An epidemiologist (who is also an economist) responds

Matthew Bonds, who is at Harvard, wrote this response to my original post on epidemiologists.  I am offering it in its entirety, click here.

Here is the first paragraph:

Since the novel coronavirus outbreak turned into a global health and economic crisis, one of the few silver linings has been unprecedented collaboration across spheres of science, innovation, and policy that have potential for long-term benefits. My training is in economics (PhD) and ecology (PhD) with a specialty in infectious disease modeling. Over the past decade, I have focused on implementing global health delivery programs where the lack of models and technical solutions are rarely the biggest problem – instead, the challenge often lies with breakdowns in the systems of delivering those solutions. That is not the case with COVID-19. We do not have solutions at our fingertips. We do not know the full scope of the problem, and consequently how to best navigate policy tradeoffs. So, I was dismayed to read, “What does this economist think of epidemiologists?” by Tyler Cowen, which struck me as a reinforcement (maybe even a celebration?) of boundaries that do more harm than good.

Do read the whole thing, and note that Bonds wrote his economics dissertation with Dwight Lee (a former co-author of mine) at the University of Georgia.  Here is the home page of Matthew Bonds.

Comments

Only 2 PhDs?
What does the guy with 3 say?

I once knew a woman with two. Her husband had one. She loved trips to Germany and being introduced as "Doktor, Doktor, Frau Doktor ...". She thought it an enormous giggle.

Mind you her second PhD was in Bacteriology so she outranks Mr Bonds.

Marriage is dominated by sickle-carbon effects from proximity and flagellation.

It was too wonderful to not let it flow  

What is Matthew Bonds' GRE scores? What is his current salary? We don't mean to be offensive but we must ask the difficult questions during these troubling times.

Zero hits for patents, zero hits for the near certainty C-19 is a chimeric virus (Medium article, Washington Times article from yesterday). Move along, nothing to see here. The original TC (or was it Tyrone?) was right, a bunch of poorly paid hobbyists playing around.

The intelligence community and the broad scientific consensus all agree that the virus was not manmade. Give it a rest.

https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2112-intelligence-community-statement-on-origins-of-covid-19

Ha! You fools haven't seen this release from hours ago!!!

Also, they're still trying to determine if it was the result of an accident at the lab, so they're kind of talking out both sides of their face.

Lab accident is not the same as man-made. A Chinese virologist studying sick bats, who then gets infected by those bats, is a lab accident, but not a man-made virus.

We probably would be better off now if there had been more virologists studying sick bats. Or at least more resources for it. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

To a first approximation, he reinforces what he perceives as Tyler Cowen's priors.

Yeah... skimmed through it... he didn't actually respond to Tyler nor gave me reason to think that he recognizes how worried we should be that wildly inaccurate models are being used for policy.

They're models are the best!

They scare people and advance the agenda.

This is one, huge misinformation.

It's pandemic porn and propaganda meant to elect a drooling moron in November.

The Truth Is out There.

Agree. It particularly lacks any discussion of empirical tests of models.

Too often, these days, "supporting science" is elided to "Only saying nice things about scientists."

Yes, he didn't respond to Tyler's arguments, but that was not the aim of his letter. Use your emotional IQ. He was hurt for his profession by Tyler's post, and he write a letter calling for reconciliation.

I think the overall role of "Science" in the covid-19 crisis, and especially of Epidemiology, has been dismal, even close to criminal, and as a mathematician (so somewhat of a scientist, perhaps), I am dismayed by that.

But I think the solution is more talk with them, not less. so I hope Tyler will send him a nice answer (the tone of this post is already nice, recalling his "family" link with Bonds), using the occasion to ask him questions (like the one Dzaughn suggested) and initiate a debate, perhaps inviting him to post on this blog to explain to MR reader how they think, globally, about this crisis -- I mean not a new model, but in general, what are model good for, how to be sure that that are not parametrize to get the result the researcher wants to find, what to do with random samples testing, how to compare human and economics cost, etc. (Or maybe a Tyler's interview with him).

I don't think you read it closely enough:

>"It seems that as economists have embraced the spirit of competition, they have been missing out on how other social, physical, and life scientists have been working together all along - often with the benefit of learning from economists. This is a shame. The great strength of economics, after all, has always been its ability to distill complex forces by inferring an understanding of individual behavior from observations of emergent patterns, with echoes throughout the sciences."

And, here:

"To be sure, there is a significant difference between quantitative predictions and qualitative insights, even if those insights are generated from quantitative methods. Academic epidemiologist and economists too often lose sight of this, and can be pathologically detached from solving problems. It was this kind of fetishization of quantitative methods, that led the Nobel Laureate, Jim Buchanan of George Mason University, to muse that “most modern economists have no idea of what they are doing or even of what they are ideally supposed to be doing.”
During this crisis, the worst feature of economics is this culture of insularity, competition, and lack of purpose. "

> "supporting science" is elided to "Only saying nice things about scientists."

