More on economists and epidemiologists

From my email box, here are perspectives from people in the world of epidemiology, the first being from Jacob Oppenheim:

I’d note that epidemiology is the field that has most embraced novel and principles-driven approaches to causal inference (eg those of Judea Pearl etc).  Pearl’s cluster is at UCLA; there’s one at Berkeley, and another at Harvard.

The one at Harvard simultaneously developed causal methodologies in the ’70s (eg around Rubin), then a parallel approach to Pearl in the ’80s (James Robins and others), leading to a large collection of important epi people at HSPH (Miguel Hernan, etc).  Many of these methods are barely touched in economics, which is unfortunate given their power in causal inference in medicine, disease, and environmental health.

These methods and scientists are very influential not only in public health / traditional epi, but throughout the biopharma and machine learning worlds.  Certainly, in my day job running data science + ml in biotech, many of us would consider well trained epidemiologists from these top schools among the best in the world for quantitative modeling, especially where causality is involved.

From Julien SL:

I’m not an epidemiologist per se, but I think my background gives me some inputs into that discussion. I have a master in Mechatronics/Robotics Engineering, a master in Management Science, and an MBA. However, in the last ten years, epidemiology (and epidemiology forecasting) has figured heavily in my work as a consultant for the pharma industry.

[some data on most of epidemiology not being about pandemic forecasting]…

The result of the neglect of pandemics epidemiology is that there is precious little expertise in pandemics forecasting and prevention. The FIR model (and it’s variants) that we see a lot these days is a good teaching aid. Still, it’s not practically useful: you can’t fit exponentials with unstable or noisy parameters and expect good predictions. The only way to use R0 is qualitatively. When I saw the first R0 and mortality estimates back in January, I thought “this is going to be bad,” then sold my liquid assets, bought gold, and naked puts on indices. I confess that I didn’t expect it to be quite as bad as what actually happened, or I would have bought more put options.

…here are a few tentative answers about your “rude questions:”

a. As a class of scientists, how much are epidemiologists paid?  Is good or bad news better for their salaries?

Glassdoor data show that epidemiologists in the US are paid $63,911 on average. CDC and FDA both pay better ($98k and $120k), as well as pharma (Merck: $94k-$115k). As explained above, most are working on cancer, diabetes, etc. So I’m not sure what “bad news” would be for them.


b. How smart are they?  What are their average GRE scores?

I’m not sure where you could get data to answer that question. I know that in pharma, many  – maybe most – people who work on epidemiology forecasting don’t have an epidemiology degree. They can have any type of STEM degree, including engineering, economics, etc. So my base rate answer would be average of all STEM GRE scores. [TC: Here are U. Maryland stats for public health students.]

c. Are they hired into thick, liquid academic and institutional markets?  And how meritocratic are those markets?

Compared to who? Epidemiology is a smaller community than economics, so you should find less liquidity. Pharma companies are heavily clustered into few geographies (New Jersey, Basel in Switzerland, Cambridge in the UK, etc.) so private-sector jobs aren’t an option for many epidemiologists.

d. What is their overall track record on predictions, whether before or during this crisis?

CDC has been running flu forecasting challenges every year for years. From what I’ve seen, the models perform reasonably well. It should be noted that those models would seem very familiar to an econometric forecaster: the same time series tools are used in both disciplines. [TC: to be clear, I meant prediction of new pandemics and how they unfold]

e. On average, what is the political orientation of epidemiologists?  And compared to other academics?  Which social welfare function do they use when they make non-trivial recommendations?

Hard to say. Academics lean left, but medical doctors and other healthcare professionals often lean right. There is a conservative bias to medicine, maybe due to the “primo, non nocere” imperative. We see that bias at play in the hydroxychloroquine debate. Most health authorities are reluctant to push – or even allow – a treatment option before they see overwhelming positive proof, even when the emergency should encourage faster decision making.

…g. How well do they understand how to model uncertainty of forecasts, relative to say what a top econometrician would know?

As I mentioned above, forecasting is far from the main focus of epidemiology. However, epidemiologists as a whole don’t seem to be bad statisticians. Judea Pearl has been saying for years that epidemiologists are ahead of econometricians, at least when it comes to applying his own Structural Causal Model framework… (Oldish) link:

I’ve seen a similar pattern with the adoption of agent-based models (common in epidemiology, marginal in economics). Maybe epidemiologists are faster to take up new tools than economists (which maybe also give a hint about point e?)

h. Are there “zombie epidemiologists” in the manner that Paul Krugman charges there are “zombie economists”?  If so, what do you have to do to earn that designation?  And are the zombies sometimes right, or right on some issues?  How meta-rational are those who allege zombie-ism?

I don’t think so. Epidemiology seems less political than economy. There are no equivalents to Smith, Karl Marx, Hayek, etc.

i. How many of them have studied Philip Tetlock’s work on forecasting?

Probably not many, given that their focus isn’t forecasting. Conversely, I don’t think that Tetlock has paid much attention to epidemiology. On the Good Judgement website, healthcare questions of any type are very rare.

And here is Ruben Conner:

Weighing in on your recent questions about epidemiologists. I did my undergraduate in Economics and then went on for my Masters in Public Health (both at University of Washington). I worked as an epidemiologist for Doctors Without Borders and now work as a consultant at the World Bank (a place mostly run by economists). I’ve had a chance to move between the worlds and I see a few key differences between economists and epidemiologists:

  1. Trust in data: Like the previous poster said, epidemiologists recognize that “data is limited and often inaccurate.” This is really drilled into the epidemiologist training – initial data collection can have various problems and surveys are not always representative of the whole population. Epidemiologists worry about genuine errors in the underlying data. Economists seem to think more about model bias.

  2. Focus on implementation: Epidemiologists expect to be part of the response and to deal with organizing data as it comes in. This isn’t a glamorous process. In addition, the government response can be well executed or poorly run and epidemiologists like to be involved in these details of planning. The knowledge here is practical and hands-on. (Epidemiologists probably could do with more training on organizational management, they’re not always great at this.)

  3. Belief in models: Epidemiologists tend to be skeptical of fancy models. This could be because they have less advanced quantitative training. But it could also be because they don’t have total faith in the underlying data (as noted above) and therefore see fancy specifications as more likely to obscure the truth than reveal it.  Economists often seem to want to fit the data to a particular theory – my impression is that they like thinking in the abstract and applying known theories to their observations.

As with most fields, I think both sides have something to learn from each other! There will be a need to work together as we weigh the economic impacts of suppression strategies. This is particularly crucial in low-income places like India, where the disease suppression strategies will be tremendously costly for people’s daily existence and ability to earn a living.

Here is a 2014 blog post on earlier spats between economists and epidemiologists.  Here is more from Joseph on that topic.

And here is from an email from epidemiologist Dylan Green:

So with that…on to the modelers! I’ll merely point out a few important details on modeling which I haven’t seen in response to you yet. First, the urgency with which policy makers are asking for information is tremendous. I’ve been asked to generate modeling results in a matter of weeks (in a disease which I/we know very little about) which I previously would have done over the course of several months, with structured input and validation from collaborators on a disease I have studied for a decade. This ultimately leads to simpler rather than more complicated efforts, as well as difficult decisions in assumptions and parameterization. We do not have the luxury of waiting for better information or improvements in design, even if it takes a matter of days.

Another complicated detail is the publicity of COVID-19 projections. In other arenas (HIV, TB, malaria) model results are generated all the time, from hundreds of research groups, and probably <1% of the population will ever see these figures. Modeling and governance of models of these diseases is advanced. There are well organized consortia who regularly meet to present and compare findings, critically appraise methods, elegantly present uncertainty, and have deep insights into policy implications. In HIV for example, models are routinely parameterized to predict policy impact, and are ex-post validated against empirical findings to determine the best performing models. None of this is currently in scope for COVID-19 (unfortunately), as policy makers often want a single number, not a range, and they want it immediately.

I hope for all of our sakes we will see the modeling coordination efforts in COVID-19 improve. And I ask my fellow epidemiologists to stay humble during this pandemic. For those with little specialty in communicable disease, it is okay to say “this isn’t my area of expertise and I don’t have the answers”. I think there has been too much hubris in the “I-told-ya-so” from people who “said this would happen”, or in knowing the obvious optimal policy. This disease continues to surprise us, and we are learning every day. We must be careful in how we communicate our certainty to policy makers and the public, lest we lose their trust when we are inevitably wrong. I suspect this is something that economists can likely teach us from experience.

One British epidemiologist wrote me and told me they are basically all socialists in the literal sense of the term. not just leaning to the left.

Another person in the area wrote me this:

Another issue that isn’t spoken about a lot is most Epidemiologists are funded by soft money. It makes them terrifyingly hard working but it also makes them worried about making enemies. Every critic now will be reviewed by someone in IHME at some point in an NIH study section, whereas IHME, funded by the Gates Foundation, has a lot of resilience. It makes for a very muted culture of criticism.
Ironically, outsiders (like economist Noah Haber) trying to push up the methods are more likely to be attacked because they are not a part of the constant funding cycle.
I wonder if economists have ever looked at the potential perverse incentives of being fully grant funded on academic criticism?

Here is an earlier email response I reproduced, here is my original blog post, here is my update from yesterday.


"Epidemiologists tend to be skeptical of fancy models."

This raised my estimation of epidemiologists.

"Economists often seem to want to fit the data to a particular theory – my impression is that they like thinking in the abstract and applying known theories to their observations."

This did the opposite.

"whereas IHME, funded by the Gates Foundation, has a lot of resilience."

Wait ... is this the same Bill Gates that allegedly invented the coronavirus to push his New World Order globalist agenda and profit from disaster says right wing protestors? No good deed ever goes unpunished.

I think the numbers oriented people on this blog think too highly about forecasting and modeling. It certainly has a role to play but it still sits largely on the margin. Like a weather forecast, you still want to look outside the window for a sanity check.

Agreed. The best time for deep analytics on pandemic virus behavior is before a pandemic, where the data is controllable and researchers can better understand general principles such as particle air flow, transmission vectors, effectiveness of various PPE, how to sanitize used PPE, etc. Ideally, these practices would have then been communicated to populations and its leaders well in advance of a pandemic - and protective behaviors would have been inscribed into our daily habits.

During the pandemic itself, the researchers would then ideally fall back to reinforcing consensus best practices and augment their suggestions for the current virus as more data is compiled.

I do not understand the fascination with forecasting and modeling in the midst of a pandemic. Useful, to be sure. But so is following sensible safety tips, reducing risk, and keeping an open mind. Stay safe, everyone.

>I do not understand the fascination with forecasting and modeling in the midst of a pandemic

It is the equivalent of panic buying of toilet paper for the higher educated. Harmless, generates a satisfying number of 'tut-tut's, and what everyone will remember about 2020 in 15 years.

Economists make $97,811 according to the same Glassdoor site. A BLS economist makes $83,313, a BEA economist $81,362 and a Federal Reserve Board economist gets $160,296. Interestingly, an economist at the CDC makes $85,429.

Good observation. I feel sorry for these epi guys, they make so little, $64k, about two rental houses revenue in DC.

Has Ray Lopez ever made a comment with a strictly positive value in MR?

Or a sentence without “I” in it? At least he didn’t mention being in the 1% or his hot gf in the Philippines. Seems to be a decent chess player tho’

Has Ray Lopez ever made a comment in MR with a positive marginal value?

A UPS truck driver on average is paid $65,887 a year. They make more money than epidemiologists.

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Well said, Smithy. As usual. And he had no experience of the American colonies.

If we measured the worth
Of a man
Jeffrey Epstein
Would be God.

Worth means assets or income.
Not moral worth.
Some people confuse the two
And measure
One for the other.

Epidemiology cannot less political than economy, and most likely is much more political. Epidemiology is political simply by definition because all it deals with is primarily the domain of state actions, that is the domain of the involuntary and enforceable. Epidemiology aims to inform and direct state actions, and it makes it political par excellence. The major difference between epidemiology and economy is that the former generally does not reflect on its political nature and takes it for granted, while for the latter it is the the subject of permanent deliberations.

This is persuasive. One issue that I believe sums up the difference is that corporate and political leaders often embrace and rely on economic principles to optimize their own utility (eg make money).

Epidemiological guidance by nature tends to be more risk-averse rather than profit-seeking. In other words, extreme pandemic prevention R&D is for most years a cost center and a "drag on the economy".

In 1 year out of 100 they wish they had invested more in pandemic controls. In the other 99, they wish they had pocketed the expense.

No surprise we were caught under-prepared.

Notice that the only responses TC published that contained unhedged (ie: non politically attuned) language were the last two anonymized ones which dealt with potentially risky questions ('follow the money' and 'are they politically compromised')

Julien SL wrote "Hard to say. Academics lean left, but medical doctors and other healthcare professionals often lean right" in response to a simple but potentially uncomfortable question.

Really? They "lean left"? That is "hard to say"? Come on, how many academics publicly identify as right-wing these days? And then to say that bedside doctors/professionals "often lean right"? Haha, not as left as the academics maybe. Compare Julien SL to the anonymized response.

Look at commenter 'Wait' below. TC did not ask the question "How smart are they? What are their average GRE scores?" hoping for a literal (ie: unuseful) response. He is actually asking: "can I trust epidemiologists?" Obviously an awkward question to answer, therefore he did not get one on the record.

Anyone who has held a job knows to never seriously answer those end-year surveys. Anyone who has made personnel decisions knows that if you want genuine answers about a specific person you need to discreetly, privately get opinions from the others.

People who know their real name will be published feed you bullshit

'He is actually asking: "can I trust epidemiologists?"'

Seriously? You measure someone's results by their GRE scores, and not their actual work? Or are you unaware of the high value placed on status by Tyler, with the importance of signalling it taken for granted.

Is there a reason that none of the responses mentioned GRE scores?

You must have missed this. Here is the info you were looking for, copied from above:

b. How smart are they? What are their average GRE scores?

I’m not sure where you could get data to answer that question. I know that in pharma, many – maybe most – people who work on epidemiology forecasting don’t have an epidemiology degree. They can have any type of STEM degree, including engineering, economics, etc. So my base rate answer would be average of all STEM GRE scores. [TC: Here are U. Maryland stats for public health students.]

That is TC answering his own question using a link to U Md data. Leading to the reasonable question why didn't he bother to do that a week ago? Or is there more status in first asking other people to do your googling for you?

Forecasting a novel, poorly understood process is inherently difficult.

I'd be more embarrassed by how a couple of the old prejudices of the epidemiologists -- quarantine doesn't work and masks don't work -- contributed to this disaster in the West.

@SS - what's your cite for the "quarantines don't work" statement? The 'masks don't work' statement is widely cited.

Here's a pretty standard piece of science journalism from February 6 conveying the then conventional wisdom among epidemiologists. From "Wired:"

Travel Bans and Quarantines Won't Stop Coronavirus
The US announced travel restrictions on Friday. But some public health experts worry that a ban won't work—and could create new problems.

THE NATIONAL PLAN to try to stop the new coronavirus from spreading any further might fracture international trade, violate people’s rights, and make untenable the workloads of local and state public health departments. It almost certainly won’t slow the virus.

