On “armchair epidemiology”

Update (March 31): Since commenter after commenter seems to have missed my point—or rather, rounded the point to something different that I didn’t say—let me try one more time. My faith in official pronouncements from health authorities, and in institutions like the CDC and the FDA, was clearly catastrophically misplaced—and if that doesn’t force significant revisions to my worldview, then I’m beyond hope. Maybe the failures are because these organizations are at the mercy of political incompetents—meaning ultimately Trump and his cronies. Or maybe the rot started long before Trump. Maybe it’s specific to the US, or maybe it’s everywhere. I still don’t know the answers to those questions.

On the other hand, my faith in my ability to listen to individual people, whether they’re expert epidemiologists or virologists or just technologists or rationalists or anyone else (who in turn listened to the experts), and to say “yes, this person clearly has good judgment and has thought about it carefully, and if they’re worried then I should be too”—my faith in that has only gone up. The problem is simply that I didn’t do enough of that back in January and February, and when I did, I didn’t sufficiently act on it.

End of Update

On Feb. 4, a friend sent me an email that read, in part:

Dr. A,
What do you make of this coronavirus risk? … I don’t know what level of precaution is necessary!  Please share your view.  

This was the first time that I’d been prompted to give this subject any thought whatsoever. I sent a reply two minutes later:

For now, I think the risk from the ordinary flu is much much greater! But worth watching to see if it becomes a real pandemic.

Strictly speaking, this reply was “correct”—even “reasonable” and “balanced,” admitting the possibility of changing circumstances. Yet if I could go back in time, I’d probably send a slightly different message—one that would fare better in the judgment of history. Something like this, maybe:

HOLY SHIT!!!!!—GET YOUR PARENTS SOMEWHERE SAFE—CANCEL ALL TRAVEL PLANS—STOCK UP ON FOOD AND MASKS AND HAND SANITIZERS. SELL ALL STOCK YOU OWN!!! SHORT THE MARKET IF YOU KNOW HOW, OTHERWISE GET CASH AND BONDS. HAVE AN ISOLATED PLACE TO ESCAPE TO. IF YOU’RE FEELING ALTRUISTIC, JOIN GROUPS MAKING THEIR OWN MASKS AND VENTILATORS.

DO NOT RELY ON OFFICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS, OR REASSURING ARTICLES FROM MAINSTREAM SOURCES LIKE VOX OR THE WASHINGTON POST. THEY’RE FULL OF IT. THE CDC AND OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES ARE ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL, HOLLOWED-OUT SHELLS OF WHAT YOU IMAGINE THEM TO BE. FOR ALL IT WILL DO IN ITS MOMENT OF ULTIMATE NEED, IT WOULD BE BETTER IF THE CDC NEVER EXISTED.

WHO THEN SHOULD YOU LISTEN TO? CONTRARIAN, RATIONALIST NERDS AND TECH TYCOONS ON SOCIAL MEDIA. BILL GATES, BALAJI SRINIVASAN, PAUL GRAHAM, GREG COCHRAN, ROBIN HANSON, SARAH CONSTANTIN, ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY, NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS. NO, NOT ALL SUCH PEOPLE—NOT ELON MUSK, FOR EXAMPLE—BUT YOU’LL DO RIDICULOUSLY BETTER THAN AVERAGE THIS WAY.

BASICALLY, THE MORE SNEERCLUB WOULD SNEER AT A GIVEN PERSON, THE MORE THEY’D CALL THEM AN AUTODIDACT STEMLORD DUNNING-KRUGER ASSHOLE WHO’S THE EMBODIMENT OF EVERYTHING WRONG WITH NEOLIBERAL CAPITALISM, THE MORE YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THAT PERSON RIGHT NOW FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR AND YOUR LOVED ONES’ FUCKING LIVES.

DON’T WORRY: WITHIN 6-8 WEEKS, WHAT THE CONTRARIANS ARE SAYING TODAY WILL BE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. THE PUBLICATIONS THAT NOW SNEER AT PANDEMIC PREPPERS WILL TURN AROUND AND SNEER AT THE IRRESPONSIBLE NON-PREPPERS, WITHOUT EVER ADMITTING ERROR. WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE BEEN AT WAR WITH OCEANIA—OR RATHER CORONIA. TRUTH, OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS, AND PROGRESSIVE POLITICS WILL GET BACK INTO ALIGNMENT JUST LIKE THEY NORMALLY ARE, AND WE’LL ALL BE SHARING MEMES JUSTLY DENOUNCING TRUMP AND THE CRAVEN REPUBLICAN SENATORS AND EVANGELICAL PASTORS AND NUTTY CONSPIRACY THEORISTS WHO DON’T CARE HOW MANY LIVES THEY SACRIFICE WITH THEIR DENIALS.

BUT EVEN THOUGH THE ENLIGHTENED MAINSTREAM WILL FIGURE OUT THE TRUTH IN A MONTH OR SO—AND EVEN THOUGH THAT’S FAR BETTER THAN OUR IDIOT PRESIDENT AND MILLIONS OF HIS FOLLOWERS, WHO WILL UNDERSTAND ONLY AFTER THE TRENCHES OVERFLOW WITH BODIES, IF THEN—EVEN SO, WE DON’T HAVE A MONTH. IF YOU WANT TO BE AHEAD OF THE SENSIBLE MAINSTREAM, THEN ALMOST BY DEFINITION, THAT MEANS YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT, CRAZY-SOUNDING ICONOCLASTS: TO THOSE WHO, UNLIKE YOU AND ALSO UNLIKE ME, HAVE DEMONSTRATED THAT THEY DON’T CARE IF PEOPLE SNEER AT THEM.

Of course, I would never have sent such an email, and not only because of the bold and all-caps. My whole personality stands against every sentence. I’ve always taken my cues from “mainstream, reasonable, balanced” authorities, in any subject where I’m not personally expert. That heuristic has generally been an excellent way to maximize expected rightness. But when it fails … holy crap!

Now, and for the rest of my life, I’ll face the question: what was wrong with me, such that I would never have sent a “nutty” email like the one above? Can I fix it?

More specifically, was my problem intellectual or emotional? I lean toward the latter. By mid-to-late February, as more and more of my smartest friends started panicking and telling me why I should too, I got intellectually fully on board with the idea that millions of people might die as the new virus spread around the world, and I affirmed as much on Facebook and elsewhere. And yet it still took me a few more weeks to get from “millions could die” to “HOLY SHIT MILLIONS COULD DIE—PANIC—DROP EVERYTHING ELSE—BUILD MORE VENTILATORS!!!!

A viral article implores us to “flatten the curve of armchair epidemiology”—that is, to listen only to authoritive sources like the CDC, not random people spouting on social media. This was notable to me for being the diametric opposite of the actual lesson of the past two months. It would be like taking the lesson from the 2008 financial crisis that from now on, you would only trust serious rating agencies, like Moody’s or Standard & Poor.

Oh, but I forgot to tell you the punchline. A couple days ago, the same friend who emailed me on February 4, emailed again to tell me that both of her parents (who live outside the US) now have covid-19. Her father had to go to the emergency room and tested positive. Her mother stayed home with somewhat milder symptoms. Given the overloaded medical system in their country, neither can expect a high standard of care. My friend has spent the past few days desperately trying to get anyone from the hospital on the phone.

This post represents my apology to her. Like, it’s one thing to be so afraid of the jeers of the enlightened that you feign asexuality and live as an ascetic for a decade. It’s worse to be so afraid that you fail adequately to warn your friends when you see an exponential function coming to kill their loved ones.

248 Responses to “On “armchair epidemiology””

  1. Tim McCormack Says:

    In late January I was mildly concerned, and by mid-February I was making sure we had done basic prep. I started thinking about neighborhood resilience a little by early March, but overall I just sort of… stopped. I keep wondering why I didn’t sit down and extrapolate on how bad this might be, and what more I could have done to predict other things I should have done, such as stocking up on nice-to-haves (not just basic caloric needs) and giving friends and relatives a heads-up. I certainly didn’t do anything with my finances, other than check how much cash I had on hand.

    And I suppose it’s not too late. I bet a lot will happen in the next weeks, months, and years that will have been perfectly predictable, but vaguely surprising at the time, since pandemics are so outside of our usual experience. I might do a joint brainstorming session with some friends, and I’d be curious to hear what others come up with.

  2. Daniel Says:

    I think a substantial part of this is that many of us have a somewhat rational fear of overreacting and being judged for it. For example I was at a faculty lunch in mid February, and I said that I’d heard some discussion of the APS March meeting being cancelled and I thought this was a good idea. Several people laughed, and the department chair said in front of the whole department that I was “fear-mongering”.

  3. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, if anyone ever wondered why I despise SneerClub and woke Twitter, in ways that might seem wildly out of proportion to their actual importance in the world … well, you now have your answer. The people who get called clueless techbros, asshats, and a thousand other names on those forums were overwhelmingly represented among the people who turned out to be the clearest and rightest about the coronavirus from the beginning. And this is so directly consequential that, even if the rationalist techbro asshats were wrong about everything else in their entire lives (which I don’t think they were), being right this one time would more than cancel it out. Furthermore, the very qualities that the techbros get attacked for—e.g., arrogant reliance on their own reason and math abilities, refusal to defer to the authorities in other fields—were precisely the qualities that caused them to be unpopularly right this time. I might someday forgive the sneerers for targeting me personally, but I can never forgive them for so directly targeting our civilization’s error-correcting machinery, at what might end up being a huge cost in lives.

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  6. Sebastian Oberhoff Says:

    I’m not sure I understand the message you’re trying to send. Surely the armchair epidemiologist currently leading the country shouldn’t be heeded. Just the fact that the CDC has proven itself incompetent doesn’t extend to the entire profession.

  7. Scott Says:

    Sebastian #6: There were many epidemiologists and virologists and other medical experts who were extremely right extremely early on. Scott Gottlieb is a prominent example; another is Michael Lin, who gave the MIT CSAIL Hot Topics lecture immediately following mine. (Mine, on quantum supremacy, was the last in-person one; Lin’s, on covid19, was the first online one.) Almost invariably, alas, these were not the medical professionals who had actual power at WHO or CDC or other relevant organizations. And that will now be remembered forever (certainly by me).

    Yes, Trump is both a mental toddler and a horrifying ghoul who’d send a million grandmothers to their deaths to keep the stock market up for one more day. But unlike what I said in this post, that was something I already knew since before Trump was president, so didn’t need to update on.

  8. Dave Says:

    Four days before you responded to your friend’s email, the person you refer to as “our idiot President” announced that the US would bar entry to people arriving from China, in defiance of the recommendations of such august organizations as the World Health Organization.

    Just sayin’.

  9. David Appell Says:

    How about telling your friend to listen to and read the health care professionals?

    While he’s at it he can ask for their views and advice on quantum computing.

  10. Scott Says:

    Dave #8: And that, as we now know, was a wildly inadequate response. Indeed, the screening of people arriving from abroad, which he hastily announced later, was worse than useless, since it created huge crowds at airports, perfect for infection. What would’ve made a difference was testing, testing, testing early on. Why didn’t he tell the FDA to let anyone test, as soon as it became clear that the CDC had royally screwed up?

  11. Vince P Says:

    So sorry to hear about your friend. . . If somebody asked you today what your thoughts were in terms of navigating the coming months, what would you suggest (in all caps or otherwise)… aside from contributing to efforts to build more ventilators?

  12. Scott Says:

    David Appell #9: The question is which medical professionals. The whole point is that one can no longer outsource one’s judgment on that crucial question to something like “trust organizations like the CDC,” and that this is now a matter of life and death. Of course one shouldn’t listen to some natural healing quack either. But I’ll gladly tell my friend to listen to, e.g., Scott Gottlieb or Michael Lin rather than Robert Redfield. Or better yet, since she was worrying about covid several weeks before I was, she should tell me who to listen to!

    In quantum computing, I took some stances that were pretty controversial at the time—for example, against D-Wave’s ability to get speedups for optimization problems, for the feasibility of demonstrating quantum supremacy with a sampling problem—that I think it’s fair to say were later vindicated. If I’d been wrong on these matters, I think the same questions would arise for me as now arise for the ‘experts’ who told everyone that covid would be no worse than a seasonal flu, there was no reason to think it was spreading widely in the US, testing was indicated only for those who’d recently traveled to China, masks wouldn’t help, etc.

  13. Rps Says:

    Ouch! This is basically Spider Man’s origin story, except the super power is trusting models and reason over authority and experience. On the other hand, how often would you go wrong if you followed reason and models over experience all the time?

  14. Oleg S. Says:

    So, going back to contrarians, and attempts to predict the obvious exponential trends: isn’t it clear now that the system we have — with CDC, FDA, Vox and Trump — just cannot continue? How much more Chernobyls do we have to experience to see through it? I’m sorry, but this is my caps + bold.

  15. David R Karger Says:

    Scott, I’d like a more rigorous analysis. You’re saying: a number of people considered not-reliable turned out to be right this time, so we should trust them in the future. But how many of the people considered not-reliable turned out to be *wrong* this time? You can always find someone whose random guesses were correct last time, which gives no evidence that they’ll be right next time.

  16. JimV Says:

    I think (hope) my response at that time would have been something like, “I don’t know. What are you asking me for? Ask your doctor.” Not a great answer either, but I slightly prefer it to either of the posted options. Not just because you exaggerated the second one to make a point, but because seeming to advocate panic and hoarding, even in satire, and I realize it was not meant seriously, doesn’t appeal to me even if warranted. What’s the point of hoarding toilet paper and selling all your stocks if civilization is going to survive, and how much would that help if it doesn’t? Maybe to sell the hoarded supplies on the black market and buy stocks again when they’re low and come out of the pandemic richer, assuming civilization will survive, but it seems to me co-operation rather than competition is what holds civilizations together.

    I guess the ideal response would be to advocate working together, calling your elected representatives, donating to appropriate charities, trying to help see that plans are made and resources allocated, locally and nationally–that sort of thing. Not that I would have been thoughtful enough to make such a reply.

    Thanks for the post. Good blog reading material is getting harder to find these days. While I reacted to it (in this comment) in a different direction, I appreciate having it to react to.

    It was interesting to hear that the Obama administration had a pandemic plan and people appointed to be ready to implement it. Herr Drumpf will have a lot to answer for when the history of this time is written–unless he gets to write it.

    As others have written, Trump was never a community organizer or military officer, or even a good manager, just a salesman–probably the one of the least qualifying professions for running a government (although useful in obtaining the position).

  17. Kevin Zhou Says:

    This blog post is making dangerous overgeneralizations. There were plenty of experts that said this was going to be huge, even back in January. I know because I read their reports back then and started prepping!

    Yes, some people turned out to be wrong, but that’s because there was understandably a large range in expert opinion back then, because the situation was more uncertain back then. Yes, Vox put out some bad takes rather late, but Vox isn’t synonymous with expertise!

    It’s important to remember this because later, you’re going to start to hear bloviating from politicians who failed to act even when it was obvious they should have. “None of the experts knew this was coming.” “Everything that went wrong was solely the fault of $enemy_country or $rival_party.”

  18. Scott Says:

    David Karger #15: I think the Bayesian update that we should all do in favor of the reliability of people who were unpopularly right about this is significant, and it’s positive. The more so the more fine-grained was their rightness (e.g., if they were right for the right reasons and also about various subsidiary questions, and if they recommended the right actions).

    Provided we agree about that zeroth-order statement, I’m happy for the magnitude of the update to be left between each individual and his or her prior. 🙂

    And needless to say, wacky contrarians who were wrong about this get no boost or a negative boost, to whatever extent one previously took them seriously.

    All I’m advocating, really, is to take the ordinary adjustment you do when you see that someone was right or wrong about some matter of ordinary importance, and multiply it by 1000x or so. At any rate that’s what I’m doing!

    (And how should people update about me? I think the following would be fair: “He’s too fearful of embarrassment to serve as a reliable early warning system for civilization-wide catastrophes, not that he ever claimed to be anything more than a quantum complexity theorizing nebbish. On the other hand, like Bertrand Russell abandoning his pacifist absolutism in 1940, at least he’s able to recognize when others are righter than he is and course-correct.”)

  19. marxbro Says:

    “BASICALLY, THE MORE SNEERCLUB WOULD SNEER AT A GIVEN PERSON, THE MORE THEY’D CALL THEM AN AUTODIDACT STEMLORD DUNNING-KRUGER ASSHOLE WHO’S THE EMBODIMENT OF EVERYTHING WRONG WITH NEOLIBERAL CAPITALISM”

    Surely neoliberal capitalism has a large role to play in the propagation of this virus. Just look at all the people who are having to choose between their jobs and their health right now; continuing to work in a dangerous situation just because they’re afraid they wont make rent. Have you read any Marxist analysis of this crisis?

  20. uhoh Says:

    My intellectual-emotional disconnect over the past months is also what I find the most striking. I remember saying things in late January like “eventually everyone in the world will get it” and at the same time not even considering moving my investments to cash. I had a post on social media on March 9 asking my friends how many in the US they expected to die from corona in 2020. I went for 30,000. My was literally this: everyone in the country will get it, and at 1% fatality, that makes 3 million, but that sounds kaaa-raaaazy, so I’m going to chicken out by two orders of magnitude and go with 30,000. I literally wrote that I was chickening out from my logical analysis. I just emotionally believed the eagles would swoop in and rescue everyone.

    It’s like when I pack for a conference in a different climate. I read the weather forecasts and believe I’m taking them into account but when I arrive I realize I was only able to bring myself halfway towards packing the right clothes.

    I now see that the gap between my pretty accurate analytical self and my polyanna-ish emotional self is really big.

  21. Lorenzo Says:

    I think the right update to make is not about the experts, but about the possibility of a pandemic like this. I don’t think I speak for a minority when it I say that it was simply hard to imagine this being a possibility.

  22. Scott Says:

    Kevin Zhou #17: The post talked about specific sources that were right, and other specific sources that were wrong. Obviously, the point now is to update in favor of sources like the ones that were right early on—including the many biomedical experts whose expertise caused them to be right! On the other hand, do you agree that we should now update away from trusting the CDC, which just world-historically bungled the biggest test in its history?

    For my part, here’s what I’ve learned from this episode: that I’d rather trust a single medical expert who seems smart and honest and whose logic I fully understand, than an organization of a thousand medical experts that’s vulnerable to political and bureaucratic pressure.

    You worry that my post makes “dangerous overgeneralizations.” For my part, as soon as I feel like someone is calibrating their statements about the coronavirus using criteria other than “true” versus “false” (for example: “responsible” versus “dangerous”), that’s when I lose my trust in them.

    Shall we consider the sterling track record of the people who think in terms of “responsible” versus “dangerous”?

    – “It would be dangerous to make people panic by telling them that the virus is spreading out of control and could kill millions.”

    – “It would be dangerous to talk about the estimated number of cases, so let’s focus only on confirmed cases.”

    – “It would be dangerous to let any random organization do its own tests. Tests need careful review by the FDA to ensure they’re reliable.”

    – “It would be dangerous to let people order tests at home. So let’s make them sit in the same room coughing on each other while they wait to get tested.”

    – “It would be dangerous to tell the public that masks offer protection, since health workers need the masks more. So let’s lie and tell them that masks don’t help.”

    Is there any possible conclusion except that sometimes, what’s dangerous is responsible and what’s responsible is dangerous?

    I was reading an interview with a historian of the 1918 Spanish flu, who said the ultimate lesson of that tragedy is that, in a crisis, governments and health organizations need to throw away the debased concept of “risk communication” and just tell the truth. It’s a shame that, a century later, so many still haven’t learned that lesson.

  23. Scott Says:

    marxbro #19: I’m prepared to make one of the largest concessions that I’ve ever made to Marxism about anything. I think that right now, a command-and-control system like China’s would be preferable to what we have in the US. On the other hand, I think that a true laissez-faire system would also be preferable right now to what we have in the US! And ultimately, I’m much more interested in the competence of the actual people in charge than I am in which “ism” they work under: indeed, right now I care about the “ism” only insofar as it affects the leaders’ competence.

    What we had in the US, during the crucial squandered month of February, was “the worst of all worlds.” That is, we had a breathtakingly incompetent federal government that

    (1) couldn’t respond to the crisis—couldn’t even manufacture paper masks, or scale up a simple test that presented no problems for other countries, let alone building new hospitals in 10 days like China did, and yet

    (2) also wouldn’t let private companies or philanthropists solve these problems, by immediately waiving the regulations that prevented them from doing so.

    Neither centralized nor decentralized, this is a uniquely American “third way” that will be characterized by large piles of corpses.

  24. George Hemington Says:

    Dr. Aaronson,

    I’m writing this as probably the most active moderator on SneerClub in recent times. Please, you have a serious problem with some of the stuff you’re ascribing to that subreddit here. This isn’t just a plea for you to take stock on your own mental health and inclinations, it’s a plea for you to consider the people who occasionally blow off steam there because we’re frustrated and horrified by some of the things that people you list as mere “RATIONALIST, CONTRARIAN NERDS”.

    I’m a gay/bisexual/queer dude who originally got into the SneerClub game because I found Yudkowsky ridiculous. Saying that isn’t bullying, it’s being honest and noting my actual belief that Yudkowsky is ridiculous. Furthermore, you favourably cite Gregory Cochran, who is not only a charlatan but literally endorses – on virtually no serious grounds – the hypothesis that people like me – men who are attracted to other men – are the way we are because of a disease, as some sort of far-sighted epidemiological savant.

    My mother is a public health professional, my brother and best friend are both currently in quarantine at her house with the coronavirus, and although I’ve been thankfully asymptomatic I’ve also been under quarantine at my dad’s house with my dad who is only just recovering a week later. The principle behind your anti-bullying crusade is a good one, and your sensitivity to what you perceive as bullying towards nerds is more than understandable. On the other hand, your broadside attacks – from a significantly higher social media platform – against people you perceive as bullies are deeply hypocritical: boosting Greg Cochran of all people reveals your inability to see bigotry when it’s directed against people you’re indifferent too, and not for the first time.

    I don’t want to be any harsher than this, and I easily could be, but you should be ashamed of yourself,

    George Hemington

  25. Adam Says:

    Hi Scott, what is your opinion about the role of WHO in this epidemic? They tweeted back in January mid that human to human transmission is not happening, did not recommend travel ban (ultimately everyone including China had to implement it), did not give importance to masks (from the SARS experience, masks flatten the curve). And did you see
    the video where a top WHO official (who wrote an oped in NYT praising China’s efforts) is trying to avoid questions on Taiwan’s performance and trying to say that Taiwan is a part of China? Sure, in hindsight, the orange man should have visited CDC labs and fixed the tests himself. Sure, in hindsight De Blasio should have warned the Newyorkers in advance instead of telling them to go out and take it easy. But why did it blow-up in many of the European countries, where many of the leaders are smart and follow science? The answer might be simple: refusal to use masks thinking that testing, tracing and handwashing would be enough.

  26. Tom Says:

    This is simply confirmation bias, writ large.

    Look, all of us smart people want to think we’re smarter than everyone else. And it’s *always* satisfying to say “I told you so.”

    But this is like people who are convinced they have psychic powers because one time they were thinking of their friend and the phone rang, and it was their friend! How many times did you think of your friend and they *didn’t* call? What are the actual odds of this happening?

    People get annoyed at smug tech bro’s because we insist we’re smarter than everyone else, even in fields we *don’t have expertise in*. And we conveniently forget all of the times we’re wrong, like in the example above, to seize upon and gloat the one time we’re right.

    This post would seem to say “trust the tech bro whack jobs, not the ‘experts.’” But this is dangerous thinking; it’s a more sophisticated version of Trump’s “fake news” claims; it is nothing less than implicitly denying the validity of expertise, which is necessarily specialized.

    Yes, in this Covid-19 crisis, our experts have been wrong, numerous times. But that doesn’t mean we should ditch experts: they are the foundation of civilization. It just seems that, when it comes to public health, perhaps we need *better experts*.

  27. marxbro Says:

    “On the other hand, I think that a true laissez-faire system would also be preferable right now to what we have in the US! And ultimately, I’m much more interested in the competence of the actual people in charge than I am in which “ism” they work under: indeed, right now I care about the “ism” only insofar as it affects the leaders’ competence.”

    The sine qua non of capitalism is profit, and relentlessly searching for profit means growth – more workers, more time, more more more. It’s hard to see how a more laissez-faire capitalism could go through a crisis such as this without leading to a basic endangerment of workers. Current capitalist governments around the world have reacted by reassuring finance capital, usually with large stimulus packages. Likely the market crash would have come even quicker and more devastating in a “laissez-faire system” (something which only exists in people’s minds, might I add – in reality capitalists need a strong government to enforce property laws)

  28. Rahul Says:

    Scott:

    Isn’t there a selection bias here in the list of people you mention were right about this?

    I’m pretty sure you could list a lot of things that they were wrong about as well?

    It’s a bit like choosing the best mutual fund to invest in looking at historical performance. The contrarians are sometimes right. Not always right.

    I think a better message would be to trust individual judgements more than organizational?

  29. Taboolean Says:

    Wonder what else people like Mencius Moldbug could be right about, and if that will also require piles of bodies to be acknowledged.

  30. Scott Says:

    George #24: I deeply appreciate your coming here to engage, but I confess I disagree with almost everything you said.

    Over the past twenty years, I’ve watched firsthand as the Internet became steadily nastier: less and less a forum for debating ideas, more and more a battleground for trying to destroy the reputations (and the Google results) of your enemies, based on the worst things you can construe them to have said or the worst people to whom you can connect them. SneerClub is just one tiny part of that: I focus on it less because of its importance than because it’s such a pure distillation of the trend.

    SneerClub exists solely to attack people—it’s right there in the name! It has no constructive purpose beyond that: not even refuting bad rationalist ideas, which is regularly done on the rationalist forums themselves. Yes, you “blow off steam” together, in much the same way that high-school bullies might blow off steam by knocking a nerdy kid to the ground and grabbing his stuff, ideally in front of as many laughing onlookers as possible. No doubt the harm to the victim is just an unfortunate byproduct of the bonding experience. (Though is that true even for the many highly-upvoted SneerClub posts that wish death on their targets?)

    So I find it laughable to complain if one your victims occasionally fights back, and not even on his own behalf but on behalf of others.

    I disagree with at least some of the views of all the people I listed, certainly including Cochran. Beyond that, I often find Cochran’s style to be needlessly aggressive. Where I’ll often spend hours rewording things to try to offend readers as little as I can, consistently with sticking to my principles, Cochran often seems like a (much more intellectual) radio shock jock in his evident delight in offending anyone who he considers an idiot.

    Yet the fact remains: Cochran (a physicist turned geneticist) started writing about the novel coronavirus on Feb. 6, in ways that turned out to be prescient and correct. Reading his posts could’ve saved someone’s life. And this is about as strong an argument as I can imagine for the free exchange of ideas: even if someone is an asshole, still, what if their asshole disregard for others’ opinions and feelings helps make them among the first to understand a deadly disease? Ironically, the bigger the asshole we’re talking about, the stronger the conclusion we reach here.

    I’m reminded of the Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon, acting like his usual insufferable self, pulls his friends out of the elevator with no explanation—only for the elevator to explode seconds later, something that only Sheldon realized would happen. The point of the episode was to help explain why the others keep Sheldon around, despite what a self-centered jerk he is.

    One last thing: I think it’s incredible that biology hasn’t yet explained the origin of homosexuality. For such a staggering open problem, it seems good to me to put all speculations on the table, including even far-out ones like the pathogen hypothesis. We should simply be crystal clear about two things:
    (1) homosexuality certainly doesn’t seem to be a choice, and
    (2) even if it were a choice, there’d be zero moral grounds for trying to prevent some people from making that choice.
    The power of (1) and (2) is that they suffice, on their own, to render homophobia risible and absurd, regardless of anything science might learn in the future. Your human rights are unconditional and absolute; they’re not pegged to any hypothesis in biology.

    Anyway, regardless of whether you’d wish the same for me, I wish you and especially your mother, brother, and friend the best in surviving this pandemic.

  31. Edan Maor Says:

    A few observations:

    1. Some people (intelligent people!) *still* don’t believe in the magnitude of this, and think it’s all a media-driven overreaction. Given that I’m in the same boat as you, having seen lots of the media bungle this in favor of *downplaying* it for so long, I feel like they’re living in another world – they’re reaching the opposite conclusion!

    2. It’s amazing how much “soft power” so many of these organizations have (media, CDC, WHO, etc). I’m in FB groups in which people are repeating all the stuff about masks being more dangerous to the wearer than not using a mask, etc.

    It’s like everybody just *loves* being contrarian, and justifying the status quo, so a few early articles on how putting on a mask (a breach of the status quo) is actually a *bad* thing to do (contrarian-ness) are all it takes for this to be the standard response.

    Conversely, the things that made people take this situation seriously are politicians or others shutting things down. People just make the implicit or explicit assumption that if the government hasn’t passed a rule against something, it’s safe. Even *I* acted that way in some cases.

    3. One thing I don’t get – there are a lot of things don’t know here, which makes sense because it’s new.

    But there’re also a lot of things we *could* know. Do masks help protect the wearer? There are certain characteristics of Corona specifically that affect this, but from what I understand, we don’t even know the answer to this in the general case. How is it possible we don’t know this? It seems like such a trivial question. (I have absolutely 0 understanding of biology though, I’d love to be shown why I’m wrong.)

    Or what is the biggest transmission vector – yes, of course it matters how much time coronavirus stays on various surfaces. But it seems like – even now that we have some raw numbers – we don’t know how to extrapolate from them what it means. Are food deliveries dangerous or not? Who knows!

    This feels to me like not just a governmental/societal failure to prepare – although that’s obviously a huge part of it. It seems like we as a society haven’t “forced” our science to give real results on hugely important matters.

    4. And obviously as I’ve said before – I was completely on board with the concept of x-risk before, and always considered the two biggest threats to be AI and biological weapons. This whole pandemic is not only causing me to be more sure of the specifics, but to be more sure of the people ringing the alarm bells.

  32. marxbro Says:

    “SneerClub exists solely to attack people—it’s right there in the name! It has no constructive purpose beyond that: not even refuting bad rationalist ideas, which is regularly done on the rationalist forums themselves.”

    I just want to add that this is untrue. On Scott Alexander’s website comments section I was banned for exposing quote manipulation by David Friendman in one of his texts. On SneerClub I was at least able to link others to this mistake and freely discuss it with others.

  33. Scott Says:

    Adam #25: I don’t feel like I understand enough yet about the role of WHO, especially since a lot of what they’ve done was surely behind the scenes. Still, WHO’s lavish praise of the Chinese government—right down to Bruce Aylward transparently pretending not to hear a question about Taiwan so he wouldn’t have to answer it—does not inspire confidence that they’re comprised of disinterested truth-seekers.

    (Also, apparently WHO chose the strange name “covid” for purely political reasons—so as not to frighten people by the association with SARS—even though biologically, the “novel” coronavirus simply is another SARS variant.)

  34. Scott Says:

    To everyone who accuses me of selection bias: I disagree for the following reason. If you made up a list of all the people who
    (1) get in a lot trouble for contrarian opinions and
    (2) I’d previously considered to be extremely smart,
    well, almost all of them were sounding an early alarm about coronavirus! And that was crucial in waking me up over the course of February; I owe my smart contrarian friends a huge debt of thanks.

    Also, Tom #26: I’m a huge, lifelong fan of expertise and its pursuit. If you agree that we need “better experts” in public health, then it doesn’t sound like we disagree on much! Though I’d submit that a milder solution is available: namely, to take the many, many experts who there obviously are (like Scott Gottlieb, Balaji Srinivasan…), and actually put them in charge of stuff.

    (Fauci is an extremely interesting case here: for the good of the country, he might be pretending to understand less than he does, just to maintain the ear of the toddler-in-chief. Of course, one wants a political system that could put the best experts in charge without their needing to make such wrenching compromises!)

  35. George Hemington Says:

    Sit-coms aside…

    I’m afraid I don’t really see much in the idea that internet culture has gotten either more or less toxic over the last twenty years. I was a mere six years old twenty years ago, and I got into internet culture as a latecomer even of my own generation through academic shitposting. Moreover I can confidently state that a lot of what you call “trying to destroy the reputation of your enemies” is just people flatly stating that they find you paranoid, insufferable, and a bully yourself.

    Like your friend Scott Alexander, you seem to read people who take the piss out of what they perceive to be your self-serving and self-regarding commentary as identical with the sort of people who threaten you with actual intimidation. Knowing several of those people in person, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that people make vicious comments about your supposedly deleterious interventions in the public sphere about this or that is no different from your deliberate attempts to shut those people off from participating IN the public sphere, by your publishing misleading judgements (as in this article) about what they said.

    For example, I am aware of no link between the publicly available culture at /r/SneerClub and the quietism about coronavirus supposedly espoused by Vox and The Washington Post as you write it up in this blog post. If you cannot produce evidence of anyone at the subreddit espousing such a view, it should be taken by reasonable people that you got ahead of yourself in your ongoing campaign of self-injury and sensitivity to legitimate criticism of your overall outlook on this supposed “bully” thing. You should also note that while you continue to claim that being criticised online is tantamount to being bullied that you repeatedly single out the worst comments on a (relatively open) subreddit on which you occasionally come in for criticism and generalise that to tar everybody on there with the same brush to your massively larger audience: that is quite arguably the reactive behaviour of sensitive people who don’t know that they’ve achieved some sufficient social status to be bullies in their own turn.

    I also find your sardonism about “Regardless of if you’d wish the same for me” with regards to the well-being of my family astonishingly inappropriate in somebody supposedly acting as the nice guy in the room. The fact that you would even entertain the doubt, and then absolutely dare to shove it into his reply, that I would ever, ever not wish the best for your family and friends is a scandalous piece of side-eye. Sometimes some people in the human race crack dark jokes about our own occasional failure of empathy for people we dislike, but that is absolutely nothing like wishing deliberate suffering on the friends and family of people we dislike, and not even on those people we dislike.

    I have to emphasise this: at one time I read your comments about modern art in the infamous blogpost on this website about feminism and as a big fan of modern art I think they displayed a shocking disregard and dismissiveness of the life and opinions of people who are not you. I think you’re an arrogant, dismissive bully and I think people without your comfortable career, and social circle, deserve to go off on you when you spout yet another self-serving opinion on your successful blog or wherever. What I’m saying, and I hope the message gets through, is that I really hope you learn to be a more caring person when somebody turns up with a grudge against you.

    Yours as ever, email me if you want to talk personally about my issues with Greg Cochran, and my issues with your interpretation of his homosexuality stuff (which are multitudinous but I‘m tired),

    George Hemington

  36. Pascal Says:

    Stockpiling on essentials at your home may not be such a good idea as this is precisely the behavior that create shortages.

  37. Vanessa Kosoy Says:

    George #24:

    I am queer. I admit that I haven’t read anything by Cochran, and AFAIK it is possible that ey are a rude and offensive person (although I also agree with Scott that, if there is an asshole who can help saving millions of people then we better keep the asshole around), but I don’t understand why should I mind someone entertaining the hypothesis that queerness is the result of a microbe? I see no ethical implications whatsoever to the question of whether it’s caused by genes, microbes, early experiences or whatever. But if it *did* have ethical implications, I would still want to know the answer. In fact, I would want to know the answer much more than I do now! I would definitely *not* weigh the evidence by the degree to which I want the hypothesis to be true. After all, what is true is already so.

  38. Candide III Says:

    TRUTH, OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS, AND PROGRESSIVE POLITICS WILL GET BACK INTO ALIGNMENT JUST LIKE THEY NORMALLY ARE, AND WE’LL ALL BE SHARING MEMES JUSTLY DENOUNCING TRUMP AND THE CRAVEN REPUBLICAN SENATORS AND EVANGELICAL PASTORS AND NUTTY CONSPIRACY THEORISTS WHO DON’T CARE HOW MANY LIVES THEY SACRIFICE WITH THEIR DENIALS.

    EVEN THOUGH THAT’S FAR BETTER THAN OUR IDIOT PRESIDENT AND MILLIONS OF HIS FOLLOWERS, WHO WILL UNDERSTAND ONLY AFTER THE TRENCHES OVERFLOW WITH BODIES, IF THEN

    My whole personality stands against every sentence.

    Oh really? You couldn’t resist making a full third of your mea culpa consist of the usual encomiums to progressive politics and digs at the millions of hated Rethuglicans. Pfui! What was wrong with you when you inserted that? Is your problem here intellectual or emotional? Or both, perhaps? Maybe you should, you know, listen to what CONTRARIAN, RATIONALIST NERDS tell you about such things as the real nature of government in the country of which you are a subject, too, not only to their warnings about imminent life-threatening dangers?

  39. anon Says:

    Is there a reason to expect food shortages from the epidemic?

  40. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    George #25: It seems to me like you are imputing the least generous possible motivations and tone there for our host. For example, why does “Regardless of if you’d wish the same for me” further imply “but I suspect you do not wish the same for me”? It could also be an olive branch. Or something in between. There is space here in the comment threads to disambiguate; why not give it a go?
    FWIW I identify as a woke AF feminist, if that affiliation makes a difference to how you regard this commentary.

  41. Bunsen Burner Says:

    All this hand wringing about who was right and who wasn’t is quite unnecessary. That’s just the way it is with complex phenomena with limited information. Demanding that experts get everything right straight away is not only stupid but dangerous as well. The fact that some random internet blogger gets something right brings to mind the old adage that ‘ a stopped clock is right twice a day’. Treating these people as future gurus is also not only stupid but dangerous.

    I propose, that in cases such as these, we are after a convergence model of the Truth. What we are after is the experts converging on a point of view as information flows in. The reason is simple. The community of experts who have spent their lives studying a topic simply have the resources and the training to evaluate the information and all the complexitites that it may entail, in a way that some internet rando cannot have. In fact, if experts disagree on a topic then that is a good indication for laypeople to keep away with their ignorant opinions and to try and understand exactly why there is a disagreement.

  42. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    George #35

    I just took a glance at r/SneerClub … I was inundated with a bunch of front-page references (at least 1/3-12) to specific individuals referred to in mocking tones (a “sneering” manner, if you will), including “Actual psycopath Robin Hanson” (his point of view being interpretted uncharitably … imagine that! And not so much argued against, as sneered at with no further explanation, just to quibble your point about it being a place for “criticizing rationalist ideas”).

    This is textbook bullying — a group of people ganging up on specific individuals and ridiculing them. The only snag is that technically SneerClub is “shouting into the void” so-to-speak, not directly messaging its targets. However, the internet being a public place, I think it is reasonable to expect that the victims will catch wind of it …. or are all “rationalists” explicitly disinvited from this public subreddit?

    Hearing Scott characterize r/SneerClub as a place where bullying occurs is not “the REAL BULLYING”…. in fact, I’d dare say it is not bullying at all.

  43. Adam Scholl Says:

    Many people make similar updates, I think, before taking seriously the possibility of working on existential risk. I wonder if you’ve considered attending an AIRCS workshop? We won’t hold them again until it seems safe, but once we do you’d be welcome, and I think you’d probably enjoy it.

    https://intelligence.org/ai-risk-for-computer-scientists/

  44. yet another sneerer Says:

    I don’t get why you think SneerClub would have an agenda regarding covid. Furthermore, all actual prominent scientists and health professionals in the field, from China to Europe, have always been concerned about the virus right from the beginning. Maybe they’re not so vocal, rich and connected as the so-called nerds you keep boosting, though. In a way I get your empathy for being in the right yet not listened to, but I don’t get why you’d turn that empathy towards rich tech workers with absolutely no field expertise and whose accomplishments range from atrocious advice (Robin “infect people with the virus” Hanson) to downright aiding and abetting dictatorships (Bill Gates). Cassandra is real but she’s not who you think she is.

  45. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    (this is the similar to a previous comment I pressed “submit” on too early but with confusing typos fixed and some excessively value-laden language fixed; I would of course understand it if you ignored it)

    Scott #34: I posit there is still an unaddressed selection bias in your mediascape which makes me skeptical of generalising to techbro contrarians generally, because that lesson might be about the peculiarities of US mediascape. To make sure I have not got hindsight biases, I’ve checked my receipts. My bulk hand sanitiser order went in on 15th of Feb; Bulk tinned beans on the 21st. While not claiming to be representative of the wider communication environment, at least in my not-especially-contrarian collegial circle it’s been regarded as a substantial risk for a long time. This might be because I’m at a university in Sydney, and our student body is full of people from China, which has been locked down for a long time, and I have friends in Singapore, which has been coping proactively for nearly as long. Perhaps this would induce a bias in what my peers have been reading? Motivating wide support for substantive action in Australia took a while, just like the USA, but at least from where I stand, that has seemed to be that people did not read the new media or listen to experts, rather than that the new media was downplaying the problem or sidelining expert concerns or that the experts were not concerned.

    I make no claim that I did a thorough trial of all the news media here, nor of public sentiment – I am just presenting myself as just one datum. But a datum that would support an alternative hypothesis: hat possibly the collective news and science-for-policy systems in the USA in tends towards a particular local bias, and high profile contrarians can cut through that bias and present with higher variance opinions? Sometimes such higher variance contrarian pinions would be correct by pure chance if the non-contrarian bias were far from truth.The fact that other countries are having different experiences of public opinion and media dynamics around COVID-19 I think is suggestive here.

  46. Advith Says:

    How can one defend Cochran? His most famous work was co-written with Harpending, who is a literal white supremacist!

    Researchers, both in biology and in gender studies, have been studying the relationship between sexuality and gender for years and have created a complex and confused picture. Their word isn’t gospel, but to dismiss all that research out of hand in favor of a singular academic with a cult of personality founded around trotting out the same tired hobby-horse theories always celebrated by the proudly ignorant is just absurdity.

    I’ll be clear here, I don’t think anybody that defends Cochran is a white supremacist, I don’t know if Cochran himself his. However, you have to admit that the closeness of these relationships is troubling – the fact that Cochran’s theories constantly get weaponized by far right actors isn’t irrelevant. Deciding to give him a platform at all is dubious.

    On a different note, I don’t know what Bill Gates et. al. said about Coronavirus, but if they said up to stock up on masks, hand sanitizer and food, then I’m not sure how that advice is any better than the CDC’s. In fact, it seems to be worse. Buying up masks leaves a shortage for the people who are sick, elderly, immunocompromised or a health-care worker. Hand sanitizer works worse than soap and water. You could stock up on food, but stocking up for more than two weeks in case of a quarantine seems like overkill even in the worst case scenario of Italy. If I recall correctly, the CDC and WHO’s advice has always been to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and in general perform good public health practices, which still seems like the most practical advice.

    The virus should be a time to make sure that we can look after each other. A time to make sure that each person does their part to not only stop the virus, but to help the people around them who are in danger. Stockpiling and hoarding is the antithesis of that – it is a focus on you and your family over the greater the community. If this what the “rationalist nerds” are saying to do, then I’d rather not listen to them. Instead, I’ll listen to the needs of the people around me.

  47. Rahul Says:

    So instead of debating who was right and who was wrong and how we got here wouldn’t it be better to discuss what are the solutions that would still make a difference right now?

    E.g. I see a lot of people say “why aren’t we testing more” or “how could we run out of gloves” etc. But how does one make the logistics happen.

    There’s going to be a lot of time later to lynch leaders and make heads roll.

    Why don’t we for the moment try to come up with privtical and actionable solutions?!

  48. Gerard Says:

    Scott #34

    I don’t know much about who was or was not sounding an early alarm about covid-19, but there’s an additional factor I think you need to take into consideration. How many times have these people raised the alarm about risks that didn’t materialize ?

    I think the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome played a significant role in all of this.

    I know that in my case I didn’t pay much attention to this virus when it was only affecting Asia because it seems like over the years there have been many reports of viral epidemics occurring in Asia or other far off places, often accompanied by dire sounding warnings in the media, none of which ended up having any significant impact on life in the west and I assumed this would be just another such case.

  49. Boaz Barak Says:

    I confess that even now I am still not a fan of armchair epidemiology (or much of armchair anything, though of course now we are all confined to our armchairs..), but I am willing to be convinced. How early were these “contrarians” compared to the bodies such as WHO and the governments of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.? (see timeline at https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-timeline.html ).

    Moreover, while “official bodies” often have to wait with announcements by their nature, how early were the contrarians compared to the analysis of people such as former CDC director Tom Frieden’s post on January 26? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dr-tom-frieden-former-cdc-director-latest-scientific-novel-frieden (would hardly classify as an “armchair epidemiologist” or “contrarian” ). In fact, how many examples do you have of expert epidemiologists who were completely off in their understanding of this disease by the end of January?

    Your analysis seems very U.S. centric – it is true that in the U.S. the public warnings from the CDC and other bodies were very lacking (though apparently the private warnings given to senators were more dire; see stock selling scandals). It is also true that these disease exposed the “wishful thinking” in other countries too where elected officials don’t ignore only the contrarians but also their own health experts, and only take steps that are either painless or ones that they would have wanted to do anyway (e.g., apart from the partial China travel restriction, at a fairly early stage Trump was talking about closing the Mexico border too).

    I believe the U.S. mainstream media’s fault was not as much that they said the wrong things (though I am sure you can find examples of that), but rather that they followed the public’s and politicians’ cue and grossly under-emphasized this story, even while it was getting a lot of attention outside the U.S..

    Overall, I am not sure that the lesson you are drawing out of this is the right one, but am open to being convinced otherwise.

    p.s. For what it’s worth, at a personal level, though I came late to understanding the severity of this (and even grumbled when Harvard disallowed on March 6 job candidates from coming to interview in person), I am not sure it would have made much difference for my own preparations. I managed to buy in time a high quality headset for remote teaching, disinfecting wipes for home, and get some board games for the kids. Not sure what more we should have done.

  50. Scott Says:

    George Hemington #35: Even in your attempt to find common ground (which I appreciate), you still called me an “arrogant, dismissive bully” and other names. And people criticize me for a lack of self-awareness! 😀

    (By the way, I think that criticism is surely justified. One of the reasons why I hesitate to attack people, is that I always wonder whether others would notice the same flaws in me. Have SneerClubbers ever once been stopped by such reflections?)

    You’re scandalized by a suggestion that you might not wish me and my friends and loved ones the best in getting through this pandemic. I’m happy and grateful that you do wish us the best! Thank you!

    But given that you are (by your account) the chief moderator of SneerClub, given that I’ve often seen SneerClub wishing death on its ideological enemies, and given that SneerClub seems to count me as an ideological enemy (I guess I’m a Jewish liberal Democrat who’s insufficiently woke, or in other words a Nazi? 😀 ) … well, do you see why the question of whether you wish me well might arise?

    Now that we’ve cleared up that we wish each other well: when you offer me friendly advice, as you have, I consider it carefully. So let me return the favor with friendly advice of my own.

    Why don’t you take all the time you currently spend on SneerClub, and use it to do something positive in the world—at any rate, more positive than what you yourself described as “shitposting”? You SneerClubbers often justify your behavior by talking about your targets having “privileged” and “comfortable” careers compared to yourselves. But, besides of course the systemic biases of capitalist society, do you think that might have anything to do with most of your targets spending most of their time trying to build or explore or discover stuff, rather than sneer and “shitpost”? I’m asking seriously, and with your best interests at heart: what could you use your shitposting time to build or discover?

  51. Scott Says:

    Candide III #38:

      Oh really? You couldn’t resist making a full third of your mea culpa consist of the usual encomiums to progressive politics and digs at the millions of hated Rethuglicans. Pfui!

    Do you think the “Rethuglicans” have distinguished themselves in this crisis? Insisting that “like a miracle,” it would go away (Trump); or that it’s just a common cold that liberals are lying about to push their agenda (Limbaugh, many on Fox News); or dumping stock even while assuring the public that things are under control (Burr); or suggesting that the elderly sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy (my Lieutenant Governor here in Texas)?

    I’ve always paid attention to rationalist nerds (and been close friends with many of them, whether or not you’d consider me a rationalist myself). It was because I paid attention to them that I heard warnings about the coronavirus since early February, which eventually 100% persuaded me (as I said, I wish it hadn’t taken a few weeks). And of the rationalist nerds and techbros who I listed, I doubt you’d find any who had kind words about the Republicans’ handling of this crisis.

    As harsh as this post was on the “progressive establishment,” at least by early March it had become responsive to reality. On that basis, if Obama were still president I’d expect there to be many fewer deaths.

  52. Shlomo Shlomovitz Says:

    I feel like either I’ve gone crazy, or the rest of the world had..that’s just being polite actually, I feel the rest of the world has gone crazy.. you think you’re *not* mainstream because you’re taking covid seriously?

  53. Orin Says:

    I don’t think your analysis is fair Scott. It’s like going back to the 2 sigma hints of the Higgs boson and complaining that the “experts” who said to be circumspect until 4-5 sigma significance were idiots, because in retrospect the 2 sigma bump was real. It’s very hard to predict the significance of an emerging pandemic in the early stages (heck, we *still* don’t have a great handle on the R0 and CFR), i.e. the uncertainty bands are large. I too was one of the very early advocates for taking the COVID-19 thread seriously, but in fairness there were similarly many very smart people making the same claims about swine flu, etc, which didn’t pan out. The overall picture I see is that once the uncertainty bands became small enough (as it were — a more heuristic assessment in this case than n-sigma), the expert consensus came to the right conclusion early enough to have prevented what we are currently seeing in the US. What we have been seeing since then is Trump’s usual role of undermining trust in expert consensus in order to promote poor public policy decisions, and I think it is irresponsible of you to play into that game and the further breakdown of public trust in academia and institutional expertise.

  54. TGGP Says:

    Harpending did speak at a conference organized by Richard Spencer or someone similar, but I don’t think he’s actually advocated white supremacy/nationalism. If anything my impression had been that his politics were more mainstream than Cochran’s, and I recall him writing blog posts about the bad old days when qualified people were excluded due to segregation, although I haven’t been able to find them years later. Of course, all of this is entirely unrelated to the point of whether you and your family are more or less likely to die as a result of following Cochran’s advice.

  55. George Hemington Says:

    It’s interesting that you imply, Dr. Aaronson, that I’ve spent all my time on /r/SneerClub instead of trying to do good in the world. It’s hard, in the academic business of justice and social science, to make a difference, and I personally chose not to take a PhD in Philosophy of Science and Economics, in spite of a significant offer of help at a major institution here in the UK, on the basis of my cynicism about people who go far in academic politics. Things have not been easy since then, but I can confidently say that when I was a Master’s student I wrote a damned good critique of the singular paper that moulded Westminster’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, how many quantum computationalists can say that, since we’re on the topic of social issues?

    I’m well (fucking) aware of my own tendency towards abusive language and what some would consider bullying behaviour, but I’m also aware of the social hierarchy which underscores the difference between “shouting at someone” and “bullying”. I accuse you of bullying behaviour because I think you’re a bully simpliciter: somebody who uses their comfortable position to attempt to force people lower down the old social ladder to submit, the way bullies are supposed to do out of a sense of insecurity (I’m not convinced of that psychological model, but it’s the one you yourself are using, so that’s where we are). I am, like you, in a social position which permits me to speak my mind, even though mine is a bit more precarious than your own, and I think a personal reflection on how that leads you to make confident, ignorant, pronouncements on the minds of others is in order.

    Let’s return to the modern art thing, just as an example: you confidently stated in that thread that people (like me) who are into modern art are fooling themselves for the sake of social status. This is a common opinionisation, to the point of being (speaking frankly) a bit tiresome. It also, to my mind, reveals of the opinioniser that he is struggling with the concept of the idea that other minds exist than his (which is no small charge).

    I want to repeat that I wish you and your family and friends well, but it’s important to me that I remind you that you’re somewhat pathologically suffering from a misconception of your status as a very online blogger. You will, inevitably, come in for criticism from all quarters of the internet if you put yourself out there like this. Some of those people will be anti-semites, and some bullies. If you react to such criticism by then accusing genuine and ingenuous people like myself in the conspiratorial fashion you’ve made an art-form of then, as you here acknowledge, you become the thing you allegedly most despise.

    I genuinely feel no need to rescind the claim that you’re an arrogant, dismissive, bully. I think it’s an entirely accurate claim about your online behaviour which you even seem sometimes proud of. It’s just that I think you’re deeply self-involved and that that shows itself in your heavily tactical response to criticism, which involves telling a lot of at best half-truths about your perceived “enemies”.

    As ever, email me about the Cochran thing, I did after all have to submit my email to make these comments, yours,

    George Hemington

  56. Joshua Brule Says:

    I don’t want to rathole your comments thread, but regarding the CDC: the quip going around one of my social circles was, “Hey, remember when the CDC was really interested in pushing gun control? Turns out those idiots don’t even know how to control a disease.”

    Regardless of your opinion on gun control, I think most reasonable people should agree: gun violence is not, literally, an epidemic. The underlying mechanisms do not act like a disease. The models and scientific expertise needed to effectively control disease do not map onto the problem and it made _no sense_ for the CDC to pick up that crusade. It may have parsed as, “Damn guvment tryin’ to take muh guns”, but part of the backlash against the CDC pushing gun control was the fact that it’s not their area of expertise and that it was really alarming that leadership at the CDC didn’t _notice_ that, or just didn’t care.

    Similarly, I know people who have been talking about the “invisible graveyard” – the fact that delays and the expense to approving drugs and medical treatment ends up costing lives – caused by the FDA for years. The consensus among people I know is that the FDA is unwilling or unable to do a proper cost-benefit analysis; they were too concerned about the visible public backlash if they accidentally approved a dangerous drug than the larger invisible damage caused by being over cautious.

    Consider, also, the effort the FDA put into trying to ban vaping despite weak evidence that it was harmful and strong evidence that it’s a lot less harmful than smoking tobacco. (One of the reports the released completely forgot to take substitution effects into account.)

    The consensus among a lot of the people I know is that the institutional decay has been going on for years, if not decades. Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, most everyone I know (me included) was still a little surprised as to the extent; we expected institutional failure, albeit not quite this badly.

  57. fred Says:

    At this moment, we gotta use our brains to work for science!
    Here are two fresh and inspiring papers.

    “Experimental AI tool predicts which COVID-19 patients develop respiratory disease”
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200330152135.htm

    “Wastewater test could provide early warning of COVID-19”
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200331092713.htm

  58. matt Says:

    tbh, I am not completely sure how much else most of us could have done even with much more fore-knowledge. I already have hand sanitizer; a couple bottles lasts a long time, and soap is better anyway. I already have a mask from woodwork projects. I had a basic supply of nonperishable foods, and even in recent weeks it has been possible to gradually increase that supply while doing necessary shopping trips for perishable foods. One could dream about a bunker miles off in the wilderness with years of supplies, but having that requires a much greater confidence in the predictions, and it’s not even clear that that would be helpful anyway….you’ll also be further from medical care and if you truly want no human contact for a long time it won’t be easy. Regarding the stock market that you talk about, one could of course avoid loss (and even make a huge profit) if you knew what would happen, but overall the strategy of not selling anything ever (if you don’t need to) beats almost any active strategy any of us ever come up with; more importantly, if things really go bad, what’s the difference in a few bits in a computer somewhere registering your account?

  59. Rahul Says:

    Scott #51:

    “or suggesting that the elderly sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy (my Lieutenant Governor here in Texas)?”

    Although, unpalatable here’s the ground reality. Where I live (in India) I cringe to imagine how we can scale up the medical care, even remotely satisfactorily, were we to reach the population-wide spread with morbidity paralleling (say) Italy. I don’t say this WILL happen. But there’s surely a significant probability that it may. Now, just look up the number of available hospital beds / ventilators in India and do the math!

    I’ve thought about this a lot: What do we all REALLY fear? Is it a country with 0.1% less population? Is it even really death ( our own or our loved ones)? I think NOT! Not so much as the suffering of lying at the doors of an overworked hospital, with no free beds, no doctors and spending an extended duration, in articulo mortis, in agony. I think the time may be here to think of the proper palliative, last-resort solutions. And not just for the elderly. For anyone unlucky enough to be in that situation.

    For all the academic arguments that philosophers may have had, we may be coming close to a situation where, whether we like it or not, euthanasia on a scale never anticipated before may be the only answer. Without systematically thinking about it, I fear, we have already been forced to practice something similar in some cases in Italy on an ad hoc basis. Must we behave like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand and pretend that things will never come to be so bad as this?!

    Again, now is the time! If we don’t put conscious thought into this, and work out the right supply chains even merely dying with dignity may be an option that eludes us (for once, universal gun ownership does not seem so bad! ). Yes, we have, as a society, mostly shied away from discussing such drastic options during normal times, and rightly so. But these are extraordinary circumstances and it would be a grave mistake not to discuss this contingency. Perhaps sitting in a western nation what I write may seem extreme, but I strain to see any other alternatives for a huge swathe of the developing world with extremely marginal medical resources.

    Again, I’m not at all being defeatist. We must fight this, and with all our will. Maybe, hot weather, or a vaccine or BCG-derived-immunity, or genotypic quirks or some other such miracle will save us after all! But while we hope for the best, we MUST prepare for the worst! At least personally, I will sleep a lot better, with the knowledge that this option of last resort, is at least something that we are well prepared about!

  60. Kevin Zhou Says:

    @Orin

    Exactly, the reasoning in a lot of the blog posts and tweets back in January was exceptionally poor. Most of the time, it boiled down to saying “R_0 > 1, so that means billions of people will soon get it”. That is an incredible oversimplification that would have made the wrong calls for Ebola, SARS, MERS, and many others.

    If any of the “Twitter experts” got it right, it was because they were just following the leads of *real* experts who were sounding the alarm earlier, but with a smaller follower count. Replacing the real experts with Twitter experts is basically the worst possible lesson to draw from this.

  61. Mac Says:

    Scott, your characterization of sneerclubbers is so off base that I can only conclude it is in bad faith, compounded by a fundamental misunderstanding of the tone of the posts. You keep referencing celebrated posts where they wish death or violence upon sneerees, but this is not accurate. There are occasionally bad actors from the much-more-toxic Motte sub who like to come over and post calls to violence, in effect false flags, and these are easily spotted and, in my experience, swiftly moderated. For those seeking ideological victimization/martyrdom, something that you have admitted to doing, and have cited as reason for no longer visiting sneerclub, I supposed such posts are meeting a certain demand.

    You say that you are criticized for a lack of self-awareness, and acknowledge that some of that criticism is likely valid, which is why you refrain from “attacking” others, but all you’re doing is categorizing your own disagreements with others as valid, while disagreements others have with you are “attacks,” based on surface level differences in perceived civility in language and tone. Sneerclub has very interesting, in-depth discussions, but not on every post, because in most cases the reason for sneering is so obvious to regulars and there’s no need to re-hash exactly why one might sneer at (what are seen there as) navel-gazers who dramatically outsize their own intellectual importance/uniqueness. It is an in-group with its own discussion norms that you clearly do not care for, and that’s okay. I just recommend you examine much more closely that self-awareness criticism you acknowledge but do not appear to have internalized, and to take your own advice about not visiting SC because it’s clearly not good for you to hear people not taking you as seriously as you wish to be taken.

  62. fred Says:

    For those who really want to make a difference instead of bicker about dumb shit (which can wait after we beat that fucking virus), here’s what to do:

    1) buy an Enders 3 Pro 3D printer for a reasonable 270$ (it’s made in China, I have one, it’s awesome):
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07GYRQVYV/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    2) you follow instructions on how to print face shields using it (filament is like 10$ a pound)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHDMdyN5Jjs

    3) you deliver the shields as a gift to a hospital near you. They need this!

    With all the time we have being stuck at home, now is the perfect time to do this.

  63. Chicken Little Says:

    I think you need to calm down. The advice you gave your friend was reasonable given what was known at the time. You should continue to be level headed and “reasonable”, even (perhaps especially) when people are ‘actually dying’, or whatever.

  64. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Have you ever considered that the Sneer Club has… you know… a legitimate point?

    Here’s a parable: imagine one day some arbitrary scientific discipline (say, cuneiform paleography) got it in their head that computer science had taken a wrong turn somewhere. It was time to set things to rights, and they were the ones to do it.

    So, with much fanfare, they go about re-inventing your discipline, obviously ignoring much of what came before (since the previous guys got it so clearly wrong, why listen to them?). Only: in doing so, they completely muck up everything about computer science that makes it interesting or meaningful.

    Say for the sake of the parable that they decide to redefine P to include only polynomials up to third order, since that is what any real programmer considers practical. P vs NP? Solved! and why was that so hard? Drinks all around and hails of derisive laughter at the previous dolts who couldn’t solve something that took us five minutes. Clearly, this proves our intellectual superiority!

    And now imagine that major governments and businesses would realize that is was in their interest if proper computer science went under (maybe the old computer scientists are asking awkward questions about cryptography or something), and started massively boosting the newcomers, to the point that their voices completely drowned out those of the old guard. Say that it got to the point where the public’s perception of what computer science was, as well as funding and job opportunities, all became completely identified with the new quackery. Can you honestly say that you would not retreat to shitposting and sneering at that point?

    This is essentially what has happened to the humanities and social sciences in the western world in the last half century, under the influence of neoliberalism. My friends in social sciences *loathe* us hard science types, because we’re the equivalent of those cuneiform paleographers in the story: we keep butting in on their territory, and missing the point so far that it might as well be in another postcode. Every field has its heuristics, its definitions and its methods: things which just like so and not different because otherwise the field isn’t meaningful. And we tend to barge all over them because we know how exponential functions work.

    And at the same time, those in power love it when we do that, because the humanities and social sciences tend to be more directly threatening to the immediate balance of power than the sciences, because they ask questions about the social order. A social sciences which is coerced to work like science is toothless.

    Look at, say, political science, which has gone from a branch of philosophy to essentially bean-counting. For example: a former housemate of mine from uni does research where he looks at voting congruence in multi-party democracies (i.e. who votes along with who). You can make an adjacency matrix of which parties align on which votes, and then run some fancy machine learning clustering algorithm (see: science!) to find out which parties align. And of course you find precisely what you’d expect: left parties align with left, right with right. But now a computer told you so, so it must be true. Psychology, with its endless ‘we measured the correlation between this and that on n = 753 California undergrads’ articles is another good example.

    From what I hear, much of academia outside of the sciences has its incentives aligned this way: mimic the hard sciences in their methods, and you’ll produce what is seen as solid work. Don’t go anywhere near deeper methodological, or historical, or philosophical questions in your field.

    And into that void step economists, biologists, psychiatrists, (and yes, also computer scientists and physicists), who are oblivious to the accumulated experience in a field, but happy to give their opinions.

    And please do not claim that the argument was won on merit: a great deal of purging of the academy was needed to get to this situation, both directly in the cold war period and indirectly afterwards through targeted funding cuts. I’d say a little sneering is justified.

  65. PDV Says:

    I would like to note that Vox was not uniformly bad, here. Recode was – Recode was egregiously bad and still hasn’t retracted the piece, and their editor has (https://twitter.com/karaswisher/status/1240508175108972545) bashed Coronavirus doubters without acknowledging that her site was up there with the worst of them.

    But Future Perfect was doing a pretty good job. Kelsey “The Unit of Caring” Piper chief among them, as usual, but the rest of the division was, if not as on top of things as Sarah C and the others mentioned here, well ahead of most of the media. E.G. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/2/6/21121303/coronavirus-wuhan-panic-pandemic-outbreak, https://www.vox.com/2020/2/14/21134473/coronavirus-outbreak-singapore-us-symptoms-pandemic

  66. Andy Says:

    Dear Scott,

    The only source of information worth trusting is raw data. I assume a CS theory professor is competent enough to draw (basic, but confident) conclusions from there and see if they match the recommendations of the CDC or your hailed “contrarians”. Speaking of data, here (https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMe2002387) is a link to a very recent editorial of the New England Journal of Medicine. I quote:

    “This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively”

    Nobody disputes that Covid-19 is dangerous but data and events across the globe suggest a more nuanced view (as opposed to your suggestion, namely panic, which would be the appropriate response if for example Ebola was spreading with r_0 > 2): First, there is an extreme discrepancy between how the young and elderly are affected by the disease. Second, it is questionable at best how much ventilators actually help; in most parts of the world there is no shortage (at least not yet) of medical equipment, and people particularly vulnerable to the disease (e.g., the elderly) still die while most of the infected require no care at all. Third, the media are doing a great job at driving everyone crazy. Happily posting pictures from Italy / Spain / Wuhan, they drive governments to decisions unheard of even in war times (btw., Netanyahu and Orban are making great use of this crisis). No one knows if any of the extraordinary measures taken by, for example, Italy and Spain actually offer much improvement over complete inaction (compare for example to Sweden). We only know for sure that these measures resulted in disastrous economic damage, and by extent possibly the breakup of the EU (c.f. current ongoing discussion about how much Italy & Co want Germany, Austria, e.t.c. to pay for their blunder)

    Having laid all of this out, I believe the one logically justifiable strategy is to isolate and support as best as we can those who are particularly at risk of Covid-19 (again, nothing of the sort is being done anywhere in the world…) and the rest of us return to normal life. Then it is only a matter of how fast a vaccine will be available.

    Any thoughts on this?

  67. Scott Says:

    Kevin Zhou #60:

      If any of the “Twitter experts” got it right, it was because they were just following the leads of *real* experts who were sounding the alarm earlier, but with a smaller follower count. Replacing the real experts with Twitter experts is basically the worst possible lesson to draw from this.

    Again, you seem to be pattern-matching me to someone who’s against expertise, when that’s the diametric opposite of my position.

    Of course the “Twitter experts” got it right, in large part, because they were paying attention to the lesser-known real experts, like epidemiologists and virologists. Those experts and their expertise played a crucial role, and the entire world owes them its gratitude.

    But at the other end of the funnel, my problem was this: in early February, I (like most of the world), working in a field far removed from medicine, knew of no special reason to be paying attention to epidemiologists or virologists at all. Who, then, was going to signal-boost these experts’ correct and important warnings, so that I and others would see them and start preparing? The way things are supposed to work, that signal-boosting job should’ve fallen to public health agencies like the CDC. But as we’ve already established, the CDC catastrophically and world-historically failed at basically its one job. And thus, in practice, a lot of the signal-boosting was done instead by Bill Gates, and Paul Graham, and all sorts of other people on Twitter who have no training in medicine but are good are spotting trends and being right.

    (Incidentally, I despise the mob behavior that’s endemic to Twitter, enough that I’ve consistently refused to get a Twitter account. But the response to the coronavirus has been, like, Twitter’s finest hour.)

    Anyway, does that adequately clarify my position?

  68. Rahul Says:

    After all this discussion, I feel the summary should be:

    Institutions / Politicians / Bureaucrats-BAD
    Individual experts- GOOD

    It’s somewhere in the institutionalization of ideas that the noise, bias and cover-my-arse-syndrome overwhelms the signal.

  69. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Jelmer #64

    Your comment did more than any of the “sneer clubber’s perspective” comments here to help me have some understanding of the paragon ideal form of what that group stands for. Unfortunately, the others’ contributions have simultaneously convinced me that there is such a level of dehumanization, gaslighting, and general assholery endemic to that group that I’ll be avoiding this particular incarnation going forward.

    Maybe there exists an “Old Guard humanities” community that’s about more than just being mean and coming up with clever justifications for it. I’d certainly be curious to read it!

  70. Kevin Zhou Says:

    Yes, that does clarify things, I’m just saying that your initial blog post does not at all give that impression, because it exhorts the reader to instead listen to “CONTRARIAN, RATIONALIST NERDS AND TECH TYCOONS ON SOCIAL MEDIA.” They’re not reliable either!

    In a situation of great uncertainty, where expert opinion diverges, the best approach is to listen to a wide range of experts because the range of their opinions will almost certainly contain the truth. Giant, slow-moving organizations that *have* to have a single official position will collapse that opinion down to a point, which is a bad thing. But “rationalists on Twitter” is *also* an example of a large group that will do the exact same thing, as evidenced by their strong and uniform opinions on a variety of social and scientific issues. We shouldn’t be comparing tweets from Elon vs. tweets from Yudkowsky to find the truth, when the third-hand arguments they can fit into 280 characters are not strong enough to establish anything either way; we should be comparing papers from Harvard vs. papers from Oxford.

  71. E. Harding Says:

    Have you ever considered that the Sneer Club has… you know… a legitimate point?

    No.

    Here’s a parable

    Fiction is a poor substitute for observation.

    This is essentially what has happened to the humanities and social sciences in the western world in the last half century, under the influence of neoliberalism.

    The economic imperialism of the 1970s-1980s was, despite the field having been insufficiently empirical at the time, if anything, obviously insufficient.

    Also, neoliberalism was good and not bad. The countries that adopted neoliberal reforms the least (Greece, looking at you) fared poorly, while Britain, Australia, Chile, Scandinavia, etc. fared relatively well. The exception seems to be New Zealand. The world of the 1970s and 1980s was filled with the worst type of bad economic policy. Neoliberalism was a welcome reaction to that. That’s why reform and opening up continues in Russia and China, the leaderships of which very much recognize that their countries are insufficiently neoliberal.

    Look at, say, political science, which has gone from a branch of philosophy to essentially bean-counting.

    That’s a good thing. As one of the first decent political scientists wrote,

    Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality, for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will rather bring about his ruin than his preservation.

    Modern political science is substantially superior to its twentieth century equivalent.

    both directly in the cold war period

    The 1970s and early 1980s were not exactly a “cold war period”.

    because the humanities and social sciences tend to be more directly threatening to the immediate balance of power than the sciences

    OK; one simple question. The powerful in the West (but not the East, Poland, Hungary, Russia, or the Gulf States) failed at countering the pandemic. How would you go about creating a system in which the powerful in the West are removed and replaced by people who are competent at handling pandemics?

    I’d say a little sneering is justified.

    I wouldn’t sneer on progress.

  72. Sniffnoy Says:

    OK, jumping in quickly here — there’s way more I could say, but I mostly don’t want to get into arguments right now.

    1. I think a key distinction to make here is between expertise and authority. The lesson here is less “don’t trust experts” — as has been mentioned above, many of those rationalist amateurs were actually to a substantial extent repeating what experts were saying — and more “don’t trust authorities”. Now, the CDC and WHO aren’t supposed to just be authorities — they are supposed to be experts! But what we’ve seen here is that just because an authority is supposed to be composed of experts, doesn’t mean it is — and the simple fact that it is an authority can often reduce its expertise.

    2. This is pretty much irrelevant to anything, but, Scott… you realize that Scott Gottlieb is the former FDA commisioner, right? I bring this up not because he’s an “authority” for the purposes I discuss above; he’s not a current authority, people should’ve listened to him because he knew what he was talking about, not on the basis of some current former authority; I just bring this up because given your praise for him here, I’m surprised that, when in a recent thread you tried to list good things Trump has done that you could think of, you didn’t include his appointment of Dr. Gottlieb! That was basically the one good thing he’d done I could think of. (Well, I certainly have my problems with some of Gottlieb’s actions as FDA commisioner, but when you consider the probable alternatives for the position…) I didn’t even think of the two other you mentioned! (Although I agree with you that they are also good things! But it would be nice if, as president, he would take some action on the regulations limiting water use by appliances — regulations that were put into place to deal with a temporary situation, if I recall correctly — rather than merely complaining about them for some reason, as if he weren’t, y’know, the president of the United States.)

    3. Back to distinction making. I think people should stop saying “techbro”. This is a word that encourages confusion, by conflating actual tech nerds with “broish” tech suits. I’ll agree that startup culture has brought the two a bit closer than they’d otherwise be, and reduced the distinction somewhat, but basically this word seems to be used to label nerds as “bros”, by conflating the two, even when they’re clearly distinct. (To someone who hasn’t blurred the two together; I am not saying that those using the word to do this are doing this in bad faith, merely that they have made a conflation. I think it is a… surprising… conflation… but I’m not foolish enough to think that because a mistake is particularly bad it must therefore be dishonest.)

    4. Finally, reminder to everyone that ad hominem is not a valid argument. (OK, I say “to everyone”, when this is obviously directed to like two people in particular, but like I said… not much in the mood for getting into arguments right now so I’m going to keep this bit undirected and uncontroversial.)

  73. phys anon Says:

    @Jelmer Renema,

    My friends in social sciences *loathe* us hard science types

    I hope they know that most of us just have our heads down in our narrow lanes trying to do science stuff, and further, than not all of us are scientistic, and wish no ill on our non-STEM colleagues. I for one agree with the sentiment of your parable, find a lot of scientism obnoxious and naive, and strongly support the autonomy and funding of my colleagues in the humanities. But I can’t help but point out that I have had experiences in academia that parallel your parable but in the opposite direction: humanities representatives patronizingly explaining to me that the physics content we teach is culturally relative and oppressive, while cluelessly bungling their offered “reinvention” of our discipline so thoroughly, that even one well-read and sympathetic to a broad range of philosophical positions on epistemology and criticisms of scientific method and objectivity etc, is left with no coherent purchase on which to anchor a response other than to silently implode in terror that these people have majority voting power on committees that make decisions about pedagogic and course-content autonomy, and have in fact used that power to make it more difficult for me to teach normative physics content as determined by the experts in our field. So it goes both ways.

  74. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ anonymous ocelot: thank you for your kind words! I’m not saying you should have sympathy for sneer club in particular, but I do hope you can have sympathy for the larger community of which they are perhaps the exasperated, snarky, online component.

    Also, if you allow for your own side not always being 100% diplomatic, you ought to do the same for the opposition. I don’t know if you do since you are by nature anonymous, but it’s human nature to be highly asymmetric in this regard.

    As to where you can find this old guard: there’s bits and bobs of this community hiding in the less fashionable departments of any university. Whether they gather online and if so where, I have no idea.

    For me, what opened my eyes to the power of the humanities was books, particularly Eric Hobsbawms 3-part history of the long nineteenth century. He is a master at synthesizing between macro data and micro events, and his arguments become the stronger for it, which showed me that there is more to knowledge than reductionism.

  75. Job Says:

    Frankly, what’s wrong with this picture is that some of your friends call you “Dr. A” and come to you for advice on stuff that’s well outside of your area of expertise.

    But I know it can be hard to avoid this type of situation.

    Personally, my strategy is to set really low expectations for family members so things don’t get out of hand.

    I’m not an electrical engineer ma, i don’t even know what a capacitor does!

    Society is so weird about stuff like this.

  76. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @phys anon

    I’ll grant you that on the level of individual academics, there are fools on all sides. But the question is not: does a given side contain fools (spoiler: yes, because they all do) but rather: whose side is more powerful, and to what extent do they empower their fools? And on that side I’m afraid we unfortunately win.

  77. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Jelmer #73

    Thank YOU (and apologies for my cowardly anonymity… everyone in these comments who has their name listed gains more respect from me for it). As someone who has caught myself being science-“hardness” chauvinist in my inner workings, this is something where I’d really like to expand my horizons. I meant my request sincerely, so I’m really grateful for the answer and I’ll make sure to check out Hobsbawm!

  78. Deepa Says:

    Rahul:
    I browsed the comments, and you said you were in India now. Are you in Chennai, by any chance? What are some ways to help doctors there set up telemedicine? In Bombay, doctors simply meet patients by WhatsApp video and get paid by PayTM. I’m wondering why that hadn’t taken off in Chennai. Doctors have stopped consulting, period. If you need to see a doctor for anything, you are to go to ER, potentially waiting for hours. This has been true for over a week. It creates so much stress. I really want to do something about this, but need someone in India (preferably Chennai for selfish reasons) to work with on this. Would you be interested?

  79. fred Says:

    You know who were also ahead of the curve?
    Germophobes…

  80. Boaz Barak Says:

    Hi Scott,
    As an exercise, I did an advanced search on twitter to see whether it really would have been a good idea to listen to the people you mentioned (I looked at tweets between January 20 till February 4 – when you wrote your email, which was 5 days after the WHO declared a global emergency of international concern). I got tired at some point so only covered 5 or 6 people from your list, but apart from the notable exception of Srinivasan, everyone I looked at didn’t tweet about the coronavirus at all, or mentioned it only in passing. This is in contrast to former CDC director Tom Frieden’s tweets that were full of informative analysis:

    https://twitter.com/search?q=(from%3ADrTomFrieden)%20until%3A2020-02-04%20since%3A2020-01-20&src=typed_query

    Yes the CDC (which I think has a strong history in fighting many other diseases and in general was held up as a model for other countries) and the federal government screwed up the U.S. response, despite having significant advanced notice compared to other countries. But I don’t see why the broader lesson is to trust contrarians and “armchair epidemiologists” over actual experts. Indeed, even the maligned WHO was giving better communication on February 4th than most of the people you mention.

  81. Ariel Gabizon Says:

    I know from experience TCS people are super-smart, many I felt were smarter than me during my PhD/postdoc. So please, explain it to me like I’m a 5-year old cause I honestly don’t get it and feel the world’s going nuts. The whole debate here (and most elsewhere) is whether we should have taken severe measures *sooner*. Why is it clear that this is indeed a pandemic justifying such extreme measures at all?
    I mean, if covid-19 had distinct symptoms like orange spots on the nose and purple urine, I would understand we’re measuring covid as its own thing, and counting every death as a death that wouldn’t have happened without this new thing.

    But given symptoms are pretty regular flu/respiratory disease symptoms, isn’t the right thing to measure the *total num of deaths from such symptoms* in a given population size, age range, time interval, compared to years prior?
    And then only take extreme measures if there’s a big factor e.g. 2X in *this* number?

    To illustrate my line of thought further, what would’ve prevented you last year from making a test for a particular strand of what we typically just vaugely think of as seasonal flu, giving it a fancy name like TyBOD-260z and saying look 2018 we had 0 deaths from TyBOD-260z. January 2019 we had 20, Feb 2019 we had 200, we must lockup the nation.

    I’m not trying to win an argument, I genuinely want someone to explain it to me, cause it’s not fun thinking the world is controlled by some combination of crazy and malicious..and more on the malicious side.

  82. Edan Maor Says:

    Ariel Gabizon #81:

    I’m no expert (and we’ve had this discussion before :p).

    But from what I understand, the main things that are different are:

    1. Much greater mortality rate, especially among older or immunocompromised patients.

    2. Much greater percent of *difficult* cases. I think the generally agreed on figure was 2%? Much higher than the flu, and this also means that e.g. more beds will be taken, more hospital staff required, etc.

    3. In the difficult cases, the symptoms appear to be much worse than the flu. This is more anecdotal evidence, but plenty of people are saying things like “this is worst than the flu, I have the flu every year but you *don’t* want to get this”. However it’s pretty hard for me to disentangle this from selection bias here – I only hear the people who had really bad symptoms. For all I know I already had the virus and didn’t feel anything.

    Also, outside view – Italy and Spain have an overwhelmed health system. It looks like New York might be going that way as well. How do you explain this if not for there being something worse here?

    Also to answer your specific question:

    > But given symptoms are pretty regular flu/respiratory disease symptoms, isn’t the right thing to measure the *total num of deaths from such symptoms* in a given population size, age range, time interval, compared to years prior?
    And then only take extreme measures if there’s a big factor e.g. 2X in *this* number?

    Why would this matter? What we care about is a good projection for how many deaths there will be going forward (and how much medical equipment will be needed). If this was *literally* a mutation of a regular flu, which causes exactly the same symptoms, except had a mortality rate of 50% instead of 0.1%, would we care that it wasn’t distinct symptoms or something?

    The absolute numbers for “deaths by flu” would be really low, at first, because most of the population won’t have the new strain, but obviously we’d wanna know *very very quickly* that we’re dealing with something new which might spiral out of control. What does having distinct symptoms matter here?

  83. Ariel Gabizon Says:

    Apologies – my claim about what the whole debate here is doesn’t conver Andy’s comment 66 (or also the fact that many comments are not directly about the covid issue at all) still would be happy for feedback on my previous comment.

  84. Scott Says:

    PDV #65: Whenever Kelsey Piper says anything, I assume that she’s right about it. And if the Lord’s righteous wrath were ever provoked to reduce Vox to rubble, I imagine that His hand would be stayed mainly by the presence of Kelsey on Vox’s staff. And while it’s great that Kelsey is able to produce excellent journalism for Vox, I think she’d also do a great job in any other role involving accurate factual and moral judgments, up to and including President of the United States.

