Friday 20 November 2020

Yes, it makes sense not to have diner parties while the schools are still open. Think of it as a Corona contact budget.


Can the kids go to school in restaurants

Jessica Winter, editor New Yorker


Analogies can be enlightening. Bad faith actors will always find something to nit pick, but for those interested in understanding analogies can help to open a toolbox of existing ideas and argumentative structures.

I wondered whether it may be useful to talk about Corona contacts as a budget.

It would avoid arguments like "if churches can be open, why can't we have concerts under similar conditions". "If you cannot meet indoors with more than 15 people, then why are schools open? Math!" 

One would never argue "if we just bought his flat, why can't we buy a summer house?" Maybe you have the budget to buy a summer house, but buying a flat does not mean you can also afford the summer house.

Similarly in the political realm: "if we can have social security, why can't we have a basic income (social security for all)?" For me a basic income is freedom, fulfilment of human potential and prosperity, but you will have to find the money. "If we can spend 10% of our GDP on healthcare as an average OECD country, why can't we spend 20%?" You can, and America does, but it will still be hard to find the funding for the additional 10% if countries with universal health care wanted to destroy their system and adopt the American partial system.

When it comes to budgets it is immediately clear that you have to set priorities and invest wisely.

The reproduction number of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is between two and three. Let's assume for this article that it is two to get easier numbers. This means that one infected person on average infects two other people. If we reduce number of infectious contacts by more than half the virus would decline.

The "on average" does a lot of work. How many people one person infects varies widely. As a rule of the thumb for SARS2: Four of five infected people only infect one other person or none, while one in five infects many people. It is only two on average.

And you have to average over a population that is in contact with each other. When in France no one has any contacts, while in Germany life continues as normal, the virus will spread like wildfire in Germany. But if inside the city of Bonn half of the people disappear, the remaining people have less contacts than before. The remaining half should not especially seek each out for the analogy to hold.

How does this analogy help? If we look at the budget of a country like Germany, it makes clear that we should look for reductions where we spend a lot. Work, school, free time. I am as annoyed by the anti-Corona protests as many complaining about them, but compared to 80 million inhabitants that see each other at work and school (indoors) every day, these protests, even if they were really big, are a completely insignificant number of contacts. And the right to protest is a foundation of our societies and should thus have a high priority. I think it is fine to mandate masks at protests and if you do so you should uphold the rule of law.

Less than 20% of Germany is younger than 20. So we could afford to spend our contacts there and ask the other 80% to do more. People often argue that children not going to school is disruptive for the economy. I would also argue a pandemic last one year is a large part of their lives, while additionally young people mostly do this to protect others. There is naturally no need to squander our budget, we could  require older kids to wear masks to reduce the effective number of contacts, install air filters or far UC-V lights in class rooms or reduce the number of days children go to school.

Some feel we should close the schools to protect teachers, but the main reason to care about avoiding contacts is, even now, not about the people being infected today, but about the spreading the virus and all the people who will die because of that. 

If we life above our contact budget most of the dying happens after several links in the chain of infection and no longer close to the school: The teacher or student infects 2 others, they infect 4 other, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, ... Those 128 will reside all over the city/county, if not state and have many different professions. If we would life within our Corona budget and the level of infection would be and stay low, the entire community, including teachers, would be safe.

The exponential growth of a virus also nicely fits to the exponential growth of money in your [[savings account]]. I added a link for young people. A savings account used to be a place where you would keep you money and the bank would give you a percentage of the amount as a thank you, which they called "interest". People who are into money and budgets likely still remember this and how it was normal to "invest" money to have more money later. 

When the press talks about exponential growth, I tend to worry they simply mean fast growth. Economic growth is much slower than the pandemic, but when it comes to money people get glowing eyes and talk enthusiastically about compound interest and putting something aside for later.

Similarly when a society invests in less contacts, we can have more freedom later.  Even more so because once the number of infections is low enough track and trace becomes much more efficiently and you get double returns on investment. Like an investment banker who has to pay less taxes because ... reasons.

At least the financial press should know the famous example of exponential growth: the craftsman who "only" asks the king for rice as payment for his chessboard: one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third square and so on. 


What is true for infections is also true for hospital beds and ICU beds. Once half of your patients are COVID-19 patient, it is only a matter of one more doubling time and the capacity is filled. Exponential growth is not just fast, it overwhelms linear systems like hospitals where you cannot keep on doubling the number of beds. 
If we let it get this far we are forcing doctors to choose who lives. Who is in the ICU too long and would likely stay there a long time while this capacity could be used for multiple new patients. Who is removed for the ICU to die. A healthy society does not put doctors in such a position.

With good care around 1 percent of people die in the West (in young societies in Africa less). Supporters of the virus tend to use this number or even much lower fantasy numbers. However, if we let it get out of control like this, ignore the exponential growth and the delay between infections and deaths, the hospital care would collapse and a few percent would die.

Many more people need to got the hospital. In Germany this is 17%. A recent French study reported that after 110 day most patients are still tired and have trouble breathing, many did not yet work again.
At the latest when the hospitals collapse people will reduce contacts, even if not mandated. It is much smarter make an investment earlier, to reduce our number of infectious contacts earlier. 
A well-know American president said it is smart to go bankrupt. It is smarter to make money.
Investing early pays of even more because then more subtle measures are still possible, while in an emergency a much more invasive lockdown will be necessary and, for those that only care about money, more damage to the economy will be done.

(As many of my readers are interested in climate change, let me add that I find it weird that when it comes to protecting the climate people often talk about it as a cost and not as an investment that will pay good dividends in the future, just like any other investment. If you mind that our kids will thus have it better than we have it, you can finance the investments with loans, like any business would.)

Related reading


Monday 9 November 2020

Science Feedback on Steroids

Climate Feedback is a group of climate scientists reviewing press articles on climate change. By networking this valuable work with science-interested citizens we could put this initiative on steroids.

Disclosure, I am member of Climate Feedback.

How Climate Feedback works

Climate Feedback works as follows. A science journalist monitors which stories on climate change are shared much on social media and invites publishing climate scientists with relevant expertise to review the factual claims being made. The scientists make detailed reviews on concrete claims, ideally using web annotations (see example below), sometimes by email.



They also write a short summary of the article and grade its scientific credibility. These comments, summaries and grades are then summarized in a graphic and an article written by the science journalist. 

Climate Feedback takes care of spreading the reviews to the public and to the publication that was reviewed. Climate Feedback is also part of a network of fact checking organizations giving them more credibility and they add metadata to the review pages that social media and search engines can show their users.



For scientists this is a very efficient fact checking operation. The participants only have to respond to the claims they have expertise on. If there are many claims outside my expertise I can wait until my colleagues added their web annotations before I write my summary and determine my grade. Especially compared to writing a blog post Climate Feedback is very effective.

The initiative recently branched out to reviewing health claims with a new Health Feedback group. The umbrella is now called Science Feedback.

The impact

But there is only so much a group of scientists can do and by the time the reviews are in and summarized the article is mostly old news. Only a small fraction of readers would see any notifications social media systems could put on posts spreading them.

This is still important information for people who closely follow the topic, helps them to see how such reviews are done, assess which publication are reliable and helps to see which groups are credible. 

The reviews may be most important for the journalists and the publications involved. Journalists doing high quality work can now demonstrate this to editors who will mostly not be able to assess this themselves. Some journalists have even asked for reviews of important pieces to showcase the quality of their work. Reversely editors can seek out good journalists and cut ties with journalists regularly hurt their reputation. The latter naturally only helps publications that care about quality.

The Steroids

With a larger group we could review more articles and have results while people are still reading it. There are not enough (climate) scientists to do this. 

For Climate Feedback I only review articles on topics where I have expertise. But I think I would still do a decent job outside of my expertise. It is hard to determine how good a good article is, but the ones that are clearly bad are easy to identify and this does not require much expertise. At least in the climate branch of the US culture war the same tropes are used over and over again, the same "thinking" errors are made over and over again. 

Many who are interested in climate change are interested in scientific detail, but are not scientists, would probably do a good job identifying these bad articles. Maybe even better. They say that magicians were better at debunking paranormal claims than scientists. We live in a bubble where most argue in good faith and science-interested normal citizens may well have a better BS detector.

However, how do we know who is good at this? Clearly not everyone, otherwise such a service would not be needed. We would have the data from Climate Feedback and Health Feedback to determine which citizen scientist's assessments predict the assessments of the scientists well. We could also ask people to classify the topic of the article. I would be best at observational climatology, decent in physical climatology and likely only average when it comes to many climate change impacts and economic questions. We could also ask people how confident they are in their assessments.

In the end it would be great to ingest ratings in a user friendly way with 1) a browser add-on on the article homepage itself, 2) replying to posts mentioning the article on social media, like replying to a tweet adding the handle of the PubPeerBot automatically submits the tweet to PubPeer.

A server would compute the ratings and as soon as there is enough data create a review homepage with the ratings as metadata to be used by search engines and social media sites. We will have to see if they are willing to use such a statistical product. Also an application programming interface (API) and ActivityPub can be used to spread the information to interested parties.

I would be happy to use this information on the micro-blogging system for scientists Frank Sonntag and I have set up. I presume more Open Social Media communities would be grateful for the information to make their place more reality-friendly. A browser add-on could also display the feedback on the article's homepage itself and on posts linking to it.

How to start?

Before creating such a huge system I would propose a much smaller feasibility study. Here people would be informed about articles Climate or Health Feedback are working on and they can return their assessments until the one of Climate Feedback is published. This could be a simple email distribution list to distribute the articles and a cloud-based spread sheet or web form to return the results. 

This system should be enough to study whether citizens can distinguish fact from fiction well enough (I expect so, but knowing for sure is valuable) and develop statistical methods to estimate how well people are doing, how to compute an all over score and how many reviews are needed to do so.

This set-up points to two complications the full system would have. Firstly, only citizen's assessments that are made before the official feedback can be used. this should not be too much of a problem as most readers will read the article before the official feedback is published.

Secondly, as the number of official feedbacks will be small many volunteers will likely not review any of these articles themselves or just a few. Thus the assessment of how accurate the predictions of person A of articles X, Y and Z are may have to be assessed comparing their assessments with those of B, C and D who review X, Y or Z as well as one of the articles Climate Feedback reviewed. This makes the computation more complicated and uncertain, but if B, C and D are good enough, this should be doable. Alternatively, we would have to keep on informing our volunteers of the articles being reviewed by the scientists themselves.

This new system could be part of Science Feedback or an independent initiative. I feel, it would at least be good to have a separate homepage as the two systems are quite different and the public should not mix them up. A reason to keep it separate is that this system could also be used in combination with other fact checkers, but we could also make that organizational change when it comes to that.

Another organization question is whether we would like Google and Facebook to have access to this information or prefer a license that excludes them. Short term it is naturally best when they also use it to inform as many people as possible. Long-term it would also be valuable to break the monopolies of Google and Facebook. Having alternative services that can deliver better quality due to our assessments could contribute to that. They have money, we have people.

I asked on Twitter and Mastodon whether people would be interested in contributing to such a system. Fitting to my prejudice people on Twitter were more willing to review (I do more science on Twitter) and people on Mastodon were more willing to build software (Mastodon started with many coders).

What do you think? Could such a system work? Would enough people be willing to contribute? Is it technologically and statistically feasible? Any ideas to make the system or the feasibility study better?

Related reading

Climate Feedback explainer from 2016: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism
Discussion of a controversial Climate Feedback and the grading system used: Is nitpicking a climate doomsday warning allowed?