That’s the word from people trying to sort out what US secretary of health and human services Alex Azar announced last Friday. The plan: Starting last Sunday, US citizens who’ve been to Hubei Province in China (the apparent center of the outbreak), get 14 days of mandatory quarantine when they return home. US citizens who’ve been anywhere in China get health screening at airports and 14 days of self-quarantine—staying home, basically, with health workers monitoring them. Noncitizens who’ve been to China in the last two weeks are banned from entering the country.

Travel bans and quarantines are a centuries-old answer to the spread of disease. They’re also exactly what the World Health Organization asked everyone not to do. The same WHO committee that recommended calling the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern explicitly said the measures to stop it should include treatment, tracing of contacts, and social distancing, but not “any travel or trade restriction.” That’s because almost no one in the game thinks that works. “The travel ban on foreign nationals is counterproductive, unethical, and violates international law. There’s little evidence that a person who’s been to mainland China but not in the hot zone would be exposed to the virus, and there are far less restrictive measures we could use,” says Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University. “I think it’s a huge overreach, and I worry that the White House is lurching from complacency to panic and overreaction.”

You can find dozens more articles like this passing along the then conventional wisdom of epidemiologists.

@SS - thanks. The Wired article you cited was good and shows how clueless people where just a few months ago.

But the article by Wired is dishonest, or perhaps wishful thinking, see this passage:

" Even if travel bans and quarantines worked, the logistics of this one remain opaque. The federal government can enforce health checks in airports, but quarantining people outside the 11 airports currently screening travelers seems likely to be the problem of local and state public health agencies, which are already racing to track infected people’s contacts and test samples. "

What's dishonest about the above quote? The local and state public health agencies 'racing' to find returning infected travelers. We now know that's not true or unlikely to have been true.

@myself- I wonder whether Federal agencies have the authority to quarantine returning US citizens beyond the border? I think not. I recall from the law school I flunked that the feds can detain you at the border (an airport is also defined as a border) but not beyond, that's the state's responsibility. So perhaps that was part of the problem. But the CDC (Feds) can order other fed agencies to do stuff, see the interesting news article from below, and connect the dots as to whether both the USA and China practice biological weapons today, in contravention of the 1969 bioweapons treaty. And that also includes the two Wuhan biotech labs.

The CDC shut down Fort Detrick, a known US bioweapons plant, last fall. cite: ("Research into deadly viruses and biological weapons at US army lab shut down [by the CDC] over fears they could escape Fort Detrick researchers banned from working with anthrax, Ebola and smallpox until procedures improved Tim Wyatt Tuesday 6 August 2019 13:19 ")


While I haven't personally reviewed the relevant code or guidance, I have seen this news cited in several locations, so it may be worth your review:

"But Border Patrol agents work in a far wider geographic area. According to federal regulations, the agency's expanded search authority to conduct immigration checks extends anywhere within a "reasonable distance" of 100 air miles from US land borders and coastlines."

Also see:

Apparently 2/3 of the country's population lives within 100 miles of a boarder.

thanks for this. I remember reading this article and then consulting the models of the day to see that standard models showed a 2-3 day delay because of slowing the ingress of new cases. Subsequent experience shows that actually stopping travel was a key part of prevention *when associated with a set of other actions*. It seems as though this is a case where the model was of a pandemic spread, and not a model of what's currently going on. Well, at least not in Australia, where it seems we have stopped the virus cold in it's tracks (for now...)

Yeah, as long as you stop all intercourse with the rest of the world forever you'll be just fine.

On t'other hand, you have bought time for a treatment to be identified or even a vaccine to be discovered. You must surely have bought time to let you act in a better informed way in future, based on the experience of other countries. For instance, can you devise procedures to avoid a slaughter in your Care Homes?

And yet it's beyond the wit of your governments to manage fire-prone woodland intelligently. It's a funny old world.

Actually, we've been surprised that the government didn't screw it up titanically. Not what we expected but we'll take it with great appreciation. Of course, we're not out of the woods yet. Winter is coming. And even if we manage that, then there's the greater question of a longer term plan for dealing with the rest of the world. As you say, we've bought time.

But managing fire prone wood-land.... while I think the govt could have done better - particularly, preparing better - that was linked up to climate change so all chance of a lucid response was Murdoched. Fortunately he seems not to have any desire to see people die by virus (as compared to climate change)

As opposed to fox, btw, which does generally seem to have an actual underlying agenda of more dead US citizens

Climate change and bush fires - phooey. If you let the fuel accumulate unmanaged you'll get massive bush fires whether or not there's any climate change.

wow. we had never thought of that...

really, we do get massive bush fires every year. These were massively massive, and early, right in line with the climate change forecasts. But one section of the media fights ferociously against any rational enquiry. No prize for guessing which part...

If 3.4 million Australians lose their jobs, governments have screwed up titanically.

'the then conventional wisdom among epidemiologists'

And this was Trump's wisdom on Feb. 7 - "Just had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China. He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus. He feels they are doing very well, even building hospitals in a matter of only days. Nothing is easy, but......he will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!"

I think you will have much harder time finding epidemiologists saying that their models were based on the idea that as the weather starts to warm, the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then is gone. Score one for the epidemiologists, at least compared to the people actually in charge of policy decision making.

