The Unholy Combination of Politics, Science, Media, and Covid-19

Can experts solve COVID-19?

Likely, but not soon. The intervening time will be troublesome.

What’s an expert? 

Expertise is a condition we often don’t think about. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume it is someone highly skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced in a particular, limited field of study. A cardiologist will know a great deal about heart disease, but not so much about neonatal care. More than you or I by far, but at something less than at the expert level.

When we use an expert

Assume the problem we consult about is known, clearly defined, and within the range of the cardiologist’s skills. In those cases, we can expect a reliable answer. The expert has seen the situation before, knows what tests and procedures will conclusively establish its nature, and knows what to do once the problem is precisely defined. Their expertise is valid here.

The requirements are

  1. Known problem
  2. Within the field of the expert.

Generalists

In medicine, generalists deal with some conditions and refer you to specialists for others. General practitioners are good at diagnosis but are more limited with their approaches. They are wider and shallower than specialists. We need people who can fill this role throughout society.

Generalists have three purposes:

  1. To refer the problem to a specialist who can solve it or provide a course of action to minimize it.
  2.  To interpret the technical answers to the patient. Without the translation, the patient can not always contextualize the problem. Acting on it becomes unreliable. For example, we know about a third of all prescriptions are never filled. The patient did not understand why they should is most common. Other factors like affordability enter too.
  3. As time goes on, generalists adopt other roles. The conscience, the cheerleader, the authoritative judge, and more. That’s how they help the patient with problems that don’t go away instantly. They may refer to different experts. Maybe a physiotherapist or a dietician.

Generalists are better than specialists at multidimensional problems.

What happens?

Complex problems are a bit like 6-year-olds. They are not predictable.

Expert value deteriorates when the problem is not from the standard set of their experiences. New problems don’t make them useless, but those challenges make their intuition less reliable.

They are still the most likely candidate for finding an answer but, it will be less conclusive. If the known problem, single discipline situation exists, they may be 98% right. The novel, single-discipline situation drops it into the 50% right category. Maybe lower.

They will likely get much better, but not right away. We should look to experts for an answer, just not soon.

The novelty problem 

Few problems are fully defined and within a particular body of knowledge and experience. What happens?

Suppose the problem is known and it involves several areas of expertise. We could expect a workable answer from a single expert. Maybe the 50% good level again. Knowing the confines of the problem helps assess ways to proceed.

The Covid-19 case couples the novel problem with required knowledge from several disciplines. In this case, everyone, not just the experts, is lost.

The interdisciplinary problem

There are many aspects and no experience to help assign weight to one viewing point or another. Everyone is an amateur. Some will adapt quicker, but no one starts with the answer or even necessarily with a solution vector.

There will undoubtedly be conflict as different viewing points vie for primacy.

I am reminded of “expert” Richard Feynman’s thought on this,

“A scientist thinking about non-scientific things is just as dumb as the next guy.”

More generally, an expert outside their field is no better at finding answers than anyone else. Maybe worse because their field of view is narrower.

Experts have limited knowledge of Covid-19. When they overreach, they often present answers based more on their own self-confidence than objective reality. If a particle physicist offered you income tax advice, how carefully would you listen?

Having been right in the past, but in dissimilar situations, is not the place for confidence in your current answer. This is where we see the reason behind the argument flaw, “Appeal to authority.” You never know for sure the authoritative expert knows as much as they claim.

Humility will go a long way to addressing a new and complex problem.

Addressing new multidisciplinary problems.

Unfortunately, we have an experiment underway as you read this. It addresses the question of how should we manage Covid-19?

Start with what we know:

  1. It is a virus, spreads easily, and has adverse health effects on people with vulnerabilities. Age, being overweight, being diabetic, being low in Vitamin D, sedentary, Type A blood, and no doubt others. Correlation has not yet been proven to be causative, but the collection is persuasive.
  2. We are nearly sure it is an engineered virus—gain of function research that got into the wild in Wuhan, China. Early expert denial of that possibility should raise the question of trusting those experts ever again. Politicized experts are a menace.
  3. Approaching the solution has so far been very narrow. We see it presented as a medical problem, so only medical experts are allowed here. That approach is unnecessarily limited.
  4. Refining our understanding of the problem is well along and will no doubt get much better.

Our next step is to apply the resources that help.