    As for the rest of Vox, though—well, I’m sure their coverage wasn’t uniformly bad, but did you see their Jan 31 tweet? Written in their usual “explainer” tone, the tweet read, in part:

    “Is it [coronavirus] going to be a deadly pandemic? No.”

    After it had become obvious that the answer was “Yes,” Vox deleted the tweet without explanation—only later, when called on it, posting the explanation that the tweet “no longer reflects the current reality of the coronavirus story.” They left unaddressed the question of whether it reflected the reality at the time it was written.

    See, this is the sort of thing that makes me feel better about having given a much more qualified reassurance in private to one friend who asked me, and then later offering a public apology for having done so!

  85. phys anon Says:

    @Jelmer Renema,

    It really depends what you mean by “more powerful.” I certainly don’t deny that the considerable success of hard science has naturally led to an expansion of its clout and reputation, which has pushed the pendulum a bit too far in one direction in an unfortunately zero-sum world. (And on the other side some of the perceived cultural mistakes in the humanities are real and were brought on by themselves). But this is largely not the fault of “hard science types” deserving of any “loathing.” I don’t have the power nor inclination to affect the humanities at my institution in any way whatsoever. The administrators do. And to the extent that anyone in faculty do have the power (judged by the number of voting departments on faculty governance) and inclination (judged by my own personal experience) to play that game, it is the humanities, not STEM. The loathing you are relaying is largely misdirected; I agree completely that there are fools on all sides.

  86. Gil Kalai Says:

    Ariel, the reason that the pandemic justified (and justifies) extreme measures is that

    a) Without extreme measures (say, in the US) hundreds of thousand of people are expected to die from the disease. And the number could be even higher by an order of magnitude.

    b) With extreme measures taken at the right time the disease can be suppressed.

    One could also add that in both cases the devastating effect on the economy will be huge.

    My explanation could be

  87. Scott Says:

    Pascal #36:

      Stockpiling on essentials at your home may not be such a good idea as this is precisely the behavior that create shortages.

    anon #39:

      Is there a reason to expect food shortages from the epidemic?

    Here’s what I think:

    (1) It still seems unlikely to me that there will be a serious disruption of the food supply, or of the supply chains for toilet paper and so on. Then again, I’ve underestimated this crisis before, so take that with a grain of salt (which will hopefully still be available)! 🙂

    (2) If I’m right about (1), then whatever shortages there are will be mostly due to fear and hoarding. Of course, if everyone else is running on the bank, then it might be self-interestedly rational to get your own money out before it’s all gone. So, just like with getting out of the stock market before a crash, if the supermarket shelves were to be stripped bare, you’d be extremely grateful if your friend had advised you beforehand to stockpile food, and would probably trust that friend more. On the other hand, I agree with the earlier commenters who pointed out this is not prosocial advice to be giving to the world.

    (3) On the third hand, I’m almost never in favor of lying to the public, especially during an emergency when maintaining public trust is so essential. So I think people should be advised to buy only what they need and no more on prosocial, altruistic grounds. If that fails, then buying caps should be imposed (as actually happened at many stores in the US).

    (4) On the fourth hand, during a pandemic, every trip to the supermarket and even every delivery carries some risk. So when we advise people to buy only what they need, that should probably mean at least enough to last them a month.

  88. Scott Says:

    Adam Scholl #43:

      Many people make similar updates, I think, before taking seriously the possibility of working on existential risk. I wonder if you’ve considered attending an AIRCS workshop? We won’t hold them again until it seems safe, but once we do you’d be welcome, and I think you’d probably enjoy it.

    Thanks for asking! Absolutely, I’d be interested to attend an AI-risk workshop sometime. Partly just to learn about the field, partly to find out whether there’s anything that someone with my skillset could contribute.

    Here’s how I put it in my Ask-Me-Anything session a couple weeks ago:

      I’m sure I could invent a clever reason why [covid] shouldn’t change my views about anything, but if I’m being honest? It does cause me to update in the direction of AI-risk being a serious concern. For the Bay Area rationalists have now publicly sounded the alarm about a looming crisis for the human race, well before it was socially acceptable to take that crisis too seriously (and when taking it seriously would have made a big difference), and then been 100% vindicated by events. Where previously they were 0 for 0 in predictions of that kind, they’re now 1 for 1.
  89. Scott Says:

    Rahul #47:

      So instead of debating who was right and who was wrong and how we got here wouldn’t it be better to discuss what are the solutions that would still make a difference right now?

    Who was right and who was wrong does make a difference right now, because it affects who one should trust for the remainder of the crisis.

    WHO? CDC? I certainly won’t trust their advice — because, to say it again, I don’t trust that they still have the ability (if they ever did) safely to ferry information from the subject-matter experts to the outside world, without the information getting corrupted by politics. I’ve learned that I’d rather trust a single sensible individual, like Gottlieb or Srinivasan.

      E.g. I see a lot of people say “why aren’t we testing more” or “how could we run out of gloves” etc. But how does one make the logistics happen.

      Why don’t we for the moment try to come up with privtical and actionable solutions?!

    Today I’m donating $1000 to flexport.org, which is shipping supplies to frontline healthcare workers. Mostly just for lack of a better idea.

    Whoever has better ideas, please suggest them here!

  90. Boaz Barak Says:

    Yet Another Sneerer #44: “whose accomplishments … [are] downright aiding and abetting dictatorships (Bill Gates)”

    Are you seriously giving Bill Gates as an example of someone with negative accomplishments? I would say that he contributed to humanity much more than all the SneerClub members put together but I have a feeling that’s a very low bar…

  91. Linch Zhang Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Several points:

    1. First and (most?) importantly, I second the recommendation for AIRCS. The people who run them are bright and really competent at running workshops, and I learned a lot of cool stuff there.

    2. Secondly, some people were asking when people in the rationalist(-adjacent) sphere collectively agreed that covid was worthy of heightened concern. (I’m more aware of the EA sphere conversations than the rationalist sphere ones; there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups and my read is that the rationalists were roughly half a week ahead of us).

    My impression is that there were early conversations about this since mid-late January; this is the first very public post about it in EA-sphere: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/g2F5BBfhTNESR5PJJ/concerning-the-recent-2019-novel-coronavirus-outbreak

    “Given my current understanding, it now seems reasonable to assign a non-negligible probability (>2%) to the proposition that the current outbreak will result in a global disaster (>50 million deaths resulting from the pathogen within 1 year). I understand this prediction will sound alarmist, but in this post I will outline some of the reasons why I have come to this conclusion.”

    At some point in very late Jan/early February I think “moderately heightened concern” became the community consensus, and people started writing posts like this:
    https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ztDYsD4v7AaAbWEDM/some-quick-notes-on-hand-hygiene
    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/szSnmCh7zswBp6L2J/ea-should-wargame-coronavirus

    By late Feb people had much more updated models and were pretty much universally on board with taking at least some precautions:
    https://www.jefftk.com/p/quarantine-preparations
    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/yr9mEtr9XkKm8ntRj/how-can-ea-local-groups-reduce-likelihood-of-our-members

    By late Feb/early March everybody was glued to their screens and developing active models of when to stop certain activities.
    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bEJMoQjumD42Cbvv9/all-bay-area-ea-events-will-be-postponed-until-further

    (Note that public posts usually lag the first offline conversations and private online conversations by at least a few days, but usually pre-date general consensus/coordination by several days to a week).

    I don’t think the EA community writ large covered ourselves in glory here. I think we were broadly ahead of the (American) media and the official pronouncements of slow-moving public health departments by a reasonable margin, but 1) perhaps not ahead enough to make a large difference, and 2) we did not use our advantages nearly enough to have a huge altruistic impact.

    I think subsets of the community (people focused on biorisk, obviously, but also individuals like Divia Eden) moved much faster and were more ahead of the curve. It’s unclear to me how beneficial their activities were (and maybe we’d have a better idea 6 months from now).

    JHU’s Center for Health Security (which is partially funded by Open Philantropy Project and have at least one EA working there on biorisk grounds) started getting concerned fairly early (early-mid) Jan.

    Among contrarian techies outside of this sphere, obviously I expect Bill Gates to have tracked this better than most of us –infectious disease-based philanthropy is his job after all!– but I confess to not really follow what he did until late February on this.

    3. “All I’m advocating, really, is to take the ordinary adjustment you do when you see that someone was right or wrong about some matter of ordinary importance, and multiply it by 1000x or so. At any rate that’s what I’m doing!” I think I agree with the direction of your update, but perhaps not the magnitude. My guess is that my update is maybe 10-50x compared to something much less consequential (eg, if I previously trusted the WHO on Lyme disease and then read a meta-analysis on it and realized that the WHO misrepresented the literature, or if I previously didn’t trust MIRI employees on {random intervention unrelated to AI risk} and then realized a year later that {random intervention} works well).

    4. Re donations. I don’t feel strongly about donating for covid (it seems like far from a neglected priority as of April), but I think if we want to prevent the next catastrophic pandemic, we should devote resources to organizations working to prevent catastrophic pandemics, and who have a track record of being right early on about this one. I already mentioned JHU’s Center for Health Security:
    http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/giving/
    Oxford’s FHI is another reasonable bet:
    https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/support-fhi/

    If you’re excited about helping out very specifically with covid, I think this fund is plausibly quite good (I have not reviewed it in detail; aka, at all, but I trust John Halstead’s judgement):

    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/yMoP77iD4zMgko2vi/covid-19-response-fund

  92. Scott Says:

    Jelmer Renema #64: Yeah, you and I are coming at this from such diametrically opposed worldviews that I don’t know how much communication is even possible across the chasm.

    To my mind, literature, music, and art are tied with math and science in the short list of what redeems our sorry species. I regard with awe those who, unlike me, have actual literary or artistic talents. As someone who’s been blogging, writing magazine articles, etc. for 15 years, I know just enough to be able to recognize prose stylists five or six levels above me. I also love philosophical work like Hume’s or Russell’s—the kind that’s funny and clear. When I advised undergrads back at MIT, I always urged them not to skimp on humanities, pointing out that writing seminars were some of the most useful courses I ever took. And I’ll forever stand against the cost-cutting bureaucrats who see universities as just technical training programs with mascots.

    Having said this: in my view, the humanities and social sciences unfortunately turned out to be fertile breeding grounds for elaborate ideological systems that have enormous pretensions to knowledge yet virtually none of the substance … like little abortive religions. Hegelian dialectics, Marxism, and Freudianism are three of the early examples; postmodernism and “social-justice-ism” are two newer ones.

    The mandarins of these systems invariably produce dense, impenetrable prose that looks to a non-initiate like nonsense. Ah, you reply, but don’t we muggles simply lack the years of training needed to appreciate Heidegger’s and Derrida’s and Judith Butler’s soaring insights? If I complain, aren’t I no better than some bumpkin who rejects the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem because he doesn’t understand it?

    There are ways of testing these hypotheses. One way is to do what Alan Sokal did. Another way is simply to check for yourself what the mandarins deduce from their systems about the subjects you know reasonably well (like math or physics). If it’s laughable nonsense, then presumably either their systems are a farce, or else math and physics themselves are. And if that’s the choice … well then, it’s a pretty easy one!

    Yet a third method is to seek out novelists and artists and psychologists and philosophers who are obviously brilliant at their craft, and ask them what they think about postmodernism or the other elaborate systems. If you get answers like “oh, it’s just as full of crap as you think, but don’t tell anyone I said that or I’ll lose my friends,” you can draw appropriate conclusions.

    Typically, I find, the systems start from true if commonplace moral premises (e.g., we should put the well-being of humans above profits of shareholders), and true if commonplace empirical facts (e.g., sometimes supposed “meritocracies” really aren’t). But then, on top of those commonplaces, they erect a whole intellectual superstructure out of plywood, glued together with moral preening. But worst of all is the hypocrisy. As David Deutsch once pointed out, everything that these ideological “disciplines” want to say about the hard sciences—e.g., that they never achieve objective truth, that they reflect only the neuroses or the class interests of the people who work on them, that success in them is based purely on bootlicking and networking rather than merit, etc. etc.—are false of the hard sciences even while they’re true of the ideological disciplines themselves.

    Was that sufficiently clear? 😉

  93. Scott Says:

    Rahul #68:

      After all this discussion, I feel the summary should be:

      Institutions / Politicians / Bureaucrats-BAD
      Individual experts- GOOD

      It’s somewhere in the institutionalization of ideas that the noise, bias and cover-my-arse-syndrome overwhelms the signal.

    Hear hear!

  94. Gerard Says:

    Has anyone heard a explanation for the extreme differences in growth rates between different locations ?

    California recorded its first deaths on March 10, NYS recorded its first 4 days later. The two states issued stay at home orders only 3 days apart. Yet as of yesterday California had 146 deaths while NYS had 1218, almost an order of magnitude more.

    It seems to me that the NYC metro area and the Bay Area have roughly comparable densities. So why is the first so much more badly affected than the second ?

  95. KL Says:

    I am thinking through a little pet theory that I think resolves some of these questions for a lot of us. Yes, we all saw the stories out of China no later than January indicating this was something truly, truly awful that would cause devastation wherever it went. Nonetheless the collective response was something along the lines of, “whew, sucks to be in China.” I think a lot of us were figuring that a fascist dictatorship like China would literally do whatever it takes to eradicate and nip this thing in the bud, even if that meant “disappearing” a few hundred thousand people and pulverizing a couple of their own cities. And I think most of us figured, “yup. That’s what’s gonna happen. Sucks to be in China.” And we were mostly pretty okay with that, since we are not in China. I have the sense that we all just failed a giant Milgram experiment.

  96. Scott Says:

    Boaz Barak #49 and #80: Tom Frieden seems awesome. I wish that he were still CDC director!

    Also, part of me is relieved to learn that most of the contrarian nerds who I mentioned were not yet on the ball by Feb. 4. Relieved, because then I feel much less guilt about not having been on the ball either then! 🙂

    What I know is just that through the course of February, more and more people who I follow in the “nerdosphere” started pressing the PANIC button, and their doing so played an important role (more than I’m proud to admit) in giving me enough courage to start pressing that button as well.

    On reflection, though, your comments (and others in this thread) have helped convince me that, while my original post had a ≥3/4 inner product with the truth, there was also a significant error term. The error term was that I should have given less credit to “armchair Twitter-nerds,” and more credit to all the epidemiologists and virologists and public health experts whose hard work and conclusions the Twitter-nerds signal-boosted. Since the relevant government agencies abdicated their role, this signal-boosting was the only reason why the experts’ conclusions and warnings started making an impression on me by mid-February (again, I wish it were late January). And that’s certainly something, but I shouldn’t universalize my own experience, and also our primary gratitude should go to the originators of the relevant knowledge.

    And for next time, the question is whether we can rebuild public health agencies in such a way that we don’t need to rely on Twitter-nerds to reroute the actual experts’ knowledge around those agencies.

  97. Steve E Says:

    I know this comment is a bit of a megilah, but here’s the timeline leading up to my personal awakening.

    Mid january. I start seeing news about coronavirus. One of my brothers freaks out and tells me the sky is falling. I tell him Ebola appeared scarier and then fizzled out, but that coronavirus is worth tracking. In Tahoe one weekend, I see everyone having fun, without a care in the world, and I imagine the whole ski resort closing down in a few months if the virus spreads. But I don’t expect this will actually happen.

    Late January. I start tracking the subject, consuming whatever information I can: news, studies, epidemiological forecasts, WHO reports, conjectures. Life is still quite normal. I haven’t freaked out. At this point, I’m just building awareness of what I begin to see as a growing but still relatively small risk.

    Early February. I see that the weight and direction of the evidence is beginning to lean towards things getting out of control. It becomes clear to me that I have to increasingly trust my imperfect judgment over the obviously-wrong pronouncements of authorities. I’m still afraid to be open about my concerns, because I don’t want to be dismissed as a lunatic, but I begin to make comments on Facebook along the lines of “We need to build hospitals right now, just like China” and “We need to use this time to prepare.” On the financial side, I take 5% of my net worth and use it to short airline stocks as a hedge in case things go bad. My wife asks me “If you think you’re right, why not use ⅓ of your net worth to short the market?” but I tell her I’m not sure I’m right and that that’s too risky. I also buy 15 N95 masks, two P100 respirators, and secure enough food to last my family for two months. At this point I was focused more on my family than others.

    Mid February. I know I’m probably wrong about some details, but by now it’s become impossible to dismiss the concern my brother brought to me in early January as a fringe-belief by someone who doesn’t have enough experience with the way things work in the real world. I build a go-plan for my family, which includes moving from our San Francisco apartment to either North Dakota, British Columbia, the Amazon rainforest, or wine country. I start wearing gloves in public and doing my best to not touch my face. When people ask about the gloves, I tell them I am building good habits as a hedge in case of disaster, but that I am not yet convinced there will be a disaster. I regret this in retrospect; I just wanted to appear reasonable, middle of the road, like the rambam. Internally, I begin to become concerned about my mother and grandmother. I make daily calls to my mother to encourage her to leave NYC. I have a nightmare of my mother dying alone and without access to healthcare in her crowded NYC building.

    Late February. While nothing is certain, the situation is starting to look a bit more clear. If things could have gone two ways in January, certainly things have been going one way and not the other. My wife and I agree we are going to need to keep our eyes open for a week and activate our emergency plans if more of our predictions come to fruition. Unfortunately, during that week, the things we told ourselves to look out for actually happen. We agree that wine country would be the least disruptive move for us and begin looking for a house to rent there. On a personal level, I focus my energy on improving my pulmonary health and aerobic capacity. I realize that I am in a low risk group, but I also suspect that the odds of me dying have suddenly roughly doubled, and the odds of me being out of commission for a month have probably increased by more than an order of magnitude, though I don’t know the exact number.

    Early March. My financial hedge worked, and I’ve nearly doubled my net worth despite risking only my 5% of my money. I feel comfortable quitting my job, but to be respectful I give them a month’s notice. My wife and I withdraw our kids from school and move into a house with a backyard in wine country. Now that I start to feel more secure personally, I start directing my attention to others: I distribute most of my N95 masks to healthcare workers, a bus driver I am friendly with, a neighbor who has lung cancer, the owner of a coffee shop I frequent, and so on. I keep a couple for my wife and I and buy a UV light so we can irradiate and reuse them. I co-found a nonprofit aimed at building ventilators.

    Mid March. Most people have been waiting for an authority to tell them things aren’t normal, and most authorities begin to tell people things aren’t normal. So people panic; the train which has been hurtling towards them is now at their feet. The ski resort I went to in January closes down, because an authority told them to do so. Headlines that I had the courage to only predict to a few close friends begin to appear in the news with uncanny frequency. I generate a formula for predicting headlines: ignore the authorities, trust your ability to interpret the data. Of course this formula doesn’t always work, but in the current climate it works surprisingly well.

    Current state. The ventilator nonprofit I co-founded has taken off. There are now 500+ volunteers and we’ve brought together a wide-range of experts. Our designs are increasingly serious. I left my job and am now focused on this full time. Beyond this, my family has become able to help people in other ways I won’t describe. Although the general picture remains grim, I begin to see some glimmers of hope. It takes recognizing a situation to fix it, and I think now the world is beginning to recognize the situation. While I recognize we’re in for a rough period ahead, I finally feel a bit better psychologically.

    Final thought.I hope this comment doesn’t come across as too “I told you so” or too “San Francisco yuppy.” I am wrong often and I recognize that not everyone has the means and opportunities I have. I’m trying my best to help such people as well.

  98. Looking forward to a Hanson-Cochran debate on coronavirus | Entitled to an Opinion Says:

    […] people I’ve been reading for years and have been recently cited by Scott Aaronson as the most worthwhile writers on COVID-19 are Greg Cochran and Robin Hanson. Interestingly, the […]

  99. Douglas Knight Says:

    If I had a time machine to send a message to Scott on February 4, I would say: Start a campaign of widespread illegal testing.

    I don’t understand why anyone is abiding by the FDA. Why didn’t the CDC just defy the FDA / tell everyone to defy the FDA? What is going on today in Ohio and New York? Are they obeying the FDA? Why?

  100. uhoh Says:

    Dear Scott, I agree with everything you’ve said here. Keep up the good work!

  101. marxbro Says:

    Scott #92:

    “Hegelian dialectics, Marxism, and Freudianism are three of the early examples”

    Marxism isn’t religious, Marxism is explicitly materialist in its outlook. Simply calling something you disagree with (why do you disagree with it?) an “abortive religion” is a little bit rude and dismissive. If you find something about Marxism difficult to understand (or “dense, impenetrable”), you can ask me and I’ll clarify it for you.

    I found Marx difficult at first, but he’s certainly not impenetrable. Marx is the great contrarian critic of our times, and as you say, it benefits us to listen to criticism.

  102. James Says:

    I’m curious if this has caused you to expect to take any actions w.r.t. existential risk reduction work in general. I think your all-caps email is how several people feel about transformative AI & alignment (incidentally, those people heavily overlap with the people concerned about pandemics before this happened). What does this make you feel about that space, where your background is pretty applicable imo?

    Tbh, when I read your blog I often feel some version of “holy shit, you could clearly contribute so much to alignment/not-ruin-the-world-with-powerful-optimizers work. Work that might turn out to be the most important work that ever… but you don’t! Why!?”

    I understand there’s a bunch cruxes here – e.g. that people who are concerned about AI tend to think human intelligence might turn out to be less complicated / more reductionist than ‘sophisticated people’ believe. Or that it’s unclear how to do work that will actually move the needle on alignment of future transformative AI. Or, more mundanely, that it’s unclear how to work on the problem while still making progress within academia. Or perhaps interest v.s. altruism tradeoffs that are reasonable (EAs are more willing to work on things that matter in expectation, personal passion be damned, than I expect most people to be).

    But still curious if this event cause you to expect to take any different actions than previously? e.g. calling with people at MIRI or OpenPhil/AI or CHCAI at Berkeley CS or FHI at Oxford, or considering some work/advisee work on this area. Not just rationalists either, e.g. 80,000 Hours or EA-not-necessarily-rationalist groups.

  103. Linch Zhang Says:

    Re James #102:

    Earlier upthread, Adam asked Scott if he’d be interested in attending the AI Risk for Computer Scientists workshop once they reopen. Scott said he would “absolutely” be interested. https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=4695#comment-1834974

  104. Scott Says:

    James #102: As I said in comment #88 above, the short answer is yes—this does make me more interested in figuring out some way to get involved with x-risk research in general that would leverage the skills that I have. For several reasons, I’d already been moving toward greater sympathy with the “AI safety and other x-risks should be seriously worked on” position, and this accelerates that. We now have one case (up from zero a few months ago) where many rationalist x-risk nerds went out on a limb, told everyone that the sky was falling, and the sky indeed fell.

    Of course, besides the timescale, another crucial difference is that with coronavirus, we knew many effective things to do: it’s just that, again and again, countries tragically squandered their chance to do them (with the US being the most spectacular failure). With AI, by contrast, even assuming we agree about the reality of the danger, I’m not convinced that we can sensibly judge the effectiveness of anything we do today. But that now strikes me as a good argument for more fundamental research, especially as
    (1) OpenAI and others begin to publish AI-risk papers with meaty/addressable open problems, and
    (2) the available AIs reach a level of performance where, by experimenting with them (one small example being adversarial data for deep networks), one can almost start to believe in the possibility of learning things that could be relevant for AGI.

  105. James Says:

    Thanks for elaborating, agree that it seems quite hard to judge the effectiveness of work done today/ figuring out what could be be effective might be the core problem right now. Especially if you’re pessimistic about the effectiveness of any current approaches, s.t. you’re less optimistic about a “try many things, some will turn out to be effective” idea.

    Sorry I had missed the point upthread, I had seen that you updated beliefs on the previous post/question (the 0/0->1/1 point), but was curious if you had taken any actions in that direction or planned to take any specific actions. I think beliefs, even among rationalist-leaning types, often are easier to update than actions (also harder to “update” actions because they move in more discrete chunks), so it’s worth putting explicit consideration on “I updated my beliefs somewhat -> what different actions related to that belief might make sense now?” But #88 did discuss that

  106. Edan Maor Says:

    Scott, for what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of Vox either, and I’m probably even less intellectually in line with them than you (I’m more of a free-market believer than you, I think).

    That said, I think Matthew Yglesias, one of the founders, is pretty awesome. His podcast “The Weeds” is incredibly interesting, probably my favorite political podcast. He seems pretty fair there, and while we don’t necessarily agree on everything, he comes at things in the correct way – he’s usually asking the question *I’d* want to ask of whomever he’s interviewing.

    The latest episode of the podcast was about the “Mask fiasco”, and was interesting listening. He mentioned the huge criticism of the media, and gave his view. I don’t agree with it, but my summary of his view would be: a) he feels the criticism is overblown, and b) the media in general go to experts to find out what to say – in this case they went to experts and the experts steered them wrong. What would you *have* them do?

    (Again, don’t agree, but worth listening to the podcast IMO.)

  107. Rahul Says:

    Deepa #78:

    “In Bombay, doctors simply meet patients by WhatsApp video and get paid by PayTM. I’m wondering why that hadn’t taken off in Chennai. Doctors have stopped consulting, period. If you need to see a doctor for anything, you are to go to ER, potentially waiting for hours.”

    I am in Bombay. I think the reason is complex but fundamentally it’s abrogation of a sense of duty coupled with the lack of good frameworks and exhortation for them to do this.

    Not sure what could be a good solution but sure I would love to play a part if there can be one.

  108. ARIEL GABIZON Says:

    Edan #82
    Allow me to just answer about New York, cause I think most of the discussion is circular at this point given our previous chat.
    Numbers I saw yesterday about almost all deaths having pre-existing conditions https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-19-daily-data-summary-deaths.pdf
    reaffirms in my view that the number I suggest to measure in my comment is the relevant one.

    I have to say about comment #97; that I wonder if the ability to buy shorts creates a lot of problematic incentives. To give an analogy – if you let anybody buy fire insurance on my house, doesn’t it incentivize people to burn my house down.

    To take a less touchy subject as example, go back to 2008 crisis –
    AIG (and I guess a bunch of banks) makes a ton of money selling credit default swaps (shorts on mortgages). When mortgages fail and AIG doesn’t have money to pay the CDS owners the government gives AIG ~70 billion dollars to pay them that was printed by the Federal reserve because they’re too big to fail.

  109. Quantum Anon Says:

    Scott, I think you attribute WAY too much credit to “rationalists” on twitter. They may have been what convinced *you*, but they need not have been if you listened to others: when you visited Waterloo on January 28, Debbie Leung told you she won’t shake your hand because you were sick coming back from Davos, for fear of coronavirus; she had already stocked up on masks by that point. A day before you came, I had a conversation with Debbie in which she advised me to buy some gloves and wear them in public as a way to remember not to touch my face.