Also, even your quote makes a distinction between quarantining and banning. As it turns out, the travel bans were a sieve at best, in part because quarantining was not effectively mandated. Particularly in the aftermath of the Europe travel ban announcement, where returning American citizens were surprised at how unprepared the U.S. was to handle an inflow of potentially infected citizens.

The reaction from epidemiologists to this Feb. 10 pronouncement at a campaign rally “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” was not exactly unreported at the time either, though it fully represented conventional epidemiological wisdom.

There was so much criticism of Trump's mild restriction on travel from China that he seems to have gotten the impression he'd bravely done the necessary, so he wasted the rest of February. In particular, a travel ban on Italy might have helped New York, but Trump didn't pull the trigger on that until late.

Another prejudice of epidemiologists was that their job is about preventing Stigmatization of the Marginalized, so it was crucial to prevent panic in order to block racism and exclusion.

Ironically, it turned out that this epidemic, unlike AIDS, which was primarily spread by needle junkies and promiscuous sodomy enthusiasts, tended to be spread by respectable people doing wholesome things, like family ski vacations, Italians kissing their grandmothers, choir practices, big black funerals, birthday parties, and traditional Carnival dances. Nobody saw that coming.

He also wasted half of March.

'Nobody saw that coming.'
The major focus of pandemic planning for over a century involves a respiratory disease spread by pretty much everyone breathing, without any need to separate the breathers into wholesome or marginalized.

However, if you think Karnival does not involve promiscuous enthusiasts, it might be time to reevaluate your priors.

Steve, you ought to know better by now than to argue with the troll. Of course he's going to say he knew all the right steps from the beginning and will fabricate any evidence needed to do so. He's not held to any standard of rigor, consistency, or honesty. He's just trying to Holland the discussion.

Nobody anywhere knew all the right steps. In a pandemic, the evidence becomes impossible to deny, regardless of what anyone claims.

We will discover, for example, whether South Korea or Sweden does a better job handling the effects of a virus over time, and it makes little difference what anyone claims as circumstances are still developing. We already know that what Italy, Spain, and France did was thoroughly inadequate. The first two provided early and explicit warning of what would happen, but that did not help the UK or Belgium. It did help Australia and New Zealand in the end, where no discussion about epidemiologists not providing perfect forecasts occurs.

Ironically, it turned out that this epidemic, unlike AIDS, which was primarily spread by needle junkies and promiscuous sodomy enthusiasts, tended to be spread by respectable people doing wholesome things, like family ski vacations, Italians kissing their grandmothers, choir practices, big black funerals, birthday parties, and traditional Carnival dances. Nobody saw that coming.

Everyone saw it coming. We had SARS, H1N1, MERS, and ebola. Pandemics have been in the popular mindset for well over a decade now (zombie fiction is essentially the same thing). We had a national stockpile of PPE and ventilators for????? We had a scare about bird flu for????? We had multiple former Presidents and leaders assert in numerous speeches that a pandemic was bound to happen sooner or later for???? Hillary Clinton had a chapter in her book about pandemics for????? During the Obama era Trump (and related outfits) went spastic over his handling of an ebola outbreak in Africa, which was handled remarkably well, for???

Dude this crap may fly for 9/11. While terrorism was a thing before that hijacking a planes to crash into buildings was pretty novel. This, though, was not.

A large fraction of media op-eds published on coronavirus in January and most of February (and even into March) were about how the Real Danger is Racist Stigmatization of Marginalized Minorities. They usually had plenty of epidemiologists to quote. We've seen a revival of this rhetoric in April as African-Americans started to get hit hard.

As far as I can tell, I was among the first pundits hollering that this thing was being spread internationally in the West less by Marginalized Minorities (as everybody seemed to expect) but by skiers.

Seems to have been accurate. The US is 4.25% of the world population and the #3 largest country in the world. Yet we are #1 in cases and have 32% of the world cases. Remind me again how a travel ban worked?

I don't think Trump's travel ban was racist as much as it was scapegoating and grandstanding. No doubt he embraced it because it seemed like a way to throw a tariff on China as part of the on-off never-ending trade war.

In a world with comprehensive policies a travel ban could be part of it (although even there anything short of a 9/11 ban on all air travel into the US wouldn't have amounted to much). With no other sensible policies it was counter-productive....esp. coupled with claims that the virus would be gone by April and would be contained to the dozen or so known cases in the US.

And what is the evidence that the travel ban worked? Does the US have a lot fewer cases today than countries that did not implement a travel ban?

In reality these policies 'work' in context of the particular problem at a particular time. If you have a disease that is detected very early and is limited to a very defined population, isolation would probably work. If you have a disease that quickly shows detectable symptoms, travel checks would work (i.e. taking temperatures at the airports).

Have travel bans worked in the US? Florida's governor created a mini-Trump approach by allowing Spring Break partiers but then almost immediately afterward had state troopers pull over NJ and NY plated cars and tell the drivers they had to quarantine for 14 days (probably not really enforced). How has Florida done in avoiding cases?

