Epidemiologists, government failure, and COVID-19
Jason Brennan has a new post up doubling down on his earlier criticism of epidemiologists and government policy in response to the COVID crisis. I responded to his earlier blog posts here. I am still not convinced, but there are useful lessons to be learned from going through his argument.
Brennan continues to claim that epidemiologists produced bad statistical analysis, and that we should not take their advice seriously (all bolding is mine):
I’ve been criticizing epidemiologists–including the ones publishing in JAMA, the Lancet, NEJM, etc., and the famous ones who were making apocalyptic predictions on TV last month–for doing what is clearly bad work. My main complaint is, again, that their estimates about the danger of the virus are based on the wrong data (current infections) collected the wrong way (non-random testing of people who present themselves as sick). We all know better than that. You don’t sample on the dependent variable. You don’t sample in ways that suffer from severe selection bias. If you mostly test people who show up saying they are sick, and 3.4% of them die, it doesn’t tell you how many people have the infection, nor does it tell you what percent of people who have the infection will die.
Now, while many economists and others trained in stats have been saying the same thing, it’s surprising how many untrained people say we should instead defer to epidemiologists. You can see some of their arguments on Facebook and others in the comments to previous posts.
He does not repeat the suggestion in his earlier post that decisions based on analysis from epidemiologists “presumptively lack authority and legitimacy”, but he doesn’t withdraw it either.
Here is one way to think about the claims Brennan is making. Suppose the following statements are true:
- Epidemiologists overestimated the risk of COVID-19 by applying bad statistical methods to poor data
- Politicians adopted costly lockdown policies based on flawed risk estimates produced by epidemiologists
- Lockdown policies were unjustified at the time they were adopted, and this could have been known if better statistical analysis had been undertaken
- Lockdown policies are unjustified now, given currently available information, and should be replaced by a different policy
If these things are true, we have grounds to
- Criticize epidemiologists for using bad statistical methods
- Criticize politicians for listening to epidemiologists
- Criticize the initial decision to impose the lockdown policies, and attribute that bad decision to poor research by epidemiologists
- Advocate for repeal of the lockdown policy now (and perhaps its replacement with a different policy)
The problem is that the empirical and moral claims in this argument are at least debatable, and some seem to be clearly wrong.
Did epidemiologists overestimate the risk of COVID 19?
I’m sure some did. I’m sure many didn’t. Brennan himself admits that “we all know better” than to estimate case fatality rates by dividing deaths by diagnosed cases. Every epidemiologist I know is aware of this. If Brennan wants to claim that poor statistical thinking led key epidemiologists – either leading academics or government advisors – to overestimate the risk of COVID-19 or to rely on papers that did this, he should roll up his sleeves and produce some evidence for his claim.
In fact, he does cite one piece of evidence, obliquely:
Yes, if you go digging back through the testimony, you see a small number of people saying, “Oh, sure, 3.4% of people diagnosed with COVID died, but we have little to no idea what the infection fatality rate is because of our poor testing procedures. We’ve been testing for the purpose of helping the sick rather than for getting data to estimate the dangers.” But what you mostly see with the Imperial College people, Fauci, and others, is making mass projections based on the crude case fatality rates calculated from bad data.
This is very misleading. Go look at the Imperial College Study. They did not use a crude case fatality rate of 3.4%. They used a case fatality rate of 0.9%. Based on, you know, a study by epidemiologists. (The Imperial College Study was quite influential – it was the main source of the claim that 2 million might die in an uncontrolled epidemic.)
Did politicians listen to epidemiologists and adopt the current lockdown policies based on their advice?
My sense is that epidemiologists – many of them, at any rate – wanted governments to act faster than they did, to limit the prevalence of the disease so that it would be manageable with test/trace/isolate policies. Governments messed up because they did not listen to epidemiologists.
Brennan is also completely ignoring the actual political world we live in, viz., one in which Donald Trump is president. The reason so many people are saying “Listen to the experts/epidemiologists” is because they are worried that Trump will re-open the economy too soon. They hope that the public will be inclined to trust the epidemiologists and resist pre-mature re-opening. We can debate the wisdom of this political strategy, but Brennan simply ignores what is actually happening.
Were lockdown policies unjustified at the time they were adopted?
I don’t think so, and Brennan provides no evidence for this claim. (Criticizing the data and statistical work available at the time the decision to lockdown was made is not the same thing as showing the policy was unjustified.)
Are lockdown policies unjustified now?
This is the key question. We need to decide what policies to pursue today. Brennan contributes nothing our understanding of this question. Instead, he focuses on the “fact” that epidemiologists are bad at math and the “fact” that politicians relied on epidemiologists to decide what to do in response to the epidemic to argue that the initial decision was based on poor information. Both of these “facts” seem not to exist, but even if these claims are correct, so what? The initial decision to institute a lockdown is is a sunk cost. We need to focus on what to do now.
In his original post, Brennan claimed that the lockdown policy is presumptively illegitimate and lacks authority. What sensible people care about, however, is whether the policy makes sense now, regardless of whether the decision-making process leading to the adoption of the policy was imperfect (which of course it was, as it is with almost every policy).
Finally, Brennan believes that there has been a massive government failure in connection with COVID-19:
I can understand shutting down everything temporarily in an abundance of caution. [ed note: his earlier post seemed to suggest that the lockdown decision was not “legitimate” or “authoritative”] But states are immediately obligated to collect the right kind of data the right way, so we can get a proper estimate of the real dangers and make decisions competently. They haven’t done so. The past month has seen government failure on a mass scale.