Identifiable disciplines involved

There are at least these identifiable disciplines involved:

  1. Medicine
  2. Political science
  3. Economics
  4. Education
  5. Mental Health
  6. Substance abuse
  7. Finance
  8. Data science
  9. Public relations
  10. News and Entertainment

Politicians are supposed to be doing something, and so they picked medicine because it looked right. In many ways, it was, but it narrows the definition of the problem. Confined this way, it cannot supply a more complete explanation leading to a better solution.

Multidimensional problems don’t solve in conventional ways. There is no ability called “Multidimensional problem-solving expert.”

How do you simulate such an expert?

Businesses have been doing it for years, probably forever. Most of their problems are multidimensional–manufacturing, customers, engineering, R&D, employee relations and HR, legal, finance, transportation, supply chain management, procurement, and marketing to name most.

How do businesses solve these problems?

By defining viewing points and by confining discussion. Viewing points are necessary because the problem changes its nature as you look at it from different places.

General managers know they must address viewing points serially. If they don’t, the most dominant expert will steal the show.

They don’t convene a single meeting with all the people there. They have several meetings with all the people present. Today we will see the problem as a marketing issue. All departments participate but only in the context of marketing. This afternoon address the engineering issue. Later on, deal with each of the viewing points.

The idea is to allow the problem to be “cross-pollinated” by ideas, perspectives, and limits.

Eventually, executives make a decision that has a reasonable foundation and can be planned forward to tactics.

Knowing what they don’t know and must find out is a good start. After the process, executives know how to weigh the parts and assign resources. They know what is likely to change in the future. They know who will buy in and who won’t. They understand the nature of their SWOT situation and have filled the boxes. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They have preliminary approaches to internal difficulties and to addressing external realities.

Do you think COVID was addressed that way?

I hope you don’t. It wasn’t. There is far more information now, but not much has changed. Maybe it will soon.

In the beginning, no one knew enough. “It looks like a medical problem. Let’s invoke the medical experts.” Fair enough.

It should not have stayed so narrow.

The medical-political solution generated a four-fold error:

  1. If you ask an expert about something in their area, they will have an opinion. They will be confident about it even when they don’t know enough to validate their confidence.
  2. Maybe it was feigned confidence because they were told what the narrative should be. The experts surrender their position as “expert” when they choose that path.
  3. Some of them liked the publicity and wanted more. They had to appear more sure.
  4. Politicians knew nothing about the science because they never do, and in this case, nobody knew. They had to decide and so grasped at half-vast answers. Worse still, some politicians saw it as a way to advance a political agenda. “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” type thinking. Some of them were dumb enough to say they saw the crisis as a political opportunity. They said that out loud. Unbelievable! Judgement skills are not highly developed in some politicians. Maybe it’s just in Canada.

The result. We got ideologically-leavened, medical-dominant thinking. That seems a weak way to assess and deal with any problem, never mind one that is a potentially serious threat.

Where that got us

In the absence of a cure, as the disease developed the emphasis became preventing infection. Experts came up with isolation tactics, social distancing, masks, shutdown of many businesses and other institutions like churches and schools. The theory seemed to be, “If no one gets the disease, a non-existent cure won’t be a problem.”

The politics hide the inherent fallacy of the approach. Part of the politics was to ignore that many of their former actions left us vulnerable. Not keeping PPE supplies in inventory, for instance.

Success was never possible. The chosen system requires perfection. In virology and its treatment, perfection is a scarce quality. The outcome is as you would expect – no real value.

Choosing the wrong target leads to a miss of obvious sub-targets. There was spectacularly poor management protecting the most vulnerable in long-term care. Experience in Italy showed it was an immense problem. They did not notice or ignored it. The result was catastrophic. Several facilities lost more than 40% of their patients. More than 2/3 lost none. Did they study the differences? I hope so, but it is hard to find out.

Once it became apparent they had accomplished nothing, the offering became “flatten the curve.” Let’s not overwhelm what medical support we have. Looked good for a while, but the problem recurred, and identical solutions reappeared. Why?

Did they have no new data to temper their response to the second outbreak? They should have had by then. Save for the more intense application of the first-tried methods, nothing changed.

We didn’t change tactics

The politicians and their medical “experts” confined the narrative. They dismissed anyone who brought up other aspects. That was destructive in the context of finding a better answer. When you have a problem, never stop looking for a better solution.

We know there are alternatives. Maybe Ivermectin works, not as a cure but as a preventative. It has been used for decades in Africa for other reasons. People have discovered a correlation between its use and the spread of Covid-19 that looks interesting. Maybe a scientific study is in order. Is anyone doing one? No! You might want to ask why not?

