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Listen to actual experts on coronavirus. Please.

Amelia Hoover Green
Mar 11 · 3 min read

Hello, internet. A lot of you have been sharing the Medium piece below (posting a pic of the piece instead of a link because I don’t want one single more person to link to it). Let me tell you why I hate that piece and why you should not share it any more.

However, first let me say that I think the general conclusion — preemptive social distancing — is probably right.

OK, now let me convince you that it MATTERS that the analysis underlying the strongest statements of that general conclusion is wrong. Two main reasons, starting with the petty one, then a what-to-do.

The Post In Question

(1) I’m personally offended when non-experts (often white dudes with tech or econ backgrounds, not gonna lie) can’t stay in their goddamn lanes. I’ve seen what happens when this attitude (ooooh data, so much data, surely I can math my way to the truth with just the raw data) comes to casualty counting and it SUCKS. Sucks. Suuuuucks. (Sorry, needed a few extra links there.) Did you know that the person who wrote The Post In Question is an expert in viral…marketing? Not epi, not public health. I HATE IT. THERE ARE NO CONFIDENCE INTERVALS ANYWHERE AND I HATE IT.

(2) OK, but why does it actually matter that public health/epi folks are speaking in less data-confident terms? It matters because there are ALSO public health impacts of the interventions that faux experts are hawking, which means that the *details* of those interventions matter. Yesterday Yascha fucking Mounck wrote a viral Atlantic piece called “Cancel Everything” (again, no link for that guy) which: fuck that. Context matters. School closures make kids go hungry and burden the poorest Americans unequally, which will cause other public health effects. Economic downturns, a certain knock-on effect of major restrictions on travel and movement, cause increased disease burden, violence, and a bunch of other nasty stuff. Most broadly, panic is bad. It increases xenophobia and racism, it makes people less able to prioritize the stuff they can actually accomplish…the list goes on.

What should you do if you are desperate for information? First, follow people who are actual experts rather than reading viral posts (links are to two experts I have followed in recent days). Notice what they are sharing: not big prescriptions based on raw data, but fundamental principles. Often the conclusions from the fundamental principles are somewhat similar to the conclusions from the hubristic raw-data deep dives, but you’ll see that real experts draw their conclusions differently. The only graphs I’ve seen actual experts share are the “for example,” generalized ones about flattening the curve. Share the shit out of those ones!

Image from https://www.vox.com/2020/3/10/21171481/coronavirus-us-cases-quarantine-cancellation

Amelia Hoover Green

Written by

Associate Professor, Drexel University Dept. of Politics. Human Rights Data Analysis Group consultant. Professional data grump.

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