Some blue check journalist named Ferris Jabr, in a raw display of sobriety for a member of the Indigo Cheka, said
None of this is to belittle what is happening. The outbreak in China is a genuine public health emergency.
But the essential data are still being collected and assessed. Sweeping and alarmist claims about unprecedented global threat are neither warranted nor helpful.
That strikes me as the exact right note, given the information we have so far. But Taleb, who recommends precautionary panic, wasn’t having it. He replied, “Another ignorant journalist dealing with risk matters. Irresponsible.”
Taleb and a couple of pals wrote a one-pager on how and why to best panic. They don’t say anything about medicine per se and instead focus on probability, which somehow has the answers. The note is “Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A Note“, about which more in a moment.
Our self-identified flaneur became famous for popularizing a well known incident in philosophy, the discovery of the black swan. Used to be logic was taught or illustrated with syllogisms that included the premise “All swans are white”. Then along came Australia which forever spoiled the fun. Logicians shrugged—an actual black swan does not affect the logic—and moved on.
Taleb was keen to appreciate that the great bulk of probability models began with a similar premise: “Let y be distributed normally” (this is the same premise used in most academic regressions). He pointed out this model greatly underestimates the predictions of many events, which according to the model had vanishing probability.
But Taleb went one step too far and began to believe in his own models. That is, he embraced the Deadly Sin of Reification. He began to talk and think as if events had probabilities, that his models (with their impeccable math) were realer than Reality.
Caution About Undue Caution
Enter the precautionary principle, which Taleb embraces with the strength of ten lovers. The PP says that if a devastating thing could happen, then that thing ought to be protected against, and that the level of protection should be proportional to the potential devastation.
I teased him about this once by supposing that Black Swans From Outer Space could attack the Earth and destroy it. Since this could happen, and the destruction of everything is infinite in value, there is no cost too large to pay to protect against this threat. Right?
Now here’s the coronavirus, which is a mutated version of the common cold. At least, that’s what we’re told. As of this writing (Sunday night), and quoting on the most reliable sources (Zero Hedge), the stats are “Coronavirus mortality rises above 5% with 76 dead on 1,423 confirmed Hubei cases.”
Given these numbers, and since the virus is a cold virus many cases will go unrecorded, since symptoms for most will be an ordinary cold, and most or many don’t go to the doctor to record their common cold. This would tend to inflate the mortality rate, perhaps by a lot.
What’s killing people, as I understand it, is that some frail people who catch this new coronavirus are developing pneumonia, and the pneumonia does them in. Most who get the virus recover fine.
Well, maybe that’s all wrong. I’m not a virus specialist, and I’m relying on published reports, which as we all know are not to be taken as oracular. I also don’t have infection rates of ordinary common colds at my fingertips and can’t say anything about the unusualness of this new virus. Seems at least similar to the spread of many colds. About videos of people dropping dead in the streets of China I am skeptical—but willing to be corrected.
In other words, I’m on the side of the journalist who urges cautious reporting. After all, every would-be media-hyped plague of the last half century has turned out to be a dud, globally speaking, which is evidence in favor of calmness.
Taleb’s New Note
We’re finally at Taleb’s note. He (and his pals) say “we are dealing with an extreme fat-tailed process”, which is an illustration of the Deadly Sin of Reification. Infections, like ebola, are more or less rare, but they happen because of causes not because they are “fat-tailed”, i.e. rare according to some evidence. When they are happening they are no longer rare, they are happening. The causes do not possess “fat tails” or probability of any kind.
The reification is confirmed when he says “Fat tailed processes have special attributes, making conventional risk-management approaches inadequate.” Rare things are rare because the causes of these things can’t operate because the situations are not usually right. Once the events are happening, the causes can be identified, and that situations that can stop the causes (stop the spread of infection) might be able to be identified.
Taleb makes this good point: “Historically based estimates of spreading rates for pandemics in general, and for the current one in particular, underestimate the rate of spread because of the rapid increases in transportation connectivity over recent years.” We are one big unhappy family now.
He spoils that point by adding “This means that expectations of the extent of harm are under-estimates both because events are inherently fat tailed, and because the tail is becoming fatter as connectivity increases.” The opposite is true. Events like infections will occur with greater frequency with increasing connectivity. He knows this, but seems to be mixing up consequences with rates. Even then it’s not clear consequences would become worse, because the connectivity may make it easier to solve problems.
Here’s a paragraph straight out of the PP:
Properties of the virus that are uncertain will have substantial impact on whether policies implemented are effective. For instance, whether contagious asymptomatic carriers exist. These uncertainties make it unclear whether measures such as temperature screening at major ports will have the desired impact. Practically all the uncertainty tends to make the problem potentially worse, not better, as these processes are convex to uncertainty.
That we don’t know what we don’t know is known, or should be, and is thus a given. But because we don’t know what we don’t know does not make what we don’t know bad. It could also be good, or benign. To say it could only be bad is the PP Fallacy.
They end their note by appealing to the PP and by asking we avoid fatalism. That the Chinese government has at least tried quarantine makes this a straw man. And I predict that if this thing does become seriously serious, and not just the usual panic and instead sci-fi come to life, we’d see the connectivity and mobility hard stopped. No flights to or from China and the like.
We’re not at that point, though. Maybe.
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