Noah Carl

MIT Researchers Find That ‘Skeptics’ Value Data Literacy and Scientific Rigour

Throughout the pandemic, governments have claimed to be following “the science”. But of course, many aspects of “the science” were never settled. 

The WHO, as well as the UK Government, initially told us not to wear face masks. They then decided that face masks were essential. Countries like Australia and New Zealand introduced border controls in early February. Meanwhile, UK scientists were advising against port-of-entry screening. Researchers predicted there would be 96,000 deaths in Sweden by July. But as it turned out, there were less than 6,000. 

Of course, many people have been sceptical of “the science” (by which I mean the officially endorsed science) from the very beginning. And of course, they’ve formed communities online with other like-minded persons. (I suppose Lockdown Sceptics would be one example of such a community.) 

In an unpublished paper, researchers from MIT sought to understand how the users of these communities obtain, analyse, share and curate information. Surprisingly (to them), they found that users place a premium on data literacy and scientific rigour. 

The study used a mixed methods design. First, they analysed a large sample of pandemic-related tweets sent between January and July 2020. Second, they employed ethnographic methods to study users on “anti-mask” Facebook groups. (Note that the researchers use “anti-mask” as a “synecdoche for a broad spectrum of beliefs: that the pandemic is exaggerated, schools should be reopening, etc.”)

In their analysis of Twitter data, the researchers found that sceptics “share the second-highest number of charts across the top six communities”, and that they are “the most prolific producers of area/line charts”, while sharing “the fewest number of photos”. They also found that such individuals “often create polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place in scientific papers”.  

In their study of “anti-mask” Facebook groups, the researchers found that users “value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert” interpretations”, and that “their approach to the pandemic is grounded in more scientific rigor, not less.” 

“Most fundamentally,” the researchers write, “the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution.” They note:

While academic science is traditionally a system for producing knowledge within a laboratory, validating it through peer review, and sharing results within subsidiary communities, anti-maskers reject this hierarchical social model. They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist.

According to the researchers, “anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries,” and data literacy is “a quintessential criterion for membership within the community they have created.”

Based on these descriptions, one might assume the paper was written by a cadre of undercover sceptics. But the researchers make clear they are “not promoting these views”. Overall, it’s a fascinating study which is worth reading in full

Border Controls, Not Lockdowns, Explain the Success of Denmark, Norway and Finland

I’ve previously explained why “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t a convincing argument for lockdowns. However, the argument keeps cropping up on social media. So I’ll have another go.

As I noted in my previous post, Sweden has had more deaths than the other Nordic countries – whether you use ‘confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people’ or age-adjusted excess mortality. 

However, this doesn’t mean that lockdowns are what account for the divergent mortality trends. In other words, it doesn’t follow that if Sweden had locked down at the same time as its neighbours, then it would have seen many fewer deaths from COVID-19.

Even if you believe that lockdowns were the main factor behind the other Nordics’ low death rates (and they probably weren’t), the epidemic was already more advanced in Sweden by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low (as in Australia and New Zealand), locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. 

Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that lockdowns weren’t the main factor behind the other Nordic’s low death tolls. Rather, the main factor was probably border controls.

Let’s examine what each country did during the first wave, using the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. (I will ignore Iceland, since it’s a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and its geographic advantages are obvious.) 

Recall that the Blavatnik School’s database includes several measures of government restrictions. I will focus on mandatory workplace closures, mandatory stay-at-home orders, and restrictions on international travel (i.e., border controls). 

Let’s start with mandatory stay-at-home orders. None of the Nordics had any days of mandatory stay-at-home orders during the first wave. (This is in contrast to the U.K., which was hit much harder than all four Nordics, and had a mandatory stay-at-home order in place between March 23rd and May 12th.)

Now mandatory workplace closures. Norway did introduce these quite early on March 12th. However, Denmark did not introduce them until March 18th – just five days before the U.K. And Finland did not introduce them until April 14th – more than three weeks after the U.K.