    On the other hand, I read rationalist twitter, and some of them recommended that I stock up on 2 months worth of food – which is certainly over-panicking and is way more than ended up being necessary (I already had 2 weeks worth of cans at that point, and even that is something I have not had the occasion to use). Then Yudkowsky commended someone for shorting the market and making money, but implied it’s now too late… right before a bigger crash. Robin Hanson suggested deliberately infecting people with the virus. A diagram passed around rationalist twitter appeared to show the coronavirus only hits places with mild climate (epidemiologists disagreed). Several libertarian-leaning tech types lamented that shutting down everything will destroy the economy and that this is ridiculous (Musk was among them, as you mentioned).

    Anyway, on the whole, rationalist twitter didn’t do too badly, but they also didn’t outperform what my personal group of friends/colleagues recommended.

  110. Rahul Says:

    I still cannot believe that we are engaging in this SneerClub vs Scottsians debate in the middle of this!

    Both sides: Why don’t we focus on some, more pressing, questions? Some thoughts, ideas etc. that can help in the immediate crisis?

    It’s not so far-fetched that we can made a difference. e.g. I read about the BadgerShield face shield PPE on a blog comment thread just like this one only 2 days ago. And now I’ve passed it along to some interested group of academic-industrialists I work with in India and we may be on a rapid path to churning them out (hopefully!) https://www.wired.com/story/tinkerers-created-face-shield-being-used-hospitals/

    So basically, the channels of information dispersal are not anywhere close to optimally efficient. Lot of low hanging fruit. Quite a few opportunities to make a difference.

    Don’t get trapped in the morass of “how do I protect my family” and “how did the government fuck up” Think larger.

  111. Rahul Says:

    Speaking of AI: so what has been the contribution of AI on an anti covid drug or vaccine so far?

    For all our success with Alexa and self driving cars that we pat ourselves on our back for, out AI seems not that great at figuring out what would be a good response in this case and fast eh?

    Of course, one could stretch protein folding prediction or molecular docking calculations under AI but that’s not the point.

    Maybe we are not so good at choosing the right problems for AI to work on?

  112. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Physics Anon

    I think we’re mostly in agreement: if we confine ourselves to the universities, it’s been external factors (administrators, politicians, etc) who have pushed the worldview we are discussing onto the way the universities are run, not the scientists themselves. Indeed, for any idea that becomes popular, it’s a pretty safe bet that the people who actually practice that topic understand the limitations much better than the people making the decisions (you see the same happening now for machine learning, or quantum for that matter). So in that sense the loathing is entirely misdirected.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of people who believe that the humanities got exactly what they deserved, so not everyone in our community is blameless either.

    But if we zoom out a bit to society at large, I don’t think at all that it’s been the overwhelming success of the natural sciences that has led to the current situation where scientism has become the de facto norm in much of society. It doesn’t fit on two accounts: science was successful before the current wave of scientism became a thing, and there have been other movements in completely orthogonal political directions than the current one (orthodox Marxism for example) claiming scientific status. The explanation simply doesn’t fit.

    Rather, recent scholarship on the beginnings of the neoliberal movement has shown the extent to which this has been a deeply political, ideological movement from the beginning. Of course, it cloaks its goals in the language of neutrality (as most ideologies do) but that can safely be ignored for precisely that reason.

    Also note that the whole ‘faculties voting on decisions affecting other faculties’ is very much a US thing, as far as I can tell. We shouldn’t automatically assume that the power struggles happening in front of our noses are automatically representative of the wider power struggle, which I argue has a completely different dynamic.

    Note that I am conflating scientism within the university with neoliberalism without. These two are not the same thing of course, but the first tends to be a manifestation of the latter.

  113. Candide III Says:

    Regarding x-risk, I can’t for the life of me figure out why people who keep worrying about AI threats don’t aggressively pursue interstellar settlement (the Mars thing is a bad joke). Even supposing they figure out how to keep a lid on AI, it’s still all eggs in one basket, isn’t it?

    Scott #51: I don’t defend Republican politicians, most of whom are just as useless as you believe. I question your reasons to insert these statements into your mea culpa. I think you have been inconsistent. Either you didn’t mean it when you wrote that your “whole personality stands against every sentence” in all caps, or you have secret longings for Republicans that you have let slip through as hyperbolic satire in this fashion.

  114. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Scott 92:

    I appreciate your response, but I think none of your three tests hold any water to see if a topic is sound. All three have answers which don’t depend on the truth value you’re after.

    For your first point, you could easily do a Sokal hoax on any topic (and people have, precisely to make this point). Overworked referees, editors with an axe to grind, journals with questionable practices, these all occur in all disciplines (unfortunately). We didn’t declare physics to be a lost cause because of El-Naschie, and we certainly shouldn’t declare the humanities a lost cause because of Sokal.

    To your third point, about some people finding postmodernism pointless but being afraid to say so, I answer as to the first: is that really any different outside the humanities? If you wanted to get tenure in physics at the moment, it wouldn’t be a smart move to, say, loudly declare that you think experimental quantum computing research isn’t going to pan out. Fashions that have nothing to do with the truth of the subjects they’re dealing with are unfortunately a given in any intellectual endeavour.

    And besides, your argument ignores the inherent and entirely necessary disagreements in academia about what is worthwhile research and what is not. For myself, I can happily say that at least 50% of my colleagues think that what I’m doing is a waste of time, and I think the same about some of them. This is entirely fine and normal: if we all agreed on what was worth doing, we would never make progress.

    It is even built into our institutions that this is how things are: this is why we never let a single senior colleague decide on the career of a junior one (think tenure, grants, etc); this is always done by committee to ‘average out’ these healthy disagreements. Why should we find this natural and good among ourselves but see it as a problem in others?

    This entirely carries over to art, btw. Most modern artists I speak to think most modern art is pointless, but few of them think modern art as a project is pointless. And that is an entirely healthy and normal situation.

    Your second point, about the truth of pronouncements of social scientists in other fields, is the most interesting one. Also here, you can see that this is not a good criterion by flipping it around: would we take seriously a chemist who dismisses Newton because of his terrible ideas about chemistry? No, of course not. We would patiently explain that yes, newton had a lot of kooky ideas, but that after about a century of sifting and testing, we distilled the few good ones. We would also explain that it’s a pretty high bar for anyone to have *any* idea that stands the test of time, and an impossible bar for all of someone’s ideas to do so.

    I think a lot of people forget the endless decades of polishing and revising that come after the work of major researchers, that makes it all seem so easy and clear in hindsight. Try reading a few pages of the Principia: it’s dense, impenetrable prose that looks like nonsense, even to a modern physicist. If you took clarity as a heuristic, you’d throw it out after a few pages. Judging by form, classical mechanics as we’d recognize it took decades to take shape.

    And on top of that, successful philosophers, social scientists etc have the strong disadvantage compared to scientists that as soon as they become accepted, their ideas tend to be seen as natural. If you’re a wildly successful scientist, you get distilled into a one line equation taught to undergrads that has your name attached to it. If you’re a wildly successful philosopher, you get distilled into common knowledge and everyone forgets you. You yourself use Hegelian ideas every day, whether you realize it or not. That ‘arc of justice’ quote that shows up in many of your posts is teleological idealism – invented by Hegel.

  115. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #96: I believe we are in agreement – there is an important role to play for smart & generally knowledgeable people in signal boosting domain experts, especially when things are moving so quickly. (I don’t follow the particular people you mentioned, but among non epidemiologists I find the twitter feed of 538’s Nate Silver to be useful, though I think maybe that started more in March than February. Interestingly the mainstream news in Israel and I think other countries as well highlighted this story much earlier than news in the U.S.)

    My critique of “armchair epidemiologist” was not of people that signal-boosted actual experts but rather of people that think that because they are generally clever and know how to play around with data in excel or python they can figure out the progression of the disease better than the domain expert and see a strategy that the experts are all missing.

  116. Gloria Says:

    Unfortunately, this pandemic has shown that only a small percentage of people are able to correctly analyze data and to understand the implications in the real world. Even people, who for personal interest or because of their professions, claim to think correctly, dramatically failed. Partially due to their bias, partially because actually they don’t know EXACTLY what it means being rational. They processed their faith in Rational Thinking, as priests of a new religion. And exactly, as religious men, they repeated psalms and dogma without questioning themselves. I appreciated the Mea Culpa of Scott Aaronson. I am still waiting for the Mea Culpa of many others but, by because I’m a bit more rational than the average, I know that they won’t.

    Could we have guessed that authorities and experts were not trustable, already at the beginning of the pandemic (when it was only an epidemic in China)? Yes, we could. In a very simple way. Occam Razor. We have two models: 1) math predictions of simple models (exponential function) of pandemics spread 2) experts claiming that we don’t have to get worried because the situation is under (how not specified) control. The two models, who both described the initial situation, are in contradiction. If model 1 is correct, model 2 is wrong and the conclusion is that experts are wrong. If model 2 is correct, model 1 is wrong and as a conclusion, exponential growth is wrong. Occam Razor easily tells us that experts are wrong is a much simpler conclusion than exponential growth is wrong because the former does not change any of other paradigms or science discovery, while if we put under discussion the latter, the whole science has no more meaning.

  117. Rahul Says:

    #109 Quantum anon:

    “when you visited Waterloo on January 28, Debbie Leung told you she won’t shake your hand because you were sick coming back from Davos, for fear of coronavirus;”

    Speaking of Davos, ( and while criticizing the CDC etc.) don’t most of us need to acknowledge another blind spot we all had. Including Scott.

    While we were all at Davos, and deifying Greta the real threat was a pandemic at the door?

    I don’t see too much of an acknowledgement of that. Even among the rationalists. The typical response I get is something of the sort that points to defense spending or some such.

    Sure, it would be great to have more money to spend. But given the pie we have isn’t the allocation to “hot” topics like global warming excessive?

  118. Rahul Says:

    Jelmer Renema Comment #115:

    “If you’re a wildly successful philosopher, you get distilled into common knowledge and everyone forgets you.”

    I doubt that. Plato, Aristotle, have endured for centuries. Your thoughts may indeed become common knowledge, but IF what you had to say was novel and useful, people do remember you. The problem is the IF. I think in the humanities in recent years people have struggled to come up with these sort of enduring thoughts.

    Maybe it is a bit like classical music composition: Everyone remembers Mozart and Beethoven but struggles to name composers from the last 100 years. It’s just getting more and more difficult in humanities to get really big advances that the world cares about.

    I can agree with some of the other points you made but this one seems hard to believe.

  119. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, Daniel #2:

      I think a substantial part of this is that many of us have a somewhat rational fear of overreacting and being judged for it. For example I was at a faculty lunch in mid February, and I said that I’d heard some discussion of the APS March meeting being cancelled and I thought this was a good idea. Several people laughed, and the department chair said in front of the whole department that I was “fear-mongering”.

    This is exactly it.

    The issue is that, in my mind, there’s such a large overlap between “rationalists” and “people willing to say crazy-sounding things that they think are true, or bring long-term, planet-wide considerations into day-to-day life, regardless of whether others will laugh at them or give them funny looks,” that I can sometimes forget that the two categories are not the same. 🙂

  120. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @rahul 110: To help fight COVID-19, I can recommend crowdfightcovid19.org/, which aims to lighten the load of virologists fighting corona by moving tasks to other scientists. They send out an email every day with tasks, and you can volunteer for a task if you have the required expertise. Tasks range from anything from ‘Translate this document’ to ‘Solve this bayesian statistics problem’ to ‘run test XYZ on this-and-that protein on an Obscurotron 3000’.

  121. fred Says:

    Would it help to put strong UV lights in places like supermarkets? And turn them on at night?

  122. John Says:

    Regarding the “Sneer clubbing isn’t bullying because they’re shouting into a void” argument, when a SneerClub moderator shows up on someone’s blog to call them insane, what should I call that?

    To be honest, I’m sort of disillusioned with the ‘rationality’ community in many respects. I’ve even browsed Sneerclub for catharsis. And that’s why I feel comfortable saying SneerClub is completely full of shit. It’s a community of people who, almost by definition, produce no meaningful intellectual output whatsoever, targeting and bullying people who do. And, like, sometimes the communities they target do produce extremely controversial output. For example, a certain individual whose name is Robin and whose last name rhymes with Manson produces some arguments that are extremely controversial, and perhaps elicit an emotional reaction from certain groups of individuals.

    But where can you go to find a refutation? Almost by definition, anyone who can refute such a person’s arguments has a better response than to cry “shame” and throw rocks. It’s no coincidence that Sneerclub isn’t the place where you get those refutations. Sneerclub is a filter where the poop goes, and now their official moderation team is invading your blog. Reddit should quarantine it.

  123. phys anon Says:

    @Jelmer Renema

    But if we zoom out a bit to society at large, I don’t think at all that it’s been the overwhelming success of the natural sciences that has led to the current situation where scientism has become the de facto norm in much of society. It doesn’t fit on two accounts: science was successful before the current wave of scientism became a thing, and there have been other movements in completely orthogonal political directions than the current one (orthodox Marxism for example) claiming scientific status. The explanation simply doesn’t fit.

    I disagree. First of all, when we talk about “the overwhelming success of the natural sciences” we have to be careful about the scope of what we are referring to. The cultural movement we are discussing has led to quite a bit of hangers-on, for obvious reasons. Philosophers of science often consider physics, for example, to have a special paradigmatic status here in representing what we mean by “overwhelming success”, whereas many other “naturalistic sciences” have a more arguable record. So when you mention self-claims of scientific status in the social/political/economic sphere, it’s not fair or accurate to let these “soft sciences” fall within the scope of what we are defining as “successful” in order to claim explanatory inconsistency. Second of all, we shouldn’t expect recognition of the successes of the “harder” sciences to be immediate; we would naturally expect some tipping point at some difficult-to-predict time, as more and more successes are recognized and trickle down to integrate palpably into the lives of regular folks, would be not? And surely the successes of the harder sciences integrating palpably into regular lives of folks has been rather explosive over the past century: the elimination of previously endemic disease, sending humans to the moon, the invention of all manner of electrical gizmos and magic-like hand-held computers… and more recently the speed of change has been large enough that it has gotten harder and harder for folks to take for granted (as they usually eventually do) inherited technology, since the change is happening on decade-time-scales before their very eyes.

    Rather, recent scholarship on the beginnings of the neoliberal movement has shown the extent to which this has been a deeply political, ideological movement from the beginning. Of course, it cloaks its goals in the language of neutrality (as most ideologies do) but that can safely be ignored for precisely that reason.

    It sounds like you are assigning top-down agency to what I see as a very organic bottom-up phenomenon, in a way that is starting to sound icky to me (e.g. “globalists” cloaking their jewish agenda — just an example of the flavor of the language, to be clear) and alien to my own experience of how people tend to hold scientistic beliefs (e.g. individually alienated by the cultural power of religion, by widespread superstitions in astrology, etc, by the divorce between politics and empiricism, by distrust in science leading to ignorant movements like anti-vaccination or homeopathy or climate skepticism, the naive rediscovery of logical empiricist ideas, etc).

  124. matt Says:

    So many people talking about stocks when saying what they would have done or did do! Protip: the only way to double your net worth (such a terrible phrase), while only risking 5% of it, is using options, not shorting. Further protip: if you didn’t know that, you’ve got no business messing with options.

  125. Tom Hertzfeld Says:

    ”’
    HOLY SHIT!!!!!—GET YOUR PARENTS SOMEWHERE SAFE—CANCEL ALL TRAVEL PLANS—STOCK UP ON FOOD AND MASKS AND HAND SANITIZERS. SELL ALL STOCK YOU OWN!!! SHORT THE MARKET IF YOU KNOW HOW, OTHERWISE GET CASH AND BONDS. HAVE AN ISOLATED PLACE TO ESCAPE TO. IF YOU’RE FEELING ALTRUISTIC, JOIN GROUPS MAKING THEIR OWN MASKS AND VENTILATORS.
    ”’

    Scott — you’re going to look back on THIS with exactly the same feeling as you look back on the original statement to your friend — only difference is now you’re outsourcing your thinking to the rationalists rather than the WHO/CDC.

    Panic is much more dangerous than the disease! And you’re just fuelling the fire.

  126. Scott Says:

    Job #75:

      Frankly, what’s wrong with this picture is that some of your friends call you “Dr. A” and come to you for advice on stuff that’s well outside of your area of expertise.

      But I know it can be hard to avoid this type of situation.

      Personally, my strategy is to set really low expectations for family members so things don’t get out of hand.

      I’m not an electrical engineer ma, i don’t even know what a capacitor does!

      Society is so weird about stuff like this.

    I mean, the problem in early February was not that I thought hard about this, but due to my lack of expertise came to the wrong conclusion. In fact, once I did think hard about it (in mid-to-late February), I quickly came to the right conclusion, although it would still be some time before I acted on it. No, my problem in early February was that I didn’t think hard about it at all, because I didn’t know that there was any need to think hard about it, because I didn’t think hard about it, and so on in an infinite loop.

    I was simply focused on my own stuff. Implicitly, I was still in the mode that, if some terrible pandemic were about to sweep the world, then other people (like the CDC?) would be thinking hard about such things so that I didn’t have to and clearly communicating the results.

    Part of the purpose of this post was to express my thanks to a bunch of contrarian nerds for finally breaking me out of that loop. (And to reflect that, if I had sneered at their weird, contrarian ideas the way I was supposed to, then the nerds could never have gotten through to me.) Of course, I recognize that other people followed different trajectories out of the same loop, and have their own set of people to thank for it.

  127. Aspect Says:

    Scott, were you aware of the opinions of people like Nassim Taleb on the subject?
    It seems like he has been warning people of this pandemic for a while.

    His behavior online can be petty and annoying but on quantitative matters he seems to be careful. I find some of his positions contradictory, but on certain issues he can be insightful.

    I’m curious if you have read any of his books and/or articles and what you think about them.

  128. fred Says:

    Scott #126,

    after all this, when you talk about computational complexity, most people are going to be aware of the meaning of “exponential growth”, in a more intuitive and personal way.

  129. jonathan Says:

    I just wanted to mention that Greg Cochran could be considered a “professional” in this area — while he’s more internet (in)famous for his writings on recent human evolution, he has a few published papers (with a decent number of citations) on infectious diseases:

    https://muse.jhu.edu/article/25974
    https://muse.jhu.edu/article/44812

  130. Scott Says:

    Scott:

    Any comments on this Israeli covert operation to obtain ventilators and supplies from all over the world at all costs? Where does this fall on the spectrum of ethics?

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/mossad-officer-describes-covert-global-battle-to-obtain-ventilators-at-all-costs/

  131. fred Says:

    Scott #23

    “I think that right now, a command-and-control system like China’s would be preferable to what we have in the US.”

    Sadly, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
    There’s a reason why so many of those SARS viruses originate from China, and it’s directly linked to the attitude of the CCP.

    More proof of this, my favorite “armchair” specialist on China (he’s lived there 15 years), about what he found digging around in the website of the Wuhan institute of viral research, pretty mind-blowing:

  132. fred Says:

    Scott #23

    “I think that right now, a command-and-control system like China’s would be preferable to what we have in the US.”

    Sorry Scott, but I gotta push back harder on this dangerous claim, which is basically drinking the CCP propaganda look-aid. Can’t believe that someone as smart as you are is falling for it.

    The two countries that have controlled the Coronavirus with the most success, for sure (*), are South Korea and Taiwan, and they’re not “command-and-control”.

    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/south-korea/

    Listen to the advice from that South Korean expert on how they controlled it, there’s nothing about running a military dictatorship…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAk7aX5hksU

    And Taiwan has a total of 320 cases with just 5 deaths, even with their open society and being so close to China.

    (*) there’s strong evidence that China has been covering up the actual data, by orders of magnitude, so you can’t just say “we need to be more like them!”:

  133. Aris Katsaris Says:

    @George Hemington, the sneerclub is a group who has made a hobby out of petty sadistic malice, and collectively it’s basically as evil and unethical as it can get away with being. If you can get away with lying and misrepresenting, you will. (I remember people there once claiming that Scott Alexander, who in reality is self-admittedly asexual and anhedonic, was supposedly bragging about the number of his sexual partners)

    As another and more damning example, your group, and its primary members, have systematically bashed the very concept of effective altruism — because you prioritize the benefit of putting nerds in their place more than the reduction of suffering worldwide. (No, it’s not that you believe the money are funnelled to nerd causes, that’s just an excuse)

    You pretend you’re not bullies because you supposedly attack people more powerful than you? What a laugh. You only ever attack minority contrarian opinions, you’re the jeering shout of all the WORST elements of the societal and intellectual status quo. You never attack the vastly more powerful religious establishments for example (that would make you like the horrible “new atheists” you decry, supposedly), you only attack people who have ideas or tastes or practices outside the norm.

    It’s not even limited to rationalists either, same way that bullies don’t limit themselves to bashing just ONE kind of weirdos. Your prominent members, in their bully ethos attack other sorts of weirdos too: for example I still remember one of your most notable members, David Gerard, expressed his hatred of the “horrible nerds” who coopted My Little Pony, because supposedly 1 out of 10 bronies upload pornographic art of ponies — a statistic that he of course pulled out of his ass. (remember how I said that you people will lie if you can get away with it). That’s the sneerclub mentality right there, even if it the comment wasn’t made in the sneerclub reddit itself.

    Things like polyamory are on the fringe list — you’ve mocked and attacked them enough that you’ll be sure to be on the one hand you really really want to mock them for LW’s early embrace of it, on the other hand you’re recognizing it’s become mainstream enough.

    So in short: hating “nerds”, hating people who think they’re “smart”, hating people who don’t match the gender expectations for adult men, hating people who dare speak ideas that are weird, hating people who care about suffering in the third world…

    The sneerclub is a vile place built almost exclusively by sadistic prejudiced people with the cause of shaming people for the sin of NOT being such. You have all the instincts of bullies, and all the practices of bullies too.

  134. Haelfix Says:

    I don’t really agree with the letter to yourself. First of all, in early February there was still a chance that epediomologists could have gotten ahead of this thing and quarantined and secluded travelers correctly thus nipping it in the early infancy. A more thorough travel ban would have been desirable, but there was still a chance. This timeline rolled differently of course, but it need not be so.

    We also didn’t know about the details of transmission and how easy it was for presymptomatic spread. Again many Virus’s are easier to contain, we happened to roll a monster. A correct Bayesian prior accounts for a large amount of Virus’s that have easier profiles.

    I personally told my parents to seclude around the 20th of February when it was clear that containment had failed and they had clearly given up on intercepting passengers (a bad sign), and that this thing would spread unabated. So i was definitely ahead of the curve.

    On the other hand, I am now somewhat more optimistic than the current death porn negativity in the MSM as they count the bodies ignoring the base rate death rate (for instance car deaths, historical flu death rates, etc) and am confident and see evidence that our institutions won’t be overwhelmed. I also suspect we will fall on the optimistic end of the current models Fauchi et al are talking about.

  135. Scott Says:

    Douglas Knight #99:

      If I had a time machine to send a message to Scott on February 4, I would say: Start a campaign of widespread illegal testing.

    I emphatically agree with the principle: if any step is known to save thousands of lives yet is held up by bureaucracy, just do it and dare the relevant agencies to sue you after this is all over. But where would one have gotten the tests?

  136. Scott Says:

    marxbro #101:

      … Marx is the great contrarian critic of our times …

    “Our times” stretch all the way back to the 19th century? 🙂

    I’ll tell you what: I’ll make another attempt to read some Marx if you read Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies, all the way through. Deal?

  137. Scott Says:

    Quantum Anon #109:

      Scott, I think you attribute WAY too much credit to “rationalists” on twitter. They may have been what convinced *you*, but they need not have been if you listened to others: when you visited Waterloo on January 28, Debbie Leung told you she won’t shake your hand because you were sick coming back from Davos, for fear of coronavirus; she had already stocked up on masks by that point. A day before you came, I had a conversation with Debbie in which she advised me to buy some gloves and wear them in public as a way to remember not to touch my face.

    Kudos to Debbie then! I believe you, but I confess that I have ZERO recollection of the non-hand-shaking incident that you describe. Did you witness it? Did Debbie mention it to you? Part of the problem is that, when I visit Waterloo (or any place that’s so rich in friends and colleagues), everything is just a blur of back-to-back meetings; part of the problem is surely my generally worsening memory. But assuming this happened, I wish that I’d made a note to follow up and investigate why Debbie was so concerned!

  138. Scott Says:

    Rahul #111:

      Speaking of AI: so what has been the contribution of AI on an anti covid drug or vaccine so far?

      For all our success with Alexa and self driving cars that we pat ourselves on our back for, out AI seems not that great at figuring out what would be a good response in this case and fast eh?

    I would say that AI is actually extremely impressive these days, but that it’s still no match against NS (Natural Stupidity). 😀

  139. Scott Says:

    Candide III #113:

      Regarding x-risk, I can’t for the life of me figure out why people who keep worrying about AI threats don’t aggressively pursue interstellar settlement (the Mars thing is a bad joke).

    Some of them do “pursue” that goal, inasmuch as one can nowadays. Stephen Hawking used to mention it in all of his public pronouncements about existential risks.

      I don’t defend Republican politicians, most of whom are just as useless as you believe. I question your reasons to insert these statements into your mea culpa. I think you have been inconsistent. Either you didn’t mean it when you wrote that your “whole personality stands against every sentence” in all caps, or you have secret longings for Republicans that you have let slip through as hyperbolic satire in this fashion.

    I don’t know if you intended to, but you’ve raised a slightly interesting puzzle. Suppose someone said that every sentence of Mein Kampf was a despicable lie. Now, that’s not literally true: surely there are individual sentences that, considered in isolation, would seem unobjectionable and fine. But in a broader sense, every sentence of Mein Kampf, even if it happens to be true itself, is there in the service of despicable lies. Anyway, it’s in the latter sense that I meant that every sentence of the email went against the grain of my personality—although the anti-Trump sentences, I suppose less so than the others. 🙂

  140. Scott Says:

    Boaz Barak #115:

      Interestingly the mainstream news in Israel and I think other countries as well highlighted this story much earlier than news in the U.S.

    Interesting! Does that match other readers’ experiences?

    After this is all over, we’ll have a remarkably clean test of each country’s overall level of functioning, of its having-its-shit-together, in the grim form of its covid statistics. And the US will have done abysmally.

    Speaking of which: seeing all the images of partying American spring breakers on crowded beaches (including, apparently, a whole planeload from UT Austin), ignoring the shelter-in-place warnings, has opened up reservoirs of shame for my country that I’d wrongly imagined were already tapped dry by Trump’s election.

  141. Scott Says:

    Rahul #117:

      Speaking of Davos, ( and while criticizing the CDC etc.) don’t most of us need to acknowledge another blind spot we all had. Including Scott.

