Flavio Bartmann writes:
Over the last few days, as COVID-19 posed some serious issues for policy makers who, both in the US and elsewhere, have employed statistical models to develop mitigation strategies, a number of non-statisticians have criticized the use of such models as useless or worse. A typical example is this article by Victor Davis Hanson; other conservative pundits like Andrew McCarthy, Peter Bernstein and Bill Bennett also wrote about the “flaws” of the models. Perhaps you could comment on this. People would appreciate it.
First, sure, all these models are flawed. So you don’t want to put yourself in the position of taking the side of the models, just because people are attacking the models for bad reasons. And of course it’s not just conservative pundits who come up with bogus criticisms of conclusions they don’t like.
Now onto the specifics. I read Hanson’s article, and it has some good points and some bad points.
The good point is that he’s right that we’re all in this together, or at least we should be, and I think it’s fair that he’s considering the position of people who make the recommendations. His main argument is that any of us can die from coronavirus, but some people are are much more susceptible to the economic devastation that the disease is causing. The (U.S.-style) liberal response to this is to set up some sort of social insurance to share the economic pain and protect vulnerable people from the worst of it. But Hanson is a conservative, and I expect that he’d argue that any such government programs would just be counterproductive, so his preferred solution to the problem is to minimize the economic disruption in the first place. The problem is that minimizing short-term economic disruption could increase coronavirus deaths.
There’s a tradeoff, and the balance is in different places for different people. If you have a comfortable job and money in the bank, the economic risks are low. If you’re self-employed or just got fired, it’s another story. And Hansen points out that the experts mostly have comfortable jobs. That’s no surprise: if you’re an expert in an area that is technical and in demand, it’s likely that you’ll get paid well in America. There’s an asymmetry here, and Hansen is right to point this out.
The place where I disagree with Hanson is the one-sidedness of his presentation. He’s really annoyed at the experts who say that we should be doing extreme anti-coronavirus measures. Fine. He’s taking a position, and he’s annoyed with people who disagree with him. But . . . what about the people on his side of the issue, the people who’ve been going around comparing coronavirus to the flu, the people telling us to just relax about it? They’re comfortable people too! Do you think that Cass Sunstein or Richard Epstein or Bill Bennett or Sean Hannity are, to use Hanson’s words, “plagued by worries whether there will be enough deliveries this month to pay the mortgage”? No, of course not.
What I’m saying is that there are comfortable people on both sides of this debate. Indeed, pretty much all the people we’re hearing from on this are comfortable people—myself and Hanson included. That’s how our news media, and social media, work. The NYT doesn’t have a regular Ask a Poor Person column—and neither does American Greatness magazine (that’s where Hanson published his article). We’ve gotta go to war with the pundits we have.
Hanson does have some discussion about how Ph.D.-level pundits are overrated—and I can go with him on that! He pulls a Chesterton or an Orwell and compares ivory-tower epidemiologists with commonsensical, salt-of-the-earth truck drivers, plumbers, electricians, and car mechanics. But . . . is that really the right comparison here? There are no truck drivers, plumbers, electricians, and car mechanics offering their views in NYT, NPR, Fox, American Greatness, etc. Instead we have Victor Hanson, who has written books about ancient Greece and modern America and says, “I know a plumber and an electrician.” And Thomas Friedman, who famously knows a lot of taxi drivers. And Cass Sunstein and Richard Epstein, who know a lot of . . . law professors. And Sean Hannity and various NPR announcers, who I guess know a lot of journalists.
Hanson writes, “Whatever the end result of this crisis, few at the WHO, CDC or the state health directors are going to lose their jobs in a way the small restaurateurs and Uber drivers most certainly will.” For better or worse, Victor Hanson, Cass Sunstein, Richard Epstein, etc. probably don’t have to worry about losing their jobs either.
To turn this inside out: Above I cautioned my correspondent not to leap to an instinctive defense of “the models.” We should be vigilant about the models, find their flaws, and work to improve them. Similarly, I’d like to caution Hanson not to try to divide the world into two parts and put everything he loves on one side of the ledger and everything he hates on the other. He hates comfortable people who credulously spread B.S. That’s fine, but he, and a lot of people on his side of the issue, are comfortable people who credulously spread B.S. That doesn’t mean that he’s wrong on the merits and that Gavin Newsom is right—but it does mean that his argument against “elite wisdom” and “high priests” and “corporate lawyers” are empty. Hanson saying we can’t trust the CDC or the state health directors because their jobs are not at risk—but then I don’t think he should be trusting me, or himself! You see the problem here. Until truck drivers and car repairmen have their own NPR shows and are writing columns in American Greatness, what do we do? And even if we do attain Hanson’s idea of truck-driver-ocracy, this just pushes the problem back one step. Which truck driver or car repairman do we listen to? The one who thinks that coronavirus is no worse then the flu and just wants to go back to work, or the one who is scared of possibly being a disease vector and wants government support to stay home until the disease is under control?
I looked up Victor Hanson on wikipedia and found this: “His mother, Pauline Davis Hanson, was a lawyer and a California superior court and state appeals court justice, his father was a farmer, educator and junior college administrator.” Victor Hanson has been a prolific writer and a successful college professor. He won a teaching award and has received various awards for his scholarly work. In his article he expresses a keen appreciation for the intelligence and common sense of truck drivers and car repairmen. According to wikipedia, “Hanson’s 2002 volume An Autumn of War called for going to war ‘hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.’” I don’t know that Hanson has himself worked in truck driving or car repair, or that he’s been a soldier in a war, but maybe he has—and, even if he hasn’t, he has every right to appreciate the labor of people whose careers are entirely unlike his own. I’ve never done those jobs either, but I appreciate their labor. For that matter, I’ve never learned ancient Greek, but I’m impressed with people such as Hanson who’ve achieved that feat.
According to wikipedia, Hanson also apparently wrote that “Trump’s bulk fueled a monstrous energy; Hillary’s girth sapped her strength.” OK, it’s hard to explain away that one. But, I looked up Hansen on the web, and he’s pretty thin. Thin people are the worst! They seem to honestly believe that being fat is some sort of sign of virtue or vice. Don’t you thin people get it? Fat is just fat; it is what it is; don’t be so quick to make it a symbol of your own obsessions.
As to William Bennett . . . The topic here is decision making under uncertainty. Should we really take advice in this area from a blowhard who claimed that he put millions of dollars into Las Vegas slot machines and broke even? Or political advice from a sage who said, “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” and then followed this up with the qualification, “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” Whew! Good thing he clarified that forced abortion is morally reprehensible. I just looked this guy up on wikipedia and, what’s really amazing is, he’s only 76 years old! I thought he’d be something like 90 or 100 by now. Only 76, he’s still ready to run for president. Maybe that’s his plan: hide away in some cabin in the woods, infect everyone with coronavirus, and then be the only over 75-year-old remaining, and he can just scoot right into the Oval Office. In the meantime, he can play the slots as much as he wants—he breaks even, remember?
Anyway, setting aside the details of the arguments—as Hanson says, we’ll never know if there would’ve been coronavirus carnage had the schools not been closed etc.—I’m not happy with the politicization of science, or in this case the politicization of ideas of evidence. On one hand we have people like Hanson who criticize all experts who happen to disagree with him and who’d rather rely on the common sense of truck drivers—but who don’t actually consult with truck drivers on the matter. On the other hand we have people like Dr. Oz who are trading their academic credibility for fame and $. And then someone sent me this ridiculous twitter war between two rich guys who are just soooo sure of themselves (see here and here).
I think we can all agree that Ph.D. academics, M.D.s, and rich tech guys are the absolute worst. I don’t think I know anyone whose job title is “electrician,” but the people who repair things in our building ore pretty good. The don’t seem so overconfident, though, so I doubt they’ll be offering any coronavirus opinions. I do know some epidemiologists who seem pretty clueful and not so ivory-tower—they get down and dirty with the data—but it’s possible they don’t agree with Hanson on the science, so I’m guessing that he’d disparage them as being inconsistent with the ancient Greek verities, or whatever. The whole thing just makes me want to barf. These problems are hard enough to deal with even without all the politics. As a political scientist, I recognize that politics are unavoidable. But I don’t have to like it.
P.S. Let me clarify that what is bothering me is not the politics; it’s the direction of the reasoning. If Hanson were to say, Sure, coronavirus is a problem, but let’s be careful not to let our fear cause a drift away from the rugged individualism that made this country great, or if Bennett were to say . . . ok, let’s not waste any time on Bennett . . . if Hanson wants to say that Trump is still better than Biden or whatever . . . sure, go for it. Make your case! Maybe if we had lower taxes and less government, we’d be better prepared for the coronavirus and we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today. It’s not a completely unreasonable argument: maybe with no CDC, we wouldn’t’ve had any false sense of security, with everyone assuming that Big Daddy Government would take care of us. It’s a position. If Hanson wants to make that case, then make the damn case. And if he has specific problems with any particular models, tell us. Just don’t bring in all that b.s. about truck drivers and electricians. If we had a minimal federal government and all the epidemic preparation were being done by the states, or by companies, or labor unions, or whatever, you can bet they’d want do get some experts on the case. They wouldn’t be asking lawyers, classics professors, poets, or truck drivers.
“I know a plumber and an electrician.” Give me a break.