These comparisons reveal that the other Nordics did not lock down particularly hard or particularly early. Indeed, all three had less strict lockdowns than the U.K. (which saw many more deaths during the first wave). Finland’s success is particularly difficult to explain with reference to lockdowns since the country did not introduce any real measures until after the peak of infections.

Lack of Attention to Airborne Transmission Led to Blunders in Pandemic Management

In the early weeks of the pandemic, we were inundated with reminders to “wash our hands”. It was said that 20 or even 30 seconds of thorough scrubbing was needed to kill any particles that might be lurking there. 

And we were treated to some rather patronising instructional videos. You’d assume that most adults were already familiar with the concept of hand-washing. (Telling us to “be thorough” would probably have sufficed). 

Yet more and more evidence emerged that surfaces (known in the medical jargon as “fomites”) are not an important mode of transmission for SARS-CoV-2. Which is not to say you shouldn’t wash your hands.

However, there was still a dispute over whether respiratory droplets or airborne particles play a greater role in viral spread. Droplets are transmitted over short distances, and fall to the ground quickly. (Hence the ‘2m rule’.) Airborne particles, on the other hand, can remain aloft for minutes or even hours, and travel much greater distances. 

Over the last couple of months, it’s become clear that COVID is primarily transmitted via airborne particles. (Though some would say this was clear as early as the Diamond Princess outbreak, when several hundred passengers caught the virus on a cruise ship.)

In a recent article for the New York Times, the science writer Zeynep Tufekci reviews the debate over the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and explains how mistaken assumptions led to errors in pandemic management. 

She begins by noting it was only on April 30th this year that the WHO finally updated its website to indicate that COVID is transmitted via both droplets and airborne particles. Until then, it simply had claimed, “the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets”.

As Tufekci notes, this mistaken assumption led to errors of both commission (like closing playgrounds) and omission (like ignoring ventilation).

If the importance of aerosol transmission had been accepted early, we would have been told from the beginning that it was much safer outdoors, where these small particles disperse more easily, as long as you avoid close, prolonged contact with others. We would have tried to make sure indoor spaces were well ventilated, with air filtered as necessary. 

This also implies that plastic shields – which you might have seen in your local gym or supermarket – do essentially nothing to prevent transmission:

There was no attention to ventilation, installing air filters as necessary or even opening windows when possible, more to having people just distancing three or six feet, sometimes not requiring masks beyond that distance, or spending money on hard plastic barriers, which may be useless at best. (Just this week, President Biden visited a school where students were sitting behind plastic shields.)

Indeed, one of the safest places to be during the pandemic is outdoors. (As I’ve noted before, the vast majority of infections occur in indoor spaces.) This raises serious questions about the Government’s stay-at-home order, which confined us to our homes for weeks, with only one form of outdoor exercise per day. 

Particularly absurd was when police forces used drone footage to shame people who were out walking in the countryside (most likely from indoor offices where the risk of transmission was far higher.)

If COVID mainly spreads via airborne particles, then telling people not to go outside doesn’t really make sense. And in fact, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined shelter-in-place orders in the United States, but did “not find detectable effects of these policies on disease spread or deaths.”

Tufekci compares the lack of attention to airborne transmission of COVID with our misunderstanding of cholera’s spread in the era before John Snow:

So much of what we have done throughout the pandemic — the excessive hygiene theater and the failure to integrate ventilation and filters into our basic advice — has greatly hampered our response. Some of it, like the way we underused or even shut down outdoor space, isn’t that different from the 19th-century Londoners who flushed the source of their foul air into the Thames and made the cholera epidemic worse.

Tufekci’s article contains a lot of interesting details, and is worth reading in full.

England and Wales See Seventh Consecutive Week of Negative Excess Deaths

The ONS announced today that there were 9,941 deaths in England and Wales in the week ending April 23rd, which is 497 fewer than the previous week. In addition, this week’s number is 5% below the five-year average, and marks the seventh consecutive week of “negative excess deaths”. Here’s the chart from the ONS:

Over the last seven weeks of ONS reports, there were 5,511 fewer deaths than you’d expect based on the average of the last five years. And recall that, because the population is ageing, the five-year average slightly understates the expected number of deaths. So the true level of “negative excess mortality” is even higher.

