Streetwise Professor

September 2, 2020

Bullshit Data, Part II: The Government We Deserve?

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:25 pm

Two big covid-related stories have come out in the past few days. The first is that the CDC announced that only about 6 percent of those counted among the covid-19 death toll had no other cause of death listed. The vast majority of those counted as covid casualties had other co-morbidities, notably respiratory problems, diabetes, and obesity. Indeed, the average number of co-morbidities was 2.6 across the 150,000 or so deaths.

Some, like Trump, immediately seized upon this as evidence that only 9000 people had died from covid. We can’t have that, now can we? So immediately the usual suspects, notably Fauci and the media, pushed back, claiming that no, 150,000 is the true death toll. Media outlets in particular began “fact checking” the claim. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)

Anyone who has done serious science, especially social science, knows that proving causation is difficult. Even defining what is meant by “to cause” is difficult to pin down. So arguments about how many deaths covid has caused are more likely to generate heat than light. In particular, in common parlance the idea of causation is zero/one, on/off: X caused Y, or it didn’t.

It’s better to think in terms of probability, e.g., what is the impact of covid the probability someone dies. A fair reading of the CDC report is that covid increases materially the probability that an aged, unhealthy, and especially aged unhealthy person dies prematurely, but it has a minor impact on the probability that an otherwise healthy person dies. (Even that conclusion is dicey, due to the lack of control groups, but leave that aside.)

Even though such a characterization could support an assertion that covid “caused” 150,000 deaths in the US, it is a devastating indictment of past, present, and likely future covid policy, in the US and elsewhere. Why? Because it means that one-size-fits-all-shut-everyone-in policies are grotesquely costly.

If covid is a very slight risk to healthy individuals, but a big risk to unhealthy ones (especially the elderly) then measures should be targeted at the at-risk population, leaving the rest of us to go about our daily lives pretty much normally. The indiscriminate, draconian measures involve huge pain for little gain, and arguably no gain relative to targeted policies.

As death rates–even based on the dubious policy of categorizing the death of anybody with covid as being from covid–have fallen, the bondage fetishists in government and the media have pivoted to another metric: covid cases, i.e., positive test results.

And that brings me to the next big story, one from the NYT no less: because of the nature of the standard testing method, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), it is possible to return a positive test when you are not presently sick, and/or not contagious–and never were!

According to the Times:

The PCR test amplifies genetic matter from the virus in cycles; the fewer cycles required, the greater the amount of virus, or viral load, in the sample. The greater the viral load, the more likely the patient is to be contagious.

This number of amplification cycles needed to find the virus, called the cycle threshold, is never included in the results sent to doctors and coronavirus patients, although it could tell them how infectious the patients are.

In three sets of testing data that include cycle thresholds, compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90 percent of people testing positive carried barely any virus, a review by The Times found.

Think of it like distillation: the tests aren’t making wine, they’re making 199 proof stuff.

In other words, the case numbers are bullshit, if they are intended to measure how many sick, or more importantly, how many contagious people there are. A large fraction of the positives are in no danger, and pose no danger to others. (In previous posts, I outlined other reasons why case numbers are bullshit, e.g., the nature of the test regime, and changes therein over time.)

Put this together with the first story–that the risk of death from from covid among the healthy is small–and the one-size-fits-all policies that are currently justified based on the number of positive test results look even more insanely destructive. If you are healthy and get it, you are unlikely to die: if you have a positive test result, you are highly unlikely even to be sick or make anyone else sick. So why continue highly restrictive policies imposed on virtually everyone (particularly in places like California, let alone Australia and New Zealand which have descended into police states) based on something (a positive test result) that indicates negligible risk?

Thus it is particularly insane that very low risk populations (primary and secondary students, college students, professional athletes, college athletes) are subjected to severe limitations on their normal activities based on “spikes” in positive tests. The hysteria among college administrators is particularly idiotic: they are freaking out and cracking down over such spikes. University life has not returned to anywhere resembling normal even at universities, which, like mine, are formally “open” and offering some in person classes: on what are usually the busiest days of the year, the first couple of days of the semester, the UH campus is still a ghost town. (Not that I am surprised about the idiocy of administrators, mind you. Thirty years in academia means that I am anything but surprised.)

The bullshit nature of death coding–if someone tests positive for covid and dies, it is coded as a covid death–raises another serious question when combined with the hypersensitivity of the test results: the incremental impact of covid positivity on mortality may be smaller than the official numbers suggest, even among at-risk populations, because the “dose” of virus that generates a positive test may be far too small to have a meaningful health effect even on the sick.

Here’s where things get even more interesting. It is clear that there have been large numbers of excess deaths (i.e., deaths above historical averages) during the covid period. Indeed, the number of excess deaths exceeds the number of official covid deaths, leading some to conclude covid deaths have been undercounted.

But the ubiquity of testing in hospitals, plus the extreme sensitivity of tests, makes it highly likely that covid did not materially contribute to many of the deaths officially counted as covid casualties. Presumably a lot of the people who died after testing positive had too little viral load to suffer from the virus.

Which would mean that the difference between excess deaths and covid deaths is likely an underestimate of excess mortality attributable to the “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (e.g., lockdowns). Indeed, if deaths counted as covid are overstated because of the hypersensitive tests, excess deaths minus covid deaths undercounts the deaths attributable to lockdowns, including the deaths for which the economic collapse was a materially contributing factor.

In other words, if covid is listed for some as a cause of death, for others “government policy” should be. (And of course, for some, e.g., nursing home residents in NY, “both” would apply.)

In one of my early posts, where I was among the first to raise serious doubts about the prudence of lockdowns, I said that it was a matter of trade offs. Trade-offs not just between death and income/wealth, but between deaths from one cause and deaths from another. It is now becoming clear that tens of thousands, and perhaps over 100,000, of the excess deaths are not the result of covid infection, but from the policy responses to covid.

Yet throughout the country, and indeed throughout the world, with a few exceptions, these realities regarding the true risks and the meaninglessness of tests are not causing those in power to slacken their grip. States of emergency continue throughout the US, especially in places like California, Michigan, New York, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Travel quarantines exist worldwide. (Though why the Europeans are keeping out Americans but letting in Chinese is totally beyond my comprehension.)

Why? Well, for one thing, admitting this now would be to confess that the previous measures were unnecessary, cruel, and excessively destructive of life and economic welfare. This is not a good look for politicians:

Not to admit error is human. Especially for the subspecies of humanity (I’m being generous) called politicians and bureaucrats. But I think there is something more sinister going on here.

They like the power over our lives. They are intoxicated by the power over our lives. They revel in the power over our lives. And they are goddamned if they are going to give up that power over our lives.

Especially when so many people ovinely submit to them running roughshod over our lives and our liberties. If Joseph de Maistre was right, and we get the government we deserve, the governments we have now speaks very poorly of us indeed.

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12 Comments »

  1. Wow. I finally – nearly totally – agree with you on an important issue! Good work here. Will wonders never cease.

    Comment by howseth — September 2, 2020 @ 11:43 pm

  2. “Anyone who has done serious science, especially social science, …”: snrfl.

    “If covid is a very slight risk to healthy individuals, but a big risk to unhealthy ones (especially the elderly)…”: not much ‘if’ about it.

    Months ago the British statistician Spiegelhalter pointed out that catching Covid doubled your risk of dying in the next year. If that risk was already minuscule – e.g. for healthy youngsters – then the extra risk was minuscule too. If that risk was already high – e.g. for seriously ill geezers – the extra risk was high too.

    I don’t know how the detail stands up to more data coming along, but the gist of his analysis seems to have stood up well.

    Comment by dearieme — September 3, 2020 @ 6:06 am

  3. Politicians who fall for the tripe of St Greta Thunderface are also likely to fall for the idiocy of panicked lockdowns. Rational man doesn’t have much of a role in politics.

    (That’s one reason why Trump is less awful than he appears – all the others are irrational too but more skilled at disguising it. In his idiosyncratic way Trump is an innocent compared to Hillary/Biden/Pelosi/Obama. Or, indeed, compared to W or Slick Willie.)

    Comment by dearieme — September 3, 2020 @ 6:14 am

  4. “So arguments about how many deaths covid has caused are more likely to generate heat than light.”

    The world has lost a great poet in you, Prof.

    Shame you are not in charge, the US and the world in general would be much better and safer place to live in, had someone with your insight and intellect had government responsibility.

    Comment by deith — September 3, 2020 @ 1:27 pm

  5. I’m not sure who started the panic and, often as not, the cowards we know as politicians follow the crowd. Fun fact, in late February, airline bookings fell off a cliff. People panicked quickly before lockdowns, etc. We’ve become a horribly risk adverse society, so anything sets us off like a herd of stampeding buffs.

    If you look at Latin America’s excess deaths vs. COVID what is startling is a vast gap between total excess deaths and COVID deaths unlike anywhere else. Why is a good question—no economic incentive, people just dying and not interested in cause, poor can’t stop going out but die outside of care. The Economist has the details, if you have access.

    I’m inclined to think it’s real, but some basic hygiene, wear a mask if in vulnerable situation and try to move on. But, you can’t fight the tape or city hall. Standing astride the crowd, yelling stop, only gets you trampled.

    Comment by The Pilot — September 3, 2020 @ 6:52 pm

  6. ‘So why continue highly restrictive policies imposed on virtually everyone (particularly in places like California, let alone Australia and New Zealand which have descended into police states).’

    Thankfully not everywhere in Oz. My state has responded quite sensibly. The police state response for the moment is restricted to Victoria – which, interestingly, like its fellow police-state New Zillund, has a close relationship to the Chinese Communist Party.

    Anyway, this is the public policy problem from hell, made worse by the general level of incompetence, incuriosity, myopia and as you say power-hunger among public policy practitioners.

    I can’t help but think that hydroxychloroquine offers an imperfect solution that would at least allow our societies to get on their feet and operate in the face of the risk. But for the reasons stated above, our decision-makers shun it.

    The shade of de Maistre sadly shakes his head. ‘It’s all so tiresome.’

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 5, 2020 @ 4:31 am

  7. The lack of basic statistical knowledge on the part of policy makers and lawmakers is staggering. They are easily led astray by those with an axe to grind who wish to take it to the roots of western civilisation.

    Comment by Andrew Again — September 6, 2020 @ 3:20 am

  8. Numbers schnumbers. I’m sure they’ll all come out in the wash. For what it’s worth, our CMO has been entirely open that all deaths associated with the UK’s policy response should be counted, including those from a disrupted healthcare system, economic downturns etc (i.e. not just the virus itself). Apparently it’s the done thing in epidemiology. Of course it would take a brave – nee reckless – government to amass and publish these numbers.

    “I was among the first to raise serious doubts about the prudence of lockdowns, I said that it was a matter of trade offs”

    Do you know for certain that those in power didn’t consider these trade-offs and concluded that lockdowns were the least-worst option? Given events in northern Italy and Wuhan – and the general lack of information on what exactly we were up against – an overly cautious approach was entirely sensible (as I believe I said before).

    Though why the Europeans are keeping out Americans but letting in Chinese is totally beyond my comprehension

    Really?? Maybe it has nothing to do with the virus.

    Comment by David Mercer — September 6, 2020 @ 1:54 pm

  9. @ Pilot – well said. The public’s sentiment at the beginning of the year is the one thing Craig continues to fail to address/blame. Here in the UK the clamour to lock the country down had reached fever pitch by mid-March. The government were effectively frog-marched into making a decision.

    Comment by David Mercer — September 6, 2020 @ 2:00 pm

  10. Speaking of probabilities:
    https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.06.20124446v2

    Comment by Tatyana — September 6, 2020 @ 6:02 pm

  11. @David Mercer,

    Clearly, I need to reconsider my thinking.

    Comment by The Pilot — September 7, 2020 @ 8:43 am

  12. It turns out that Dr. Fauci was confused about Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) and Case Fatality Rate (CFR) in his testimony before Congress on March 11.

    As a consequence, he communicated that Covid19 is 10 times more dangerous than it actually is, or even was known to be then.

    The paper describing his mistake is here.

    That mistake is what led to the lockdowns, the quarantine, and the general panic about Covid. All unnecessary, all due to incompetence – he didn’t correct himself later – and because Congress did not ask for a second opinion.

    A video clip showing his mistaken testimony is here.

    IFR is the death rate of people who get the disease in a population. CFR is the death rate among those whose case is so severe as to enter hospital.

    In a population, most people recover. Some are symptomless. IFR tends to be low.

    In a hospitalized cohort, everyone has a severe case. These latter constitute the CFR population. CFR tends to be much higher than IFR.

    Any guesses whether an apology will be forthcoming?

    Comment by Pat Frank — September 11, 2020 @ 9:33 pm

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