      While we were all at Davos, and deifying Greta the real threat was a pandemic at the door?

    I’m as happy as the next person to poke fun at the out-of-touch Davoisie (…am I now one of them??), but in this case, I don’t think the timing works. Davos was held January 21-24, when covid was still a poorly-understood localized outbreak in Wuhan. And the program was fixed by December, when it wasn’t publicly known at all. And pandemic preparedness is right up there on the list of topics often discussed at Davos. Assuming the next meeting is able to happen at all, I guarantee you it will be at the center of the program. 🙂

    More broadly, though: as I’ve said before, I’d hope that this crisis would make humanity more, not less, willing to take seriously other civilizational risks that, if left unaddressed, will simply grow exponentially with time until they swallow everything up. Compared to climate change, I’d say the biggest differences with covid are that

    (1) we’re almost certain that civilization can survive this—the question is “merely” one of how many millions will needlessly die (or suffer permanent lung damage) along the way, and

    (2) the doubling time is measured in days rather than decades—thereby allowing the doomsayers to be completely vindicated after a mere two months.

  142. Scott Says:

    fred #121:

      Would it help to put strong UV lights in places like supermarkets? And turn them on at night?

    Possibly yes! And put copper tape on any surfaces that people might touch. And have people take a number and get called to the checkout counter rather than standing in line.

    Whenever you think about all the easy things that could be done to help flatten the curve, you can either get excited and optimistic that there’s still so much low-hanging fruit, or (more likely in my case, alas…) depressed about the civilizational rot that will surely prevent us from doing almost any of it. 🙁

  143. Scott Says:

    Tom Hertzfeld #125:

      Scott — you’re going to look back on THIS with exactly the same feeling as you look back on the original statement to your friend — only difference is now you’re outsourcing your thinking to the rationalists rather than the WHO/CDC.

    You’re making a falsifiable prediction here! My prediction: if I do regret anything about this post, it will still be dwarfed by my regret about not having taken covid more seriously back in early February.

      Panic is much more dangerous than the disease! And you’re just fuelling the fire.

    I completely disagree.

    It’s like, if you construe the word “panic” to mean “helplessly, uselessly panic,” then by definition it’s never the right thing to do! But the word need not be construed that way. And I now feel certain that, two months ago, “PANIC” would’ve been a much more useful message for me to have internalized than “DON’T PANIC.”

  144. Scott Says:

    Aspect #127:

      Scott, were you aware of the opinions of people like Nassim Taleb on the subject?
      It seems like he has been warning people of this pandemic for a while.

    No, I confess that I’ve found his online persona to be so thoroughly off-putting that I simply don’t read him (except extremely occasionally), and thus missed whatever insights I could’ve gotten that way. Does anyone else have an opinion on whether I’ve been making a mistake?

  145. Scott Says:

    fred #128:

      after all this, when you talk about computational complexity, most people are going to be aware of the meaning of “exponential growth”, in a more intuitive and personal way.

    That’s an excellent observation, thanks!

  146. Scott Says:

    Scott #130:

      Any comments on this Israeli covert operation to obtain ventilators and supplies from all over the world at all costs? Where does this fall on the spectrum of ethics?

    I confess that I hadn’t heard anything about this before your comment. Yes, it does sound morally dubious to me, though it also sounds like many other countries are doing exactly the same, and that’s regrettably understandable. Here’s a question for you: which is morally worse?

    Israeli government: We value the lives of our citizens so highly that we’ll use the Mossad to bring desperately-needed ventilators from elsewhere, in whatever shady and quasi-legal ways we can.

    US government, until roughly this week: We value the lives of our citizens so lowly that we won’t bother building or acquiring more ventilators. Let two million Americans die gasping for air; the president has golf to play.

    Anyway, I’m a hell of a lot more excited about the crash efforts now underway in various places to manufacture new ventilators and other medical equipment, rather than simply trying to corner the supply! I might blog more about those efforts soon.

  147. marxbro Says:

    Scott #136.

    “… Marx is the great contrarian critic of our times …
    “Our times” stretch all the way back to the 19th century? 🙂”

    Yes, I consider “our times” to stretch back to modernity, the industrial revolution, etc. As long as capitalism exists, Marx’s critique will continue to be powerful. I find it very interesting that you talk about the wisdom of contrarian individuals, yet do not find any value in Marxist criticism.

    “I’ll tell you what: I’ll make another attempt to read some Marx if you read Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies, all the way through. Deal?”

    I didn’t ask you to read Marxist texts, and I certainly didn’t ask you to read an entire book. I asked what you actually disagreed with in Marxism. If Marxism is an “abortive religion” as you claim, then surely you can find Marx’s claims that appeal to a higher power or some sort of supernatural force. If you cannot do this, then I ask you to retract your claim that Marxism is an abortive religion.

    Similarly, if you find texts overly “dense, impenetrable” then you should be able to give an example. Like I said, I’m happy to help you with understanding Marxism, but you have to show where the supposed problem is. You cannot say that you find this stuff “impenetrable”, implying that it’s nonsense or overly difficult, then never actually give an example passage. You bring up Sokal here, but you fail to note that Sokal was himself a leftist, a man who taught in Nicaragua and approved of the Sandinistas. Now, clearly Sokal finds some segment of the postmodern left’ to be nonsense, but on the other hand he approved of a Marxist government. Can you find in Sokal’s work an example of calling Marx “nonsense”? I’d be genuinely interested if you could – I’m not overly familiar with Sokal’s work.

    So here’s what I’d like you to do – instead of saying that you’re going to read Marx (I’m not going to give you homework!). I’d like you to just be open and honest about what you actually disagree with in Marxism. I’m not asking you to re-read anything. You apparently already disagree with Marxism, so I’m sure you can put together a short argument that outlines some of your major disagreements with Marxism as a political philosophy.

    Now, I had a quick scan of the book you linked, and I noticed that it did not quote Marx a single time! I find this curious in a 400 page book. Surely criticising Marxism as a “failed idea” would involve actually engaging with said ideas. Is there something in this book that you would point to as particularly devastating to Marx? Because I’m simply not seeing it. Maybe you can help me out here.

  148. Wyrd Smythe Says:

    We lost an important battle when we, socially, began to treat opinion as truth and assertion as fact.

    A favorite quote, due to Leon Wieseltier, from his appearance on ‘The Colbert Report’ when Colbert challenged him to sum up modern culture in 10 words:

    “Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”

    Exactly. [sigh]

  149. Scott Says:

    Wyrd Smythe #148: I wouldn’t put it the way Wieseltier does. One thing that this crisis has made apparent is that we all now live in both the physical world and the digital world, so much so that we literally retreated to the latter when a virus attacked us in the former. (Of course, the virus itself is digital, albeit written in A’s, D’s, C’s, and U’s rather than 0’s and 1’s.) We need more critical thinking about both the physical and the digital worlds.

  150. mjgeddes Says:

    Scott #88,

    Well I’m now quite confident that computational complexity theory is central to understanding AGI and AI-Alignment, so I would think that you could potentially make big contributions there.

    It’s based on my strong confidence that the central principle underpinning cog-sci/social sciences will turn out to be a generalization of *reflective equilibrium*

    The ‘rationalists’ missed the central point for a long time I think, because there was just too much focus on Bayesian inference. Whilst Bayesian epistemology is important, it’s not that the *central* field they should have been focusing on, which was really computational complexity theory all along.

    In retrospect, it’s almost obvious Scott. For dynamical systems, too much order, bad. Too little order, also bad. The sweet-spot is in the middle – the point of maximum complexity. Works for any topic in cog-sci or social science – the key principle is the notion of balance or the ‘golden mean’ !

    For a society, you want to maximize ‘social complexity’ – the *good* is precisely that which maximizes the *interestingness* (or social complexity) . Of course, one could then reflect on how we choose to define this (the question of what is meta-good). And then further reflect on that reflection etc. But infinite regress is avoided by simply cutting off reflection after a reasonable but finite number of levels (3 levels I think – principle of ultra-finite recursion)

    As regards the Covid-19 crises, I would point out a slightly irony here – the problem was not super-intelligence, but super-stupidity – firstly, a virus is about the simplest and dumbest kind of ‘code’ there is, secondly, it wouldn’t have been a major problem but for the massive stupidity of US officials.

  151. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    On the one hand, the danger of the coronavirus pandemic could be easily predicted by anybody thinking about exponential growth. On the other hand, many people in the mainstream media were concerned about exponential growth in the context of overpopulation. On the gripping hand, many people in the right-wing media were concerned about exponential growth in the context of ballooning debt.

    It’s as though media people don’t actually understand what they’re spouting. It even looks like they were only “concerned” about overpopulation or debt because it was an excuse for policies they favored anyway.

    But wait, there’s more. The reason exponential growth is worrisome in the case of epidemics is that the time needed to react (months or more) is far greater than the doubling time (around a week). The time needed to react to problems caused by alleged overpopulation or excessive debt is usually less than a doubling time.

  152. Rahul Says:

    Scott #146:

    Re the Israeli governments shady Mossad strategies to corner ventilators & critical medical supplies you write:

    “Yes, it does sound morally dubious to me, though it also sounds like many other countries are doing exactly the same, and that’s regrettably understandable.”

    I’m amazed by how mild your reaction is, in fact, condoning the Israeli behavior!!

    I would have expected a stronger response especially from you since I’ve seen you comment on other occasions how reprehensible the behavior of the rest of the world was around WW2 when blocking Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

    Imagine a US senator saying (and they did!) “every other nation is turning Jews away, and it is regrettably understandable”.

    And to me this seems EXACTLY the stand you are taking! Perhaps it just shows how, when faced with a crisis (not even an existential one), all the noble talk about justice and global fraternity goes down the drain.

  153. Rahul Says:

    Scott #144:

    “if you construe the word “panic” to mean “helplessly, uselessly panic,” then by definition it’s never the right thing to do! But the word need not be construed that way.”

    But that’s the point: If panic had caused you to work 24×7 to develop a contact tracing app, or a better ventilator, sure that’s the Good Panic.

    OTOH, when people stockpile on masks, corner ventilators from other nations by shady means, hoard groceries, or short airline stocks that seems the Bad Panic.

    And unfortunately I see most actions I see are in that second category. What is even worse is that we have people bragging about how they stocked up and how their personal fortress is good to go. Or how they shorted airline stocks and made a fortune. Most of these are clearly zero sum games.

    Basically, I see a lot of panic induced PERSONAL upgrades; what we need is panic that leads to societal good.

  154. Thursday, 02.04.2020 – On Armchair Epidemiology. And On Being Wrong. – Follow the Argument Says:

    […] Link of the day: Scott Aaronson’s “On Armchair Epidemiology” […]

  155. Linch Zhang Says:

    Tom #125,

    “Panic is much more dangerous than the disease! And you’re just fuelling the fire.”

    Is there much evidence for this? A lot of people cite this, but when I looked into the likely psychological harms[1] of worrying about a pandemic, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that the direct harms of a pandemic just ended up being a lot worse.

    Also, if you construe “panic” to mean something less than it’s usual definition of psychic costs but something more like “unjustified frenetic action”, I still find it hard to believe that the secondary effects (rioting etc) of panic is greater than either the primary effects (health) or the secondary effects of justified actions (eg, economic costs and benefits of shutdowns, preparations etc). This doesn’t seem to match my light read of the Spanish Flu or, as far as I can tell, any of the past pandemics.

    All in all, “panic is worth the disease” seems like a smart-sounding catechism that has many advantages as catcheisms go, but also has a strong disadvantage of being untrue.

    [1]https://www.facebook.com/linchuan.zhang/posts/2763782653712501

  156. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ Rahul 118:

    I think your comparison with classical music is accurate, but that it precisely shows the point I’m trying to make. “An intellectual is a man who can listen to the Wilhelm Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger”

    Mozart and Beethoven, and Aristotle and Plato, are famous precisely because their influence has in some way run it’s course. They’re not a direct an influence to a mass audience anymore: they’ve influenced people, who have influenced other people, etc…), so they get listened to / read only by a very small section of the population, and so knowing them is a mark of prestige, and so their names are famous.

    Meanwhile, I can go out into the street now (apart from the COVID measures, of course) and ask anyone to sing the Slave Choir from Nabucco. Only, I’d have to ask for a particular football chant, and no-one would know it’s Verdi. Same for the Lone Ranger. The Jazz Symphony is the canonical creepy fairground music, Spartacus and Phrygia is the sailing song (because Onedin Line), the Moldau is sparkling water, the Slave Choir from Nabucco is the song that kicks off carnival, and on it goes. And let’s not get started on incidental music to films: everyone knows what you mean when you hum the theme from Jaws (danger is approaching!) but most people wouldn’t know who wrote it.

  157. Rahul Says:

    Scott #117:

    “(1) we’re almost certain that civilization can survive this—the question is “merely” one of how many millions will needlessly die (or suffer permanent lung damage) along the way,”

    I would gladly push more resources to current generation suffering alleviation (e.g. Malaria, starvation, pandemics etc.) than some possibly existential danger down the line.

    This debate needs to happen more. Too often “civilization risk” is discussed as a monolithic class of problems and the discussion monopolized by the likes of Global Warming. Especially in the context of developing nations, much of the Global Warming advocacy is glibly sacrificing current third-world lives to mitigate existential risk in the future.

    Yes, pandemics may be discussed at Davos but what’s the ratio of resources, media coverage, delegates, news items etc. devoted to Pandemics vs Global Warming?!

  158. TGGP Says:

    Marx may not resort to the supernatural, but he put an awful lot of weight on the Hegelian World-Spirit.

  159. Scott Says:

    Rahul #152: The article didn’t explain how exactly the Mossad is trying to acquire ventilators. Are they stealing them? Bribing government officials from hard-hit countries to divert supply? That would deserve strong condemnation. Or are basically just scouring the market and outbidding and outmaneuvering competitors? That (alas, thanks to Trump) is the same thing every US state is now being forced to do against every other state.

    As you must know, there’s an exceedingly long history of blaming the Jews for vices like greed, double-dealing, and insularity that afflict the whole human race. I’m open to the possibility that Israel is behaving worse than others in the emerging global battle for ventilators but would need evidence.

    In any case, if we do what you yourself repeatedly urged here, and focus on win-win solutions rather than zero-sum. battles, our focus has to be increasing the supply. It’s not much, but yesterday I donated money for PPE, and today I’ll be on a conference call with a DIY ventilator group to see if I can use the platform of this blog to help them. What are your ideas?

    (Incidentally, I found your analogy to Jewish refugees during WWII extremely strained, because any country that doesn’t get enough ventilators endangers the lives of its own population. The same is not the case, is it, for any country that lets Jews in?)

  160. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ Phys Anon 123:

    Yes, I agree we have to define our terms correctly. We’re talking about two things here:

    1) The idea that the success of the natural sciences gives it methodological primacy over other forms of inquiry. (i.e that other sciences should take cues from the natural sciences on how to do things) This idea, as far as I can tell, is at least a century and a half old, and I suspect that if you looked harder, you could trace it back further. It becomes popular in the second half of the nineteenth century (it pops up in Marx, as I mentioned) and hasn’t really gone away. Econophysics is a modern manifestation of this idea, for example.

    2) The idea that the success of economics gives it primacy over other social sciences, or even singles it out as an ordering principle for all human endeavour. This idea is much younger (starting in the 1930s in France, moving to Germany, the UK and the US in the 1950s and growing from there). This is what I think we both mean when you mention ‘the cultural movement we are currently discussing’ (please let me know if I’ve misinterpreted you)

    But crucially, these two are connected because economics bases its primacy claims on the idea that it’s the physics of the social sciences, i.e. that its predictions are somehow stronger than those of other social sciences. As you correctly point out, it seeks to draw the prestige needed to convince people of its claims from physics, mathematics etc. This is why 1 and 2 are related, but they do have different time scales.

    BTW your statement that it would take a while for people to realize the impact of natural science is correct, but this happened already in the time of the first steam trains. Frankenstein (1818) is a commonly cited example.

    Then for the point regarding the agency of elites: I think cultural history is absolutely essential to understand where we are and where we’re going. I also think the role of elites (defined in a sociological sense) in policymaking is unquestionable. And I think socio-historical research into the ways elites have sought to influence popular opinion is a legitimate subject for historical research. I also think the world would close off any hope of progress if we stopped thinking about this sort of thing because it felt too much like a conspiracy.

    And if you look how that research has evolved over the last decades, the story is that whereas we previously believed that the embracing of neoliberal ideas in the 70s and 80s (because of the inflation crisis and what not) was mostly a bottom-up process, recently (mostly through archival research) we’ve realized that there is a whole ‘pre-history of neoliberalism’ where pushback against leftist reforms (going as far back as the New Deal) was synthesized into a coherent ideology. We’ve also learned that this movement had a strong emphasis on popularization from the beginning. The canonical example of this is Ronald Reagan being hired by GE in the 1950s to lecture their employees on the blessings of the free market.

    I think the watershed moment that led to this reinterpretation was the 2008 financial crisis: this caused people to look at the old narratives of previous crises in a more critical light.

  161. aram Says:

    1. Did the CDC and FDA explicitly say we shouldn’t worry about covid? Or was this something that many of us just implicitly inferred from their lack of action? Maybe we were all waiting for them to sound the alarm, assuming we had the same world-leading organization that addressed Ebola in 2014, not realizing how much it had been gutted. If so, the lesson is not quite “trust plausible individuals not institutions.”

    2. The problem with looking for individuals, say that you find credible on other issues, is that it leads to hacks like Richard Epstein influencing Jared Kushner and thereby federal policy.

    https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2020/03/31/stasis-back-in-town-my-last-post-on-cass-sunstein-and-richard-epstein/

  162. Jeff Says:

    marxbro #147,

    Can’t speak for Scott, but as someone who agrees that there’s useful and still relevant material in Marx’s philosophy, harping on about the “abortive religion” description isn’t helping. For one, it was a metaphor, and second, it wasn’t a comment on Marx’s own writings but rather the edifice his fervent followers have erected around that philosophy and the man himself–an echo chamber of hyperbole, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and a bunch of other uncritical thinking, resistance to facts, and a cult of personality–that looks quite similar to a religion.

  163. jk Says:

    how well does the mainstream media report on the areas you know best? how much do they distort, mis-represent and fantasize about what you know best?

    in my area of expertise, psychopharmacology, the media is pretty bad, ESPECIALLY the ny times.

    yet foolishly, for years, i treated reporting about other things as accurate, even while reporting about what i knew best was terrible.

  164. phys anon Says:

    @Jelmer Renema 157

    1) The assertion that gestures toward the belief in methodological primacy of natural science date back >150 years is as relevant to this discussion as would be reference to Democritus’ gestures toward atoms >2000 years ago if we were trying to pin down the reasons for the explosion of atomic theory in the 1900’s.

    2) By “the cultural movement we have been discussing” I am referring to scientism/STEM-ism in general, not specifically primacy of economics in the social sciences.

    BTW your statement that it would take a while for people to realize the impact of natural science is correct, but this happened already in the time of the first steam trains. Frankenstein (1818) is a commonly cited example.

    See #1 above. The fact that successes of natural sciences were nodded to long ago does not significantly provide argumentative support for pointing to an earlier cultural tipping-point in time than I would regarding the recency-weighted exponential growth of more and more palpable technologies getting into the hands of consumers. Otherwise your pointing to Frankenstein could be equally countered by any number of similar cultural recognitions of the humanities going further back still, say, to Plato.

    I also think the world would close off any hope of progress if we stopped thinking about this sort of thing because it felt too much like a conspiracy.

    I’m afraid we are at an impasse. My own experience of such assignations of agency (such as in faculty committee meetings mentioned earlier, in which, say, similarly conspiratorial language is used to assign agency to the field of physics in aiding and abetting oppressive power structures and their culturally relative physical laws) are so divorced from the reality on the ground and have such a self-servingly flexible epistemology regarding institutions and expertise, as to be similar to arguing with flat-earthers who deny that we can trust satellite photographs or telescope instrument readings or… anyone in academia in the relevant fields of expertise. Your quote below is a good example of this sort of thing that we typically see in any conspiracy theory, in which something mundane from the POV of someone with relevant on-the-ground experience is interpreted very differently:

    The canonical example of this is Ronald Reagan being hired by GE in the 1950s to lecture their employees on the blessings of the free market.

    Whereas, just as the mundane on-the-ground experience of, say, climate scientists, is nothing like the more paranoiac climate-skeptics would have you believe (of a cabal with group-level ideological agency), similarly if you’re an executive at GE it’s totally mundane to organically come up with the idea “let’s see if we can economically bag a B-list actor who looks like they might be in a career downswing to go on a speaker tour to motivationally push anti-union company values on unionizing workers.” You can weave this into a conspiratorial story of some larger ideological agency relevant to this discussion, but I strongly suspect that it has little to no causal relationship to it whatsoever. If you ask people who grew up in the 1950’s why they think that science is a swell thing, even if you get them to give a very nuanced and reflective self-examination, the last thing I think they will refer to is GE’s internal anti-union strategy. More likely they would mention, say, the NASA moon program and related science fiction, comic books and electric gizmos and imagined robotics, etc.

  165. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ Physics anon

    I have a question for you: how, if not through inquiry into motivations, do we assign agency to anyone in the past? Or in the present for that matter, since none of your concerns regarding inferring agency seem predicated on the events in question happening in the past? And if we cannot assign agency, how do we assign praise or blame, given that in most people’s ethical systems, the intent of an action is a major component in its ethical value? I am genuinely curious about your answer.

    As for my point regarding Reagan: a major aspect that distinguishes this kind of historical research from a conspiracy theory is that the events in question are not actually assumed to conspiratorial. Also, unlike in a conspiracy, we don’t assume that everyone has the full picture. Things can move in a particular direction because lots of people make the same decisions, without positing coordination.

    So, yes, of course, you’re 100% right that what you describe is exactly what the GE execs thought: they just wanted some local, low-grade union busting. But the important thing is: the way they went about that was *new* at the time, and that’s what makes it significant! This might seems strange to us now, in this time of mass corporate motivational meetings, but it is the truth. So why is can we not ask what caused them to do things in a new way? Why is that not a legitimate subject of historical inquiry?

    Let me ask the question about historical agency from a different angle: when you read in a history book that, say, the printing press made it easier to disseminate Luther’s ideas, which caused his reform movement to succeed where others failed, do you infer that there was a conspiracy among the printers?

  166. phys anon Says:

    @Jelmer Renema,

    I have a question for you: how, if not through inquiry into motivations, do we assign agency to anyone in the past?

    I think projecting perceived coherency of causal top-down agency onto clusters of diverse motivations among real complicated people can appear seductively unificatory, but is often reductive, patronizing, circularly supported, and wrong. And all the worse: rhetorically effective. I don’t object to assigning agency to individuals in the past, though even then, we are all hopefully aware of the pitfalls of projecting perceived, oversimplified, and uncharitable motives onto nuanced points of view (there is a reason the justice system has so many protections for defendants and such a high bar for conviction, and yet still so many are wrongly sent to death). But the problem is then even far worse when attempting to do the same to large groups of individuals.

    I, like anyone else, am not above having my own imperfect heuristics for assigning blame and judging intent. And I like anyone else have a set of epistemological guidelines in mind about how to evaluate the relevant evidence. I think the most important and relevant of such to the present question are: setting a high evidentiary bar; the principle of charity; and the dull mundanity of most decision-making (“don’t ascribe to malice…”), which as a rule is not machiavellian but people doing their best to achieve their stated purpose. As an example, when Trump-supporters talk about the “deep state”, say in reference to Mueller or Comey or Vindman or other career professionals and civil servants, or similar gestures toward the media or academia, it is exceedingly transparent to me (in large part due to personal experience or contacts within many of these power structures) that these people are just trying their best to do their jobs. If we want to understand the biases of the “deep state”, we should look first to how they are organically biased by mundane and uncoordinated or “bottom-up” selection effects, such as the FBI and justice department drawing largely on academic lawyers and law enforcement and military types (rather than real estate tycoons or game show hosts), the media biased by a selection effect of drawing largely on metropolitan types, and so on. A pretty high evidentiary burden is necessary to argue persuasively for coordinated agency (such as “let’s take down Trump”) when uncoordinated factors readily and satisfactorily accommodate the data. A similar heuristic works when discussing climate skepticism, vaccination, flat-earth theory, and so on.

    I apply a similar heuristic here: do mundane uncoordinated influences readily and satisfactorily explain the rise of scientism? Absolutely! Science has undoubtedly been successful in radically shaping the contours of human experience with the trappings of its success in ways that have rapidly exploded over the past century. Billions have risen out of poverty and disease, virtually everyone has an iPhone thinner and more amazing than the imaginations of the creators of Star Trek, we can hop on a flying machine for $100 and go to another nation, we can watch probes land on comets, we can literally put a person in a machine that shows our brains light up when we think. Science has increasingly displaced religious and charlantist explanations for more and more phenomena at the intersection of science and the humanities (i.e. how we understand the nature of human experience and relation to the divine, when the teachings and scriptures of religious positions on these matters keep being shown to be wrong, from heliocentrism to paleontology and evolution). Relatedly there has been a not unexpected backlash to the extent to which religious superstitions have infiltrated the law and public institutions. The logical positivists of the first half of the 20th century were extremely influential (regardless of the fact that they were wrong and philosophy since moved on), combined with the post-WWII boom of increased college enrollment forcing professors to shift focus towards the more practical/engineering aspects of their fields, and then in the 60’s the influence of Popperian falsifiability and his paradigmatic examples of Freudian-style pseudoscience in the humanities. The Carl-Sagain-James-Randi skeptics and science popularizers of 80’s leading to the four-horseman of new atheism and then Yudkowski/Slatestarcodex etc rationalist movements, whatever you might think of them, have been influential and don’t seem to have any coordinated “elite” backing whatsoever. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (I’m just quickly jotting it down), but just to get a flavor of the various pieces that go into an explanation that on its own seems quite sufficient to explain the rise of scientism, to say nothing of course of one of the largest elements, which (although again I’m totally on your side regarding the humanities and the obnoxiousness of scientism) is the fair share of deserving blame there is to be portioned onto some of the more excessive examples of poor scholarship in the humanities and soft sciences, much of it not a mystery (p-hacking, publication bias against null results, low statistics, greater difficulty of controls, lack of empirical constraint, career incentives, etc).

    So why is can we not ask what caused them to do things in a new way? Why is that not a legitimate subject of historical inquiry?

    I don’t recall objecting to such analysis. I object to assessments like (paraphrasing) “the neoliberal movement from the beginning was deeply political and ideological and it cloaks its goals in the language of neutrality,” which at the very least intimates a coherency of top-down purpose that I object to for reasons explained above. (This is not to say that real conspiracies do not exist! They certainly do, but in my view the evidence for the language used is exceedingly thin). Maybe I could support a similar statement specifically about certain prominent/influential neoliberals.