The number of deaths registered in the week ending April 23rd was below the five-year average in eight out of nine English regions. (Only London saw positive excess deaths.) Compared to the five-year average, weekly deaths were 6.8% lower in Wales, and 8.1% lower in the South East.

At the beginning of April, David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters wrote a piece suggesting a number of possible reasons for the low number of deaths in England and Wales: mild weather; fewer road accidents and flu deaths due to lockdown; and deaths having been “brought forward” by the pandemic.

Given that we are no longer in winter or the flu season, and there has been an increase in mobility since March, it seems unlikely that the first three factors they mentioned can account for more than a small share of the “negative excess deaths” observed in April. Rather, this phenomenon is probably explained by deaths having been “brought forward” by the pandemic.

Website Launched to Document the Harms of Lockdown

Today marks the official launch of the website Collateral Global, which aims to “to build an evidence-based understanding of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic response measures to inform future policies and strategies for pandemic preparedness”.

The editorial board contains many faces that will be familiar to Lockdown Sceptics readers, including Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldorff (the authors of The Great Barrington Declaration), as well as Oxford’s Carl Heneghan and the LSE’s Paul Dolan.

Through a series of themed editions, the website promises “original content highlighting everything from expert opinion and academic summaries to human stories and video diaries”. The theme of the first edition is introductory. It includes an editor’s note from Jay Bhattacharya, an essay on the ethics of lockdown by Oxford’s Alberto Giubilini, and several other contributions.

Bhattacharya doesn’t pull any punches in his editorial, which begins:

In 1915, chemistry lost its innocence when mustard gas poisoned British troops in Ypres, Belgium. Physics lost its innocence in 1945 amongst the radioactive rubble of Hiroshima, Japan. Public health lost its innocence in March 2020 when the world adopted lockdowns as a primary tool to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though he acknowledges, “As with war, not everything that came out of lockdown was bad and our reporting will reflect that truth.” According to the FAQs, the website “has no political or institutional affiliations” – its only allegiance is to “the enduring principles of scientific inquiry”.

Collateral Global is set to provide a range of interesting content, so do check it out.

New Article by ex-New York Times Science Writer Claims Lab Leak Theory Is More Plausible Than Natural Origin Theory

The former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade is no stranger to controversy. Now he has written a long essay arguing that the “lab leak” hypothesis is more plausible than the “natural origin” theory.

As readers may be aware, there are two main theories for SARS-CoV-2’s origin. One maintains that the virus originated in bats, and then jumped to humans, most likely via an unknown intermediate host species. The other states that the virus originated in a lab, but then accidentally escaped, perhaps due to inadequate safety protocols.

At the start of the pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis was dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by many scientists and much of the mainstream press. Since then, however, more and more evidence has emerged that casts doubt on the alternative, natural origin theory.

Back in January, New York Magazine ran a long essay by the journalist Nicholas Baker, which tentatively argued the lab leak theory could be right. Then in March, Undark ran a piece by the science writer Charles Schmidt, stressing that the virus’s origin is very much an open question. At the end of March, The Telegraph ran a similar article by the author Matt Ridley and the biologist Alina Chan. (Indeed, Ridley is writing a book on the pandemic’s origin called Viral, due to be published later this year.)

In his new essay, Wade adopts a more forceful tone. Though he acknowledges “there is no direct evidence for either theory”, he maintains that the lab leak theory provides a far better explanation of the available facts. As Wade notes:

It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses.

By contrast, there are several pieces of evidence that the natural origin theory has great difficulty explaining:

No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. 

Though some scientists claim we may never pinpoint the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2, the debate will no doubt continue over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, Wade’s essay is worth reading in full.