Sure, but so what? Every academic observer I am familiar with agrees with the need for better data, and the government is indeed preparing to do population studies. And most observers believe that most governments have performed poorly in connection with COVID-19. The practical question this raises is what to do about this government failure. Brennan has nothing to offer here. Having a moral philosopher criticize epidemiologists (unfairly, in large part) for not understanding statistics will not help us make better decisions in this epidemic, and it will not help us make better decisions in the next epidemic because bad statistical analysis by epidemiologists was at most a tiny contributing factor the failures that have allowed the epidemic to get out of control and have hampered our ability to respond effectively.
As far as I can tell, Brennan starts with the conclusion that the economic harm of social distancing was unwarrented, decides that epidemiologists must be the scapegoats, and then proceeds to reverse-engineer “arguments” for why they are to blame. That’s why his writing is so sloppy and poorly reasoned.
I’m reminded of a comment attributed to Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
The last line made me laugh. T you.
He reminds me of an armchair QB with no knowledge of the game. Or (my pet peeve) watching a 25 handicap criticize professional golfers. Easy to “type” criticisms when you have no fen clue what you are talking about.
Besides, there is absolutely no way any of this could have occurred without people like him complaining about government interference and incompetence.
Ben Garrison is on it!!!
Brennon lives a dialectical fantasy. His types live globalism and materialism.
Frank Sinatra – New York, New York
moral philosopher = asshole?
What’s the question mark for?
well, i didn’t notice any acknowledgement that the epidemic turning out to be not as bad as predicted (so far) may have something to do with enacting the shut down in time to slow the rate of infection.
I understand the difficulty Eric faces trying to write a short answer to nonsense (lying nonsense) in a short time. But I wish he had kept his answer shorter, instead of starting so many lines of “debate” that the perpetrator will be able to keep the argument going, sowing doubt or worse into the minds of the susceptible.
My own reply to Jason is rather on the lines of another famous liar: you go to war against a pandemic with the statistics you have, not the statistics you wish you had. We were getting infections and deaths at an exponentially increasing rate. The ratio of deaths to population-exposed (as opposed to “confirmed cases” was not relevant, or even an honest concern… except to those who think “only” 1% of the population will die, as opposed to 3%. Cost-ratio, you understand.
We do have one writer here who repeatedly emphasized the need for expanded testing of people who are sick, people who test positive, and people with whom the sick and the positive-tested have made contact. The counter to Jason is at no time has the US made the effort to ascertain the size of the epidemic through testing at which we could determine what the elephant looked like and how big it truly is. This is the fault of a president who thinks only of himself as supported by Republicans who wish to continue the masquerade of its only 15 and it will disappear two weeks from now or when it gets warm out. The Republican party and Trump do not want to know.
Epidemiologists have forecasted with what they know today considering the limited detail they have been given. As Eric has pointed out this is a purposeful (my word) failure of the government.
I wish their was some way to tag every person who went to the Lansing protest and mingled to see what the results of their violating the shutdown.
Oh and the writer? New Deal democrat who has been posting the numbers daily.
The protesters are simply in the bag for the no nothings running our country— you know the morons. Starting with the moron in chief. If we had not gone to lock down when we did we we would have been in exactly the same position within a week or two because of the sheer magnitude of the death and illness. New York State has twice the death rate of Italy and Spain. Can you imagine what it would be without a lockdown? Do you think people would be merrily going to their jobs, Broadway shows and restaurants stepping over the bodies in the streets? We sort of have a little experiment in social distancing going on in Sioux Falls—the governor pointedly has not ordered a lockdown but the Smithfield plant is still shuttered. The only alternative to lockdowns is testing and until the moron in chief gets that the economy will keep cratering no matter what the governors do and no matter whether the death rate is 3% or .5%. .5% of 300 million is 1.5 million. That is a lot of dead bodies to ignore
From: The Anthropocene and Global Warming
How is it that the Capitalists, such a small percentage of the Population, control Government Policy in a Democracy like ours? Corruption is without a doubt a factor. The U.S. Government of the Gilded Age was corrupt; openly bought and paid for by Capitalists. These days, such Corruption usually rides forth under the banner of Ideology. Ideology is considered somehow legit. Corrupt Legislators can easily claim their votes are based on their Ideology; they might even convince themselves of this.
Political Campaigns are about Manipulating Public Opinion. In a Manipulable Populace, Capitalists can control Government Policy by Marketing an Ideology that benefits themselves. They can buy an Political Office with Campaign Contributions to elect a Candidate with the right ‘Ideology’. That Candidate can rationalize their vote to themselves and to the voters as being based on ‘Ideology’. Capitalists are very good at Marketing. Capitalist have been very successful Marketing Capitalism. In today’s Political Market, they can buy the Supreme Court by way of buying the Senate wing of the Legislature and they can buy the Legislature and Presidency via Campaign Contributions as allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision; a decision giving Capitalists even more power.
I am pretty sure that NYC Covid-19 experience should supersede all estimates even if there were doubts about Wuhan.
It seems like Brennan initially had the idea to write a post about how lockdowns were based on the WHO’s uninformative CFR. Then he sort of realized the were based on some epidemiological models. But instead of revising his views, he just projected his criticisms of the WHO’s CFR estimate onto the “early models” (as he calls them) and the studies they rely on. I actually think it’s more likely than not he hasn’t read the Imperial College paper or the paper that informs its IFR estimate. (He doesn’t seem aware that the Imperial College model relies on an IFR, not a CFR, estimate.) But now he’s going to keep doubling down, troll style–or, in his terminology, hooligan-style. I’m disappointed that someone who knows as much about cognitive distortions as he does has allowed himself to be so completely and blatantly controlled by them.
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Layman, I agree. Good to see you’ve read Brennan, and welcome to Angry Bear!