My stumble on COVID-19

by AllAmericanBreakfast2 min read18th Apr 20205 comments


Forecasting & PredictionCoronavirus

A couple weeks ago, I started investigating the response, here and in the stock market, to COVID-19. I found that LessWrong's conversation took off about a week after the stock market started to crash. Given what we knew prior about COVID-19 prior to Feb. 20th, when the market first started to decline, I felt that the stock market's reaction was delayed. And of course, there'd been plenty of criticism of the response of experts and governments. But I was playing catch-up. I certainly was not screaming about COVID-19 until well after that time.

Today, I found the most detailed timeline I've seen of confirmed cases around the world. It goes day by day and country by country, from Jan. 13th to the end of March.

That timeline shows that Feb. 21st was the first date when at least 3 countries besides China had 10+ new confirmed cases in a single day (Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Iran).

That changes my interpretation of the stock market crash dramatically. Investors weren't failing to synthesize the early information or waiting for someone to yell "fire!" They were waiting to see confirmed international community spread, rather than just a few cases popping up here and there. Once they saw that early evidence, the sell-off began, and it continued in tandem, day by day, with the evidence of community spread in new countries and the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases in countries where it was already established.

Scott Aaronson speculates that he might have been able to tell what COVID-19 would turn into on Feb. 4th. I believed and agreed with him, hypothesizing that it was a lack of intellectual guideposts for synthesizing early information on a novel disease that made it hard to assess and act appropriately. To correct that lack, I created a model for what to look for and how to interpret information to judge the potential spread of a disease - an alarm bell for the next pandemic.

Now that I've found day-by-day, country-by-country confirmed case data, I need to change a few of my points of view.

First, is lack of confirmed international community spread generally a good reason to not panic, even if in this case things turned out badly? COVID-19 had its first confirmed case in the USA on Jan. 21st, but never had more than 1-2 new cases on any given day until Feb. 29th - with several days up to 12 days in between new cases during that time. That's over a month of sporadic, occasional new case reports.

The coincidence of faster spread of COVID-19 internationally and the beginnings of the stock market crash suggest that hard evidence of community spread of a deadly disease is the world's evidential benchmark for an economic downturn.

And that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

To argue otherwise is to say that it should be obvious COVID-19 was highly contagious based on some other form of evidence. That's not impossible.

But in my case, I didn't know until weeks after I started researching that the world's largest encyclopedia had day-by-day, country-by-country confirmed case data.

So it's really not a stretch for an amateur such as myself to have missed or misinterpreted some critically important source of data. I still think it's possible for an avid, early COVID-19 amateur researcher to have felt reasonably confident in shorting the market prior to Feb. 20th. But they'd need to have searched long and hard for other forms of data to back up their argument. Not only evaluating COVID-19 on its own terms, but comparing it with other pandemics of the late 20th and early 21st century.

So I have to downgrade my confidence in the usefulness of the models I wrote for this. I need to call myself out on my willingness to assume with such confidence that the world had it wrong, rather than me. Maybe this experience has been necessary for my intellectual growth. Doing this research out of curiosity and being willing to accept my own conclusions, even when I ultimately felt I was mostly wrong, was perhaps the only way to get to this point of understanding, to get less wrong.

On a deeper level, I am learning and relearning a fundamental lesson lately. I don't anticipate that I'll have grasped it until it's bashed me over the head at least a few more times. Here it is, in free verse:

Intellectual knowledge is a slippery thing.

I can't readily grasp it.

I don't practice engaging with it every waking moment, the way I do with my five senses.

Human intellect is 2% of the evolutionary age of the nervous system.

This kind of intellectual work is extremely difficult; only a few people care about it enough to make the attempt, so I'm getting far less feedback than I would for other activities.

I am no savant.

Others have been doing this full-time for decades longer than I've spent as a part-time amateur.

A major league baseball player who hits a home run has far more in common with an MLB player who hits a foul ball than a child who hits a home run.

Reliable knowledge is a hard-won and precious thing.