Geography, Not Lockdowns, Explains the Global Pattern of Excess Mortality

Throughout the pandemic, commentators have relied on ‘COVID-19 deaths per million people’ as a measure of the disease’s lethality. While this is not unreasonable for making comparisons within Europe, it is less justifiable for other parts of the world, where there has been substantial underreporting of COVID-19 deaths.

A better measure to use is excess mortality, i.e., the number of deaths in excess of what you’d expect based on previous years. This measure does not vary with factors like testing infrastructure or the criteria for assigning cause of death. (Though the best measure is age-adjusted excess mortality.)

In an unpublished study, the researchers Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak have compiled all the available data on excess mortality. Their database – which they’ve termed the ‘World Mortality Dataset’ – allows us to make more meaningful comparisons across countries. 

Unfortunately, data are not yet available for most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East. However, the database does encompass Europe, much of Central Asia and the Americas, and parts of East Asia. Countries with available data are shown in blue in the map below:

Note that Karlinsky and Kobak did not take the usual approach of using the average of the last five years as the baseline. Rather, they took the superior approach of using a linear trend over the last five years. If deaths have been increasing year-on-year, their approach will yield a higher baseline, compared to using the five-year average. (See here for a visual explanation.)

Lancet Paper Claims Zero Covid Is a Sensible Strategy, but It’s Not Very Convincing

Yesterday, a short paper titled “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties” was published in The Lancet. The authors claim, “Countries that consistently aim for elimination – i.e., maximum action to control SARS-CoV-2 and stop community transmission as quickly as possible – have generally fared better than countries that opt for mitigation – i.e., action increased in a stepwise, targeted way to reduce cases so as not to overwhelm health-care systems.”

This claim is supported by three charts, each comparing “OECD countries opting for elimination” with “OECD countries opting for mitigation” (see below). The first chart shows that “OECD countries opting for elimination” had fewer deaths per million; the second shows that they had smaller declines in GDP; and the third shows that they had less restrictive lockdowns.

The authors note, “With the proliferation of new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, many scientists are calling for a coordinated international strategy to eliminate SARS-CoV-2.” They also note, “Countries that opt to live with the virus will likely pose a threat to other countries” whereas those “opting for elimination are likely to return to near normal”.

One might be tempted to conclude that “elimination” (or “Zero Covid” as it’s sometimes termed) is a sensible strategy going forward. However, I don’t find the authors’ analysis very convincing.

First, they don’t explain how they classified countries as either “opting for elimination” or “opting for mitigation”. For example, did they simply look at outcomes (which would be circular), or did they examine statements by politicians from the spring of last year? (E.g., “This Government will pursue an elimination strategy.”) It’s not clear.

Only five countries were classified as “opting for elimination”: Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. All other OECD countries were classified as “opting for mitigation”. It may have occurred to you that the five “eliminationist” countries are not exactly representative. Four are islands and one is a peninsula (with a fairly impenetrable border to the north). Two are East Asian. And in fact, these two – Japan and South Korea – are the only East Asian countries in the OECD.

As I argued in a piece for Quillette, all the Western countries that have kept their death rates low are geographically peripheral countries that imposed strict border controls at the start (Norway and Finland, plus a few islands). Their geographic circumstances not only made border controls practical, but also gave them a head start in responding to the pandemic.

It’s very unlikely that large, highly connected countries like France, Italy or the US would have been able to contain the virus during the deadly first wave. And although Britain is an island, we probably wouldn’t have been able to either. The epidemic was already more advanced in London and other international hubs by the time most Western countries introduced lockdowns and social distancing.

In other words, “elimination” was probably never a realistic option for Britain and other large Western countries – even if it could have a passed a cost-benefit test. But what about Japan and South Korea?

Although South Korea did use a combination of early lockdowns and strict border controls to contain the virus, the same cannot be said for Japan. According to the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Japan has had only two days of mandatory business closures and zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders since the pandemic began. (And the two days of mandatory business closures were the 25th and 26th of April this year.)