    Let me ask the question about historical agency from a different angle: when you read in a history book that, say, the printing press made it easier to disseminate Luther’s ideas, which caused his reform movement to succeed where others failed, do you infer that there was a conspiracy among the printers?

    No. That use of language would be reasonable, as opposed to something like “the printing presses cloaked their purpose in the language of neutral dissemination of printed text, but the movement to read and disseminate text was deeply political and ideological, and my audiotist friends’ *loathing* of us textists is therefore not misdirected.”

  167. Boaz Barak Says:

    Addendum – I missed it in my twitter search but the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation donated $10M for the response to the novel Coronavirus in January 26th.
    On February 5th they increased this to $100M. I am not at all sure that Bill Gates counts as a “contrarian “ but he has been talking about the risk of a pandemic for years, and the heuristic of listening to what he has to say is a very good one.

    In fact this is not some unforeseen risk that came out of nowhere. Experts have been warning for a long time that the world could suffer greatly from a pandemic , they just thought it would be more likely to be a bird flu. In this sense, this is similar to global warming. It’s not as if all the experts were calm and the only people sounding the alarm are some contrarians that are outside the academic mainstream. (In this sense, the situation differs from “AI risk”.) Rather the experts were warning about this for years and also in real time. They just weren’t being listened to. Indeed in this there is an important role for “signal boosters” like some people Scott mentioned and like Greta Thunberg is doing for climate change.

    The last lesson one should take from it is that this means that from this point onwards we should divert funds from climate change or from scientific research in other topics and put everything into the study of coronaviruses.

  168. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    regarding Nassim Taleb:

    Taleb and other NECSI people (e.g. Yaneer Bar-Yam and Joseph Norman) appear to have been on the ball about the COVID-19 outbreak very early on (cf. their wikipedia writeup on the subject or the paper they sent to the White House on Jan.26).

    They are very big on precautionary principles, and not very keen on (more or less) sophisticated models being used, in the absence of data, as excuses to relax caution. They are also not very keen on absence of evidence being used as evidence of absence for the effectiveness of what seems, in light of a-priori common sense, to be beneficial; see the current controversy about masks.

    Also, Taleb basically told Robin Hanson to go fuck himself (imo, deservedly so) because of the latter’s early-infection proposal. There may be some sort of “beef” between Rationalist and RWRI (aka Taleb and minions) communities more generally, so they kinda usually seem to ignore each other. The “beef” doesn’t have to be personal either, and may also be related to fairly different thinking styles/epistemologies.

    Cheers.

  169. Always Rinse Says:

    Also I’d like to just highlight these few paragraphs from the linked Times of Israel article about the ventilators (https://www.timesofisrael.com/mossad-officer-describes-covert-global-battle-to-obtain-ventilators-at-all-costs/): (BEGIN QUOTE)

    Het said his office was receiving over 2,000 leads every day, some false and some real, and some where other countries beat Israel to the punch.

    “We had a country in Europe where our trucks arrived at the factory’s doors but another European country was ahead of us and loaded it up,” he described. “We also had a situation where we had equipment we purchased on a plane but it had to be unloaded because the plane didn’t get permission [to take off] due to the embargo.

    “The whole world is looking after itself. Prices have risen four- and five-fold and the world has closed down.” (END QUOTE)

    As you can see European countries are also doing this to each other, competing for ventilators in all sorts of sketchy and potentially unethical ways. There is no evidence that Israel is behaving exceptionally bad; on the contrary, it looks like many countries are doing things like this. My guess is also that the net effect of many competing international spy agencies working to transfer ventilators to their respective countries is positive. The result is that more ventilators will ultimately end up going into countries where they are needed, in the same way that the brutal competition of high-frequency trading is ultimately good for economic efficiency. Perhaps the net effect of each individual spy agency (or each individual hedge fund) is close to zero-sum, but if the spy agencies (or Wall Street) shut down it would be a net negative for the world.

  170. A. Karhukainen Says:

    I think “normalcy bias” explains a lots of inertia. Also here in Europe.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normalcy_bias

    Here’s a nice take on it on Jon Stokes’ hipster-prepper site (“What is normalcy bias for preppers?”):
    https://theprepared.com/blog/heres-why-some-preppers-are-still-dismissing-covid-19-as-media-hype/

    And yes, I noticed that all the smart people whose blogs I was reading took the epidemic seriously, while the health authorities even in my country at first tried to play it down.

  171. marxbro Says:

    @ Jeff #162:

    If the “abortive religion” comment was a metaphor (I see no reason to believe this, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument) then I do not think it was a helpful or insightful metaphor. If I wanted to, for rhetorical reasons, I could describe any political stance as an “abortive religion”.

    I could, quite easily, say that non-Marxism or anti-communism is an “abortive religion”; complete with an echo chamber of hyperbole, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and a bunch of other uncritical thinking, resistance to facts, and a cult of personality.

    However, I would not do this, because I don’t like to insult an outgroup. What I prefer to do is have a conversation where the issue is tackled head-on, usually with reference to actual material content. If we’re criticising Marxism, this means actually quoting Marxist sources and elaborating on some sort of actual material disagreement.

    Metaphors are only useful if they illuminate the issue we’re talking about. That’s certainly not the case here. Sloppy metaphors such as the one Scott Aaronson used only serve to insult his outgroup in an ad hominem way.

  172. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I’m with Kevin Zhou #17 that things looked ominous in early January. Something in the 10k to 100k range had it, and what is going to stop it?

    About then, I read that there was toilet paper hoarding in China, so I figured, WTF, I might as well buy some giant packages whenever I was shopping. It ain’t like it will go bad, and I pitched them on top of my piles of obsolete computers.

    By a fluke, I had a yearly physical in early January. I really like my lead doctor. I was one of her first patients. Now she is a big deal in a med school, but still sees some patients. I told her I thought there was a real likelihood of a pandemic. She told me not to worry, there were only a couple cases in the Western Hemisphere, and around 10k die of the flu every year anyway. I was thinking she did not have much intuition for how exponential growth works. Maybe doctors need a first course in differential equations.

  173. fred Says:

    Jeez, some of the posts in this thread are truly surreal.
    Panic is causing many smart brains to go into overdrive mode in a downward spiral of pointless arguments.

    I always suspected that strong abilities in math and logic are far from sufficient to attain “reason”, “wisdom” and “getting ones priorities right”.

  174. fred Says:

    There’s been two issues at play:

    1) the human brain can’t deal intuitively with exponential growth.
    We have a similar discussion whenever we try to guess when some future technology will take over the world, like artificial intelligence or VR. For years, the preachers keep saying it’s about to arrive, a mere year away, but then nothing happens, until suddenly it’s everywhere.

    2) for a couple of months, the only numbers related to corona were coming from China, so that data was garbage. It’s really only once Italy started to get hit that it dawned on many people how serious this could be.

  175. Emmy Noether Says:

    Cochran is a valuable voice on many things.

    One interesting thing about Cochran is he has shown an ability to resist the degenerate forms of thinking of his *own tribe*.

    E.g, despite being a lifelong conservative Republican, he predicted (from first principles) that Saddam did not have WMD, and strongly opposed the Iraq War. He seems to have no qualms lambasting all manner of Republican and Libertarian foolishness.

    He is also a lifelong serious Christian. Yet he has no brief for creationism.
    Indeed he was, as best I can determine, one of the first to predict Neanderthal introgression to the human genome.

    Greg seems to have a great ability to avoid fashionable nonsense.
    So I welcome his heterodox if irascible and brutally honest perspective.

  176. Scott Says:

    fred #173: This is a warning. From now on, any attempt to “stand above” and diagnose the mental deficiencies of the other commenters here, without saying anything specific about what you disagree with and why, will be met with a 3-week blog ban.

  177. Matthew Green Says:

    So basically your takeaway from this is that your in-group is the best, while your out-group are evil bastards. Not some sort of deep introspection about how humans such as yourself systematically misjudge risk in the face of exponential growth.

  178. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Matthew #177

    So basically your takeaway from this is that your in-group is the best, while your out-group are evil bastards.

    1. “When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them.” Just because everyone prefers their in-group and dislikes out-groups doesn’t make members of all groups exactly equally moral, upstanding, or correct.

    2. In this case the “in-group” is a community centered on trying to be as “rational” as possible, ie. having a self-consistent moral philosophy and using up-to-date understanding of math and science to inform their opinions and choose actions that best-achieve those moral ends. And the “out-group” is a subreddit called “SneerClub” that singles out things said by a member of this group, holds entire forum threads to dissect the words in uncharitable interpretations and then (usually skipping step 1) go beyond this to impugn the motives of the speaker, question the speaker’s mental health, and top it off with death wishes (“Too bad he’s a proper psychopath, he’s probably thinking it’s easier for him to sit it out if everyone else is infecting faster, so there’s no possibility of him just trying it on himself and dying.” ~ 24 upvotes) and schoolyard insults (“mouth-breathing” used in a comment ~ 54 upvotes). Are you sure this in-group isn’t quite a good one? Are you sure this out-group isn’t a bunch of “evil bastards”???

  179. Scott Says:

    Matthew Green #177:

    1) I assure you that I had no misjudgment about the consequences of exponential growth. I did have a profound misjudgment—one that I hope won’t be repeated as long as I live—about the competence of authorities to understand and detect and contain an exponential growth. And even as February wore on and the sinking feeling grew that there was “nobody there in the control room,” I had a huge status quo and normalcy bias that delayed me from voicing that feeling and acting on it.

    2) Even so, I was earlier than most, and as I said, I mostly have rationalist nerds and some fellow travelers to thank for that. When this blog started 15 years ago, rationalist nerds were more its outgroup than its ingroup (I even wrote a post called “The Singularity Is Far”). I thought of myself as a voice of academic respectability opposed to the confident autodidacts who dominated the blogosphere. Things changed only gradually, as I saw my “outgroup” being sometimes wrong but other times courageously right, and I thought: why did I become an academic in the first place, if not to be free the way these people are free? In some sense, the coronavirus situation simply completes that process. If those who were right early on about the coronavirus weren’t my ingroup before, then they are now, because I’d rather be alive and sneered at than respectable and dead.

    3) As often the case with this blog, I feel like I’ve been exceedingly open here about my own failings, even at the risk that people like you would use my guilt and my self-disclosures against me. But what amazes me, every time this happens, is that those who sit in judgment over me so rarely perceive any need to do their own public introspection. Pray tell: how worried were you about the coronavirus in late January or early February? How were you preparing, and what were you saying about it in public?

  180. Scott Says:

    Update: Matthew, I just looked at your Twitter page. Buried among hundreds of tweets on unrelated topics, I see a one-off tweet on Jan 24 about checking the Reddit page for the “Wuhan pneumonia,” and another tweet on Feb 9 about it maybe being a bad idea to hold a crypto conference in Malaysia because of corona cases there. You start talking about it in a sustained way only on Feb 26, almost exactly the same time as I do.

  181. Scott Says:

    Vince P #11:

      So sorry to hear about your friend. . . If somebody asked you today what your thoughts were in terms of navigating the coming months, what would you suggest (in all caps or otherwise)… aside from contributing to efforts to build more ventilators?

    So sorry that I neglected to respond to this! The answer is different depending on whether we’re just talking about protecting yourself and your family, or rescuing civilization.

    If the former: just do what the authorities now recommend. Shelter at home; if you go out for fresh air and exercise then avoid other people, certainly avoid crowds, consider wearing a mask, and wash your hands. We’ve been ordering delivery from restaurants; it’s not 100% safe but we’ve judged it safe enough. Use your own judgment.

    If the latter: it seems like the biggest need right now is to ramp up medical capacity and get equipment (including masks, gowns, ventilators, and more) to the healthcare workers who need them. And that, in turn, requires getting rid of bureaucratic red tape that’s (unbelievably) still preventing that from happening—as (for example) the FDA bans importation of KN95 masks, and hospitals ban doctors from bringing their own personal protective equipment, thereby effectively sentencing many of them to illness and death. The bureaucrats enforcing such rules need to be shamed, and the sooner it happens the better. I’ll probably be blogging more about this shortly.

  182. David Says:

    jk #163

    This actually has a name, it is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  183. Matthew Green Says:

    Scott (#180): I don’t know how to judge whether my tweets are “buried” since I tweet constantly 🙂

    But my point here is not to play “gotcha”, or to insult you for doing what everyone else was doing. Everything about your response is perfectly human and understandable. We all suffer from normalcy bias. My point is that when something catastrophic happens that upends our world view, the right response for all of us is to reconsider our positions on things.

    Instead of that, I see a lot of the brilliant people around me using the opportunity to dig deeper into tribal feeling, and using the opportunity to justify their preconceived beliefs. It’s one of the greatest lost opportunities of our time.

    PS No need to defend yourself, but I hope you’ll think about it.

  184. Scott Says:

    Matthew #183: My point was just that, until the very end of February, you clearly were aware of the coronavirus but not yet treating it as an issue of overriding importance. In other words, pretty much the same boat as me.

    More broadly, though, I completely agree about the need for soul-searching, and while I’m sorry you didn’t like it, I think that’s exactly what this post was doing! The whole point was that from now on, I’m going to trust my own judgment about which individuals to trust, even on subjects where I’m not an expert, and never again delegate to any official Center for What to Repeat So You Don’t Get Sneered At.

    As one example, I’d rather listen to a single epidemiologist on Twitter (Marc Lipsitch?) who seems smart and sensible and whose arguments I understand, than to an organization of a thousand epidemiologists that’s susceptible to political and bureaucratic pressures.

    As another example, I still think climate change is one of the central risks facing humanity. But I’ll never again tell anyone that they need to take it seriously because of the latest IPCC report. Instead I’ll say: go to realclimate.org, read for a while, and see for yourself that the individuals who post there are smart and calibrated—that there are brains behind the eyes, that these are not the glassy-eyed conformists of right-wing fantasy. Or read what Teller and von Neumann wrote in the 50s about the possibility of catastrophic manmade warming of the atmosphere. And then reflect that if such individuals are or were terrified, then you have no right not to be.

  185. Deaths Minimizer Says:

    > Are you sure this in-group isn’t quite a good one? Are you sure this out-group isn’t a bunch of “evil bastards”???

    Well, let’s see. Hanson: “Sketch plans for amateurs to privately create Hero Hotels, in an ambiguous or hostile legal environment.”. Hanson’s followers: already talking about self experimenting on themselves and possibly their families. Doesn’t seem to bother Hanson any. Why do you think it bothers other people? Because a lot of people can get hurt! This is precisely the kind of error that *has* to be corrected.

    But what’s of the little chance an economist came up with a medical solution that professionals missed? Well, that’s very unlikely in the way in which monkeys on typewriters are unlikely. But let’s suppose that is the case. Testing has all the difficulties of proving immunity of a vaccine, production of doses has all the complexities of manufacturing any other live virus vaccine. Plus extra complexities due to everyone in trials being extremely contagious with a serious disease, the production lines being extremely hazardous, etc. It is a ridiculous idea.

  186. Rod Says:

    ” Maybe the failures are because these organizations are at the mercy of political incompetents—meaning ultimately Trump and the people who put him in office. Or maybe the rot started long before Trump.”

    Dr Fauci has been around since Reagan. And bureaucracies are the same no matter who is elected. The Trump voters are in large part people who don’t think the government knows all. Who would have done a better job testing – the FDA and CDC, or Universities and private labs?
    You must be too young to have lived through Vietnam, or you’d know the government lies to you. And you don’t need a PhD to know that sneezing into a mask is less likely to spread a disease than sneezing into the air around others.
    Just a thought. And no need to publish.

  187. Filip Says:

    Hi Scott,

    In the AMA you mentioned PiHKaL. Since you are staying at home during this pandemic have you considered trying out a psychedelic (with your wife trip-sitting you)? I can imagine the benefits of having world-class complexity theorist experience and document warped thoughts and feelings.

  188. John Stricker Says:

    David Says #182

    What you mean is Gell-Mann-amnesia:

    https://www.docdroid.net/4wgVecr/why-speculate-michael-crichton-pdf

  189. Scott Says:

    Rod #186: Trump voters were upset about government bureaucrats’ ignorance and lying, so they elected a guy who’s a thousand times as ignorant and lies a thousand times more shamelessly than any of them? (Actually, I don’t know why the last sentence ended with a question mark; it needs some form of punctuation beyond any that’s been invented.)

  190. Deepa Says:

    Rahul : As I reread my comment to you, I had a “duh” moment. When it is telemedicine, people would not be limited to doctors in their own city. One would need an easy digital way to share records with doctors and get simple tests done at home. I wish Hoogle (hangouts) would step in. They don’t need a high resolution connection. It would not be the same quality of care, if a doctor could not see you in person, but it is better than nothing. Perhaps this is where medicine is being pushed. I am now wondering why doctors’ offices in America have so much paper. Why haven’t they digitized everything a long time ago? Liability issues? They have hundreds of paper files.

  191. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Re: “Gell-Mann Amnesia” and “Dunning-Kruger Effect”: this is why we need better terms for things than just people’s names! Same goes for “Murphy’s Law”, “Betteridge’s Law of Headlines”, “Goodhart’s Law”, “Dunbar Number” and (two examples that took me forever to learn): “Mulligan” and “Glomarization”.

    I’m going to be a bit prescriptivist here and say that turning people’s names into words increases linguistic entropy (ie. it decreases the mental compressibility of language, since you can’t use etymological clues to learn the new words) and should never be done unless the word really has no good classical formation and is going to be used a LOT (like “Gerrymandering”) — and maybe not even then.

  192. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Deaths Minimizer #185

    I take your point. I would say there is potential for danger, but that people needn’t be protected so vigilantly from potentially bad ideas — they can decide for themselves. Families though, sure. Though, in a pandemic like this, even independent of the whole variolation thing, someone getting the disease while properly quarantining themselves can be a good thing compared to their not doing so and eventually getting the disease without quarantining themselves … but of course, there’s the risk they’ll have to break their private quarantine if they worsen too much, and also the risk of them dying, so yes, it’s definitely risky and certainly could be not worth it.

    I’ll update slightly downward on my “in-group good” belief; however, I don’t think any of this affects my “out-group bad” belief.

  193. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #186: I think it’s more about lying than ignorance; a critical mass of voters just got to the point where they rather elected Trump than a “reasonable” and “balanced”, nicely smiling lying machine. (And saying stupid things about the virus may not have been lying, just ignorance… hence I say it seems to me voters cared more about lying.)

  194. Scott Says:

    Anonymous Ocelot #192: I don’t know if it will work, but I think variolation absolutely needs to be on the table of ideas that are seriously discussed. It worked for smallpox, and was a predecessor of modern vaccination to such an extent that the terminologies used to be confused. And we’ve learned that how well covid patients do seems to strongly depend on the initial viral load—that’s why many frontline medical workers (famously including Li Wenliang) died despite having been young and healthy—and we also know that patients do better if the virus doesn’t make it to the lungs. And if there’s no vaccine or effective drugs for 18 months or longer, that’s unbelievably catastrophic for civilization, and we need to be discussing solutions that we normally wouldn’t.

    I don’t know whether there’s any ongoing medical research on the (relative) safety and efficacy of variolation for covid—does anyone else know? If there isn’t, then the fact that Robin is banging the drum about this is a point in favor of him, and of the central thesis of this post.

    Fight me.

  195. Boaz Barak Says:

    I thought the thesis of the post is that economists or other lay people like Hanson, if they are well read, could serve as signal boosters for actual experts. If there is research done on it and Hanson wants to t”highlight it that’s great, but Hanson’s as likely to make a medics discovery as he’s to reconcile gravity with general relativity.

  196. Boaz Barak Says:

    Should have been reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity of course 🙂

  197. Randall Parker Says:

    My quibble with the piece: Federal agencies staffed by progressives were just as wrong as Trump. FDA is our enemy. Today they claim their guiltlessness on the testing delay. Their progressive regulatory process utterly failed. Democrats who dominate MSM were totally wrong on masks. WHO wrong. CDC wrong. Do Republicans staff these places? Of course not.

    The dissidents who were correct lean rightward. Some do not signal their political leanings out of necessity.

  198. Lex Says:

    I was one of the people who expected this to be bad. (Of course, I didn’t expect the testing debacle. I at least thought we’d do an okay job testing.) I spent most of February feeling angry almost all the time because I just wanted to shake people and scream at them. I sent a few emails a lot like your all-caps example. That actual email you sent, where you said the flu was a bigger worry — that’s a prime example of the sort of thing that made me want to tear my hair out.

    So I really appreciate you writing this.

    I’m not particularly angry at people for not seeing this coming anymore (except for those whose positions of power demand they prepare for this sort of thing) since, by now, we’re all dealing with it. We all know. But I do wonder what people think of their previous beliefs vs. their current beliefs.

    Is everyone going to forget all the anti-mask BS now that we’re supposed to cover our faces, for instance? Are the smug, “Well, I trust EXPERTS,” folks going to forget that experts said masks are useless before turning around and telling us to cover our faces?

    My daughter’s friends made fun of her when I pulled her from school in early March. Most of their parents thought I was a paranoid lunatic. A little over a week later, the schools were closed. This has been a very frustrating experience. I’ve never before in my life been “that crazy conspiracy person who thinks she knows better than the experts.” It felt horrible being seen as a crazy person. My daughter felt vindicated though when the schools closed and she wasn’t a kid with a crazy mom anymore.

    I felt bad about putting her through that at all, but my husband reassured me by pointing out that maybe my daughter has learned some important lessons through my example. 1. Courage of conviction even when others think you’re stupid or crazy. 2. Every now and then, it’s possible that you’re right and everyone else is wrong; don’t decide what’s true based on the number of people per belief. 3. Never wait for authority figures to take care of you. You figure out what you need in order to be prepared and safe.

    There were a lot of moments where I wondered if I really was the insane person, and managing to push that embarrassed self-doubt (“Are they right that I’m being foolish?”) away in favor of trusting my assessment was another energy-drainer.

    So you and I started out feeling and thinking very differently about this virus and what would happen, but we are clearly both on the same page now, and I really appreciate reading your thoughts as you look back. It means a lot somehow, that someone who would have thought I was a lunatic a couple months ago has written this.

  199. Scott Says:

    Boaz #195: The case we’re talking about is completely different in the issues it raises from that of amateur physicists inventing a unified field theory, and I can explain exactly why.

    Variolation was a discovery already made by medicine, hundreds of years ago! Despite being effective, it was eventually relegated to the textbooks, because it’s much higher-risk than vaccination, and vaccination is clearly preferable whenever it’s available.

    Ah, but what if you were in some bizarre hypothetical scenario where a pandemic has shut down the entire world, and no vaccine will be available for 12-18 months at the earliest, and there’s a desperate need for something faster? Would variolation be worth reconsidering then?

    To me, whether or not we end up using it (and we probably won’t), it seems obvious that we should at least consider and discuss it, and make sure the reasons why we’re rejecting it are persuasive ones. Certainly I wouldn’t hesitate to have myself variolated with covid if there were good research supporting the practice, and if it were available in a relatively controlled form (so, probably not having a covid sufferer cough in my face 🙂 ).

    Robin was originally trained in physics and later switched to economics. While he’s had original ideas in a staggering number of fields, I’d say that his main “expertise,” such as it is, is simply in going places where others are unwilling to go because of the “ick” factor. Medicine used to have a lot more Robin Hanson in it than it does now—doctors would not only variolate but also inject themselves with experimental drugs, and do all sorts of other crap that would get them fired today. It might not be a coincidence that progress was also breathtakingly rapid back when they could do such things.

    Look, I don’t want to put Dr. Mengele on the job of curing covid. But I also don’t want ~50 million people dead, and the entire world shut down indefinitely, because no one was willing to be the first one to ask whether some of the ethical rules of modern medicine might in extreme cases be superseded by even higher ethical obligations. I.e., the kind of question that anyone familiar with Robin knows is pretty much his specialty. 🙂

    I certainly wouldn’t want Robin to be the only or even the main person at the table when such questions come up, but I do want him there and I stand by it.

  200. Scott Says:

    Lex #198: Thank you so much—you just made my evening. Along with that of Steve E #97, your comment is now my favorite of the whole thread.

  201. Scott Says:

    Filip #187:

      In the AMA you mentioned PiHKaL. Since you are staying at home during this pandemic have you considered trying out a psychedelic (with your wife trip-sitting you)? I can imagine the benefits of having world-class complexity theorist experience and document warped thoughts and feelings.

    I’d consider that! Except that I wouldn’t know where to get any. (And while in the past, I would’ve hesitated before expressing such thoughts in public—what would people say? would they laugh at me? would I get in trouble?—this whole post is, after all, about the struggle to put those sorts of thoughts behind me.)

  202. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #199: To be consistent with my defense of expertise, let me bow out of arguing whether or not there is a chance for Robin Hanson to make a positive contribution in this area. I’d leave to people more familiar with medical history and medical procedures to say that. Generally, we’ve seen privacy regulations put on hold to allow telemedicine via Skype, people talking about doubling up ventilators, and I’m sure other cases where doctors and decision makers are doing things that in normal times would have “gotten people fired” with the understanding that extreme times call for extreme measures.

    There are cases where people weighing in out of their expertise can have negative impact, especially in an administration with built—in suspicion of experts. For example, apparently the article of law professor Richard Epstein has been circulating in the Trump administration:

    https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-contrarian-coronavirus-theory-that-informed-the-trump-administration

  203. Deaths Minimizer Says:

    > Ah, but what if you were in some bizarre hypothetical scenario where a pandemic has shut down the entire world, and no vaccine will be available for 12-18 months at the earliest, and there’s a desperate need for something faster? Would variolation be worth reconsidering then?

    Well, okay, here’s a scenario. A child is literally turning into the closest thing to a zombie there is. There’s very little you can do.

    Read up on Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, for any deity’s sake.

    He infected some rabbits with rabies, he took spinal cord, dried it for a few days (Interestingly, historical variolation treatments involved drying too. Got your dopamine hit for pattern matching?), injected that in dogs, that saved dogs from rabies.

    He got a child that was biten by a rabid dog.

    This is like precisely an example why expertise fucking matters. Not even that, Hanson doesn’t even bother to educate himself even a little. He just jumps straight at the take with the biggest trolley problem.

    He gets sneered at absolutely the most. Nobody sneered at anyone taking it too seriously too early.

    Maybe your not getting sneered at circuit needs calibration, like to where it stops you from doing what Hanson did but doesn’t stop you from taking diseases seriously?

    Now before anyone here proceeds to start advocating from some Pasteur inspired quick vaccine, look up Antibody Dependent Enhancement (in SARS-COV etc), there’s a catch here. A little immunity may be much worse than none.

    Which affects any whole-virus acquired immunity, be it a low tech vaccine or exposure to the virus itself. It may be that we need the immunity *not* to include antibodies to the spike proteins. Viruses evolve ways to evade immune system, a virus full of well preserved spikes that make extremely good targets for antibodies the way you think they do, wouldn’t last in the wild, pangolins or bats or otherwise.

