(If you’re not already following him, I highly recommend reading Luca Trevisan’s dispatches from Milan, much more interesting than what I write below.)
On the topic of my last post, Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times that “In the fog of coronavirus, there are no experts”, even citing Scott Aaronson’s post. Both Aaronson and Douthat make the point that the COVID-19 crisis is so surprising and unprecedented, and experts were so much in the dark, that there is no reason to trust them over non expert “common sense” or “armchair epidemiologists”.
It’s true that the “expert models” have significant uncertainty, hardwired constants, noisy data, and dubious assumptions. It is also true that many countries (especially those that didn’t learn from the 2003 SARS epidemic) bungled their initial response. But do we really need to challenge the notion of expertise itself? To what extent was this pandemic not predicted by experts or progressed in ways defying their expectations?
Here is what some of these experts and institutions were saying in the recent past:
“The thing I’m most concerned about … is the emergence of a new virus that the body doesn’t have any background experience with, that is very transmissible, highly transmissible from person to person, and has a high degree of morbidity and mortality … a respiratory illness that can spread even before someone is so sick that you want to keep them in bed.” Dr. Anthoni Fauci, 2019.
“High-impact respiratory pathogens … pose particular global risks … [they] are spread via respiratory droplets; they can infect a large number of people very quickly and with today’s transportation infrastructure, move rapidly across multiple geographies. … There is insufficient R&D investment and planning for innovative vaccine development and manufacture, broad-spectrum antivirals, … In addition, such a pandemic requires advance planning across multiple sectors … Epidemic control costs would completely overwhelm the current financing arrangements for emergency response.” WHO world at risk report, 2019.
“respiratory transmission …. is the transmission route posing the greatest pandemic risk … [since it] can occur with coughing or simply breathing (in aerosol transmission), making containment much more challenging. … If a pathogen is capable of causing asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infections that either do not or only minimally interrupt activities of daily living, many individuals may be exposed. Viruses that cause the common cold, including coronaviruses, have this attribute.” JHU report, 2019.
As an experiment, I also tried to compare the response of experts and “contrarians” in real time as the novel coronavirus was discovered, trying to see if it’s really the case that, as Douthat says, “up until mid-March you were better off trusting the alarmists of anonymous Twitter than the official pronouncements from the custodians of public health”. I chose both experts and contrarians that are active on Twitter. I was initially planning to look at several people but due to laziness am just taking Imperial college’s J-IDEA institute for the expert, and Robin Hanson for the contrarian. I also looked at Douthat’s twitter feed, to see if he followed his own advice. Initially I thought I would go all the way to March but have no time so just looked at the period from January 1 till February 14th. I leave any conclusions to the reader.
(Context: novel coronavirus confirmed in Wuhan, initially unclear if there is human to human transmission – this was confirmed by China on January 20 though suspected before.)
Here is one of several tweets by Imperial from this period:
I didn’t see any tweets from Hanson or Douthat on this topic.
(Context: first confirmed cases in several countries, including the US, WHO declares emergency in Jan 30, US restricts travel from China on Jan 31. By then there are about 10K confirmed cases and 213 deaths worldwide.)
On January 25th Imperial college estimated the novel coronavirus “R0” parameter as 2.6:
Hanson tweeted approvingly about China’s response and that this situation might help the “more authoritarian” U.S. presidential candidate:
Still no tweet from Douthat on this topic though he did say in January 29th that compared to issues in the past the U.S.’s problems in the 2020’s are “problem of decadence” rather than any crisis like the late 1970’s:
(Context: Diamond princess cruise ship quaranteed, disease gets COVID-19 official name, first death in Europe)
Imperial continues to tweet extensively, including the following early estimates of the case fatality rates:
Robin Hanson correctly realizes this is going to spread wide:
Hanson tweets quite a lot about this, including potential social implications. Up to February 13th there is nothing too “contrarian” at this point, but also no information that could not be gotten from the experts:
In February 14 Hansons makes a very contrarian position when he proposes “controlled infection” as a solution:
To the anticipated “you first” objection he responds “I proposed compensating volunteers via cash or medical priority for associates, & I’d seriously consider such offers.”. He doesn’t mention that he is much less strapped for cash than some of the would be “volunteers”.
Still no tweet from Douthat about COVID-19 though he does write that we live in an “age of decadence”: