Pandering to the public’s ignorance

Andrew Gelman has a post discussing a website called “Panda”, which provides a wealth of misinformation about Covid-19. What makes the site of interest is that its board contains some pretty big names, including former Trump advisor Scott Altas, as well as some Stanford University professors:

The board also includes, among others, Stanford medical school professor Jay Bhattacharya, Stanford biology professor Michael Levitt, and Michael Yeadon, a retired pharmacologist and drug company executive who, according to the website, “believes the pandemic was over in the summer”?

Gelman points out that until a few days ago the site was discouraging people from using Covid vaccines:

There was also this, from the organization’s webpage entitled, “You asked, we answered,” under the heading, “Would you have the vaccine yourself?”:

As for any other medication, a vaccine must be shown to be safe and effective before it is introduced to the general public. Vaccines take 10 to 15 years on average to be developed. . . .

Currently, there is no one for whom the benefit would outweigh the risk of these vaccines—even the most vulnerable, elderly nursing home patients.

. . .  I guess this statement was a bit of an embarrassment after one of the members of the Panda scientific advisory board publicly stated that he and his mother had received the vaccine. The above link is from 22 Jan 2021, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Go to that page now and that whole section has been removed.

OK, fine. But . . . also no acknowledgment of their earlier ridiculous statement.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Even the revised statement is loaded with mistakes:

the mortality overall is relatively mild compared to past severe pandemics such as the 1918-19 Spanish flu and several more recent influenza pandemics such as the Hong Kong flu of 1968 and the Beijing Flu of 1993. The UK government even declared that “[a]s of 19 March 2020, COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID) in the UK”.

Given that the overall statement was revised within the past week, I’m not sure why they still rely on estimates from March 2020.  In any case, Covid-19 is an order of magnitude worse than the Hong Kong Flu of 1968.  There was very little social distancing in 1968, and without social distancing the death toll from Covid in the US would already exceed a million.  (About 34,000 Americans died of the Hong Kong flu, although the number would be several times larger today, as there are now far more older Americans.)

The low mortality across the South East Asia and Oceania super region is likely driven by other factors, possibly prior immunity.

I don’t think there’s any evidence that prior immunity explains the success of Australia or New Zealand.  A recent outbreak in Melbourne spread rapidly before being brought under control, and of course Wuhan was devastated back in January.  Does anyone seriously believe that all of China except Wuhan had natural immunity?  (Almost all Chinese Covid deaths were in the Wuhan area.)  Yes, some countries may have some natural immunity, but it’s disingenuous to minimize the role of behavioral changes, which obviously played a huge role in China, Australia, and elsewhere.

We are unaware of any studies using sound methodology that show a benefit for masks in the general population. The only COVID-19-specific mask study using sound methodology found no significant impact of mask wearing on the spread of the disease.

If you follow the link you find a Danish study that did not even test whether masks help to slow the spread of the disease.  To do so, you’d have to test whether mask wearers are less likely to spread the disease.  Did they even read the abstract?

The fatality rate in most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 is very similar to that of the flu. COVID-19 is less severe than the flu for children and young people and more severe than the flu for the elderly with severe underlying illness.

I’d call this misleading, albeit not false.  It’s true if by “elderly” you mean a 55-year old man.  However for older middle-aged people, especially men, Covid is far more dangerous than the flu.  Indeed it’s not even close.

And this is just ridiculous:

On the other hand, it has been observed that winter respiratory mortality patterns are usually associated with a single dominant pathogen at any time, so it could be that (this year at least) COVID-19 has simply supplanted influenza and is, in the main, taking the lives that would have previously been lost to influenza.

New York and New Jersey already have more than 65,000 Covid deaths, despite widespread social distancing, and yet they contain less than 10% of the US population.  The entire US usually has far less than 65,000 flu deaths each year.

This is also extremely misleading, if not outright false:

There is no clear evidence in the literature showing that asymptomatic transmission is a major driver of the pandemic. The poorly supported theory that suggested this, was the main logic behind lockdown policies, which in any event have been shown to have no beneficial effect on death curves.

The primary worry was that presymptomatic people would spread the disease, but according the Panda those people are not “asymptomatic”:

An asymptomatic person is one who never develops clinical symptoms at all (no sneezing, coughing, fever, loss of taste or smell). This is distinct from a presymptomatic person, who begins to show symptoms after the incubation period of a few days.

A meaningless distinction.  Almost every average person would assume the term ‘asymptomatic’ applies to the presymptomatic.  People without symptoms often spread Covid.

However, many countries are recording COVID-19 official deaths if there is past evidence of a positive PCR test, or the patient is considered “probable” or “presumed’ to have COVID-19, even where the cause of death is clearly unrelated and symptoms are not present. This generous diagnosing can inflate the number of deaths in the data. Countries categorize deaths as “COVID deaths” using different criteria, so comparisons of such statistics are of questionable validity.