Japan did introduce border controls quite early, which may have protected it during the first wave. However, these were not sufficient to prevent an epidemic from burgeoning in the winter of 2020–21. (By early February, the number of daily deaths was in the 90s.) Yet this epidemic retreated without any real lockdown measures being imposed, which suggests that some other cultural or biological factor accounts for Japan’s success.

Second, even if you believe an “elimination” strategy was feasible for Britain and other large Western countries in the early weeks of the pandemic, that ship has arguably sailed. This is particularly true for Britain, where almost 70% of adults now have COVID antibodies. In other words: while it might have been sensible to “eliminate” the virus last spring (assuming that was possible), the costs of doing so now would almost certainly outweigh the benefits.

Overall, the Lancet study does not provide a strong case for “elimination” of COVID-19. And in fact, a survey by Nature of 119 experts found that 89% believe it is “likely” or “very likely” that SARS-CoV-2 will become an endemic virus. As Michael Osterholm – an American epidemiologist – noted, “Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon. It’s unrealistic.”

Are We Being Kept in Partial Lockdown by Status Quo Bias?

Status quo bias is when one prefers the current state of affairs simply because it is the current state of affairs. First described by the economists William Zechauser and Richard Zeckhauser, this particular cognitive bias has been documented in many scientific studies.

However, you’d hope that it wouldn’t affect decision-making over something as consequential as a national lockdown. Where the lockdown is concerned, you’d hope that rational judgement based on firm principles, or rigorous cost-benefit analysis, would prevail.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case, as the Tory peer Daniel Hannan argues in a piece for Conservative Home:

Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95% of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.

Even if you believe a lockdown was necessary to “flatten the curve” (which, incidentally, it very likely wasn’t), the curve has now been thoroughly flattened. And with seasonality starting to kick-in, any remaining benefit of lockdowns is rapidly approaching zero. (Recall that every European country saw declining death numbers last May.) Despite all this, some lockdown measures are still in place. Hannan continues:

The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.

And as Hannan notes, the costs of the ongoing measures are far from trivial:

Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.

It’s time for the Government to acknowledge that the last four months have gone better than expected, and the remaining lockdown measures should be lifted immediately. Meanwhile, Hannan’s article is worth reading in full.

New Paper Argues the Costs of Canada’s Lockdown Far Outweighed the Benefits

The Canadian economist Douglas Allen has written a paper reviewing the literature on the costs and benefits of lockdown. Early studies, he argues, made a number of erroneous assumptions, which led them to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the costs.

Such studies overestimated the benefits of lockdowns insofar as they used overly pessimistic values of key epidemiological parameters; they assumed people would not change their behaviour voluntarily in response to the pandemic; and they assumed the “value of a statistical life” is independent of age. And they underestimated the costs of lockdowns insofar as they only took into account the effects on GDP.

The “value of a statistical life” is a concept used by economists and political scientists to compare the impact of different policies. It is calculated by observing how much individuals are willing to pay to avoid a given level of risk. For example, researchers can examine the relationship between wages and fatality rates across occupations, while holding other factors constant. (Crab fishermen get paid a lot more than fruit pickers, in part because their work is more risky.)  

However, the “value of a statistical life” is lower at older ages, particularly above age 65. Since the vast majority of those who die of COVID-19 are older than 65, assuming the “value of a statistical life” is independent of age will lead one to overestimate the benefits of policies that aim to reduce mortality from COVID-19. 

Allen then reviews studies that have attempted to disentangle the impacts of lockdowns versus voluntary changes in behaviour. He concludes, “all of them find that mandated lockdowns have only marginal effects and that voluntary changes in behavior explain large parts of the changes in cases, transmissions, and deaths.”

Finally, Allen undertakes his own cost-benefit analysis of Canada’s lockdowns. Following the economist Bryan Caplan, he assumes that the average Canadian valued life under lockdown 5/6ths as much as the alternative, which implies that Canadians lost 6.3 million life years as a result of the lockdowns. Allen claims that this figure exceeds any plausible estimate of the number of life years saved. 

Even if you don’t agree with his assumptions, Allen’s paper is worth reading in full.