Posts

The illusion of control

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 I've avoided posting about the pandemic for awhile now. Partly this is because I made a few predictions that hadn't panned out, as well as others that sometimes looked to be wrong but hadn't panned out yet . I'll start with a mea culpa on the two big predictions that didn't pan out, although I have devoted some space to these before: Mea Culpa The Nordic Experiment: I already wrote about how I got this one wrong, but I want to add some recent data to really put it to rest. This was always an experiment with a small n and a large number of confounding factors (such as, will Swedes act the way their government tells them or will they still practice extra precautions, will other Nordic countries act similar to the Swedes regardless of national policy, will other policies - such as poor cocooning of nursing homes - swamp the policy effects?). Still, the claim was that Sweden's strategy would drive them toward herd immunity earlier, so they would have a large spi

A better addiction

My first year in undergrad I was like many first year college students. I had been spoon-fed information during high school, so I didn't study much when I hit college - not having developed these habits before then. This resulted in a rough first semester. (If you or someone you know is getting ready to enter college next year, probably the most important lesson to learn is to become personally responsible for learning most of the information. That's a good thing, and it's a shame this is a lesson most kids aren't learning until college.) In one of my classes, Intensive Writing, I procrastinated turning in most of the assignments. The professor told us we would have a surprise prompt for the final exam, but gave us some direction before about what kind of prompt it would be. I mulled over what she told us, knowing that if I didn't get a good grade I'd fail the class, based on my performance thus far. When I got to the classroom for the final, the professor confe

Homeostasis versus equilibrium

I want to make a quick distinction between the concepts of homeostasis and equilibrium. It can be easy to think of these two ideas as being the same thing, because both are mechanisms that drive a system that is in a state of change toward a system that is no longer changing. But understanding why they're different can change some low-level lines in our rational operating system code. Bear with me for a second as we cover the basic ground you probably already know. There are subtleties in these definitions we'll pull out if you give me a moment. The payoff should not just be in understanding biological systems better, but also hopefully in understanding larger systems like families, communities, and society as a whole. Let's start with equilibrium. This is the simple idea that things tend to become more uniform over time unless there's something preventing that from happening. This sentence is an example of an initial state that has not reached equilibrium. This s

Start with an Observation

My wife is a science teacher, and when we first started dating she was teaching high-school science to freshmen. On our first date, she described her difficulties teaching the scientific method to her students. By way of demonstration, she asked me, "What are the steps in the Scientific Method?" I said, "Well, you start with an observation, then-" "Exactly! You have to start with an observation. They don't get this concept. They think they start with a hypothesis. 'Maybe you didn't start with an observation, maybe you were just thinking one day and you formed a hypothesis.' But why did you form that hypothesis? If you think back through the process, you did it because you started with an observation. Somewhere down the line you observed something and it caused you to ask questions." I pointed out that this powerful idea isn't just difficult to understand for high-school science kids. It's also difficult for some researchers to

Will the lockdown hurt your immune system?

In my last post, I called out pro-shutdown hoaxers who think that misinformation is okay so long as it gets people to do what they want them to do. In this post, I'd like to call out misinformation circulating on the anti-shutdown side. In particular, I'm thinking of one video that has made a large splash, in which two physicians (I'm not in a position to verify whether they are what they claim) make a bunch of statements about immunology and microbiology, and then say how they think those ideas apply to the pandemic - specifically the lockdowns. I won't link to it, since it's being taken down wherever it's posted anyway, but I do want to go over why the things they say sound true but ultimately are not. Let's boil down a few of their claims so we can refute them one by one. I'll highlight the claims in yellow in the paraphrased statements below, and put the true statements in orange: Commensal bacteria and viruses are everywhere, your immune system

Spending Social Good Will

I'm not convinced that the current efforts at combating the spread of COVID-19 are a wise course of action. I realize this statement is currently outside the Overton window for polite society. In the past I've advised people who are skeptical to at least try to make the experiment work. At this point I'm recommending that ... ...well, that you not look to random bloggers for advice on this kind of thing. However, if you're looking for a bit more understanding that's something I can supply. I know this is a contentious issue, so I'd like to start on what I think we can all consider to be common ground, given the state of the evidence to date. Firstly, the defining nature of this crisis - and the beginning of any pandemic for that matter - is uncertainty. Back in early March, I noted this fact, and that some things we would likely discover over time and other things we might never know. Some of the things I noted back then turned out to be incorrect, as is exp

COVID-19: The Nordic Experiment

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Note: This post is based on incomplete data sets, and will likely not age well. How's that working out for you? A few nations took a different approach to the global pandemic, but then changed course to fall in line with what most of the rest of the developed world is doing with social distancing and shutdowns. Great Britain tried it for awhile before they capitulated, then Japan did the same. From a soulless data analysis perspective, this is unfortunate, because both have large population centers and make good comparators to other nations in Europe and Asia. There are a few holdouts remaining, including one I'd like to take a look at today: Sweden. A few caveats before we dive into the charts (which you can find at this source ). First, I'll be making comparisons among Nordic countries, but that doesn't mean those nations are interchangeable. There could be reasons for the differences we're seeing beyond just their chosen approaches to curtailing the spread o