In fact, excess death data suggests that most countries have severely undercounted Covid deaths, and also that the excess deaths cannot be explained by other factors like suicide or people not getting cancer screenings.

Gelman suggests that this website has links to the conservative movement.  One thing I’ve noticed over the past year is that conservatives seem obsessed with minimizing the severity of Covid-19, and also seem interested in showing that measures to prevent Covid-19 (such as masks) are not likely to be effective.  This “head in the sand” approach has done a great deal to discredit the entire conservative movement with the well-informed part of the population.  That’s a shame, as there are areas (such as economic policy) where conservatives have lots of good ideas.  But they are rapidly losing votes among the college educated part of the population, and this sort of misinformation doesn’t help.

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Misinformation and foreign policy

A few weeks back I did a post that discussed the first of Philippe Lemoine’s four essays on China’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic. Now I’ve had a chance to read all four of what will likely become the definitive account of China’s role in the pandemic. I cannot recommend them highly enough.  Over at MoneyIllusion I discuss the second essay, and here I’d like to discuss the concluding paragraphs of the fourth essay:

I have examined in detail the accusations made against China in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. I have concluded that there is a grain of truth to some of them—mistakes were certainly made in the early days of the crisis and the Chinese authorities have not always been forthcoming with information about the epidemic. Nevertheless, a careful review of the evidence suggests that most of the allegations are either exaggerated, unsubstantiated, or nonsensical, and sometimes they are all three. In particular, the claim that China is somehow responsible for the botched response to the pandemic in most Western countries doesn’t withstand even cursory scrutiny. Yet this claim continues to be made—not only by government officials eager to scapegoat China for their own lamentable failures, but also by journalists and citizens who ought to be more concerned about how badly their own countries have been misgoverned during this public health emergency.

I have highlighted several instances in which Western officials and journalists have misrepresented or distorted evidence. This may be a consequence of confirmation bias, fear of being accused of helping China or a tacit assumption that, since the Chinese regime is evil and hated, there’s nothing particularly wrong with dissembling to make it look bad. But, whatever the reason, this disregard for accuracy is dangerous, particularly on the part of journalists, who ought to at least strive to pursue truth irrespective of their personal ideological leanings. And it has contributed to a feedback loop I have observed over the past few months—people blame China for the pandemic because they adopt low evidentiary standards when it comes to accusations against China, which makes them hysterical about China, which in turn leads them to further lower their evidentiary standards, which makes them believe even more nonsensical accusations against China, etc. If people would only pause to consider whether or not the accusations against China make sense, they might realise that many of them do not.

As I wrote in the introduction to this series, there are many reasons to dislike and distrust the Chinese regime. But when dislike and distrust disable the ability to parse evidence and think clearly, they disfigure our understanding of reality. Hatred of the Chinese regime has become so strong and pervasive in the West—especially in the US, where China is seen as its main geopolitical foe—that it creates incentives that allow unsubstantiated allegations to spread largely unchecked. Indeed, not only does this prejudice mean that people adopt a lower evidentiary standard to examine such allegations, but anyone who points out they are unsubstantiated risks being accused of being China’s dupe. As the rivalry between the US and China grows, we should expect disinformation about China to become increasingly common. This is especially true since, as we have seen repeatedly in these essays, China hawks in the US administration are clearly trying to influence public opinion about China by leaking misleading information. China’s regime is appalling in many ways, and it’s understandable that people feel no sympathy toward it, but this fact should not make us accept dubious claims just because they fit our preconceptions. On the contrary, knowing that we feel that way and that it will unconsciously make us less cautious when evaluating claims that cast China in a dark light, we should be extra careful before we accept such claims.

When we look back at history, there are numerous examples of a sort of spiral of misinformation, where actual flaws in a foreign regime lead us to become too credulous about further accusations made against that regime.  For instance, if Saddam Hussein is known to have tortured people and to have repeatedly lied about his military activities, who wants to go out on a limb and defend him from the specific accusation that he is developing WMDs?  A few people (including some of my fellow Econlog bloggers) might have the courage to ask for proof of charges made against highly unpopular regimes, but not many.  History shows that if we base our foreign policy decisions on false accusations against unpopular governments, it usually does not end well.

Here’s The Economist:

Thanks to its high quality and low prices, Huawei’s telecoms gear is popular around the world. Not in America, where the Chinese giant is banished over (unsubstantiated) fears that it could be used by spies in Beijing to eavesdrop on Americans. But expelling Huawei from the United States—and pressing allies like Australia and Britain to do the same—was not enough for the Trump administration. It seems to want Huawei dead.

It’s certainly possible that Huawei is spying on the US, but given Lemoine’s documentation of how the US government has repeatedly lied about China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting completely unsubstantiated rumors that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, why should we accept on faith that Huawei is a national security threat to the US?

And what are we to make of the fact that the US government has seemed willing to use Huawei as a stick to achieve its trade negotiation demands?  What does it suggest if the US government is willing to do something that they claim would hurt our national security in exchange for a few more soybean exports?

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