"Does the US have a lot fewer cases today than countries that did not implement a travel ban?"
that's the wrong question unless your a sophist
the right question is does the u.s. have fewer cases than if the u.s.
had not instituted the travel ban
for weeks you have made the bold claim&been moaning that the u.s. travel ban was useless. the travel ban is a form of physical/social distancing a proven and replicable public health measure that is
criticized because it was perceived as un p.c. & mostly because it was done by the president

You're just repeating the same question. If the travel ban was a policy that produced measurably fewer patients, then countries that did it would have fewer than countries that did it. Your request that we ignore this is simply another way of saying "I would rather you judge Trump's policy by what we imagine and purposefully ignore anything that can be measured".

yours is a seriously sophist strain ofsociology.
they are not the same question at all. your assertion is not supported by proven/replicable public health measures
south korea banned travel from wuhan and instituted 14 day quarantines with pretty good results
if the u.s had started the travel ban on the same day the house intelligence fritattas sold their stocks and n. peelosi started hoarding gourmet ice cream we would arguably be in better shape.

if the u.s had started the travel ban on the same day the house intelligence fritattas sold their stocks and n. peelosi started hoarding gourmet ice cream we would arguably be in better shape.

Maybe a 9/11 style ban on all travel in and out of the US would have flattened the curve. The travel ban produced no measurable result and the fact that the US is #3 in world population but #1 in cases demonstrates its ineffectiveness.

"The travel ban produced no measurable result" because you can't measure the results of no u.s. travel ban after a travel ban
-u.s. is still bigly below almost all of western europe (including sweden)on deaths/capita

Australia and New Zealand are hopeful examples of travel shutdowns working pretty well. Also, East Asian countries.

Hey Tyler... instead of getting into the epidemiologists - which may be somewhat justified, why not join them? Why not start making predictions about (a) whether the rot in the economy is subject to contagion (and if is, is it exponential, and how do we test for it?) And (b) is a staged opening up that is too conservative and slow less or more damaging for the economy than one that is too liberal and quick (so: using the words in their original sense). That'd be both useful and also you'd join the epidemiologists making critically important calls on a combination of bad data and no previous experience

TC is too busy handing out money to actually use his time to create such as clearly risky predictions. At least to his status and ability to signal boost whatever it is that needs signal boosting, in glorious synergy with handing out OPM.

the opm is going to dozens of other peeps in order to answer these sorta questions about the viral epidemic

Giving money to smart people who have plans for accomplishing something to help with the crisis is a good thing.

Some of it, at least. Depends on the tranche and naming, since a significant portion is backwards looking, without impact on anyone already involved in responding to the pandemic. The Faroes e-mail request being a fine example of the backwards looking perspective.

Other tranches have been handed out to institutions where a million dollars is pocket change in terms of the amount of money that Harvard or Oxford could free up tomorrow, if they so chose.

If you think the wealth of Oxford is anywhere near comparable to the wealth of Harvard you should think again. And this an economics blog!

Fair enough concerning Oxford and its financial state. How about the alumni of Oxford chipping in a few quid? Boris probably has a couple lying around in the old family account, and after his experience with covid, might be in a generous mood.

Or he could just use OPM too, and throw funds at Oxford.

Given that Tyler seems to be saying "predictions are hard to make with accuracy because of limited data, fraught with downside risk, and potentially subject to political bias," I suspect that he would not respond positively to the suggestion, "why don't you make more of them?"

You're probably right. Easier to ... comment.. from the sidelines. But I think it would be useful to know the answer to those questions - I haven't seen them anywhere

Cowen: "What is their overall track record on predictions, whether before or during this crisis?"

In 2009, the WHO predicted 2 to 7 million deaths world wide from H1N1 in a best case scenario and 62 million deaths if a pandemic. The WHO also predicted 18,000 to 42,000 Canadians would die.

Actual fatalities from H1N1 by 2010: 18,000 world wide and 428 in Canada.

"Revisiting influenza deaths estimates—Learning from the H1N1 pandemic", Dec 21, 2011.

It's remarkable how bad, and inconsistent, the advice from "experts" has been (e.g. the WHO no masks advice) .

As bad as this has been, we could have had a situation with measles Ro and MERS mortality. There's no reason to think the advice would have been any better.

One wonders what other "expert" advice should be taken with a grain, or perhaps a ton, of salt?

No masks for the general public, in major part to ensure that there would be adequate PPE for the people actually needing it.

And considering the results from Italy, Spain, France, the UK, and NY, the fact is that the WHO's advice about conserving PPE for medical professionals to reduce spread in a clinical context was spot on. As demonstrated by what has occurred in the above examples.

Why are you assuming a Law of the Conservation of Masks? Is it impossible to manufacture them?

Not at all, but impossible to manufacture enough for healthcare providers. At least, this is empirically true

Even the UK government has admitted that supplies of PPE for medical staff are basically running out, after putting significant effort into denying it. Only an economist can imagine producing 1 million surgical gowns in a few hours. Though it takes a special sort of economist to believe that the market should not be impeded from providing defective surgical gowns to any buyer willing to pay what the seller demands.

