COVID 19: The Post That Was – UPDATE

Breaking my goal of radio silence on the current viral kerfuffle to note a couple developments:

  1. That last post, in which I tried to simply summarize the current state of the data being used to fan the panic, and make a few calm, reasonable conclusions, blew up this humble blog, thanks to a link on Instapundit by Sarah Hoyt (who reads this blog!?! Wow.), and subsequent links by some other people. Got a year’s worth of traffic over about 36 hours. A lovely discussion was engendered in the combox. Thanks to all who participated.
  2. Got told I was virtue signalling. By analyzing the numbers? I guess? And to whom would I be signaling, exactly?
  3. While I did spend a little longer than usual on that post, getting some links and trying for a less impressionistic logical structure, I’m still not entirely happy with it. It could be better. That’s what the following post is. I didn’t put in all the links this time.
  4. Italy seems to have clearly turned the corner. The sawtoothiness (I insist that’s a real word) of the numbers in the US still leave things in doubt, but, if I’m right, we should see a serious downturn in deaths within 3 weeks, probably sooner. (Note: when I say ‘if I’m right’ I’m just one guy looking at numbers and history, helped essentially by the likes of William Briggs and Malcolm the Cynic, and others reporting from the field. I hasten to add that any errors are all mine, but these and others pointed me in the direction of interesting stuff.

After this brief post, I’ll lay off COVID 19 for the next 2-3 weeks, and go back to blogging on education history, SF&F, and the Eternal Endless Front Yard Brick Project of Doom, subjects, historically speaking, 20K+ people won’t come here to check out. Be true to your school. So:

Reframing the question:

How likely am I or someone I love to get infected with the coronavirus, to get sick, or to die? How bad is this thing?

Spoiler: looking at the numbers, at history, and using common sense, the answers are: Not very, very unlikely, vanishingly unlikely. You probably won’t catch the virus; if you did, you almost certainly will either not get sick at all (about 50% of the time) or get sick very little (about 48.75% of the time). If you were healthy before getting the virus, chances are near 100% that you will not get very sick and you will not die from it.

Near 100% means there will be exceptions, but that these exceptions, added together, are a tiny percentage of total deaths, in the ballpark with ‘get eaten by a shark’. Certainly, every death is a tragedy. We live with potential and actual tragedy every day, and take precautions based on how bad we think the risk is. Most of us look both ways before crossing the street, but few of us wear a helmet in case we get hit by a meteorite. There’s risk here, as everywhere.

This is what the data says, intelligently understood. Judging by almost everything you read or hear, people certainly don’t understand any of this.

Let’s start with deaths. The key steps:

  1. Your likelihood of dying of COVID 19 or any other disease if you were to catch it is: the number of people who die from the disease divided by the number of people who catch the disease. You must grasp this simple fact before you go on.
  2. the Case Fatality Rate (CFR) is NOT your likelihood of dying if you catch the disease. That is simply not how it is defined. The CFR is: the number of death certificates listing COVID 19 divided by the number of diagnosed cases of COVID 19.
  3. The two components of the CFR do not correspond to the two components of the formula for your likelihood of dying:
    • the number of death certificates listing COVID 19 would include, for example, a man in England diagnosed with COVID 19 who gets hit a lorry crossing the street; an 85 year old woman in Italy with lung cancer if she is suspected of having COVID 19, a seriously ill American given 2 weeks to live who catches COVID 19 and dies. Each nation and sometimes areas within nations have rules about what must be included on death certificates; it’s not consistent, but strongly tends to overstate COVID 19 as a cause of death. One Italian doctor said that the virus was a significant cause of death in at most 11-12% of such cases.
    • the number of diagnosed cases of COVID 19 includes only people who were infected AND went to the doctor. 95% of cases have minor symptoms that look a lot like a cold or a flu; some large percentage of people don’t go to the doctor for that level of sickness. Such people don’t show up in case count. Then, 50% of infections are asymptomatic – no symptoms at all.
  4. Thus, the CFR includes too many deaths and too few infections to be an accurate gauge of your or my or anyone’s risk of dying from COVID 19.

Let’s plug in a few numbers, just to put a stake in the ground to argue about: say only half of the people with minor symptoms go to the doctor. Half going to the doctor seems high to me, because I’m not going to see the doctor for sniffles, achiness and a low fever – I’m popping a couple Tylenol and going back to bed to sleep it off. But maybe that’s just me. So let’s use half. This means we can effectively double the number of cases, since these slightly sick ones make up 95% of the total cases. In other words, if 100 people with minor symptoms go to the doctor, we’re assuming for the sake of argument 100 more are sleeping it off or taking Dayquil and muscling through it. So, in this example, there are 200 infected people but only 100 cases.

Applying this to the world, at the moment there are about 1.3 million cases – so, to start, just to allow for people who don’t run to the doctor with minor cold or flu-like symptoms, we will double that number to 2.6 million people.

Next, we notice that 50% of infections are asymptomatic. We know this because in a couple places – Iceland, Israel – authorities have tried to do broad testing, not just testing people who are sick, and found that half the positive test results are from people who aren’t sick. Therefore, for our 200 people who are sick, there are likely another 200 people who are infected but are not sick. So, we can double the number of infected worldwide again, from 2.6 million to 5.2 million. That becomes our baseline number for infected people.

Next, about 73, 000 people have died and have COVID 19 listed on their death certificate as I’m typing this. But we know in some cases, COVID 19 is not the cause of death (England, where the law requires COVID 19 to be listed on the death certificate regardless of whether it had anything to do with the death or not), and suspect it’s not the main cause in most of the others – that’s what saying it overwhelmingly affects vulnerable populations boils down to in plain English: it won’t kill y0u unless you’re already sick. Let’s use the Italian doctor’s high end: in 12% of these deaths, COVID 19 played a significant part in killing the person. Note that this is what normal people really mean: when grandma is fighting cancer and catches a cold and dies, we don’t blame the cold. We all know that, if she didn’t have cancer, the cold probably wouldn’t have killed her. All we’re doing here is applying that common sense thinking.

So, 12% of 73,000 is 8,760. That’s how many people have been killed by the COVID 19 virus. Note that if we limited this number to vigorous, healthy people who came down with virus and died, we’d be talking double-digits. That’s what the numbers say. But we’re including people here who, in the opinion of that Italian doctor, might not have died, at least not as soon, if they hadn’t caught the bug.

Grand finale: the number of people who have been killed by the virus according to a common-sense understanding of what that phrase means: 8,760. A reasonable estimate of the number of people infected: 5.2 million. To determine death rate, divide the first number by the second number: I get here an estimated death rate from COVID 19 of 0.17%. Not the 4.5% CFR that is commonly tossed around, which is about 25 times too high; not 2.5% in the US which would be a 1-in 40 chance of dying if you got the bug, but 0.17% – or less than a 1-in-500 chance.

You should be able to see that the same logic drives the possibility you will get seriously ill (and run the risk of permanent lung damage) if you catch the virus way, way down. Not very likely, roughly the same as your chance of dying of it.

Note: This is just one educated pass at making more sense out of the official numbers based on the definitions of those numbers. If you don’t like the way I adjusted the numbers, say why it’s wrong, and offer an alternative. Just don’t foist off the CFR as if it’s somehow a purer or better number. It most certainly is not. Numbers of infected will ALWAYS be an estimate, unless we test everybody in the world – not practical. Cause of death will often be a judgement call on the part of the doctor or coroner, so these numbers, both the ‘official’ counts and my adjusted totals, will contain a lot of slop. The point here is that using the CFR as if it represented the real risk of dying is ignorant and irresponsible. It is sloppiness by most people, and criminal fearmongering by those who should know better.

How about the risk of coming down with COVID 19? We’re told it’s spreading out of control! People who not only could not factor a simply binomial equation, but don’t even know what the terms mean, are sure the virus is spreading ‘exponentially’, and that that is very bad thing, that it means we’re all going to die, more or less.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening:


Italy, specifically, Lombardy, has been the poster child for The End of the World as We Know It. Here’s what cases and deaths there look like today:

from Worldometers

New cases are tricky: they are functions of how much testing is going on and what qualifies as a case (a moving target, as mentioned in the last post) at least as much as how much the disease is spreading. Deaths, while morbid by definition, are somewhat more binary:

as above.

In Italy, a nation with a notorious track record of not dealing with even the common flu very well, the explosive ‘exponential’ curve up and died. The politicians are already patting themselves of the back, setting us up to be saved from the next tragedy solely by their expert intervention. But Spring has also sprung – all that sunlight (and UV) and warmth are hell on viruses, so maybe it’s not the political action, or not entirely. Also, once the virus runs through the nursing homes and hospitals – notorious disease vectors, and site of most of the deaths – crassly culling the weak, the survivors are more likely to be resistant. So now the virus has to get out in the sun and infect healthy people – it doesn’t seem to be very good at that. Most viruses aren’t.

The same is happening elsewhere now. The US is a week, maybe two, out from the same factors causing a collapse of cases and deaths – and from politicians patting themselves on the back for making ‘hard choices’ for all of us, like deciding the less affluent don’t need jobs, and retired people need a lot less money in their mutual funds.

So, no, you’re almost certainly not going to get COVID 19. So far, about 0.07% of the world’s population, using my adjusted numbers for many more infections than cases, has gotten it. That’s less than 1 out of every thousand people. For comparison, you are about 10 times more likely to catch malaria, which kills at least 750,000 people a year, than coronavirus.

But it could come back! So could the Black Death. Yes, viruses mutate, sometimes – rarely – into more virulent forms. Is that likely? Any more for the coronavirus than any other virus? In its current forms, the evidence is that it’s done for; it might make a resurgence in the fall – that sometimes happens – but worrying about that isn’t going to make anything better, and, as shown above, it likely won’t be that big a deal if it does.

Unless there is a reason to think it different, history – what has actually happened to viral infections in the past – would say: the coronavirus will die out once spring is in full gear.

Data & Numbers: COVID 19

Bits of the following have appeared in the past couple posts on this current coronavirus kerfuffle; for clarity and reference sake, thought I’d put them all in one place. Nothing original here, just compiling the information in one key place.

I plan to stop posting on this for the next 2-3 weeks, at which time it should be clear if I’m wrong or if I’m right. I will then crow/eat crow, depending.

Data or ‘Facts’

Before one can start talking about numbers, what exactly one is counting should be spelled out. This is called ‘being reasonable’ or ‘the scientific method.’ Note that all the dreadful numbers, death rates, how fast the virus is spreading, how infectious and deadly it is, all hinge on these few numbers. Knowing how they are created and measured is therefore critical to understanding what is going on.

Infected: Ideally, we should only count a person as infected if they have been tested for the infection at least twice. The unknown but almost certainly high number of false positives makes testing only once imprudent.

In reality, we do not now and never will know the number of people infected with the virus. It seems many people infected, possibly as high as one half, have no symptoms. They feel fine, don’t go to the doctor, and, except in unusual cases such as cruise ships and NBA teams, don’t get tested. It is from those unusual cases that the information that about half of infections show no symptoms, e.g., “Nearly half of Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers and crew who had coronavirus were asymptomatic when tested, CDC report says”

Of the 712 passengers and crew members of the ship who tested positive for coronavirus, 331 — or 46.5% — were asymptomatic at the time of testing, the CDC said.The agency said that the high rate of asymptomatic infections could partly explain the high rate of infection among cruise ship passengers and crew.

And in Iceland, where a larger percentage of the general population has been tested than just about anywhere:

[Iceland’s chief epidemiologist Thorolfur] Guðnason is quoted here as saying “Early results from deCode Genetics indicate that a low proportion of the general population has contracted the virus and that about half of those who tested positive are non-symptomatic.”.

hat tip to Foxfier

Point #1: Keep in mind that nobody knows how many people are infected, since asymptomatic people will never get tested except in somewhat unusual circumstances, and that it’s possible half or more of the people infected never get sick. The numbers of infected you hear or read are the outputs of models – not data – or otherwise pulled out of thin air.

Cases: Again, ideally, a case of COVID 19 infection should mean a situation where a person was tested at least twice and found to have the infection.

In reality, it appears many cases of COVID 19 infection are diagnoses without benefit of testing. In China, many cases of COVID 19 were diagnosed based on symptoms and CT scans:

On Feb. 12, the national health committee announced that it was changing the way cases were counted in Hubei province. People with symptoms of the disease and with evidence of pneumonia on a CT scan but who had not been tested for presence of the virus — in other words, people who had a clinical diagnosis — would be added to the list of cases.

That day, the country reported a massive increase in cases — over 15,000. But since then, the daily numbers have tumbled. On Wednesday, China announced it was reverting to reporting laboratory-confirmed cases only. When the National Health Committee issued its update for Wednesday, it reported a net increase of only 394 cases — the first time in weeks the daily case increase was under 1,000 cases.

That was then; now, in every country around the world, we have some largely unknown number of ‘unconfirmed cases’ – still counted as cases, but not confirmed by tests.

When diagnosis is based on symptoms, plus sometimes on travel and contact history, things get more and more uncertain: someone who has typical cold symptoms but has a friend who recently came back from a trip to China might become an ‘unconfirmed case’ and then, depending on the availability of tests, might not get tested right away. And that’s in First World countries.

Here are the CDC’s top symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms are common to colds, flus, pneumonia, and probably more diseases.

Point #2: What a case *is* is not clearly defined, and is different over time and from country to country. Most important, cases are NOT equal to infections. Many, many more people may be infected than show up in case counts, however defined. DO NOT CONFUSE CASES WITH NUMBER OF PEOPLE INFECTED.

Deaths: Ideally, what we want to know is if COVID 19 killed somebody. Such a determination is clear, or as clear as it is likely to get, when a healthy person tests positive for the virus, and dies of respiratory failure after having progressed through some or all of the less serious symptoms.

Such cases are remarkably rare. Instead, we have COVID 19 deaths almost entirely restricted to vulnerable populations, people who have underlying health issues, including, especially, the overall weakness and infirmities associated with advanced age.

As in cases, it seems what constitutes a COVID 19 death may vary from country to country, and does not correspond to what a layman thinks when he hears ‘died of COVID 19’. Here’s how it is done in England:

Lee explains that in the U.K. if someone dies of a respiratory infection, the specific cause of that infection is not usually noted unless it is identified as a rare “notifiable disease,” not seasonal infections, like the flu.

“So the vast majority of respiratory deaths in the UK are recorded as bronchopneumonia, pneumonia, old age or a similar designation,” writes Lee. “We don’t really test for flu, or other seasonal infections. If the patient has, say, cancer, motor neurone disease or another serious disease, this will be recorded as the cause of death, even if the final illness was a respiratory infection.” The result, he says, is that U.K. certifications “normally under-record deaths due to respiratory infections.”

But COVID-19 is now included in the updated list of “notifiable diseases,” Lee explains. “That means every positive test for COVID-19 must be notified, in a way that it just would not be for flu or most other infections.” If any patient dies after having tested positive for COVID-19, “staff will have to record the COVID-19 designation on the death certificate — contrary to usual practice for most infections of this kind.” That might give COVID-19 “the appearance of it causing an increasing numbers of deaths, whether this is true or not,” writes Lee. (Read Lee’s op-ed here.)

Similar practices, or practices with the same result of over reporting deaths, seem to prevail elsewhere around the world. New guidelines for the US on how to fill out the cause of death on death certificates were released just yesterday. Minnesota Public Radio says “But new guidelines from the National Center for Health Statistics, which Minnesota follows, will err on the side of pinning more deaths on COVID-19, at least provisionally.”

Point #3: What the medical reporting means by a COVID 19 death is not what we commoners mean by it. As reported, a ‘death’ means ‘died while infected with COVID 19’ not ‘died OF a COVID 19 infection.’

Numbers and Percentages

The first thing to note, and the thing to keep in mind, is the vast amount of uncertainty in all this. We don’t know, and are very unlikely to ever know, how many people are infected with this virus. The number of cases can, and repeatedly has, shifted as the definition of what constitutes a ‘case’ has shifted. Deaths are in the same boat: Yesterday, for example, France added 884 deaths from some unknown number of cases in nursing homes, since they had not been counting deaths and, presumably, cases, from all their nursing homes up to that point. So, a major locus of coronavirus deaths – nursing homes, full of precisely the most vulnerable population – is not (they’re still counting it up) accurately included in the reported totals.

It would beggar belief to think France’s counting issues are unique or even rare.

Let’s revisit the key numbers:

How many people are or have been infected with the coronavirus so far? What is the peak likely to be? The honest if uncomfortable answer is: nobody knows. Yet, all sorts of numbers, ratios, and percentages that include some guestimate of the number of infected people get tossed out as if they are facts, or at least, strong enough guesses that policymakers are urged to impose martial law and cripple the economy based on them. One such estimate, as discussed here, was that 200 million Americans would get infected over the next 200 days. Baked into this number is the assumption that 100% of people are susceptible to infection.

Are we? On the Diamond Princess, only 18% of the people on board got infected; in Iceland, only about 6% got infected. These are places where something like a population was tested; all the national numbers you hear, like Italy’s or China’s, are almost entirely based on tests administered to a tiny subset of people with symptoms or with exposure to people with symptoms. We would expect much higher infections rates as determined by tests when all your test subjects are only people who you have good reason to think have the disease.

So, assuming 200 million infected people in the US, 60% of the population, is ridiculous. Then, applying a death rate based on one subset of cases, the author projects 11 million deaths. This scary scenario is created by applying a ratio of deaths to cases to a projection of number of infections pulled out of a hat. For about a week, this number – 11 million dead Americans if we don’t act now! – was treated as Gospel; then it became more like 500,000 dead Americans, despite actions being taken not nearly as drastically nor as quickly as demanded. Now? I’m still hearing numbers in the neighborhood of 250,000. Do not be surprised if the worse case numbers bandied about fall under 100,000, or, as I like to say, bad flu season level, over the next 2-3 weeks as Spring kicks into gear. We will pretend, often willingly, that we didn’t wildly overreact based on 11 million dead! and that we only had, say, 50,000 dead because we took such admirable, if extreme, actions as fast as we did.

We keep hearing about outrageous and terrifying death rates from COVID 19 infections: 4.5% in China, 11% in Italy, even 2.5% here in the US. Rarely do we hear it discussed that these are *CASE* fatality rates (CFR) NOT the percentage of people infected with the virus who die from it. The CFR DOES NOT represent our risk of dying if we catch the virus; rather, it expresses the risk of someone identified as a case having COVID 19 show up on his death certificate. That risk is much higher than your or my risk of dying from COVID 19.

To get some idea of our real risk of death from COVID 19, we’d need a better estimate of the number of people infected versus the number of cases. Then, we’d want to reduce the number of deaths to include only those where COVID 19 was the primary cause of death. Then, we’d have a number – inescapably, an estimate – that says how risky this whole plague is to the average Joe.

Can we do this? At least, get closer to reality than the CFR? All is not hopeless: we can, over time, refine our guess by intelligently comparing them to reality, or at least to much harder numbers.

Let’s start with the asymptomatic cases: about 50% of those who test positive in the general population (as in Iceland) for the virus show no symptoms. Applying this knowledge to the cases numbers means we can double the number of cases: if as many people who are infected show no symptoms as do show symptoms, and asymptomatic people are very unlikely to get tested and therefore show up as ‘cases’, that means there are (at least – more to come) twice as many infections as cases.

Next, the vast majority of cases show only mild symptoms:

from today’s Worldometer

Mild symptoms are largely indistinguishable from common cold or flu symptoms, as we saw above. So, how many people go to the doctor when they have the sniffles or a low fever? Compared to how many people just pop a couple of Advil, call in sick and climb back into bed? Or even take some Dayquil and go to work? Now, imagine you are a member of a less affluent society than ours: do you go to the doctor for what looks like the common flu?

So I would suggest that at least as many infected people with mild symptoms don’t end up as cases as do. This would push our infected estimate up to 4 times the number of cases, under the assumption that there are as many asymptomatic infections as symptomatic ones. This cut our real death rate to 1/4 of the CFR, or from 2.5% to 0.6% in the US.

(This also means only 1.25% – that’s 1/4 of 5% – of people infected with the virus end up with serious symptoms. 98.75% have mild or no symptoms.)

But that’s still not enough, again according to Dr. Lee cited above (He’s using British numbers for a couple weeks ago):

Also, we’re only dealing with those COVID-19 cases that have made people sick enough or worried enough to get tested. There will be many more unaware that they have the virus, with either no symptoms, or mild ones.

That’s why, when Britain had 590 diagnosed cases, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that the real figure was probably between 5,000 and 10,000 cases, 10 to 20 times higher. If he’s right, the headline death rate due to this virus is likely to be 10 to 20 times lower, say 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent. That puts the COVID-19 mortality rate in the range associated with infections like flu.


If Sir Patrick is even a little correct, and we’re only off around one order of magnitude, real death rate will be 10% of the CDR – 0.25% in the US, well within common flu range.

And this counts everyone with COVID 19 on their death certificate! Which means we’d need to push that number down some more. How much? I’ve heard estimates of as little as 11-12% of of official COVID 19 deaths where the viral infection caused or seriously contributed to death, but alas, I can’t find the reference now. The point remains: given all the other uncertainty and out and out misrepresentations of the numbers, even if the reporting inconsistency is small, COVID 19 remains, at worst, a little more deadly than a routine flu.

But what about…

1 out of every 6 people infected with COVID 19 get permanent lung damage.

You mean, one out 6 of the 1.25% of people with a coronavirus infection who show serious symptoms? Surely this can’t mean that 1 out of 6 asymptomatic people – that’s 1/2, remember – suffer such damage? When? Without any symptoms? Or even that 1 out of every 6 people with mild symptoms? Their mild symptoms end up causing serious lung damage?

If this claim is, as I suspect it is, based on people with serious symptoms, 1 out of 6 our of 1.25% would be 1 out of every 500 people infected with the virus. We’re getting into ‘killed by a tornado’ levels of unlikelihood. I’d like to see the details of this claim – 5 minutes of web searching pulled up nothing.

Hospitals overrun! Healthcare collapsing!

Did you know that Italy has a history of being overwhelmed by respiratory cases? They have had higher than typical death rates from flu outbreaks over much of the last decade.

Did you know Alabama had to declare a state of emergency in 2018 when a flu outbreak threatened to overwhelm their health care system?

Did you know NYC was home to the #WuhanStrong movement right before the outbreak got bad, where people were encouraged to hug and otherwise fraternize with those who had recently been to or come from China, in order to prove they were not evil raaacists like the Orange Man? This might figure into their problems.

In general, all healthcare everywhere makes capacity trade-offs. No one can afford to build and staff a hospital such that no emergency will ever catch them underprepared. They take an educated guess at what they’ll need, adjust it by what they can afford, try to coordinate with surrounding systmes, and hope for the best. And then, hey screw it up, because they are human. A local example: we in California know it is almost certainly just a matter of time before the next big earthquake or ARkStorm. You think our healthcare system could handle that? I’ll spare you the suspense: no, it could not. BUT – there’s no way our healthcare system could be maintained for years on end with the sort of capacity such disasters would demand. So they do what they can, and hope for the best.

exponential growth!

Not really.

from Worldometers

The red line is 1, meaning a linear type increase. The current trend, if you can even claim to make it out, seems pretty flat, with occasional dips below the line. What is clear is a lack of any clear exponential explosion.

Check back in 2-3 weeks. If this virus acts like a typical air- and surface-borne virus, sunshine and nice weather will be the end of it (with a possible reprise in the fall). But, while it is tragic when people die, you’d be a lot better off getting some exercise and cutting out some calories than in worrying yourself over this virus.

Of course, I could be wrong. I’m just a numbers guy. This thing could explode tomorrow, mutate into something really deadly, and kill us all. It just doesn’t look like it will, from the available evidence and history.

So, WHY is everybody panicking over this? WHY is dominating the news and causing us to commit economic seppuku? Those are very good questions.

A Few Graphs

Deaths trail cases by a week or so:

Same as above.

So, assuming this is a trend and not a blip, looks like the virus is winding down in Lombardy. Spring is here, the sun – the best disinfectant – is out, so if COVID 19 is like typical viruses, it, too, will largely die off once it’s warm out. Let us hope so.

14,000 dead so far in Italy. If the shape of the curve is typical of what I’ve seen for outbreaks – more or less bell-shaped – maybe 30,000 COVID 19 deaths?

Then, add the forbidden data: many of these people would have died soon anyway. Victims are predominantly old and sick. I’m seeing 11-12% tossed around as the percentage of deaths attributed to COVID 19 where the viral infection was a significant factor. In other words, a large percentage of 80 years olds with serious medical conditions die every year; of the half a million or so Italian deaths each year, some disproportionately large percentage is old, sick people. This is the vulnerable population, which we seem to assume we can ‘save’. I’m all for washing your hands and staying away from grandma if you’re coughing or running a fever, but I don’t think I’m going to go to my grave wracked with guilt if my mother-in-law, 82, who lives with us, were to catch something nasty – a bad case of the flu, for example – and die. I’d be sad, but I’m rational enough to know that it’s the being 82 part, not the flu part, that played the larger role in such a hypothetical death.

With COVID 19, we’re not that rational.

Now I’m watching Spain, France, and Germany, which should be next up to peak; UK lags a little more. Data in these countries are mixed – no exponential rise in cases or deaths, but no clear drop yet, either. Deaths and new cases are both dropping in Iran. If you add China and the US, that’s all the countries in the world with over 2,000 deaths attributed to COVID 19.

US data is spiky. At the moment, we’ve had an apocalyptic 666 deaths today so far – day is based on GMT, so it is almost over – after a much more frightening 1,049 deaths yesterday. New cases are still trending upward, but at what looks to be a decreasing slope. Small data set theater warning. The general trend for daily deaths still looks upward, but with occasional drops, too. I’ll stick with my guess that in another 2 weeks, it should be clear that we’re on the downslope of this thing. Let us pray that’s the case.

All in all, I was overly optimistic when I said we might only end up with 5,000 total deaths; 10K is looking like a sure thing at this point. We may end up in the ballpark of Italy’s 30,000 dead, unless – and this is a real possibility, but not what history seem to show for viral infections – we have new major outbreaks in the warm sunny part of the year, which we are just now entering.

So I remain fairly confident we here in the US won’t see that 100K dead that was touted as the *minimum* even if we took actions more drastic and sooner than those that were in fact taken; baring a disaster-movie-worthy upswing in mortality, that 11M dead we were threatened with remains a fantasy.

But I’m just a numbers guy. Of course, I could be wrong.

Monday Thoughts (yes, the d*mn virus)

I need to post more frequently.

Hope you’re sitting down for this: enshrined in English and American tradition and laws is the idea that it’s not always a good thing to do what the experts tell you to do. This wisdom was hard-earned over centuries, as experts were discovered to be – still sitting down, right? – alas, human beings, subject to all the temptations, all the weaknesses, pride, vanity, greed, and fear that all other people are subject to. Therefore, when really important, life and death decisions come up, we don’t defer to experts.

We call this wisdom ‘the right to trial by a jury of your peers’. We do this, even though there is always a judge and a couple other lawyers, at least, right there in the room, with years of legal training and experience, who know the law far, far better than any of the jurors.

The commoners, the untrained laymen, are made to listen to these experts, certainly, but the decision is ultimately theirs.

Being people, the jurors will sometimes screw up. Being people, so will the judges. But random jurors assembled for a specific job and then dismissed once the job is done are a lot less likely than professional judges to think expertise gives them the right to boss people around.

Perhaps we should generalize this principle a little bit? We could call it representative democracy.

Jury GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

I was sent for comment an article to which I will not link, published 10 days ago, where we little people are told, among other things,

  • Our healthcare system is already collapsing.
  • Countries have two options: either they fight it hard now, or they will suffer a massive epidemic.
  • If they choose the epidemic, hundreds of thousands will die. In some countries, millions.
  • And that might not even eliminate further waves of infections.
  • If we fight hard now, we will curb the deaths.

This piece of blatant propaganda article ends with a call to action:

If you agree with this article and want the US Government to take action, please sign the White House petition to implement a Hammer-and-Dance Suppression strategy.

