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: http://causality.cs.ucla.edu/blog/index.php/2014/10/27/are-economists-smarter-than-epidemiologists-comments-on-imbenss-recent-paper/
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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?