    Scott, we are nerds. Obligate contrarians aren’t nerds. We have a superpower, we are intellectually curious, we’ll dig into the actual science. They don’t, they have some weird political opinions where they need an example of a huge trolley problem with a lot of people on one track and a lot of people on the other track, they’ll selectively bring up something interesting like variolation, but not even make their way to Pasteur.

  204. Scott Says:

    Boaz #202: See, I read the piece by Epstein and I thought it was obviously stupid—just like I read Robin Hanson (and others) on variolation and thought it was obviously worth exploring further. It’s tragic that the Epstein piece apparently influenced the Trump administration. On the other hand, Trump is not going to listen to you or me saying that he needs to take experts more seriously. But there might be a few people here willing to listen to me saying that under the circumstances, we really, really have to consider ideas on their merits, regardless of what looks on its face like the qualifications of the source. We can no longer outsource our judgment, even in matters where we’re not experts. It was the reflexive outsourcing that got us here in the first place.

  205. Rahul Says:

    Lex # 198:

    “Is everyone going to forget all the anti-mask BS now that we’re supposed to cover our faces, for instance? Are the smug, “Well, I trust EXPERTS,” folks going to forget that experts said masks are useless before turning around and telling us to cover our faces?”

    So if I’m an “expert” and I know that masks help, but I also know that we don’t have enough masks for the entire population and in terms of risk reduction masks make the most sense for healthcare workers.

    Now given the population of idiots and hoarders we have, and knowing how people will stockpile for personal good at all costs (a consistent feature on this thread too is “how I did everything to protect my own family”) and ignore societal good what am I as an expert supposed to do?

    I feel this was part of the dilemma. It’s not that the experts didn’t know that masks were useful. They just wanted to keep the masks for people that needed them most.

  206. marxbro Says:

    @TGGP (comment #158):

    >Marx may not resort to the supernatural, but he put an awful lot of weight on the Hegelian World-Spirit.

    Scott Alexander doesn’t really seem to understand the link between Hegel and Marx, and therefore misrepresents their intellectual similarities and differences. Marx didn’t put an “awful lot” of weight on the Hegelian World Spirit, in fact Marx comments at length on the difference between himself and Hegel in a famous passage in the prefaces to Capital, Volume 1:

    >My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

    >The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of “Das Kapital,” it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi [Epigones – Büchner, Dühring and others] who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

    https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm

    If Scott Alexander read Marx a little more closely (seems like he’s basing his opinions on a single secondary source) I suspect he wouldn’t make such glaring errors.

  207. Sniffnoy Says:

    Deaths Minimizer #203: Is there material missing from your Pasteur story? Whatever point you were trying to make with it isn’t coming across. It reads like you omitted material.

  208. SmallBrainBigD Says:

    Eric Weinstein wrote something similar about the “weirdos” getting it right before the “respectable people”. But that’s wrong in my experience, unless somehow the USA is unique.

    Hence I’m coming to believe that, rather than a general reasoned estimation, there’s an effort by certain voices on the internet to promote a self-serving narrative that will elevate their own preferred people and I guess you’re included in that group.

    Plus Christakis is like an avatar of respectability, moderation and humility, completely unlike someone like Weinstein. Weird to include both in that imaginary grouping.

  209. Matthew Green Says:

    Scott #183: The fact that you went through my Twitter makes me feel compelled to point out that yes, in fact I did quite a bit in advance of the epidemic reaching the US, just mostly off the Internet. What I did not think was appropriate was to use my non-epidemiologist Twitter account to shout about the coming epidemic all day at max volume, because I felt (and still feel) that non-experts adding noise to a public channel is much less valuable than you think it is. The fact that a few extremely-online folks also read the news and saw what was coming is not that remarkable (I have a Robinhood account balance I’m slowly donating as evidence for this) and it does not mean we should give up on trusting experts, or give up on fixing the CDC. It certainly does not mean we should start gathering our subject matter expertise from Robin Hanson. That seems like the worst lesson we could take from this.

  210. David Says:

    John Stricker #188

    Thanks! I had forgotten the name, but I always remember my Cunningham’s law. 😛

  211. Jelmer Renema Says:

    re: variolation

    I realize this is not the same thing as variolation, but researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam have already begun taking blood plasma from confirmed formed COVID-19 patients and administering it to current patients, because plasma transfers (which contain antibodies) helped during the SARS epidemic, and apparently monkeys responded positively to this treatment for COVID-19. Since it is known that plasma transfusions are harmless, the ethics committee took the approach of ‘well, if it doesn’t hurt…’.

    The timeline was like this: the preliminary study was concluded on the 13th of March. There was a major appeal in all the newspapers here (NL) for confirmed former COVID patients to come forward as plasma donors on the 28th, and apparently about a thousand people responded. The first treatments were administered this week.

    Unfortunately, I cannot find any good English news source about this, only auto-translated ones, otherwise I’d give you the link, but it was all over the news here.

  212. James Cross Says:

    Scott #201

    “I wouldn’t know where to get any”

    Google “san pedro cactus buy.

  213. James Cross Says:

    Scott #189

    Maybe it has been invented. The Interrobang

    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/the-interrobang-symbol-of-wtf-culture/60546/

  214. Scott Says:

    Matthew #209: When this is over, at least I’ll be able to look back and say the following with pride: that the time when I started taking some minimal precautions for myself and my family (end of Feb), was essentially the same as the time when I started warning anyone and everyone else to do the same.

  215. Boaz Barak Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Ending up writing my response as follows: https://windowsontheory.org/2020/04/04/in-defense-of-expertise/

    To the extent you’re saying “listen to smart, reasonable, well read and good intentioned people like Bill Gates and Nicholas Christakis” then I fully agree.
    To the extent you’re saying “listen to contrarians such as Hanson and Yudkowski” (per my understanding: I don’t know a lot about either’s positions so feel free to swap them with other examples) then I disagree. I would not trust such people outside their area of expertise (assuming they have one).

  216. Michael Says:

    Scott, how much of this is your belief that what happened to you as a kid was a result of your listening to the “experts”? Because the “experts” in psychology- like Stephen Phillipson- were telling anyone who would listen that the worst thing a kid with OCD could do is try to follow an “if you’re not sure you’ll hurt anyone, don’t do it” rule. The problem was no one signal boosted it to you and people who were experts in sexual assault but knew nothing about psychology sent you the opposite message. And Scott Alexander came to your defense BECAUSE he had spent years studying and treating conditions like scrupulosity.

  217. Paul Beame Says:

    There were a lot of screw-ups along the way, in testing, preparedness, leadership, and honesty, but the CDC information about the masks was not so far off:

    What they SAID was:

    * Wearing a mask will not protect the average person from getting Covid-19 as much as hand-washing and not touching their face. (The average person a wearing mask probably would tend to touch their face more often to adjust a mask, etc, so the risk could be worse with a mask.)

    What they also SAID but DIDN’T EMPHASIZE SO MUCH (and our now emphasizing) is:

    * Wearing a mask/covering WILL protect OTHER people from getting Covid-19 and you don’t need an N95 mask for this.

    Overall, the best information has come from experts like these:

    – epidemiologist Trevor Bedford, who alerted everyone to the Covid spread in the US in late February, based on the genetic drift in DNA sequencing of the virus that he observed. He and others are tracking the genetic changes in the virus – over 3000 cases have been sequenced. In the US most are from Washington state and very few so far are from NYC or the rest of the county.

    – the people at Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who include an incredibly broad range of experts in fields from data analysis and statistics, applied math – even theoretical computer science – as well as health care. Their models (which is based on Covid deaths, a figure not skewed by testing rates, and uses a best-case view of compliance by the US population) and their associated visualizations of hospital needs state-by-state released at covid19.ihme.org ten days ago, and continually updated since, have had a MAJOR INFLUENCE ON US POLICY. They finally were enough to convince Trump to extend the nationwide advisory to April 30.

    … but another key is having experts in official leadership like Anthony Fauci who deservedly gets a lot of praise for what he has been doing for the last month, both for his understanding of the larger societal picture and for being the mouthpiece for the technical experts.

    When you have a CDC that has been deliberately starved for cash and is always looking over its shoulder for signals about funding, you get weak, subservient leadership that is a trickle down effect of the bad leadership above.

    When you have a CDC that has had world-wide disease expertise cut, you don’t have the information to make the right decisions in a timely manner.

    When you have eliminated the central coordination in the US government for dealing with pandemics, you are not in a good position to coordinate the response to one.

    FOX News and Trump spreading misinformation about the virus and response is NOT the worst part of their culpability in this.

    The REAL issue is how their long-term agenda of de-funding and reducing/removing these government agencies pushed by both has played such a big role in our inability to respond.

    On a smaller scale, but also probably important wrt culpability as we approach peak need, is how Trump’s reluctance to interfere in US business has caused him to be so late invoking powers to get US business up to speed in producing products to help deal with the crisis.

  218. Scott Says:

    SmallBrainBigD #208:

      Plus Christakis is like an avatar of respectability…

    Are we living on the same planet? Christakis is the guy whose future at Yale was placed in jeopardy a couple years ago, when students screamed at him and accused him of being a racist, because he defended his wife, who had written a letter to students suggesting that they calm down and not constantly police each other’s Halloween costumes for cultural appropriation. In other words, you could say that Christakis joined the same club that I was involuntarily inducted into with the comment-171 affair. 🙂

    If people are now listening carefully to him for his epidemiological expertise rather than denouncing him, I’m happy to hear that — perhaps it’s an example of the ability of a pandemic to refocus people’s priorities.

    And yes, the “official” channels in the US are broken to a degree that might not have a parallel in any other First World country — to the extent that the US now needs to be seen as two countries, a Third World and a First World, overlaid on top of each other. If you live someplace where that’s not the case, then I can only express envy.

  219. Paul Beame Says:

    Corrected link for the IHME hospital projections: https://covid19.healthdata.org/ in my comment.

  220. Wyrd Smythe Says:

    One criteria I use to separate the “Evil Bastards” from the “Good Guys” is this razor: Evil doesn’t question itself.

    I’ve always thought the search for truth involves a lot of self questioning. I’m suspicious of those who don’t question themselves or allow others to question them.

  221. Scott Says:

    Wyrd #220:

      One criteria I use to separate the “Evil Bastards” from the “Good Guys” is this razor: Evil doesn’t question itself.
      I’ve always thought the search for truth involves a lot of self questioning. I’m suspicious of those who don’t question themselves or allow others to question them.

    Thank you; I couldn’t have said it better!

    I even try to question whether I’m one of the “good guy” self-questioners … although, given that I’m asking myself that question in the first place… 🙂

  222. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #218, Christakis was named Sterling professor in Yale on 2018, which is their highest honor. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think his professional future was ever in jeopardy at Yale. Nor was your professional future (to my knowledge) ever threatened because of the “comment 171 affair”.

    I hope you don’t take it the wrong way 🙂 , but I don’t view you as a “contrarian” or “outsider” but as someone who is justifiably very well respected in your field, even if you are sneered up by a collection of idiots in some dark corner of the Internet. My sense is that Christakis is viewed similarly.

  223. Deaths Minimizer Says:

    Sniffnoy #207

    The point is, learn about the topic of vaccines and immunity a little bit, before going for hot takes like Hanson’s. Aaron was asking when variolation would make sense.

    This “variolation” they are talking about, in actual reality involved taking scabs, drying them for a week or so (most practitioners kept their exact methods secret), and applying them prophylactically as a vaccine of sorts. That was a long time ago, we aren’t quite sure how exactly it worked.

    The first rabies vaccine involved taking neural tissue from a rabbit (that was infected with rabies), and drying it for a week or so, and using it as a vaccine. That wasn’t as long ago (1885), they kept records, we know how it worked, it was a dead virus vaccine.

    Now here’s Hanson and his total ignoramus take of using the actual live virus as a vaccine (which only adds duration of the illness to all safety and efficacy testing delays, and makes manufacturing more difficult).

    If you want to read something you’re far better off reading about things like literally the first artificial vaccine (above mentioned rabies vaccine), than reading rationalists whose only interest is to come up with some contorted and ultimately stupid idea the society would reject so they can then point at the society and say, see how irrational they are.

    I would happily have ignored him the way I always do, if not for several people talking about self experimentation (and who knows how many lurkers). Stupid shit like this kills people.

    You all are smart, or think yourself smart at least, and people who get hurt by stupid shit are stupid, so you don’t care.

  224. Deaths Minimizer Says:

    Errata for the above: I meant Scott Aaronson (dunno why I contracted it to Aaron).

    And by first artificial vaccine I meant first artificial vaccine for a viral disease – some vaccines for bacteria were bred a few years before that.

    Live virus vaccines using a less dangerous strain are a thing but unfortunately no such strain is available or is likely to be bred in time, and using the same virus is a solved problem, you kill it.

  225. yet another sneerer Says:

    Boaz Barak #90

    As far as I know none of us sneerclub members are guilty of any of the following:

    -Biggest patent troll in the world

    -Abusive copyright practices

    -Dealed with and aided dictatorships

    -Abusive monopolistic practices

    -Corrupting officials to capture markets

    -Plagiarizing

    -Financing the worst lobbies in the world

    -Business model based on extorsion

    -Remote destruction of your hardware

    -Various forms of sabotage (re: web standards, documents standards, etc.)

    -Collaborates with NSA

    -Aids and facilitates censorship

    -Internet Explorer 6

    This is not smearing, it was actually accepted facts in the 90s and early 00s. Somehow, everyone forgot about it. Any of those “accomplishments” would be enough to put him behind bars and take all the money he’d accumulated if we lived in a just world*. Alas, we don’t, so all that money is put to use into buying himself an image as a “benefactor” because people just have short memories. And no, please don’t tell me his “foundation” is anything other than a very elaborate scheme to avoid paying taxes. People who worked from the inside will tell you about how little of that money actually goes toward paying “mosquito nets” and how easy it is to distort figures so that your foundation looks like it “helped millions of people” or whatever.

    Seriously, to hold Bill Gates as anything but an amoral tech troll is either an idiot, a very peculiar selective amnesiac or a PR shill. I’m going to assume out of good faith that everyone here belongs to the second category, as forgetting the misdeeds of powerful people is so sadly common.

    *okay apart from IE6

  226. Scott Says:

    yet another sneerer #225: There’s no question that Bill Gates is a morally complicated figure, like many of us are. Most of what you (selectively) list is true … and yet in the world that actually exists (as opposed to a world with sane governments of our imaginations), Gates is probably the only reason why vaccine factories are about to get built, even in advance of the candidate vaccines being proven safe and effective.

    And I’m glad that you replied to Boaz, because now maybe Boaz can try to imagine how his worldview might evolve if he read a comment like yours once every few minutes for a decade! 🙂

  227. Boaz Barak Says:

    Sneerer #255: I don’t think there is much point in continuing discussion. Gates is not a saint or perfect person and yes Microsoft under his leadership has abused its market power and was justifiably prosecuted for it. I don’t think this places Gates anywhere near the moral positions of executives in tobbaco companies or Purdue Pharma. Whatever moral (and technical) failings he had in running Microsoft, they are far outweighed by the good that he has done, both directly and in setting an example for fellow Billionaires. In the actual world that we live in Gates has saved and improved many many lives.

    Scott #256: You are right that I’d likely not have believed you that there is a non-trivial collection of people whose moral view is so simplistic that they don’t see any other side to Gates other than “an amoral tech troll”. I still put 5% chance that you invented “Yet another sneerer” as a fake commenter to prove your points 🙂

  228. Scott Says:

    Boaz #222 and #227: I would say that the outrage mobs never really threatened my career, or Christakis’s, only in the same sense that the original SARS never really threatened civilization. That is, the angry and exponential viral explosion got contained at a much earlier stage than it could have been. Yes, people on Twitter, and in Amanda Marcotte’s comment section, called for my firing (has anyone ever called for your firing? 🙂 ), but it never reached a stage where MIT felt a need to respond, or even where it was an issue when Dana and I went on the job market again. Bret Weinstein and Tim Hunt weren’t as lucky; both of them did lose their university positions from what started out as social media denunciations (were you aware of that?).

    Regarding SneerClub, strangely, I don’t think I could simulate them if I tried, even though I obviously have NP recognition ability. And this despite the fact that they’re essentially the voice of my nightmares—the inner voice telling me that I’m worthless, a creep, on the wrong side of history, etc.—but made manifest in the external world. The good news is that, when I stand up to them, I’m also standing up to the inner voice.

    And last night, maybe or maybe not under the influence of a mild mind-altering substance 🙂 , I had a breakthrough. For about 15 seconds, I was able genuinely to think of the SneerClubbers (and their fellow-travelers on Twitter) as pathetic rather than terrifying—to feel sorrier for them than I felt for myself. I feel like recapturing that feeling will somehow be essential to operating effectively in the dark and civilization-defining months that now confront us.

  229. Pandemic: Week 3 – The Roohr Way Says:

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  230. Bill Says:

    Why do people compare covid19 to flu, but not to pneumonia caused by all sorts of cold viruses, including coronaviruses? For example, if you look at weakly deaths from pneumonia here (https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/mortality.html) over the last several years, you can see that there is between 3,000-4,000 weakly pneumonia deaths in the US during the cold season. And covid19 did not affect this number at all. You might argue that lockdowns worked, but last weeks peak death numbers came from people getting infected before these lockdowns. Again, I don’t understand why hospital ICUs are overwhelmed now, while at the same time the number of pneumonia deaths is very typical? My only answer is that in the absence of panic, pneumonia deaths were allowed to occur naturally outside of ICUs. What is happening now is maybe the main reason why doctors and nurses in ICUs are exposed to high viral loads.

  231. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #228: For what it’s worth, even without mind altering substances I view these SneerClubbers as pathetic. But it’s true that this is much easier for me, since no one has ever called for my firing (at least to my knowledge). I heard about Bret Weinstein but didn’t know much details, and now Googled Tim Hunt. In these kinds of cases, I prefer not to have a “knee jerk reaction” (that would be no better than the Twitter mob) but really dig into the details – what exactly these did person X say, what type of role were they fired from (e.g., is it more administrative or academic), but frankly I really don’t have the energy to do this right now.

    In general, I fully agree with you that “social media mobs” can be a real problem. It is one thing for a journalist to investigate and expose actual wrongdoing by a person in position of power. It is quite another when unsubstantiated or inaccurate claims propagate through social media, being amplified and twisted along the way.

    Anyway, thanks for this post that prompted me to think more about these issues!

    p.s. Might not be able to respond more to comments in this thread – as I’m sure is true for you, I have a week of Zoom meetings ahead of me 🙂

  232. Rand Says:

    When and where were Sarah Constantin and Eliezer Yudkowsky posting about Covid?

    Rob Bensinger of MIRI was posting earlier than almost anyone I knew about seriously preparing for Covid and linking to practical tips from his network. I’m happy that he did so (it put me slightly ahead of the curve in the US) but looking on Facebook, this was only on Feb 22nd, a week or two before people in the US started taking this seriously but three weeks *after* W.H.O. declared a global health emergency. (And certainly not as early as your friend in this post.)

    But I don’t see anything on Eliezer’s Facebook page or Sarah’s blog about Covid from before March. Were you thinking of any posts in particular?

  233. marxbro Says:

    “Gates is probably the only reason why vaccine factories are about to get built, even in advance of the candidate vaccines being proven safe and effective.”

    Do you have any evidence of this?

  234. Serge Faguet Says:

    Scott, those impersonal structures – governments, companies, news media and the like – are less “real” than other humans you relate to directly. They feel no emotions, no shame, no allegiance. They don’t send the signals our minds are used to interpret our counterparts for trustworthiness.

    But it is hard to see this. Our language, our self-narratives, our memories are constructed using these concepts and over time they solidify and become “real.” To the point when people are ready to die for them. And it takes a severe crisis (or repeatedly taking a ton of LSD) to get shaken out of believing in that mental maze.

    This crisis is an opportunity to help more of us see this more. And switch our attention away from these fake things towards real relationships.

  235. In the Coronavirus Crisis, There Are No Experts – HOW TO Says:

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  236. In the Coronavirus Crisis, There Are No Experts - TIMES FAMOUS Says:

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  237. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Hi Scott,

    About the institutional rot, my experience suggests me that unfortunately most bureaucratic organizations (and that includes many fields of research in academia) have become completely political and not trustable for telling the truth or even for telling what the insiders of these fields would, say, “bet their house on”. In particular my own field of research, it’s exactly like that, and I have seen many cases of deep institutional problems in other fields (in particular, there are problems, but you would lose your job/grants or your students would not get jobs, etc. if you dared to even suggest that it would be worth investigating if there is a problem). In particular, I’m reasonably well-known in my field, but would face unpleasant consequences if my name was attached to this message.

    Interestingly, the only field of research that I have found to be trustable is *your field*, TCS, and closely related topics (which is not my field of research — I considered working in that field, but found the topic a little too dry for my taste). This is also the case of a number of colleagues of my field whom I trust to be intelligent. So you could be forgiven for being naive about how institutions work, since your field is able to produce trustable (i.e. checkable either by oneself, or where there is a community one can learn by oneself is trustable to check results).

    One may need to work towards a culture where questions are not censored and answered, where the prior is not that institutions work, but rather that they were produced by a certain process, be extremely transparent about the process (in particular, how recommendation letters are written, etc.) and allow rational people to judge the quality of statements from an institution in such terms.

    Another option would be to grow trustable institutions from TCS… go figure how to explain to the public that you should trust the institution of TCS and TCS only, not the institutions of physics, math, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc… But maybe that’s something really good you could do for the world.

  238. Scott Says:

    Rand #232: It’s possible that I confused them with others in the community who were posting at that time. In any case, they both had insightful commentary later on.

  239. MPS Ano Says:

    The liver is a human organ. The complement of the liver is not; believing that it is means to commit the not-the-liver fallacy. There are many different contrarian positions on a topic like Covid-19. Many of them contradict each other. To assume that there exists something like *the* contrarian position on Covid-19 means to commit the not-the-liver fallacy.

    Hindsight bias refers to our tendency to overestimate what could have been foreseen. With hindsight, it is easy to pick out (after the fact) those earlier contrarian positions that turned out to be correct. Without writing down specific predictions at the time they were made, and later scoring them against reality (Phil Tetlock comes to mind), we are bound to misjudge predictive accuracy.

    Of course there’s nothing wrong with updating your Bayesian posterior on individuals’ or institutions’ competency in light of recent performance. And yes, people should get more credit for getting the important calls right. Just don’t throw out (or down-weight by 1000x) all prior information. That would likely not maximize expected future predictive performance.

    False negatives carry a much lower cost for common twitterati than for decision makers in government. That might help the former to raise the alarm much earlier.

  240. MPS Ano Says:

    Typo in last paragraph of previous comment #238: False *positives*

  241. In the Coronavirus Crisis, There Are No Experts – The New York Times – Corona Virus News Says:

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  242. Michael Says:

    Scott,
    I think this crisis gives a way to put into words a perspective I’ve had for decades, that I’ve often felt guilty about, but I think still has merit.

    Hear me out — I think we need to be a little less Bayesian. The media, the institutions, etc, are all resistant to make bold statements precisely because of their prior beliefs. We never think something extraordinary can happen, even when we see compelling arguments for it. Simply because, we’re not used to it. We did not expect the 2008 financial crisis. This time, we did not expect a pandemic to happen, because SARS fizzled out and Swine Flu didn’t affect our day to day life very much.

    The Bayesian approach is useful in common times, because when things are going well, odds are, things will continue to go as they have in the past, with the direction indicated by our models but not always the magnitude. It de-emphasizes arguments from first principles, because if their results are odd, the chances that a person made a faulty assumption or bad logical step is probably higher than the odds they are totally correct. But I think this crisis helps show a first principles approach should not always be dismissed.

    As a final note, a great example of this issue other than epidemics, is AI safety. Bostrom and others lay out several paths from first principles that pretty convincingly show AI control to be an unavoidable issue. Most academic researchers, on the other hand, are unconvinced. Most will find some obscure reason to dismiss it, but IMO the real reason it isn’t taken seriously is that it conflicts with all our prior beliefs. We see from everyday life that computer AI’s are pretty dumb at general reasoning, and that software always crashes — and that overrides any straightforward logical arguments.

  243. Anonymous Says:

    If life on Earth were exemplified by the construction crew, investors, architects, and contractors all focused on one singular goal of building a house, sneerclub types would be those who show up to criticize and distract while offering no solutions, and wonder why they aren’t paid or powerful for such a job. They deserve nothing more than to be ignored completely.

  244. Sniffnoy Says:

    Michael #242: You would seem to mean “less conservative”, not “less Bayesian”. I.e.: Bayesian is supposed to be the proper mixture of responsive-to-evidence and considerate-of-priors. If you think we’re too far to one side, you could say we need to be more responsive to evidence (your claim), or we need to be more considerate of priors, but not “less Bayesian”!

  245. COVID-19: in times of a global pandemic to face, be aware of the right communication feeds – trescaproject.eu Says:

    […] https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=4695 → ‘My faith in official pronouncements from health authorities, and in institutions like the CDC and the FDA, was clearly catastrophically misplaced—and if that doesn’t force significant revisions to my worldview, then I’m beyond hope. Maybe the failures are because these organizations are at the mercy of political incompetents—meaning ultimately Trump and the people who put him in office. Or maybe the rot started long before Trump. Maybe it’s specific to the US, or maybe it’s everywhere. I still don’t know the answers to those questions.’ […]

  246. Scott Says:

    Crossposted from SlateStarCodex:

    Hi — I’ve now removed Eric Weinstein from my list, because as you and others pointed out, I was misled by his later self-confidence in criticizing those who got it wrong, and by the fact that others in his circle got it right early on, into imagining that he himself must have. Thanks. The others on my list were sometimes later than I remembered (which partly makes me feel better about taking until late February myself!), but were also earlier than most, in a way that was important for my own personal evolution on this issue. Robin Hanson, for example, blogged on Feb. 14 about how we should consider deliberately infecting people in waves so as not to overwhelm the medical system. I DON’T think that’s the best possible take, but whatever its faults, that played a role in helping to precipitate my own “oh shit” evolution over the following two weeks. Balaji Srinivasan and Bill Gates were both totally right from I believe late January and deserve enormous praise for that.

  247. A Failure, But Not Of Prediction – News Blog Says:

    […] people on Twitter who got things exactly right – there are too many of these people to name, but Scott Aaronson highlights “Bill Gates, Balaji Srinivasan, Paul Graham, Greg Cochran, Robin Hanson, Sarah Constantin, […]

  248. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » AirToAll: Another guest post by Steve Ebin Says:

    […] one that I titled “First it came from Wuhan”), but also posted an extremely informative timeline of what he understood when about the severity of the covid crisis, from early January until March […]

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