It begins with an appeal to our herd instincts: all the cool kids are descending into terror, we should, too:

This article follow… with over 40 million views and 30 translations. If you agree with this article, consider signing the corresponding White House petition. Over 30 translations available at the bottom. Running list of endorsements here. Over 10 million views so far.

This masterpiece is suppose to be the work of “normal citizens”:

This article has been the result of a herculean effort by a group of normal citizens working around the clock to find all the relevant research available to structure it into one piece, in case it can help others process all the information that is out there about the coronavirus.

The normal citizen under whose name this work appears has an MBA from Stanford, an engineering degree, and heads up a billion dollar company. Doesn’t everybody? Just your average Joe.

We are presented with a bunch of pretty charts backing up the author’s terrifying claims. These charts are the product of a model. This model. Using this model, the author predicts that around 200 million cases of COVID 19 in the US alone, with around 11M deaths, UNLESS WE TAKE DRASTIC ACTION NOW! While I’m not an epidemiologist nor even a doctor, I am a numbers guy and do know models. So I looked it over, played with the assumptions. Here’s what I found: the model assumes

– that 100% of the US population is susceptible to the virus.  Hmmm – I’ve never heard of an infection to which nobody is immune, even in theory. In practice, we all know people – my wife is one – who get exposed to every bug under the sun (e.g., as a school teacher) and never get sick. So COVID 19 is assumed to be worse, in some sense, than all the other stuff floating around at all times.

– that the CASE fatality rate – 4.5% – is the mortality rate.  This weird, if not dishonest, assumption is also made here, where I go for my only-lightly-cooked data: “*Death Rate = (number of deaths / number of cases) = probability of dying if infected by the virus (%).” This is of course ridiculous, and a freshman-level logic error: your chances of dying if infected by the virus is (number of deaths/number of infected persons). Only in the strictly theoretical case where every single person in the world is tested such that ALL ‘cases’ are known, would the case rate equal the true mortality rate. In the real world, the case rate will be higher, most often much, much higher, than the true mortality rate, as infected people with minor symptoms or no symptoms at all are unlikely to become cases. Such people might vastly outnumber the people who do become cases. There are other problems with this approach as well.

– that each infected person will in turn infect another 2.5 people on average. This is known as the R0 of a disease. Now, if you knew how many people were infected at some point in time, and knew when the first infection took place, you could back into this number more or less. Lacking that basic data, which we do lack, this number is basically pulled out of thin air.

I stopped after doing some what-iffing with just these three assumptions. The percentage of people susceptible and the R0 seem to me to be functions of each other to a large extent. The first acts as a cap to the total number of infections – you’ll never get more than everybody infected – while the second is more of a speed thing when coupled with another variable, the numbers of days an infected person is contagious. Together, these variables determine how many infections will occur.

The model is highly sensitive to the fatality rate and the R0. As R0 approaches 1, the epidemic collapses – the spread is so slow as to be invisible, as each person infected infects only one person before recovering or dying. Similarly, reducing the death rate from the ridiculous 4.5% to a more believable rate of 0.5% (correction – I mistyped .05 instead of 0.5 when first posted. Meant 0.5%) or less, and the number of dead falls rapidly. Do both these things, and the projected US deaths fall under from 11 million to a few hundred thousand. Assume that only a relatively small percentage of people are actually susceptible to the virus – on the Diamond Princess, only 18% of the passengers and crew got the disease, even though they were crammed together on a cruise ship for days – and the ceiling for infection falls. (I initially thought it might be so simple as to reduce the total number of infections by 82%, but that doesn’t sound right on reflection.)

In other words, take extreme numbers as inputs, and the model will dutifully spit bad extreme numbers as output. Use more realistic inputs, get much less panicky outputs.

Yet the article treats the extreme case as gospel, and so makes exactly the sort of dramatic claims using emotional language that is the hallmark of anti-science:

  • Our healthcare system is already collapsing. No, it’s not. “Collapsing” is a scare word. What is happening: hospitals in New York City and a few places in Northern Italy have more COVID 19 patients requiring hospitalization than capacity. Resource allocation problems, while real and a potential tragedy for some patients, is not ‘collapsing’. In a few weeks, the issue will pass, based on what happened in Wuhan (which has your basic totalitarian communist socialized medicine situation. Healthcare is not fungible.)
  • Countries have two options: either they fight it hard now, or they will suffer a massive epidemic. Classic Trolly Car Problem forced binary. First, assume outcomes are known – either A or B (and not C through Z) will, not might, happen; then, install a switch: You get to choose! Between A or B! In reality, Japan and Sweden chose a slightly modified A – and nothing much happened; South Korea chose B-Lite, and nothing much happened. Italy and New York City chose A then B by way of some other letters, and it got bad, although not nearly as bad as the article implies, and it’s already getting better – the trends are down in both those places; peak infections are, if not already past, are anticipated to be so within a week or two.
  • If they choose the epidemic, hundreds of thousands will die. In some countries, millions. Not really. See above.
  • And that might not even eliminate further waves of infections. We have the god-like ability to stop future infections? I understand the logic here, but disagree with how much agency we grant to people versus nature doing what nature does. The article give us much more agency here than prudence would dictate.
  • If we fight hard now, we will curb the deaths. Well, some places fighting hard, after the fashion laid out in the article, such as where I live, and there’s nothing like an epidemic here. Some places, such as Japan, hardly did anything at all, have been infected longer than the US – and have 54 total deaths, in a population of 125M that skews old. Magic? Other places seem to have different experiences all over the board. Maybe it depends on other variables? Maybe this model assumes a homogeneity that doesn’t exist in reality?