+1

That's what I took from it as well. He seemed more focused on getting economists and epidemiologists to cooperate than on establishing the legitimacy of such a goal.

"Since the novel coronavirus outbreak turned into a global health and economic crisis, one of the few silver linings has been unprecedented collaboration across spheres of science, innovation, and policy that have potential for long-term benefits."

Not now, but maybe later. OTOH, the experts at the FDA, the CDC and the legendary WHO, were all set and were invaluable in the current crisis.

Turns out that just about everyone I know on Twitter and Facebook was not only a Constitutional Law expert in February, but also an epidemiological expert in March and April.

I've quickly become a virology expert.

This online learning works great.

Is there anything they don’t learn in economics?!

You're all in luck -- I have Economists all figured out, and I'm going to share it with you.

They are nothing but frustrated fiction writers. All they want to do is opine about "What if X happens? Then what?"

or possibly "Is there a reason why Z happened so many years ago?"

They LOVE these questions. They know that once they are Being Taken Seriously By The World, there is no wrong answer. They can just write fiction about it, and they know whoever writes the most interesting fiction will be invited to talk more about it. And that means profit!

There is NEVER any pressure to be correct. Indeed, in their circles, it is considered very plebian, or possibly vicious, to even talk about who has been correct. Being correct is not the point.

You just need to craft a fiction that will draw clicks.

It's like Instagram, but without the beauty, or talent.

And you, Andy, are only the 388th person I've seen make that same remark (or some similar version of it) in the past month. Bravo.

First I'd heard it. I thought it was worth repeating :)

Confirming studies in peer review are always good things!

"Dwight Lee (a former co-author of mine)" Come, come, Mr C. Good manners dictates that you write something like' Dwight Lee (with whom I have had the pleasure of co-authoring)'. In other words make the comment about Mr Lee not Mr C.

It sure takes this guy a long time to get to the point, which is typically indicative of an inability to think clearly. I would give this round to Tyler.

A very puerile example of name dropping in the extreme.

That was April 12, which might as well be a year or more in the evolution of a pandemic or (or) economic crisis. My observation is that soothsayers are way too pessimistic before the apex of a crisis, and way too optimistic after the apex. I don't know if we have reached the apex. But I'm not a soothsayer.

Without knowing Prof. Bonds GRE score, I simply do not know how seriously to take him.

Reading these comments is like being in a high school shower room after a loosing game except here the vocabularies and pretensions are much more "advanced."

+1

Dreadful comments.

Found the low GRE score epidemiologist (just kidding).

>after a loosing game except here the vocabularies and pretensions are much more "advanced."

How about the spelling? How you would rate the spelling, you Very Smart Person?

To be honest......I found his response underwhelming, and am tilted towards Tyler's original skepticisms. I was hoping to read an interesting breakdown of analytical tools in epidemiology, and how they compare to other disciplines. Maybe some insight into their main weaknesses, and how they might be inappropriately used in times of extreme crisis like this that make the profession look worse than it is.

Instead it was a battle cry for social solidarity with little to no repudiation of Tyler's actual questions.

Next......

Disagree. He pointed out that economists often do not include the social in their analysis as much as other health sciences:

"During this crisis, the worst feature of economics is this culture of insularity, competition, and lack of purpose. Scientific progress happens through large collaborative teams with enormous of range of expertise. For COVID-19, this includes frontline clinicians, immunologists, biochemists, lab-techs, data scientists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, mathematical modelers, demographers, statisticians, ecologists, technologists, and policy experts. It requires rapid coordination and cohesion based on common goals."

Large collaborative teams with no economists.

No, that is not what he said. In fact, he said the opposite.

Your quote: “For COVID-19, this includes frontline clinicians, immunologists, biochemists, lab-techs, data scientists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, mathematical modelers, demographers, statisticians, ecologists, technologists, and policy experts.”

I don’t see any economists in there.

You missed Malthus, May, Hayek in his discussion of contributions.

You are right, though, in that he points out that economists are insular, whereas other social scientists and other scientists have a history of working together on epidemiological matters:

"During this crisis, the worst feature of economics is this culture of insularity, competition, and lack of purpose. Scientific progress happens through large collaborative teams with enormous of range of expertise. For COVID-19, this includes frontline clinicians, immunologists, biochemists, lab-techs, data scientists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, mathematical modelers, demographers, statisticians, ecologists, technologists, and policy experts. It requires rapid coordination and cohesion based on common goals."

So, economists are insular. Who knew.

Yep, there it is again. What’s needed for COVID-19 is a large collaborative team with no economists included.

Put differently, what he's saying is that scientific progress happens when science is done in large committees.

WRONG.

That is certainly true, but he also didn't give good evidence of where including the social has been utilized to good effect in the current crisis.

It's B.S. Peer review is "rapid coordination and cohesion"?? LMFAO. What's the vaccine count up to, 82? Yeah, lot's of cohesion there. How many pandemic models? Yeah, all coordinated, right. As are government (local, state, national) responses, import/export restrictions, travel bans, etc., etc. What a Pollyanna.