Take a look here.

A COVID-19 prophylaxis? Lower incidence associated with prophylactic administration of Ivermectin

Becoming more assertive about one answer when that answer doesn’t work is galactically dumb.

What would a business do?

Businesses would be more thorough. They would look for other possibilities, even as they tested their expedient first approach.

Suppose a business has a brilliant opportunity. Marketing is super-supportive, engineering has it partly developed, manufacturing knows it’s possible. Easy decision, right?

Except! It would be near impossible to finance, and it is likely illegal.

Businesses would listen to divergent views–even seek them. Governments did not seek other options and did not listen when the ideas imposed themselves.

Could they have done better? 

Sure they could have, but the problem was unknown in the beginning. Any judgement around how the outcomes could have been better then relies on hindsight. Unknown problems have no hindsight available to help solve anything. January 2020 was not an exception. No one knew what was best or even adequate.

“Should they have” is the better question. I submit that until May 2020, they should only have been better at shutting down air traffic and minding long-term care facilities. Both of those were clear given observations in Europe. Beyond that, I’ll give them a pass.

But not after. The decision-makers failed and did not correct.

What was the biggest mistake?

There is one strategic or process mistake that was and remains serious. The process didn’t change as data came available.

No problem is unsolvable if the solution keeps improving based on observed and sought-after information.

No one did it, and by summer, people who supported the initial reaction were changing their minds. People might have agreed until July 2020 or so, but not likely after. The path followed in early 2020 proved inadequate if you consider more than the “flatten the curve” variable. For all we know, that might have happened anyway.

Were governments co-operating and sharing information that might have helped? Maybe they did through WHO, The World Health Organization, but that is not a place to go for solutions. Too political. They have reduced their credibility to near zero.

Did anyone do an honest cost/benefit study of the approach they took?

What would such an honest cost/benefit study consider?

First of all, it would be expansive. It would consider costs not found in the medical-political solution.

There are several compelling costs presently unaddressed:

The mental health of people adversely affected by shutdowns.

  • substance abuse
  • family abuse
  • suicide

The economic effects on people

  • Job and/or business loss leading to inability to meet commitments like rent, loan payments, and other contracts. Even food.
  • Insecurity about positions after the crisis ends.
  • Destruction of savings
  • Inability to plan their future

The effects on children and their future.

  • Not every child has the necessary tools for remote education.
  • Not every child has in-room support.
  • Even bright children have problems once they get behind.
  • As any adult can tell you. Discontinued education is hard to restart.

Education will change

  • Virtual teaching in the future will be vastly different from cloning classroom teaching. There will be professionally produced lessons available to all children. Classroom teaching becomes obsolete because its production values are limited. Even now, better choices are available.
  • Teachers provide personal assistance, and that becomes the classwork. The format becomes lesson presentation at home, homework and help in school. Teachers may need different skills in that environment. The outline of the idea can be found at TED. Sal Kahn and Using video to reinvent education
  • Who develops it? With what parameters or limitations? Ideology is disqualified, admitted, required? This is where it will break down if it does.

Society will be different

  • Long term effect of divorce arising from mental, economic, and child issues
  • Problems with chronic addiction
  • Ability to trade better overall outcomes against more deaths from the virus. In a complex process, you cannot optimize one variable without sub-optimizing the whole.
  • Effects like the “political opportunity” change the fabric of decision-making and society. For the better?
  • Smaller need for office space
  • Less traffic congestion.
  • Reduced ridership on public transportation

Ultimately, the questions will become:

  1. How do you parse the problem so the right experts are involved with specific aspects?
  2. Do we have a competent executive layer to address what becomes known and make the tradeoffs that arise?

How governments decide

Governments behave as executive decision-makers but are not skilled at such decisions. They have too many stakeholders to make it easy, and they hate to have a decision turn out wrong. Should the decision, as in this case, turn out to be inadequate, they do not willingly back away from it.

Good decisions admit the possibility of failure. They address urgency first. Then seek more and better information. so the likely-wrong urgent response can be repaired. They minimize the harm while finding a durable solution.

Big one-size-fits-all solutions don’t fit in the prototype. Learn, revise, retest learn before a final solution is implemented. The application of one solution to all is a political preference, never an executive choice. For executives, solutions providing equal pain for all is of no advantage. Different kinds of outcomes help them.