Ultimately, models are only as useful as their ability to produce useful predictions. You test models against reality, not the other way around, and – this is the hard part – do not give models much standing until and unless they’ve proven useful. The question with this model, as with any model: has reality backed it up? Are things turning out as predicted?

Pretty much ‘no’. As it is now, it looks likely that total COVID 19 deaths in America may peak not at 11M, not 100K, but more like 10K. Unless all hell breaks loose somewhere here outside the hotspots of NYC/Newark, Washington state, Luisiana and three spots in California, total deaths may not hit even half that.

Nothing like the author’s B scenario took place; his predictions even if we did the full fascist lockdown on the day his article was published was for far more deaths than that.

All this ignores the elephant in the room: COVID 19 doesn’t seem to kill anybody – the death total so far is of all deaths where the deceased has or is even suspected to have the infection, regardless of any other conditions. There are only a handful of cases worldwide where some seemingly healthy person in the prime of life got infected and died without any other underlying ailments. The prudent thing would be to wonder if there wasn’t something else going on even in those unusual cases, rather than assigning all deaths where COVID 19 was involved or suspected as epidemic deaths.

This epidemic is 100% propaganda. All around the world, those in love with centralized control have been suffering setbacks; here was an opportunity to reassert themselves that could not be passed up. Plus, the incoherent babbling of Biden and the criminal activities of his son, among other unpleasantries, have been driven from the ‘news’. Just the way the chips fall, I suppose.

Flu & Religious Arguments

Wrote up a long post on the current Epic Death Flu of Death We’re All Gonna Die!, but decided enough is enough. Go read Briggs, if you want to see what I think, only said better & by a more qualified person; as far as the machinations of our self proclaimed betters to destroy the economy before the next election, and their no-longer-unrequited love of fascism, just so long as it’s *their* fascism, see Severian.

So green! So fresh and inviting!

What I’ll contribute, if you want to call it that, is instead the following observation: the panic is driven entirely by religious arguments, specifically, the sort of arguments used during the Reformation and its ongoing aftermath. Bear with me, this might be helpful.

When an old-school Lutheran, say, such as Luther himself, argued that we are saved by faith alone, he could back up that claim with any number of passages from Paul’s letters saying pretty much exactly that. When confronted with the greater number of passages saying that we will be judged by our works, not only found in James but also in the Gospel parables and elsewhere, our traditional Lutheran explains them away: nothing is allowed to throw any shade on the obvious, clearly-stated dogma of Paul, compared to which – in his mind, at least – these other claims are mere trifles.

His interlocutor will next try to undermine his certainty about Paul’s claims, noting the context: Paul is talking to Jewish converts about the works of Jewish law, and arguing against the position that meticulous observation of those laws, and, in particular, such observation by gentile converts to Christianity, is indispensable to salvation. Faith ‘alone’ – a phrase never uttered by Paul – isn’t what Paul is talking about, but rather the idea that the works required, for example, by the Pharisee’s glosses on Scripture have any value in themselves. As he put it in Titus:

10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain…..  Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.

Titus 1:10-16

It would seem, at least to someone not already committed to the Solas, that there’s a lot of room for interpretation in what Paul says to silence “the circumcision group.” For example, that faith and works, analogously to soul and body, never exist separately except in theoretical analysis. Thus, just as the soul finds its ultimate reality in its expression in the body of which it is the substantial form, faith isn’t fully real and cannot grow without works. It’s both/and, not either or. Or so the argument goes.

But – and here’s the point of all this – no argument will be allowed which does not grant primacy to the (advocate’s understanding of the) favored passages from Paul. They are so *clear* that any failure to acknowledge their perspicuity is nothing other than conclusive evidence of the depravity of anyone making such a denial.

And that’s the end of that argument. Nothing is left but the name calling.

This is not to suggest that there isn’t an argument for Sola Fide, only that the argument as usually presented in my experience, and as presented by Luther himself, is a circular Kafka trap: not accepting it is proof you’re simply too depraved to get it.

Thus, those who think the Kung Flu is like the worst epidemic ever, totally justifying anything the government might want to do so long as it saves even *1* life, are convinced that those of us who want to consider the contrary evidence and, most infuriating of all, refuse to panic, are simply eeeevil, too depraved to see the clear truth. Wuhan and Northern Italy are their Scripture; Japan, Germany, and the Diamond Princess are passages to be explained away, and relying on them proves, dammit, that you are out to get us all killed, ought to be silenced, at the very least.

Two other points:

We see the horror of Trolley Car Problem logic lurking everywhere here. It’s A or B, and A saves millions while B condemns those millions to death. Don’t fall for it! Just as in the original faux reasoning used in the example from which this abomination gets its name, this sort of thinking first forces a universe of options down into only one choice, then insists outcomes are certain when they are all but completely unknown. We don’t know the man in the alley or the people on the tracks won’t see the trolley car coming and simply get out of the way; we don’t know if there is a conductor asleep at the switch who just might wake up if we made a bunch of noise; we don’t know these or a hundred other things which always – ALWAYS – make the outcomes of our decisions UNKNOWABLE.

Everything we do is a more or less educated guess, as far as what, if any, lives will be saved. It’s always a balancing act. Decreased economic activity kills people, too, a notion our Left seems congenitally disinclined to understand, but which is nonetheless completely obvious upon inspection. So, make good decisions, knowing it’s a trade off, seeking some less bad and essentially unknowable outcome that is largely independent of anything we may do.

Finally, people talk as if the government has this giant epidemic mitigation dial they can just turn all the way to ‘0 deaths’ if they want – do enough, and nobody dies; do anything less, and the government (specifically, the President) is now responsible for anyone who dies. Projection, meet hubris, at Daddy Issues junction.

Flash Fiction: Unwanted

“Let’s just do it, man.”

That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.

What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?

We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.

“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”

Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.

But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!

“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.

I was impressed.

“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.

If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.

“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.

“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.

“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.

“Why her? She’s a pain.”

“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”

Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.

The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.

It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.

I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”

“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.

Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”

The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.

“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.

“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”

Pause. “2146. April.”

“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?

“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”

“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”

The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.

Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.

“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.

“What the hell’s a Chevy?”

At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.

“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”

“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”

“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”

“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”

“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”

“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”

Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.

“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”

“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”

Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”

Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”

“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”

“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”

“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”

In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.

We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.

Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.

It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.


Such a cool word. Chesterton uses it in Manalive (1912) to describe the stuff Innocent Smith carries with him in his large yellow Gladstone bag; A. Merritt uses it to refer to all the science gear Dr. Walter T. Goodwin is having lugged across the Himalayas in the Metal Monster (1920). These are the only 2 occasions I can recall ever having seen this lovely word, used by two English masters of the English language writing a century ago. Impedimenta carries both the meaning of the tools essential for a job, and something that weighs one down on a journey.

Edwardian 'Gladstone' Bag in Long-Grain Leather at 1stdibs
Gladstone bag. Not yellow. I want one.

I prefer reading books written in English that are at least 75 years old; 100 is better. While American written English was much better back then as well, late 19th/early 20th century English English is like a dip in a cool stream, bracing and refreshing. Even when I disagree with what the author is saying, the language allows me to think I’m engaged with a civilized, clear mind, someone I could argue with over a pint and leave good fellows well met.

This is, perhaps, an expression of what might be called my intellectual impedimenta, that collection of information and habits that are the tools I lug around with me to do the work of trying to understand things.

I hardly consider myself an expert on politics and history (insofar as those two things can be separated), barely and hesitantly championing any truly political positions, yet, with a small bookcase worth of history and politics under my hat, it seems I’m depressingly far more qualified than 99% of folks. Few if any people are qualified to hold strong political opinions about much of anything. The very idea that we are fit to propose or vote on grand, sweeping programs is absurd. I am well aware that I’m not one of the few if any; about the only sweeping program I’m willing to back is the effort to sweep more things down to a local level, where real people can take action on things we have some chance of understanding.

We are told, on the one hand, that voting is a sacred civic duty; we are even instructed to do something the Founding Fathers never dreamt to impose on us: decide who the parties should run for President, or even what Senators should represent our state. In America, not having the ‘right’ to vote makes one sub-human, or at least sub-adult. Voting has been elevated to the one pure definition of complete personhood.

On the other hand, many if not most of us don’t often, if ever, vote; election days are not even national holidays. We get a voter pamphlet and sample ballot, pre-digested information assembled by people we assume know better than us what’s going on, which few of us study for more than a few minutes. Then we fill out a multiple-choice quiz just like all the tests we took in school. Our ‘leaders’ tell us what the right answers are. Team A or Team B? Chocolate or vanilla? Few could tell you what, in terms of policy or goals, we are voting for, in anything other than content-free platitudes, let alone describe how the mechanisms of politics could achieve the goals. We just know we don’t trust the other team.

(Put the two together: if voting determines our personhood, and voting is a trivial exercise in crowd control that most voting-age people skip at least some of the time, just how valuable is our person in the eyes of the state? How does the value of Homo electoribus compare to the value of a child of God? Who is doing the valuing?)

In Manalive (review soon, I hope) Chesterton has his Irish lawyer Michael Moon argue against a brace of officious doctors in their efforts to have the highly eccentric Innocent Smith dragged before a magistrate and committed:

It is true that there’s too much official and indirect power. Often and often the thing a whole nation can’t settle is just the thing a family could settle. Scores of young criminals have been fined and sent to jail when they ought to have been thrashed and sent to bed. Scores of men, I am sure, have had a lifetime at Hanwell when they only wanted a week at Brighton. 

Chesterton, Manalive

Next: I don’t really know much math, but I do seem to have that math intuition, if that’s what it is, that allows some people to spot unreasonable numbers on inspection: like orders of magnitude off outputs, given the inputs, as we saw with reporters imagining Bloomberg, by spending $500M on his election bid, somehow spent a million dollars per American. Or that medical industry profits could pay for universal health care.

Or that a few thousand people sadly dying out of a Chinese population of more than a billion people means we’re all going to die! I mean, die soon, rather than eventually.

Here’s a little less obvious a case, explained by the admirable Mike Flynn. He presents an elegant example of the problem of very accurate but not perfect testing done over a huge number of people. Basically, small errors, such as false positives only 5% of the time, will mean 50,000 false positives when a million people are tested. If the infection rate is low – and, right now, the infection rate for the dreaded Kung Flu is pretty low – then the number of false positives can be in the same neighborhood as the number of people actually infected. The infection rate will be overstated because it will be confused with the ‘tested positive’ numbers, which include all the false positives. So, mass testing will tend to significantly overstate the number of people infected, even if the accuracy – the sensitivity – of the test is 95%.

And then there are false negatives, too. Mr. Flynn explains it all much better. The real take-away is that numbers need to be understood; measurements are ‘facts’, meaning, ‘things made’ and most definitely do not speak for themselves. One of my favorite examples is butterflies. A few years back, it was reported that a certain butterfly population had fallen some ridiculously accurate percentage, something like 73.6%. Because of this, we were assured we were all doomed unless we committed to Do Something Right Now.

It all begins to fall apart as soon as you ask: how do you count millions of butterflies? One by one? How do you know you didn’t miss a whole bunch? Slightly, but only slightly, more subtle: how do you determine the normal range of butterfly population fluctuations? Unless you can count them, and count them for years and years, through thick and thin, how can you know that it doesn’t just so happens that, some years, there are lots more butterflies than other years?

You don’t need much more than that to start getting more than a little suspicious of an awful lot of what passes for Science! these days.