Month: April 2020

Politics and Ignorance

We are at a very interesting stage in the Coronavirus crisis.

Most of the big important questions are still not answered.

How many people will it kill if left unchecked? Anywhere from about 0.1% to about 10% of the population.

How long until we have a vaccine? Anywhere from six months to never.

Will it die out once enough people are immune, or stick around for ever, or come back from time to time as it mutates? Don’t know.

How much effect does intensive hospital treatment have on the death rate? Definitely some. Maybe a lot. Don’t know.

Will we have treatments that will significantly reduce the death rates? Don’t know.

Will it have similar impact all over the world, or is its geographic range restricted? Don’t know.

What does it take to stop it spreading out of control? Can it be done by just being careful, wearing masks in public, and quarantining detected cases, or do all group activities need to be drastically curtailed? Not sure.

In spite of this, governments need to act. Policies need to be made, and, with all this democracy malarkey, people are getting attached to policy proposals and arguing very strongly for one or another. In fact, people often are getting more strongly and emotionally attached than usual, I assume because this more obviously is a life-or-death issue than most political questions.

I am not (yet) really attached. Given all this ignorance, policy choice is very sensitive to estimates of the probable answers to all the open questions, as well as being sensitive to all the values and principles that make other political questions controversial. With a few exceptions, I don’t think any government has acted in a way I can say is very bad. The exceptions are very widespread — all governments were caught underprepared. Most governments ought to have been quicker to impose restrictions on movement of people into the country — by far the most efficient way of protecting from any infectious disease is to stop it getting in. But once we hit the pandemic phase, I can see good arguments for any policy we have seen, from doing very little and letting it run its course, to temporarily shutting down all non-essential activity until we know more. It might even turn out that the optimal policy is to let it rip, falsify the statistics, and pretend that it’s gone away (as some are accusing the Chinese government of doing). Governments actively discouraging masks seems almost definitely a bad idea, and the tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good is obstructing execution of policy in the matter of equipment, treatments and testing. But beyond that most governments have responded in reasonable ways.

Where I am getting a bit excited is where people, in attempting to argue for one policy or another, are claiming that facts are established that really aren’t.

The big one is the impact on hospitals. I wrote on March the 12th that what we were expecting was:

The government view is that [Italy] is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.

That’s still probably the most likely projection: currently the UK is getting about 6000 confirmed cases per day, that could well go up tenfold: we could have a million people sick at once and there’s no reasonable way to put them in hospitals and treat them, so mostly they will be on their own.

But we absolutely do not know that. No population we know of has reached that stage, not even the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

What is getting me upset is that some people are saying this is already happening. I’m pretty sure it isn’t. It’s a reasonable projection, based on our limited knowledge, but I’ve seen no evidence anywhere has actually got to that yet, and there should be evidence. I’ve had arguments on twitter with people claiming a few breathless TV news reports from Italian towns prove it, but TV news is always stripped of context and presented to give a strong impression. Certainly, a few hospitals have been reduced to states of chaos, but that actually happens from time to time. Britain’s health service is notorious, but I’m sure it’s not the only one where a much smaller shock than that which we are anticipating from the peak of the pandemic can temporarily throw a single hospital into chaos.

(I’m also getting upset by people saying “the pandemic is a nothingburger”, but that is not generally coming from people I otherwise respect).

This really does bring up the parallel with climate science. Because it was once in the same place. My view is that the original modelling of the greenhouse effect in the 1980s was good science, and the idea that rising CO2 concentrations could affect the climate in a very damaging way was very much worth worrying about. But by say 1990 that is where we were. We had some models, some very questionable historical data, and a threat that demanded we take precautions and find out more.

Then it got political. The oil companies, very unwisely, tried to get the idea dismissed. Anti-capitalists got very excited about a reason to suppress industrial civilisation. And everyone claimed the facts supporting their position were known. In reality, we still didn’t know anything.

Over the last 30 years, the alarming climate models have been completely invalidated, the paleoclimatology claiming that current conditions are unprecedented has been debunked, but none of it matters because it is now simply a political question. People lined up on one side or the other of the open scientific questions because their enemies were on the other side, and no new information would have shifted them. Most strikingly, there are people claiming that the climate has already changed by so much that it is obvious to direct personal experience, when the officially measured change in average temperature over a human lifetime is way below what anyone could actually notice.

That’s what the claim that COVID-19 is already causing health system collapse reminds me of. Now, if it does get to that point in the next 4 or 8 weeks, which of course is quite likely, then it doesn’t matter. Some people just anticipated it. But what if it doesn’t? How do we persuade somebody that it isn’t going to happen, when they’ve been defining themselves politically by the claim that it happened already? The big question in climate, the only one now that really interests me, is what it will take for the alarmists to give in. If the Coronavirus fizzles out, which as of today is still a possibility, what will it take for people to admit it?

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