Sunday assorted links

What does QAnon stand for?

Here is my Bloomberg column on that question.  This is not my central point, but it is the excerpt I have decided to give you:

There is the related possibility that QAnon’s main appeal is in the sheer complexity of the conspiracy itself, rather than the details. QAnon is often described often as a rabbit hole, offering users an initially simple story that gradually becomes more complicated. Some evidence suggests that conspiracy theories need to offer “uniqueness” to their adherents — that is, the promise of exclusive knowledge. The more complex and detailed the theory, the more likely that uniqueness becomes, and thus the greater the appeal. But just how big a factor is that?

Recommended.  If you could do a factor decomposition on QAnon, which features of it really would matter to its adherents?  (For instance, for most Christians I suspect Mother Mary holds much more appeal than John the Baptist, fine fellow though the latter may be.)  I’ve been reading MR comments for long enough to know there is more here than might meet the eye.

Claims about antibodies and T-cells and Sweden

Buggert’s study in Sweden seems to support this position. Investigating close family members of patients with confirmed covid-19, he found T cell responses in those who were seronegative or asymptomatic. While around 60% of family members produced antibodies, 90% had T cell responses. (Other studies have reported similar results.) “So many people got infected and didn’t create antibodies,” concludes Buggert.

That is from Peter Doshi, mostly a survey on pre-existing immunity, interesting and useful and properly agnostic throughout.  Here is a version of the Buggert piece, also with a link to the published version.

Note two things.  First, “the kooks” saw this possibility first, and insisted on its relevance, to their credit.  Second, many of “the kooks” are overly dogmatic, not always to be trusted, and they commonly shift the goalposts (when predictions about cases are falsified, they switch to pretending those were predictions about deaths).  Often the non-kooks do that too of course.

For a sobering worry, here are some recent numbers from Spain.

The key to interpreting the literature is to focus on the data, and to keep an open frame of mind, rather than digging in to a particular position.  Right now I am focused on observing what kind of second wave London is going to have, and how mild or bad it will be, as that is most likely to induce me to update my positions, in one direction or another.

For the pointer I thank E. Ward.

Saturday assorted links

1. New York Film Festival looks strong this year.

2. Tattoo artists in Japan no longer need medical licenses.

3. “The RCMP in Alberta have charged a 20-year-old British Columbia man with speeding while he was asleep at the wheel of a Tesla electric car.

4. Messi vs. Massi: “Footballer Lionel Messi can register his name as a trademark after a nine-year legal battle, the EU’s top court has ruled.”

5. Day one of voting the polity that is Fairfax.

6. The making of a Harvard department chair (somewhat depressing, actually).  “Nearly half of the 40 department chairs in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences received tenure within Harvard and nearly three-quarters have been teaching at the University for more than 15 years, an analysis by The Crimson found.”

7. The importance of protein folding, with a role for citizen scientists too (New Yorker).

Our Antigens, Our Selves

In 2013 I wrote, Our DNA, Our Selves, arguing against the FDA’s crackdown on genetic readouts from firms like 23andMe. The FDA, however, proved succesful in its crackdown and that is why rapid at-home antigen tests are not available today and why tens of thousands of people are dying from COVID unnecessarily. Regulations have unintended consequences.

Let’s recap:

Consider, I swab the inside of my cheek and send the sample to a firm. The idea that the FDA can rule on what the firm can and cannot tell me about my own genes is absurd–it’s no different than the FDA trying to regulate what my doctor can tell me after a physical examination or what my optometrist can tell me after an eye examination (Please read the first line. “G T A C C A…”).

The idea that the FDA can regulate and control what individuals may learn about their own bodies is deeply offensive and, in my view, plainly unconstitutional.

Let me be clear, I am not offended by all regulation of genetic tests. Indeed, genetic tests are already regulated. To be precise, the labs that perform genetic tests are regulated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) as overseen by the CMS (here is an excellent primer). The CLIA requires all labs, including the labs used by 23andMe, to be inspected for quality control, record keeping and the qualifications of their personnel. The goal is to ensure that the tests are accurate, reliable, timely, confidential and not risky to patients. I am not offended when the goal of regulation is to help consumers buy the product that they have contracted to buy.

What the FDA wants to do is categorically different. The FDA wants to regulate genetic tests as a high-risk medical device that cannot be sold until and unless the FDA permits it be sold.

Moreover, the FDA wants to judge not the analytic validity of the tests, whether the tests accurately read the genetic code as the firms promise (already regulated under the CLIA) but the clinical validity, whether particular identified alleles are causal for conditions or disease. The latter requirement is the death-knell for the products because of the expense and time it takes to prove specific genes are causal for diseases. Moreover, it means that firms like 23andMe will not be able to tell consumers about their own DNA but instead will only be allowed to offer a peek at the sections of code that the FDA has deemed it ok for consumers to see.

