues that we have is the idea that an expert should always have a clear answer to important questions. What I recall hearing—and what Dr. Ryan seems to be saying in the quote upthread—is "we are not recommending that people use face masks at this time". I'm a former government statistician myself, and the distinction between "we are not recommending X" and "we are recommending not X" is clear as day, but I know that's not a universal.

I wish more people appreciated a scientist being clear about what they know and don't know, because then maybe people would listen when there was a decisive scientific consensus.


But he's not being clear about what he knows and doesn't know. He's being deliberately unclear because his professional norms constrain him to only say "it's not recommended" whenever there are no high-quality RCTs showing that using crappy masks in a pandemic improves outcomes, and to refrain from otherwise sharing his knowledge.

Suppose my neighbor's stove is on fire, and they knock on my door and ask me whether I have a working fire extinguisher, and I say "I don't know." I have a fire extinguisher under my sink, but I have never tested it or looked at it since I put it there, and I am well aware that it's common for fire extinguishers to fail or degrade over time. So it's definitely true that I don't know whether it works. But I sure am not doing my neighbor any favors, because my neighbor's goal is not to never believe any false things. My neighbor's goal is to decrease the probability that his stove continues to be on fire.

Believe me, I get that if you are Dr. Ryan, and reporters are asking you on behalf of your professional organization whether people should wear masks, it's Not Done to go out on a limb and start telling them some opinion based on studies that might not be right, or might not apply to this situation. But if he doesn't ever tell them any of that, who else is supposed to? How else do you expect people to actually decide? Do you want them to flip a coin? Do you want them to do whatever they feel like?
posted by value of information at 4:01 PM on April 23, 2020 [15 favorites]


That is an excellent way to put it, voi, and is a great breakdown of the information flow problems that we've experienced over the past several months.
posted by Justinian at 4:19 PM on April 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


Believe me, I get that if you are Dr. Ryan, and reporters are asking you on behalf of your professional organization whether people should wear masks, it's Not Done to go out on a limb and start telling them some opinion based on studies that might not be right, or might not apply to this situation. But if he doesn't ever tell them any of that, who else is supposed to? How else do you expect people to actually decide? Do you want them to flip a coin? Do you want them to do whatever they feel like?

I mean, I don't know that, in that moment, we would have wanted someone in that position to do. The evidence was unclear, and while there was certainly an idea that masks had helped in other countries, there's a lot of confounding variables there, like people having access to masks and having some experience in wearing them approximately correctly. It's not clear to me that, at that time, saying "we think masks might be helpful" wouldn't have led to more harm, as more PPE was grabbed up and misused, and more panic was caused by people trying to get masks in an attempt to protect themselves, when there was never (and still is not) any good evidence that masks protect the wearer (in this context).

For that matter, I still think the main point that hasn't gotten across is that masks are for other people. I think this message has been stated pretty clearly by the scientific and public health communities at this point, but I don't see the media running with it at all. I'm not clear on what changes could be easily made to fix this problem, but I don't think, at its heart, it's a problem with public health organizations.
posted by thegears at 4:49 PM on April 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


Vox ran a piece yesterday on how six senators are pushing for changes to law enforcement policy at news that -- and this will shock you -- black men are facing police harassment for wearing and not wearing masks.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:17 PM on April 23, 2020 [8 favorites]


This BMJ editorial has good guidance for experts and armchair experts about how to think about using models in the context of a novel and deadly disease.
posted by latkes at 10:39 PM on April 23, 2020


Folks in this thread are engaging in some simply ahistorical defenses of public health officials' lateness on this.

North American health professionals will be used to thinking about masks and PPE exactly as I am...that adjustment in thinking takes a minute.

Dr. Ryan's statement is precise... I understand that this point is probably lost on the general public and it speaks to the communication challenges alluded to in this thread.

...this ['masks are for other people'] message has been stated pretty clearly by the scientific and public health communities at this point, but I don't see the media running with it at all.

I don't know that, in that moment, we would have wanted someone in that position to do. The evidence was unclear...


I guess it bears repeating that Tüfekçi explained all of this, with nuance and clarity suitable for the lay public, in the New York Times on March 17. That's two weeks – two weeks! – before the WHO video saying "don't wear a mask unless you have symptoms". She covers asymptomatic cases, she covers homemade masks, she covers the question of shortages. She solved the communication challenge. How do folks look at the plain facts — journalists and early tech adopters were leading on this weeks before health officials — and conclude that the problem is armchair epidemiology?

