Using Science Wisely:
Models, Evidence and the Politics of COVID19


As attractive as it is to think that science exists on a distinctive, untarnished, untrammeled plane, this idealization is dangerously misleading. Science is carried out by real people, within complex social organizations. Debates about science—often civil, occasionally acrimonious—on methods and meaning are the rule.

Which is as it should be: That’s how knowledge advances.

Ignoring what scientists have to teach us about COVID-19 would be a mistake. The virus is not a “hoax.”

But it’s also a mistake to default to the idea that we must “listen to Science,” as if there’s an unambiguous perspective that all researchers share and that all scientific data are established with an equal degree of certainty. This isn’t how science views itself. So we shouldn’t view it that way, either.

Within the universe of the present pandemic, some information seems very well established—the identification of the virus responsible for the condition, for example. Other data, including some very important essential facts, aren’t as clear.

We need to recognize and acknowledge these limitations.

Some people see these limitations are reason not to trust any of the information that comes out of the scientific establishment. For them, the failure of models to perfectly predict the trajectory of the pandemic was enough. What we’ve learned, said New York Post columnist Miranda Devine, is that “computer models are unreliable when it comes to predicting the future.” Instead of relying on supposed experts and their supposed models, she says, we should instead “trust the innate common sense of the American people.”

But there are more responsible ways to understand the problems with modeling.

Respected biostatistician Ruth Etzioni, at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center in Seattle, recently wrote that the latest version of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model from the University of Washington “makes me cringe.” The changes revised the death projections significantly higher, and Etzioni argues that the modelers got there by making a number of obscure changes to the model, then presented these updates as reflecting simply the consequences of reduced social distancing.

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The Reasonable Person’s Guide to Coronavirus


So this is what we are hearing:

  • COVID-19 is a serious crisis and you need to keep away from people and stay at home.
  • Things are better and we are re-opening restaurants, stores, churches, and hair salons.
  • The death tolls are an underestimate.
  • The death tolls are exaggerated.
  • No need to wear masks, as they don’t help.
  • You should wear a mask.
  • 100,000 Americans will die.
  • Make that 50,000.
  • The virus doesn’t spread through the air easily.
  • Simply being near someone who is talking can give you the virus.
  • Young people are basically immune from serious infection.
  • Anyone can die from it.
  • Hydroxychloroquine and Zithromax will cure it.
  • No, those don’t work.
  • A vaccine is in development.
  • A vaccine might not be available until late 2021, and it might not work great.

You get my point. It’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It’s like the old joke about the weather: if you don’t like the weather here, just wait 5 minutes. So if you hear something that bothers you, just wait 5 minutes and you’ll hear the opposite opinion about COVID-19. Why is this? Why can’t we agree? Why are facts being replaced by opinions?

The Nature of Science

The first thing I want to sayis that the nature of science is to get things wrong a lot in the path to getting things right. Contrary to popular perception, science is not about finding one answer and sticking with it because it is “true.” No, science is about gathering data through observation and experimentation and coming up with the best explanation for that data. More data often means that old explanations don’t float any more, but that’s OK because eventually, over time, we get things more and more right and come to a (hopefully) more truthful and useful answer.

6 months ago we knew almost nothing about this virus. 3 months ago, most of us were more concerned about fires in Australia, about all the rain we were getting, and about the Astros cheating. Yes, people were sounding the alarm about the seriousness of the virus, but few foresaw what ended up happening. Nobody was pushing for a vaccine 6 months ago, nobody was looking for medications to treat this disease. Nobody was storing away masks or making emergency plans for ventilators.

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AI and the Decline and Fall of Human Intelligence


When my daughter Alex was in third grade she had the reigning Marin County (California) Teacher of Year. Her name escapes me (I’ll blame it on the chemo brain). The parents of all the kids in this Tiburon classroom were beside themselves with praise for her. Me … not so much. A big one thing I had a problem with was she encouraged the students to use calculators in her class. Her reason was that it would be good practice for real life – where no one did math long hand anymore. Well, I do.

Now I still use a calculator, but daily I make every effort to do math problems in my head. Percentages, grocery bill estimates, gas mileage … anything and everything. it’s something I’ve always done and probably always will. It’s cerebral exercise, and it’s something I’ve encouraged my daughter to do also. On road trips as a grade-schooler, she’d have to look at the mileage, take in account our speed, and determine when we’d get to the next stop. I don’t know if she liked it … but she did it anyway.

Now I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite. On the contrary, I self-taught myself how to program in college on FORTRAN 77 on my college’s IBM 360/370 (how many of you remember FORTRAN or a 360/370). I’d sneak in to the computer center at night and drop off my boxes of punch cards. I wasn’t so bright that I used a terminal like the other nocturnal geeks in training though. I used punch cards … and for a many months carried around my three boxes of 1400 cards.

I bought my first Mac in 1985 and I was transferring data online before there was an online. My first email address was at the Well in the San Francisco. In fact I gave Well email addresses for Christmas presents. Alexandria was raised on a Mac, and instead of going to college when she graduated high school … she went to Apple.

That said, I didn’t like the idea of supplanting the exercise of the brain for the exercise the fingers hitting the calculator buttons. And the excuse: “they’ll need to learn how to use a calculator in real life when they’re older” is lame. What they’ll need to learn is how to use their brain. And considering who this country elected as president – we’re in short supply of those that either can or will.

Now I’m not blaming calculators and their use in grade school for the clown in the White House and utter disintegration of the democracy before our very eyes … but then maybe I should. Maybe we should look it as a symptom … a touchstone of sorts, emblematic of how we view intellectual development in this country. I get the whole “recognizing the value of tools” thing. But unless the foundation is built for which the tools are to be used (and hopefully complement) – we’re building a skyscraper or citizens’ equivalent of it – on a landfill.

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