Ten years later we now need rapid antigen tests but the issue, as Michael Mina points out in an excellent interview with Malcolm Gladwell, is that we have medicalized all tests and readouts. Instead of thinking about the individual as having a right to know about their own body, we treated every test or readout as if the only user were a physician. Thus, instead of thinking about the value of these tests for individuals and for public health, the FDA failed to approve rapid antigen tests because it regarded them as inferior to PCR tests, for a physician diagnosing disease.

Here’s Mina (roughly transcribed and lightly edited)

The only pathway that we have to evaluate tests like this are medical diagnostic pathways, pathways designed specifically to ensure that a physician like a detective is getting all the information they need to diagnose a sick person… We have so devalued and defunded public health…that we don’t have a regulatory pathway to approve a test whose primary objective is stopping an epidemic versus diagnosing a sick person. And that has held everything up. All the companies that could be producing these rapid tests in the millions and millions, they have been sitting on these tests trying to hone them so they can pass FDA standards as a medical diagnostic.

It’s not just slowing down their approval it’s actually bottle necking the companies into creating tests that are not going to be as scalable as they are having to use more expensive reagents and packing the tests with instruments so they can pass FDA review when in reality they are just these little pieces of papers. If we can do the cheap version they can be made very fast but the just won’t get through the FDA.

Gladwell: I find your explanation unconvincing. How dumb is the FDA?…If you make the exact argument you made to me…the FDA is not going to see your logic?

It’s not that they are not smart it’s that this is a regulatory body, they just don’t have a pathway. You can’t apply for approval for a public health test tool…In our country the medical establishment is extremely strong, you can’t go to get a cholesterol test without getting a prescription from your doctor. Why can’t we know that? It’s all through this very heavy medical lens and changing that, getting that big ship to turn is turning out to be a very, very difficult task but leading to potentially tens or hundreds or thousands of deaths that don’t need to be happening.

What happened to the mandate, the third leg of the stool?

But Congress did ultimately chop off a leg when it repealed the mandate penalties in 2017 — and, despite these predictions, the Affordable Care Act still stands. New federal data and economic research show the law hasn’t collapsed or entered the “death spiral” that economists and health insurers projected.

Many experts now view the individual mandate as a policy that did little to increase health coverage — but did a lot to invite political backlash and legal challenges.

The newest evidence comes from census data released Tuesday, which shows health coverage in the United States held relatively steady in 2019, even though Congress’s repeal of the mandate penalties took effect that year.

“The stool might be a bit rocky, but you can get away with two legs,” said Evan Saltzman, a health economist at Emory University who studies the topic. “It’s like the table at the restaurant that is a little wobbly. You can still sit at it, even if it’s not quite as pleasant.”

That is from Sarah Kliff at the NYT, the whole piece is excellent and full of substance.  And:

Mr. Saltzman went on to earn a doctorate in economics after his job at RAND, and focused his research on the mandate. He has found that the mandate isn’t a very effective tool for increasing enrollment. One recent paper of his estimated that eliminating the mandate penalties would reduce marketplace enrollment by 2 percent and increase premiums by 0.7 percent.

“My viewpoint on the mandate has changed,” he said. “Back in 2012, my sense was it was essential. The evidence indicates that the marketplaces are doing about the same as they were before the mandate was set to zero.”

Separately, in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, researchers concluded that “the individual mandate’s exemptions and penalties had little impact on coverage rates.”

To be clear, this surprises me too.  Was it Ross Douthat who once said on Twitter that it was the Trump administration and the Republican courts that saved Obamacare?  The Krugman line, pushed without qualification for over a decade (and with incessant moralizing), that all of the legs of the stool are necessary, seems…wrong.  I would say be careful with this one, as sometimes elasticities don’t kick in for a long time (as maybe with the corporate income tax cuts as well?…let’s be consistent here…).  Still, it seems that an update of priors is in order.  As you will see in the piece, even Jonathan Gruber thinks so.

And here are useful comments from John Graves.

University of Pennsylvania update and correction

“The email sent by Penn SAS Deans last Tuesday needs to be interpreted with some care. In particular, notice the words “school-funded Ph.D. programs.” There is a lot of institutional background that is lost when the email is read from the outside, especially because the Economics Ph.D. program has its own funding structure that differs from other Ph.D. programs at Penn SAS.

At this moment, the Department of Economics is working out the details of the next year incoming class, but a first-year incoming class and regular classes first-year are planned. Also notice that much of graduate teaching in economics involves Ph.D. students from Wharton, who are not part of SAS. Wharton is going ahead with its Ph.D. admissions.”

That is from an email from a well-informed inside source.  Here is the original MR post, blame it on the Dean.

What I’ve been reading

1. Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics.  One man’s version of “the real Stephen Hawking story,” including the marital arrangements and rearrangements, told by a former good friend.  I am not sure that books such as this should be written (or read), but…this one is pretty good.  It also gives Hawking’s account of why he did not win a Nobel prize (“radiation must be observed”), among other tidbits.

2. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody.  The authors serve up many on-target criticisms of current academic nonsense, but somehow it is not how I would proceed.  Given the ridiculousness of so much of what is going on, I say there are new intellectual profit opportunities to mine the best insights from critical theory, postmodernism, intersectionality and the like.  I would rather read a book that did that.  Start with Foucault, and steelman everything as you go along.

3. Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.  Truly an excellent book covering the history, politics, and culture of…the Himalayan region.  Full of substance, lovely cover too.  The USA link here has a worse cover, no surprise.  But you’ll get the British version quicker, with the preferred cover, and at a lower price.  Arbitrage!

4. The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, edited by Frederick C. Beiser, but basically Novalis, Schlegel, and a bit of Schleiermacher.  In particular I was surprised how well the Novalis has held up: insightful, to the point, and laying out the aesthetic approach to politics (and more) with a stark and memorable clarity.  If you are looking for something to read that is non-liberal, but not the tiresome version of non-liberal being beat to death these days, maybe try this book.

5. George Prochnik, Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution.  Heine has aged very well, circa 2020, and he is an appropriate liberal but also satiric counterpart to the writers mentioned immediately above, plus he was more historically prescient, and for all the talk about culture from the Romantics, it was Heine who was the perceptive observer of other people’s cultures.  This is a good book for additional historical background once you already know Heine, though not at all an introduction to his charm and import, available only from the man himself.

And I have just received my copy of Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.

The educational culture that is Dutch

Academics should not be forced to squeeze their research into weekends and holidays, according to the Dutch education minister, who admitted that pressure on some researchers had become intolerable and that professional competition had gone “too far.”

Ingrid van Engelshoven wants to reduce stress and time pressure in academe by tipping the balance away from competitive grants and toward more stable support for universities, reversing a long-term research funding trend in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in the Hague, she hoped that reforms to Dutch academe would mean that in five to 10 years, academics would be able to do their research “within normal working hours.”

“So you don’t have to skip your vacation, skip your weekend, because you’re busy all week with teaching your students, designing your online courses [or] … drafting your applications for grants,” she said.

Here is the full story by David Matthews.

No economics Ph.D admissions for U Penn next year

The School of Arts and Sciences will pause admissions for school-funded Ph.D. programs for the 2021-2022 academic year.

SAS Dean Steven J. Fluharty and Associate Dean for Graduate Students Beth Wenger wrote in an email to SAS standing faculty and graduate students on Tuesday that the decision was made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the school’s finances.

Here is more, via Jon Hartley.  GMU, by the way, seems to be doing fine with its enrollments and finances at all levels.

Addendum: See this update and correction.

Thursday assorted links

1. Did Covid-19 trigger nostalgic taste in music?

2. The philanthropy of Chuck Feeney who gave it all away (link fixed now).

3. Claims about North Korea and nuclear war.

4. Kanye to the NYT: “He also expressed anguish about abortion, said he didn’t reflexively support Democrats, and asked, “Does anyone at your magazine believe in Jesus?”” (link is NYT as well — they do not report their answer to that question).

5. Airline workers have lower rates of Covid-19 than the general population.

The international game theory of vaccines

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Ideally, a government will wish to publicize the announcement of a vaccine while slow-walking the actual distribution. That way, if there is something wrong with the brew, it can stop distribution before too many of its citizens experience adverse side effects. In essence, the approving countries are doing a version of their Phase III trials with fewer scientific controls and more out in the open. For Russia in particular, it is not obvious how much it is really ahead of other countries.

One possible American strategy would be to encourage the early approvers to distribute and test their vaccines on a broader scale, and then make their data freely available. Given close working relations, this may be easier to accomplish with the UAE than with China or Russia. If one of those vaccines turned out to be good enough, the U.S. has the resources either to buy doses or to reverse engineer it.

U.S. decisions on approval speed, meanwhile, will depend on what other nations do. For instance, if the early approvers are gathering useful data through their experiments, U.S. officials might decide not to hurry so much, instead preferring to let foreigners take the risks. That sounds good, but it could be counterproductive for the world as a whole. America is the country most likely to come up with the highest quality vaccine. Slowing down the U.S. will mean that more of the world gets the (possibly) lower-quality but more readily available Chinese product.

One tension in “vaccine relations” is that richer countries and poorer countries do not want exactly the same thing. Typically, the wealthier the country, the more risk-averse its citizens, and the less need to hurry.

And:

China may be unique: It has some properties of a rich country (a big, advanced scientific establishment), but it has a poor country’s willingness to take risks. That’s one reason China might end up leading on vaccines. The U.S. is ahead of China technologically, but Chinese priorities are more in sync with those of many other countries in the world.

There are further arguments at the link.