Once we dismiss the idea that nobody knew about the utility of homemade masks until the end of March, it's instructive to look critically at the second stage of excuses, specifically, the shape of arguments in defense of public health officials' foot-dragging. The argument goes, "it was important for technocratic elites to lie to the public about matters of health in order to prevent a shortage of supplies for which they were responsible but had not prepared." That's...not as persuasive an argument as I think folks think it is? "We were only deceiving you through omission, we didn't actually lie" is not the kind of cohesion-building statement I want from leaders during a crisis where success relies on widespread public trust. Remember, the CDC waited on this about the same as the WHO. How much of that delay is attributable to the Trump administration not even ordering masks and ventilators until mid-March? We're talking about a CDC that denied requests for, and then shut down, an attempt by Dr. Chu in Seattle to track the virus in late January through February.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:53 AM on April 24, 2020 [10 favorites]


I know the mask thing is getting harped on a lot in this thread but I believe that's because it's one of the best examples of why there's been so much armchair epidemiology going on. The leadership in the USA (and some other places obviously) has failed us and in the absence of competent health officials you can trust, the public will do the best they can with the information they have or can find online.

I mean, how much do you trust Deborah Birx at this point? If the answer is "at all" I don't know how you could reach that conclusion. How about Azar? Redfield? If you can't trust the head of the task forcing fighting the pandemic, you can't trust the head of HHS, you can't trust the CDC, you can't trust the Surgeon General, and you can't trust the President... well that is not optimal? Sure, there are other experts you can trust online. People like those of us reading this thread are likely to know which we can and cannot believe. But a random person on the street who isn't following it as closely as we are? That's probably different.

So, yeah, criticize the armchair epidemiologists. But the reason that's happening is that we manifestly cannot trust the health officials we should be able to trust and are looking elsewhere to fill that vacuum.
posted by Justinian at 6:06 AM on April 24, 2020 [14 favorites]


For that matter, I still think the main point that hasn't gotten across is that masks are for other people. I think this message has been stated pretty clearly by the scientific and public health communities at this point, but I don't see the media running with it at all. I'm not clear on what changes could be easily made to fix this problem, but I don't think, at its heart, it's a problem with public health organizations.

Honestly I expect mask usage in the US would go down significantly if more people understood that the primary beneficiaries of their own mask wearing are others.
posted by PMdixon at 6:19 AM on April 24, 2020 [6 favorites]


The primary beneficiary of mask wearing is anyone interested in pushing down this asshole virus's Rt enough so that we have a chance at seeing our friends this year.
posted by daveliepmann at 7:42 AM on April 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


what is happening? This guy sounds like Trump. Trump sounds like this guy. And both of them sound like the guy in the paint store I talked to in the end of February who said that Covid-19 was like the flu (I pointed out the mortality rate appeared to be higher and there is no vaccine. He frowned at me as if he had never been called on his bullshit before). The lack of education/ability to reason soundly/common sense in the USA is frightening. We are a country in decline.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:59 AM on April 24, 2020


You know, I was looking at Zeynep Tufekci's twitter today, and although I think she in incredibly smart with many great ideas and positions, she is also consistently overreaching her knowledge base.

I think she is doing what many other experts in epidemiology-adjacent fields are doing: over-reach of her actual understanding base. One difference I am noting consistently between the armchair epidemiologists and the actual epidemiologists and front line physicians I follow: the non-specialists are willing to express much more confidence and less humility in the face of the numerous unknowns of COVID 19. There is a conservatism around expressing certainty among the real experts. This has downsides (slow response to changing evidence around mask use, as mentioned above), but also many benefits (not saying shit that turns out to be fucking wrong as hell)

While Tufekci has great instincts, I think she also has the potential to cause harm with her frequent tweets. Part of this is the medium: In a long form piece you can contextualize your perspective with the caveats of your non-specialist background. You take more time to metabolize new information and incorporate it into a bigger picture thesis. You can place your own ideas within the context of divergent perspectives more easily.
posted by latkes at 9:08 AM on April 24, 2020 [6 favorites]


For that matter, I still think the main point that hasn't gotten across is that masks are for other people. I think this message has been stated pretty clearly by the scientific and public health communities at this point, but I don't see the media running with it at all.

I think "speaking moistly" got this across very effectvely.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:03 AM on April 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


I guess it bears repeating that Tüfekçi explained all of this, with nuance and clarity suitable for the lay public, in the New York Times on March 17. That's two weeks – two weeks! – before the WHO video saying "don't wear a mask unless you have symptoms". She covers asymptomatic cases, she covers homemade masks, she covers the question of shortages. She solved the communication challenge.