A simple examination of the minimal data available demonstrates that conditions are not the same in every health unit in Ontario. I would be shocked if that observation was untrue anywhere. You get different outcomes when the local conditions are different.

We know cases in the large centers are at least 50% higher per capita than in less concentrated areas. I doubt the reasons for that would be hard to establish. There is little similarity in the local factors, so the contrast should be easy to discover and assess. It could be industry or high-rise buildings. Maybe public transportation. Data science and AI could do this in a few days once reliable data was made available.

The universal solutions decided and executed so far have no compelling evidence or rationale to support them. There is no published data, never mind evidence, that supports any of the conclusions and decisions. I expressly point out that models are not evidence, and expert opinion beyond their knowledge silo is nearly valueless.

Early decisions should have been treated as prototypes. Aimed at gaining information so a better approach could be crafted. They were implemented as top-down “solutions.” Now they are hard to back away from.

When experts are helpful

We cannot waste expert help. We just need to know how reliable it is likely to be. Daniel Kahneman has outlined three conditions for when you can trust experts.

  1. There is environmental regularity. That’s academic speak meaning the situation is familiar and narrow.
  2. The experts have substantial experience dealing with the situation.
  3. There is instant feedback. Anything out of the ordinary is quickly and clearly observed.

Those conditions are missing in the COVID -19 situation.

Experts are not as helpful as they promote. Do not confuse confident statements with knowledge.

Where we fit

We are intimately involved in this problem. We have decision-making defects too. Many have lost awareness of the meaning of expertise. People have become “experts” in many areas. Access to the internet can easily lead one to a condition of “knowledge illusion.” The progress is 1) fact discovered, which becomes 2) opinion, which becomes 3) expertise. We feel so good about knowing something that we tend to make it highly valuable. In many ways, we are like young people who know everything but only to a very superficial level.

Understand how you fit into the Dunning Kruger hypothesis. Humility matters in foggy times. Be careful, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Charles Darwin

Image from onlinepethealth.com

We can criticize those with more profound experience for over-claiming their position. We should notice the same tendency in ourselves.

We are gradually losing the ability to think. Thomas Sowell has observed many people confuse feeling with thinking, and so misjudge situations. The center of the current failure is expertise, especially false expertise. The key to becoming more proficient is to know what you don’t know. At least know there are things you don’t know. Be curious. I expect real experts are doing that.

When you learn there is much you don’t know, you will have a sense of when others are overreaching.

Conclusions

  1. We know the value of expert opinion deteriorates when:
    • The problem is multidisciplinary
    • There is no precedent.
    • When there is a chance to be “the guru.”
    • When ideology dominates science.
    1. We should know scientists are not like the rest of us. They create theories and hypotheses and then develop experiments to prove or disprove their ideas. Scientists know the thesis is a stepping point to future knowledge and is not fixed. Scientists know where their knowledge ends. They look to disprove aspects of what they “know.” The one thing they know clearly is, “The science is never settled.” Pseudo-experts and politicians sell certainty.
    2. A non-scientist will have trouble understanding the nuance of what appears. We not only don’t know enough, but without a considerable time and money commitment, we can’t know enough.
    3. Politicians, the media, and the scientists themselves have personal reasons for presenting the information as they have. Scientists summarize the objective science. In the process, they bias the emphasis. The media tries to make it understandable and so must make it simpler and less nuanced. Politicians have a narrative to support, and science is more malleable than their ideology. What ends up in front of us is never science. Just opinion.

The Takeaway

  1. What level of reliability should you put on political statements based on expert pronouncements? Remember the argument flaw “Appeal to Authority.” If there is no evidence other than that, you may ignore it.
  2. Use your common sense. Things that seem nonsensical most likely are.
  3. Some people are not worthy of your trust. Learn which.
  4. Emphasize the idea of “show your work.” If we could see how they reached their conclusions, we could assess whether it is reasonable, even if possibly incorrect. We could get a sense of their techniques for dealing with the problem and whether it makes sense. Dig a layer lower. For example, where does the 6-foot separation idea come from? 90-year-old study around tuberculosis. Pretty shaky “proof!”
  5. We need experts. Skilled people are going to solve this. The unskilled will not.
  6. Learn critical thinking skills.
  7. Understand the problem is multidimensional and requires a more nuanced approach to the solution.
  8. Make “skeptical” your first response.

A rule for life, “In God we trust, everyone else must provide both evidence and reasoning.”


I help people have more income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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