The troll isn't assuming anything; he's flatly lying. The early instruction was very clear in saying that masks would not provide any benefit as far as protecting a healthy wearer from infection, although they might retard transmission when worn by an infected person. The rationale about just trying to protect the PPE supply is a fake justification that was fabricated post-hoc.

Are you completely unaware of how medical personnel treat infectious patients? This is just silly in that light - "would not provide any benefit as far as protecting a healthy wearer from infection.' Of course masks, gloves, surgical gowns, etc. provide protection to healthy medical personnel when used properly. That is not open to discussion, and in the eyes of the medical staff treating covid patients, they don't care about why there is a lack, they are much more interested in actually getting protection as they work with covid patients.

Considering that this is from Guardian on Feb. 7, months ahead of the current real shortages, the idea that preserving PPE for medical personnel is post-hoc seems absurd.

"The fight against the coronavirus epidemic is being hampered by serious global shortages of face masks and protective suits, according to the World Health Organization’s director general, who said there was “widespread inappropriate use” by those not on the frontline caring for patients.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on countries not to stockpile the protective suits that are badly needed in Chinese hospitals and praised companies who had taken the decision to supply surgical masks only to medical professionals.

There are delays of four to six months in supply, said Tedros. “The world is facing severe disruption in the market for personal protective equipment (PPE). Demand is up to 100 times higher than normal, and prices are up to 20 times higher. This situation has been exacerbated by widespread inappropriate use of PPE outside patient care.

“There is limited stock of PPE and we have to make sure we get it to the people who need it most, in the places that need it most.”

If everyone had worn masks maybe there wouldn't have been the overwhelming of medical resources.

No one yet has a clue here. At the time they knew even less. It was a serious blunder because it essentially removed one transmission prevention tool from common use. If I can't get an N95 I can wear a bandanna and get 3/4 of the effectiveness.

More important to the average American than epidemiologists are TV doctors. Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and Dr. Phil are intelligent guys when they stick to what they know but are complete idiots when it comes to epidemiology. Those guys for the record probably have good MCAT scores and make millions a year.

"Epidemiologists worry about genuine errors in the underlying data. Economists seem to think more about model bias."

So epidemiologists are more like scientists than economists are. No surprise there. But, but, but

"most Epidemiologists are funded by soft money. ... It makes for a very muted culture of criticism. ... I wonder if economists have ever looked at the potential perverse incentives of being fully grant funded ..."

That detracts from the science-like nature of epidemiology. Though there must be large chunks of science that suffer from the same problem, albeit attenuated.

"What is their overall track record on predictions": apart from the otiose "overall track" that's the question this layman wants answered. Are the buggers good soothsayers or not? On the matter of the present unpleasantness it would be a miracle if any of them were much cop: it's a novel virus.

These epidemiologists knew what they were talking about way back in 2007:

"The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored."

All of the commentary on the quality of epidemiology when the problem is the quality of reading/listening skills, which are poor indeed. When an epidemiologist says a travel ban doesn't work, she likely means they are never effectively enforced; indeed, they cannot be effectively enforced. At every news conference Trump praises himself for the travel ban from China. In reality, the spreaders came from Europe not China (and even the China ban had more loopholes than a Republican tax bill). When an epidemiologist says masks don't work, she likely means they do not protect the wearer of the mask: they may help protect others from the wearer's asymptomatic infection but not the wearer. Even if N-95 masks were broadly available (they aren't), they work only if the wearer knows how to fit and use the mask: the majority of people don't know how to use condoms, so how does one expect most people to know how to use an N-95 mask. Telling people that masks work likely gives people a false sense of security while wearing it, encouraging them to go places they should not go. No, my observation (about reading/listening skills) doesn't reflect a liberal bias, because my observation is that those in the media have reading/listening skills far below those of the general population. How many news stories does one read or hear that is premised on an overly literal interpretation of the jumble of words that come from Trump's mouth, sometimes attributing credit to Trump that any person with decent reading/listening skills would know Trump did not mean (this isn't limited to Trump's words, and applies to words written or spoken by economists, physicians, scientists, and soothsayers). We don't need better trained epidemiologists, we need to improve peoples' critical reading and listening skills.

Speaking of critical reading and listening skills, Paul O'Neill has died. Most people may remember O'Neill from his time as Sec. of Treasury during the GWB administration and after he was fired, but he had great success in government before experiencing great success in a long business career. His greatest skill was in strategic planning, developed while working in government (he was a computer systems analyst) but applied with great success in business (during his tenure as CEO of Alcoa the company's revenues tripled).

After being fired as Sec. of Treasury for criticizing the GWB administration, O’Neill said that he had misjudged the influence he could have in the administration. “I thought I knew the players well enough, and that we were like-minded about fact-based policymaking,” he said. “It turned out that was all wrong.” Decisions, he said, including the decision to invade Iraq, were based on the politics not the policy.

How does this relate to epidemiology? Because in the Trump administration it's all politics all the time, including the life and death decisions made with respect to the coronavirus.

"in the Trump administration it's all politics all the time": it would be, wouldn't it, if three different coups against him are attempted in three years? I don't care for his oafishness but I like even less the quasi-fascist/bolshevik plots against him.

Coup means things that are all part of the system but you don't like. Screw you.