I don't see her address one of the biggest questions which is whether mask usage in the general population would lead people to take bigger risks contacting other people that would offset the benefits of wearing masks. I think it's still an open question whether a public policy of recommending mask use will actually reduce the overall transmission rate.

Nor does she address flug's point that if the CDC had told everyone in December to wear masks, nobody would have done it. That public mask wearing is culturally weird in the USA compared with the places where it seems to have been successful. That it is only after a month of lockdown that mask-wearing seems, in comparison, like a reasonable step to a lot of Americans. (And again, who knows how many of those people are seeing masks as a pass to go out and do stuff they shouldn't do even with a mask?)
posted by straight at 5:11 PM on April 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


I can definitely see a scenario where if the CDC had come out at the beginning telling everyone we need to wear masks and practice social distancing, that a lot of people would have decided to interpret that as wear masks OR practice social distancing.
posted by straight at 5:30 PM on April 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


There seems like the same amount of evidence for that scenario as for a scenario where they tell everyone we need to wash our hands and practice social distancing and a lot of people deciding to interpret that as wash our hands or practice social distancing.
posted by Justinian at 5:39 PM on April 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


You think these things are equally likely?

1. Some people would think washing their hands makes it safe to go out and mingle with people.

2. Some people would think wearing a mask makes it safe to go out and mingle with people.
posted by straight at 6:06 PM on April 24, 2020


Honestly I expect mask usage in the US would go down significantly if more people understood that the primary beneficiaries of their own mask wearing are others.

I don't. I'm afraid American reactions (secretly) would be "who cares about other people?". Not realizing that means everyone else's mask is for them. Then you just have the people who think they're special like the anti-vaxxers. If everyone else has a mask, then I'm protected with or without one, right?
posted by ctmf at 6:41 PM on April 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


I am a stalwart consequentialist, but I think that it's very short-sighted to claim that a good consequentialist way to communicate with people is to try to say whatever you think will manipulate them into taking the optimal action this week.
posted by value of information at 6:46 PM on April 24, 2020 [7 favorites]


An epidemiologist is not your doctor. Her job is not to give you advice about how to protect your health. Her job is to try to figure out, "If the CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask, will fewer people die?"
posted by straight at 7:05 PM on April 24, 2020 [5 favorites]


I am a stalwart consequentialist, but I think that it's very short-sighted to claim that a good consequentialist way to communicate with people is to try to say whatever you think will manipulate them into taking the optimal action this week.

I think that's a really uncharitable reading of what some posters have been saying.

Going into anecdata for a second: I'm a teacher who's currently communicating with students online a lot these days. Most of my students are better consumers of media than their parents, from what I can see. I've pretty reliably come up against misconceptions like "masks are only for if you sneeze" and "masks prevent you from getting sick for sure" and "as long as you put gloves on it doesn't matter if you touch your face".

Against that background, it's really hard to make public statements that won't reliably be misunderstood. I think epidemiologists tend to be very conservative in their statements for exactly this reason, and maybe that's not working right now, but it's not an unreasonable professional norm.

I'm not saying that public health officials should talk down to the public, but they do need to consider the level of background knowledge the average member of the public has. Again, speaking as a teacher, there's good evidence that more than 95% of the American public doesn't understand statistics or probability on what is currently considered an eighth-grade level. I'm not saying that to impugn anyone except myself and other math teachers--we need to do a better job for sure! But trying, in a sound bite, to explain that masks have very little effect on any one person's health, and probably don't matter that much for any one exposure, but could make a big difference in the big picture, is going to be a really, really hard sell. I don't envy having to figure out how to do that.
posted by thegears at 6:04 AM on April 25, 2020 [7 favorites]


Public health people aren't -- generally -- trying to answer questions like, "Should you get a PSA test? Can you lose weight if you change your diet and exercise habits?" They're trying to answer questions like "If we recommend that people start getting their PSA tested at age 40 instead of 50, how will the number of lives saved from prostate cancer compare with the number of surgeries (and associated complications like impotence, incontinence, and death) done on people who, statistically, would have died of something else before having any prostate cancer symptoms? Do rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease change if doctors make these recommendations about diet and exercise to their patients?"
posted by straight at 6:39 AM on April 25, 2020 [4 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot more about these issues and something that's risen to the top of my thoughts today is how neither technocratic 'smartest boy in the room' twitter theorizors, nor established subject area experts, nor front line physicians, nor public health professionals are talking about the socio-economic policy factors that are worsening COVID, nor making real proposals to fix those factors.