Back in January and February, experts with decades of experience failed to call for broad travel bans. They failed to call for broad screening of incoming travelers.

I submit that a randomly selected Chinese peasant farmer would have provided superior counsel on this particular subject.

Yeah, I find it funny that these experts keep acting like "small mistakes were made" or the even more CYA "pandemics are complex" when they couldn't even call out the basics of this situation.
It's kind of like weather forecasters. I honestly don't know why we even have them.

Wrong:

They had notice at the end of December and fought over it all during January and February:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-nsc/as-trump-administration-debated-travel-restrictions-thousands-streamed-in-from-china-idUSKBN21N0EJ

or Tony the cabby (of Taleb)

So, my local liquor store is run by two young guys from Pakistan - but they talk like locals. I came in one day in my mask, and was talking about the virus, and the one brother said "We should have shut that motherfucking border down first thing!"

Which border? Because here in Jersey we got slammed by people fleeing NYC to their relatives' houses.

Thanks for posting, very well thought out paper!!!

I thought it was poorly written. Let's take the key sentence from the first paragraph:

"So, I was dismayed to read, “What does this economist think of epidemiologists?” by Tyler Cowen, which struck me as a reinforcement (maybe even a celebration?) of boundaries that do more harm than good."

What boundaries is he talking about? How did Tyler reinforce them? How did it do more harm than good?

I don't think any of that was answered.

I have been thinking the clueless comments at this blog related to their authors' smug pretentiousness and uninformed adoption and adolescent use of some slogans.

Now I think it is reading comprehension.

Please don't reflexively vomit your priors without stopping and thinking.

Lol. Me and my priors. Are you the author?

He's mixed up. His real complaint is about *lack* of boundaries. He doesn't think economists should be trespassing on epidemiology, especially without having more respect for the local aborigines.

*Dismay* seems a strong reaction to Tyler's post, but I appreciate Bonds's call for solidarity and his thoughtful message. (My main quibble with his message is that I don't think solidarity means avoiding criticism/skepticism/tough Qs -- we need those, too, albeit in a collaborative spirit.)

Kudos to Tyler for not only sharing this but for *recommending* it -- the opposite of defensiveness, it seems.

Straussian?

I won’t judge epidemiologists on this. It’s incoherent. It’s fighting about feelings and cooperation during the midst of a firefight. I see what you did here, TC. They just can’t make trade-offs, full stop. They don’t understand basic statistics and reasoning. It’s unthinkable, but it makes sense given the actions/non-actions taken. They’d rather hide than maximize the common good through application and iteration.

I am 70 years old with discretionary income, which I used to spend. All of these comments about poor models from the health officials ignore the simple fact that I am observing in real time people who are older getting sick and passing away. Until there is an absolute certainty (say less than .001 probability) that people won't get sick and die going to a restaurant, a movie, a sporting event, a shopping mall or getting on an airplane then economic activity in this country is toast. Somehow Tyler doesn't seem to include in his economic models the fundamental trait of human behavior - self-preservation. Pay attention to the guy with the real science degree - he actually knows what he is talking about and what the data actually shows.

May as well remove lockdowns then, if they don't inhibit anyone going anywhere or doing anything.

"We should have state imposed lockdowns because without them everyone would lock down through individual choice anyway" has to be the one of the absolute worst arguments on this topic.

What a terrible response. Just a lot of name dropping and vague verbiage. No direct answer to any of Tyler's questions.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-52486714 - Prof Devi Sridhar
Surveillance systems already in place for the 'flu including random community testing should be expanded, she said, to track any emerging clusters.

"There's three paths ahead," she explained. "One is we do nothing and a lot of people die.

"The second is we stay in some kind of lockdown and release cycle while all of us slowly get this virus which would destroy the economy"

The third path, which she favours, is to build "complex and massive" public health infrastructures" to "keep a handle on this virus".

Interesting that these public health epi people can make sweeping arguments around the economy which are on the face entirely false (the excess deaths would not destroy the economy) and propose massive surveillance state expansions, without any kind of "Stay in your lane". But there's immediate "Stay in your lane" when economists and people in political policy question them on their data and models.

Of course there are plenty of medical experts who oppose that self serving double standard - Chris Whitty, Sweden's Tegnell and John Ioannadis for ex, all quite proper about their domains of expertise - but there certainly seems to be a power grabbing "Milennial socialist" tendency in epi that is keen to use the crisis to gain power, and keen to police incursions to their own authority without being policed themselves on other domains.

A quibble: calling economics the "dismal science" did not begin because of reaction to Malthus. It was Thomas Carlyle being pissed that John Stuart Mill and people like him thought that an African's utility was equally as valuable as an Englishman's utility, their happiness just as important. The story is set out in David M. Levy's 2002 How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics.

Of course, people who call it the dismal science today are more likely to be pissed that economists say their favored plans are impossible or have "unintended consequences" or are more costly than hoped for.

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