There is evidence, however, that masks do work to prevent the infection. One study was of a man with flu who sat in a plane for hours that was stuck on the ground waiting for takeoff. A huge portion of the passengers ended up getting the flu but not those wearing masks (this was the late 70's, ventilation systems on planes are supposedly better these days).

You could argue that this is an environment artificially high in virus count, like a full hospital, but how often do we counter such situations day to day (subways, buses, waiting rooms, elevators)?

Here I think it is less epidemiology and more cultural bias. Have epidemiologists in Japan, Korea and other Asian nations been screaming at the public for years that wearing masks was a waste of time? Or is it not really challenged?

I think mask wearing was unfairly disparaged for two reasons:

1. Until recently it felt 'weird' to people in the US hence a bias that's more a hunch along the lines of "that can't possibly be right". This is also why we were tardy on shutdowns. Rather than pull the band-aid off we came at it with a bunch of incremental measures (no 500 person groups, no 50 person, ok let's just shut down).

2. The desire to preserve masks for hospitals.

But the recommendation should be based on the ideal first, then try to optimize as needed based on what you have and what you are missing.

Yes, I have never bought this idea that masks don’t protect the wearer. It makes no sense, look at dust masks, they don’t protect the wearer?
They’ re a barrier that works both ways. Yes not perfect and closer to the source is better but a barrier nonetheless.
At the very least they stop you from touching your mouth and nose.
I think it’s another idea put out there to make sure people quarantine and don’t take masks as a substitute to staying home and decide to go out a lot.
In effect your home is a giant mask.

Yes, everyone should wear a mask. I do. But I do it to protect others from me just in case I have been infected and don't know it. What seems strange is that one should wear a mask not for the wearer's benefit but everyone else. If everyone would wear a mask, the spreaders would more likely keep the infection to themselves and not infect others. With so many infected being asymptomatic, everyone should presume he/she is infected. Again, a strange concept in a me, me, me culture.

Agreed, mask wearing became common in Japan due to the 1918 flu hitting them esp. hard and it's been a thing ever since.

This is a classic example of medical advice operating with cultural blinders. Before ditching the idea of masks, experts should have asked what do the experts in Japan and other countries think? Whats the evidence.

Being mostly "socialists in the literal sense of the term" is unremarkable for European academics

Yet it is these socialists at ICL that the Americans are listening to. Not the more liberal Swedes, Taiwanese or South Koreans.

I noted one of Ferguson's work colleagues on Twitter was spreading fake news about an immigrant 17-year-old in California dying of Covid-19 and blaming it on the US not having universal healthcare.

Of the more than 20,000 in Italy who have died and tested positive for Covid-19 not a single one has been a teenager. Yet, an Epidemiologist at the school that is at the centre of policy-making believed an almost implausible news story.

TC, some of your original questions were unnecessary and gave the impression of snobbery by economists. For example, what's their average GRE? Those of us in grad admissions econ know well that high GRE's do not correlate to how good the research output of the person will be. In fact, many entering econ students with high GREs, turn out to produce lousy research.

"I wonder if economists have ever looked at the potential perverse incentives of being fully grant funded on academic criticism?"

Many economists in fact knee have first hand experience of said perverse incentives.

Seems to me, most of the responses are being polite with the inane questions asked by a layperson with an axe to grind.

"What's their GRE?" Good lord. How about their PSAT? "How much do they get paid?" I dunno, let me ask a web site. And of course, "are they liberals?" Whatever the hell that subjective nonsense means in reality.

And then we get treated to a snippet from an anonymous whiner who says they are all literally socialists. So that's thrown in as data, in a thread whining about bad data?

Were these questions written by a production intern at Fox? Who says irony is dead.

In your face, epidemiologists. In your face.

I don't understand what is the point of attacking an entire academic field, especially the attack takes the forms of personal attacks ("what's their GRE score") and profiling (as if epidemiologist is an coherent group). There are many cases in science where the consensus of the field is wrong, however the reason is never simple. Maybe it's because the problem is hard to study, or because the development of academic consensus has a strong path dependence. But the important point is that this could affect any academic field, and should not be taken as a kind of reflection on the quality of its practitioners.

Personally, I find it ridiculous that these attacks come from economists, who hold disproportional power in society compared to other social scientists, and who may be more justifiably faced the same attacks after the financial crisis.

It seems to me that what's getting all these goats is that all the participants are from academia and or government. Because of the pandemic, epidemiologists, who labored in relative obscurity in government and academia, are now in the spotlight as in people who aren't academics or government functionaries are judging their work. Such people use the real world, i.e. private sector, yardstick for judging whether one's work is worth the money, should be kept or filed in the round filing cabinet, and what one needs to be able to do or say if one can be called an 'expert'.

They aren't doing very well per the private sector, is what one says/thinks actually right, yardstick. I think that there are some categories of academics, who's work might be considered good by said criteria, but I'd say the list is rather short, as in they'd be exceptions to a rule.

So what might be getting a good airing out here, and not only during or because of the pandemic, is how one gets to be labeled and 'expert'.

There are a number of epidemiology models that are being compared to data on a weekly basis ( Where can I find economic models of the impact of covid and comparisons to real-time data?

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