The fact that long term care workers are largely un-benefited and making minimum wage is most assuredly a contributor to the nursing home death rate. If you can't take sick leave, you're forced to work two jobs to get by, and you have to live in crowded conditions with many other people, and you are provided with minimal training, you are for sure a disease vector. That may be a bigger factor than whether or not they are wearing masks (impossible to know). But I haven't seen the CDC or the online hobbyist disease modelers calling for mandatory paid leave or raising the minimum wage. This is treated as secondary or too complex to address. Or just ignored.

The employer based private insurance system and systemic defunding of public health infrastructure is largely to blame for the total failure of contact tracing in the US. But the only proposals I see to address this are siloed and privatized initiatives. I have seen no one shouting that we need to pour money into our county health departments right now.

Our imagination about the possibilities of changing fundamental inequalities and re-invigorating public institutions is so contracted. And the narrative that public institutions are total failures worsens this. (The CDC needs more democracy, more accountability, more contributions from more perspectives - especially those unrepresented in the organization now, but more than anything they need more money to be effective. They will probably never be as agile and fast as we would wish during a novel and fast moving pandemic, but having a centralized, publicly funded body to coordinate disease response is extremely important, even with it's inherent limitations.)

The way we see a crisis is so bounded by the little frame we view things through. And professional and armchair epidemiologists that I'm seeing seem to have a narrow window that ignores changeable socio-political factors.
posted by latkes at 9:18 AM on April 25, 2020 [11 favorites]


I posted this on FB, but I think it's relevant to the issue of armchair experts:

Trump's ramblings about injecting disinfectant or whatever make a lot more sense when you view him as the archetypal dumb-guy CEO who thinks his job is to yell at other people to figure shit out so he can make more money and that somehow that makes him the smartest guy in the room.

"This virus is costing me too much money, why haven't you figured it out yet? The Koreans can do it, why can't you?"

"Well, sir, the Koreans instituted social distancing--"

"I don't want to hear excuses about the damn Koreans! We're Americans, so why aren't we beating this thing like Americans? Look, this thing is a virus, right, and we use disinfectant to kill viruses at home, why don't we just use that to kill this?"

"Well, sir, that could be dangerous because--"

"Then figure it out, goddamnit! You're the eggheads, that's why I hired you! Do I have to do your jobs for you?"

"No, sir. Yes, sir. Of course, sir."

And whatever they come back with, it's all thanks to him and his great leadership.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:09 AM on April 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


The first excuse for his "injecting disinfectant" comments was that he was "being sarcastic." I've seen him making sarcastic comments and he wasn't, but whatever, let's play along.

Over 50,000 Americans have died of coronavirus. Why are you being sarcastic during a coronavirus briefing?

The second excuse was that he was just spitballing. He wasn't, but whatever, let's play along.

There's a time and place for a leader that's not a subject matter expert to toss out questions and hypotheticals. During a meeting before the briefing.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:26 AM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


I got into an argument with a coworker on our internal Slack-like substance yesterday after I linked to this excellent commentary about how there are too many scientific shortcuts being taken in the name of the urgency of the COVID-19 threat, with over-reliance on "armchair epidemiologists" being an example.

The coworker, a libertarian, of course, responded with some "weekend reading" in the form of this "analysis" from a behavioral economist, Federalist writer, and libertarian "think"-tanker. Essentially, he's trying to prove that lockdowns are ineffective, and that simply letting people voluntarily socially distance and "encouraging" "high-risk" groups to self-isolate is what has really worked in the fight against COVID-19. My coworker used this to make the argument that politicians locking down before proving that the lockdowns would work was itself a violation of the principle of letting the science decide.

Setting aside the silliness of conflating "what scientists should do" vs. "what governors should do", if you click through to the analysis and read the author's Twitter feed, you can see that he's basically working backwards from "anything government does can't be effective" to find a metric and a heuristic that can prove that the lockdowns didn't accomplish anything. He settles on a very restrictive definition of "lockdown" and a very particular time window, such that the data "proves" that deaths aren't greatly dependent on lockdowns.

