Typical … and dumb

Ryan Tumilty, writing in the National Post, reports that “Politicians warned Wednesday Canadians can expect weeks or months of social distancing, but declined to reveal their own models or estimates of just how many people could become infected or die of COVID-19 … [but] … While federal and provincial leaders stressed the need for Canadians to maintain the fight against COVID-19, they refused to disclose models that project how the virus might play out …[and] … Ontario Premier Doug Ford said releasing projection models might prompt panic.

Panic is, indeed, something to be feared and I am certain that both senior officials and political aids have told the prime minister, premiers and ministers that too many Canadians are ill-equipped to understand the models and they will focus on one or two bits of “worst case” data and there will be more hoarding and even looting and frightened people will occupy hospital emergency rooms. I’m pretty sure that would be the reaction of a few people, but, not, I think, most. However, it is quite normal for officials, who are informed by experts, to fear that the great unwashed, if they can see the same information, will react differently.

The excuses that the politicians offer include:

  • Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 08.31.32“There are a few different models and if we give one or the other it sends two different messages … [according to Premier Ford, and] … These models could drastically, drastically change. If we underestimate on one side and overestimate on the other (it could) create a panic if we overestimate”;” and
  • Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 08.33.24When asked about releasing information from such models, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “There are a wide range of projections depending on how Canadians are behaving.”

In fact, a “model” is almost always a composite of a wide range of estimates, each made based on certain assumptions ~ in this case about how and how quickly the virus spreads and mutates (if it does) and how people respond (or not) to measures taken by governments. It’s true to that there are many models but I am certain that Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Ford and all the other premiers and ministers have been given one composite model, each. (The model used by Premier Ford will differ from the one used by Premier Kenney Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 08.35.51in Alberta and each of those will differ from the one used by Prime Minister Trudeau and Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, in Ottawa. They will, also, differ from the models used by President Trump, Prime Minister Johnson and President Tse, in Taiwan, but all will be based on the best available scientific data and all, therefore, will be constantly shifting.)

Here, according to the National Post is the current situation in Canada …

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 08.25.18

… but that’s incomplete because we cannot see if we are doing a bit (or a lot) better or a lot (or just a bit) worse than the “model” upon which the governments have based their decisions about e.g. social distancing, lockdowns and closures.

To his credit, Premier Doug Ford has promised to make the data available. He said …

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 13.45.00

You deserve the same information I have … [and] … I’ve asked our medical experts to provide a full briefing to the public … [therefore] … tomorrow our top doctors will provide an update on where Ontario was, where Ontario is and where Ontario could be.” That will happen after I post this. I’m encouraged but I don’t know if that means Ontario will publish the date or just brief us on it.

I suspect that the “worst-case” scenario in many models predicts 100,000 deaths in Canada, alone ~ that would be more than twice the number of Canadians who were killed in action in six long years of war from 1939-45. That less than ½ of the deaths in the original, pre-emergency measures “worst-case” scenario in the UK and less than 10% of the US Center for Disease Control‘s original “worst-case” predictions for the USA. But “worst-case” scenarios are in models for a reason: to tell policymakers what could happen if they do all the wrong things. In Canada and the UK and the USA policymakers and, more importantly, the people ~ ordinary people like you and me ~ are doing a lot of the right things; the “worst-case” scenario is highly unlikely to occur. More recent “worst-case” predictions for the UK are in the thousands, not hundreds of thousands, and they are in the low hundreds of thousands, not in the millions for the USA.

I understand, I suppose, why politicians and officials want to hide the data. But they’re wrong. It’s true that a few people, a few Australians, a few Brits and a few Canadians, too, will panic and do dumb things. We have measures to deal with them. Most people will, if they understand the issue better, take the right sorts of actions. The people can be trusted with the facts. They may need some help with understanding the data, and data can be boring. The standard-normal-distributionmedia can help. They can help less than brilliant politicians, like Justin Trudeau and Patty Hajdu to make sense of it, to understand that data have extremes and that the middle range is where most things most often happen. The best and worst cases have remote chances of occurring. The worst-case might happen but it, like the best case has a <2.5% probability of occurring while there is a 95% probability that  95% of the people will obey 95% of the rules and we’ll all make it through with a 97.5% chance of success.

It is normal, even typical for governments to not trust the people. It is also dumb. There is a global crisis which threatens to kill hundreds of thousands, even millions and to crash the global economy. Now is not the time to be dumb.

 

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