COVID: Stop Pretending we Know Things

Mark Rabkin
7 min readMar 21, 2020

Every day there’s another viral article or study. Sometimes it’s a reason why we’re all screwed and this will be a worse death toll that any world war. Or, more frequently over the last few days, the message is “don’t worry!”: a “growth hacker” or tech CEO / VC looked at a bunch of charts and says there’s nothing to panic about.

Unfortunately, it’s those articles and studies that are most aggressive in their claims that get a ton of distribution as they play into the confirmation bias of either the doves or the hawks. Instead, we should be reading balanced things about what we know and don’t know.

For example, today’s viral medium darling is “Evidence over Hysteria”, a horrific mishmash of charts and data points (good data actually) that ignores anything even in its own charts that’s concerning and makes a bunch of claims that are self contradictory. The main issue here is that for every data point presented, not even the slightest attempt is made to look at “oof, how might that be misleading?” or “does this really say what I’m claiming?”

This is just bad analysis. We need to think deeper and be honest with what we don’t know.

Do I know what will happen? No! But I can tell when plainly contradictory facts are put in front of me. And I can be honest about how much is still unknown.

Lame Claims

Here’s my summary of that article. And the sad part is that most things the author doesn’t mention are evident from a chart just a couple scrolls down that same article (or is on “Our World in Data”, a great source, just down the page from the chart the author used).

  • Don’t panic because the JHU map has “total” cases as the headline number, but, 1/3 have already recovered so no worries! We get 33% off.
  • Don’t worry that US is tracking 11 days behind Italy on total cases because US population is 5x bigger, so per-capita our total cases are 5x smaller. No mention or discussion that this may mean we peak 5x higher. Or that means we may have 5 or more Italys — one in NYC, one in NOLA, one in Seattle, and let’s see where else.
  • Don’t worry: US has only 60 cases / 1M population, whereas European countries have 200–700. No mention that as testing ramps, found cases doubled in 2 days. Are we really 10x better off or just 6 days behind?
  • Don’t worry: Daily growth rates declined over time in every country. Generally…
Mark Rabkin

Eng & Product VP @ FB. Loves: awesome managers, people who grow, tech, food, design, sports. Follow me as @mrabkin.