Another economist weighed in (twitter, threadreader), citing his own preprint study that found that lockdowns greatly reduce the virus's growth rate. His main gripes with the "Lockdowns Don't Work" analysis were that deaths as a metric are likely undercounted, that deaths lag infections, and that focusing on deaths ignores morbidity. He stopped short of rejecting the hypothesis outright, but noted that even on its own terms, the most the analysis could say is that lockdowns haven't yet been proven to work, not that they don't work, which led to this ridiculous backtracking where he's suddenly admitting that he's just a lowly pundit, and not really pursuing a scientific understanding at all, which is the very worst of armchair epidemiology -- impersonating a scientist to undermine other scientists, then hiding under the cloak of free expression of ideas when it's shown that your interest isn't in the truth, but in advocating a point of view.

Anyway, I basically noped out of the conversation once it took a turn toward litigating whether the "immense harm" of unemployment and potentially bankrupted businesses was worth "delaying death for an unknown number of people". The loaded language of that was what finally made it clear that no productive conversation was possible, but I really should have just stopped at "the guy is citing a Federalist writer."
posted by tonycpsu at 12:24 PM on April 25, 2020 [8 favorites]


Nate Silver doing some armchair epidemiologizing but I think he's right: WHO needs to improve its communication on this. When they say “no evidence” they mean something like “no definitive proof, yet”. But the average person is going to read it as “there’s no immunity to coronavirus”, which is likely false and not a good summation of the evidence.

In reference to the WHO statement that there is currently no evidence that recovered patients with antibodies have any immunity.

Next Tweet: WHO has fucked this up on other issues too, such as masks. Definitive proof is hard to come by in the early stages of a new disease. So you have to work through priors, probabilities, incomplete evidence.

The problem is that as others have said, we're just not set up to provide the information that people need in an emergent situation where okay information now may well be better than perfect information later.
posted by Justinian at 1:47 PM on April 25, 2020 [6 favorites]


Late to this thread. Perhaps the only thing I can add at this point is the following.

We are probably all guilty of interpreting a statement like “there is an absence of evidence” as “there is evidence of absence” at one time or another. (I’ve done it.) People who communicate with the general public in particular need to understand the propensity of humans, especially those without scientific training, to make that illogical inference. Experts and persons in authority have a special responsibility to ensure that their correct pronouncements are interpreted correctly.
posted by haiku warrior at 5:04 PM on April 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


We are probably all guilty of interpreting a statement like “there is an absence of evidence” as “there is evidence of absence” at one time or another. (I’ve done it.)

We don't know enough to be experts, but we apparently know enough to decide between them.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:04 PM on April 27, 2020


The only useful definition of an expert is someone who people outside their discipline can recognize why they ought to have the most reliable knowledge about something. Usually that's going to be because most of the other people in the same discipline are pointing at them.
posted by straight at 6:01 PM on April 27, 2020


We are probably all guilty of interpreting a statement like “there is an absence of evidence” as “there is evidence of absence” at one time or another.

In this context, I don't think it's a misinterpretation. When the question on the floor is "should we X", the statement "there is no [...] evidence that X helps" is not some sort of abstract truth: the hearer will predictably, and for the most part correctly, infer that the speaker thinks X is a bad idea (or at least not a good one).

If a speaker intended a different meaning, they would say something like "there is no conclusive information that X is either helpful or harmful," or in this case "there is no conclusive evidence that X helps, but there is ample reason to think it may be helpful and won't be any worse than doing nothing". (If we really need to go into theory on this point, which I don't think we do, the Gricean maxims of quantity and relevance seem apposite.)

Hence these sorts of statements have been widely and IMO accurately interpreted as statements that masks are not effective.

It seems worth noting that the sort of anti-precautionary principle on display in the early WHO and CDC guidance , in which low-risk mitigation measures (like masks and distancing in this case) are actively discouraged until there is conclusive evidence that they work, comes out of a long and ugly trend in the subversion of environmental and public health policy. So I don't really think we need to impute a preternatural level of communicative incompetence to these political actors. They were simply following the programming that has been inculcated into the global leadership class for decades now.
posted by Not A Thing at 6:27 PM on April 27, 2020 [7 favorites]


That's probably right, Not A Thing. WHO is in the business of telling reluctant, skeptical governments and donors, "You really need to spend lots of money on X," so I'd think they would typically want to make sure they have scientific evidence for something they're going to recommend.
posted by straight at 1:35 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


It seems worth noting that the sort of anti-precautionary principle on display in the early WHO and CDC guidance , in which low-risk mitigation measures (like masks and distancing in this case) are actively discouraged until there is conclusive evidence that they work, comes out of a long and ugly trend in the subversion of environmental and public health policy.

Can you talk more about this?
posted by PMdixon at 6:58 AM on April 28, 2020


« Older Let's Chat About How Weird This Research Boat Is   |   The archaeological record is full of dog poop Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments