Epidemiologists switch from doing politics to writing science fiction

“Emergency COVID-19 measures prevented more than 500 million infections, study finds” (Berkeley News):

Emergency health measures implemented in six major countries have “significantly and substantially slowed” the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to research from a UC Berkeley team published today in the journal Nature. The findings come as leaders worldwide struggle to balance the enormous and highly visible economic costs of emergency health measures against their public health benefits, which are difficult to see.

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements,” Hsiang said. “I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

Armed with a few lines of Excel or R code, epidemiologists had been making prophecies about what would happen 1-8 weeks into the future. Citizens would then be able to see what actually happened:

(It is not surprising that these “scientific” results proved to be false, even beyond the usual “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” factors. As no country had ever tried an American-style “shutdown” (in which citizens still meet at grocery, liquor, and marijuana stores and still party every night on Tinder), only a scientist with a letter from God would have had a prayer (so to speak) of predicting the effects of such a shutdown. The self-proclaimed “scientists” also had no data regarding how easy it was for coronavirus to spread, what percent of the population was naturally immune, etc.)

The obvious inability of “scientists” to make useful predictions is not good for the image of “science”, even if “scientists” hadn’t further brought ridicule on themselves by flip-flopping on masks and the dangers of contaminated surface transmission, telling people it was okay to gather in huge crowds for BLM protesting, and telling others to quarantine while having sex with married women who would then go back to their husband and kids.

What’s the solution? Scientists can take up the genre of alternative history science fiction.

Traditional novel: What if the Germans had won World War II? Maybe the U.S. would be governed by an authoritarian puppet president, controlled by a foreign dictator. State governors would issue stay-at-home orders that eliminated Americans First Amendment rights to assemble. Young children would be locked into small apartments, denied schooling, friends, and playgrounds. Some brave folks would #Resist by going into the streets to battle with the city governments that they themselves had elected and would soon vote to re-elect.

Science-informed novel: Look at this two-parameter mathematical model. It shows what would have happened if we hadn’t locked down like I was recommending.

The beauty of this new approach is that, as with the “What if the Germans had won?” novel, there is no way to prove the author wrong.

8 thoughts on “Epidemiologists switch from doing politics to writing science fiction

  1. But Philip, it’s peer-reviewed!

    > The analysis was carried out by Hsiang and an international, multi-disciplinary team at the Global Policy Laboratory, all working under shelter-in-place restrictions.

    They didn’t actually visit those countries, as far as I can tell (they couldn’t have!) They created their database of 1,700 response techniques by reading about them from news reports. From those news reports and the rest of the statistics, they built their model.

    Until this paper, the GPL’s major contribution to the epidemiological literature was almost exclusively focused on climate change and economics, but never mind that. They have a lot of people and they can write the code.


    Their 500 million number is a purely synthetic figure. First they estimated 62 million averted cases and ballooned that by almost an order of magnitude to account for under-reporting. “We estimate that anti-contagion policies averted 62 million confirmed cases across the six countries in our sample (China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, France, and the United States) as of April 6, 2020. This corresponds to more than 500 million averted infections after accounting for under-reporting.” Well, that is indeed a triumph.

    There’s a video:

    • The inflation from tested to actual is kind of funny., When the same people were trying to convince governments to shut down they said that there were hardly any infected, but not tested-positive people. This enabled them to say that the fatality rate for an infected person was 1-2%. Now they’re saying that the tested-positive folks are just the tip of the epidemic iceberg. So really the fatality rate is more like a bad flu.

    • I think you’re confused. The early numbers reported were “case fatality rates,” i.e. the probability of dying given that you had been diagnosed with the illness. It took longer to come up with an accurate number for the “infection fatality rate,” which includes people infected but not diagnosed. It was always known that the estimated CFRs did not take into account undiagnosed cases. People actually speculated for quite a while that the IFR of COVID-19 might be about the same as the IFR for the seasonal flu, which we’re now pretty sure is false.

    • If by “bad flu” you mean the 1918 flu which is believed to have killed tens of millions of people, then yes, COVID-19 is probably somewhat less deadly than that (and also doesn’t kill as many young people).

  2. As 150 feet is half the length of a football field, using buses as the measuring unit is peculiar.

  3. Nature is also getting into the speculative fiction game.


    My hypothesis is that “Medical Error”, exacerbated by stupid (what’s the technical term for “stupid”?) politicians and bureaucrats dictating medical treatment, is what caused the highest death rates. Medical error is the second leading cause of all deaths. Surely the panicked atmosphere during peak fatality contributed to errors.

    The problem is that doctors and nurses face less consequences for killing people than the police! When was the last time you heard of a doctor going to jail for screwing up? How often are they even stripped of their license to practice medicine? How often to doctors voluntarily report their own or other doctor’s malfeasance? Cops have the blue wall of silence, doctors have the white mask of silence.

    There is talk of opening up individual police disciplinary records to the public. Why not do the same with doctors? Should all doctors have to furnish patients with a list of malpractice suits, settlements, complaints, and medical board discipline brought against them?

    Do no harm? Nope. Cover Your Ass!

  4. That is not so far fetched. Taking your favorite example of Sweden, its COVID-19 death rate is now about 46.7 per 100k. In similar Denmark and Norway, the death rates are 10.2 and 4.5, respectively. This means that the lockdown reduced deaths by somewhere between 4.5 to 10.4 times. Today there are about 412,152 COVID-19 deaths. If we take the lower estimate of 4.5x saved lives (after all, not all countries implemented lockdowns), you get almost two million saved lives from lockdown (412,512 x 4.5). That is an amazing achievement. Sure, not as effective as a 500 million soundbite as in the paper (which is probably inflated), but it is incredibly short-sighted to be dismissing the achievement just because earlier models were unreliable.

Comments are closed.