The Better Letter: Darwin’s Sweet Spot

Misinformation and its causes.

The universe is an enormous, complicated place. The answer to big questions in the real world is rarely anything like “42.” Reality has a surprising amount of detail.

Consequently, making decisions is often incredibly difficult. Being human, we all make a lot of mistakes. We choose poorly. 

We often make these poor choices because, like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), we are misinformed.

This week’s TBL will focus on misinformation and its causes.

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Darwin’s Sweet Spot

As I walked along the stunning Pacific shoreline this evening (I’m writing this Thursday night), I could feel the sand shifting beneath my feet with every step and the waxing and waning of each successive wave – which got me thinking.

It can be tough to avoid the sense that everything is eroding in America, and not just because the streets, towns, and cities of the Northeast are being turned into dangerous rivers by apocalyptic rainfall, threatening to carry away anything in their paths. Trust in American institutions has never been lower. Seemingly straightforward (albeit difficult and highly dangerous) problems like confronting a major public health crisis evoke disagreement and dissent far beyond reasonable expectation.

My county was the first to declare medical misinformation a public health crisis. This crisis, highlighted by Covid-19, fueled by politics, and accelerated by social media, may be as dangerous as the virus itself.

As my friend, Brian Portnoy, said, we’re in Darwin’s sweet spot. There is a lot of misinformation all around us and a whole lot of crazy out there to wield it.

There are three basic kinds of false information. Misinformation is false, but not created or shared with the intent to cause harm. Malinformation is based on fact, but used with insufficient context so as to mislead, harm, or manipulate. Disinformation is deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country.

I think this look at the efficacy of masks, concluding that there is insufficient evidence to say they help, was written in good faith. The studies and data cited are generally accurate. However, the interpretation of the data fails, as the most recent research (released this week) demonstrates, making it a good example of misinformation. While not nearly as effective as vaccination, wearing masks does protect people from Covid-19, even if not everyone does it, and even though it doesn’t help nearly as much as we’d like.

An “argument” I have seen often on my social media stream is a good example of malinformation and usually goes something like this: “Only one percent of people who contract Covid die. Don’t live in fear.” The suggestion is that only a tiny percentage of folks is really at risk, neglecting the obvious fact that even a tiny percentage of a very large number is quite significant.

As of yesterday, officially, 642,451 Americans have died from Covid. The mortality rate is 1.65 percent – not one percent – and the real total and actual rate are almost certainly higher.

So, let’s add a bit of context to see why the “argument” is malinformation.

Nearly three million passengers fly in and out of American airports every day. If 1.65 percent of those 2.9 million passengers – 47,850 of them – were to die in airplane crashes each day, nobody would fly. And nobody would accuse anybody of living in fear over it. In 2019, on the other hand, home burglaries had a 99.99 percent survival rate (84 deaths at the hands of burglars). Are those who buy handguns to protect their families from home invasion foolishly living in fear?

Context matters.

Now let’s have a look at a classic bit of disinformation. An anti-vax publication carefully designed to look like a legitimate journalistic endeavor published an article headlined as follows. “Official data reveals 67% of Covid-19 deaths since February 2021 have been people who were vaccinated.”

Big if true.

However, the latest research shows that unvaccinated Americans (consisting of about 48 percent of the population) are about 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than those who are fully vaccinated while Covid deaths among the vaccinated are exceedingly low (.000945 percent). The CDC explains the data slightly differently: approximately 99.5 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the United States are among unvaccinated people. Other research and data come to the same general conclusion

So how was the disinformation created and spread?

The alleged source of the “67 percent” claim is a recent periodic report from Public Health England and relates to British cases (anti-vaxxers have made similar false claims when earlier editions of the release were published by PHE). However, they assume their target audience won’t read it. 

The report does show more fully vaccinated (679) than unvaccinated (390) deaths over the period covered, and further shows about 2/3 of Covid deaths among the partially or fully vaccinated, but only among patients suffering from the delta variant, not all Covid patients

So the anti-vax article refers to less than one percent of the more than 132,000 total Covid deaths in the UK while seeming to claim it relates to all Covid deaths over the relevant period instead of only the delta variant deaths. Data on deaths by vaccination status for all other coronavirus strains are not yet available

Moreover, the reference class of delta variant patients skewed heavily older, at much greater risk, and much more likely to be vaccinated. Indeed, the vaccinated should account for the majority of deaths as the number of people vaccinated rises, particularly among older adults who are already at a greater risk. No mention of that.

The data set is incomplete and misattributed. The U.S. data is far better able to explain what’s going on. And the U.S. research continues to show the Covid vaccines are highly effective at reducing the risk of severe Covid-19 illness, hospitalization, and death. 

Proverbs 18:2 gets it right: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

Disinformation artists bank on our being fools — not checking sources, not checking the math, and not checking arguments. They also recognize that we all want to see “evidence” that confirms our priors. The most convincing arguments are those that “prove” we were right all along.

Social media makes things worse. But for the occasional trolling mission, we tend to stay in our own camps, signaling our virtue, patting each other on the back, and demonstrating how smart we are. When was the last time you changed your mind about something important to you based upon a social media post or argument?

I didn’t think so.

Many of our foibles are the result of our laziness. Sometimes the laziness is overt. Other times it is simply a function of the various shortcuts we take, sometimes understandably, to make life more manageable. Sometimes our stories are “too good to check.” Sometimes the point of the story matters so much that its facts do not.

The result is the same.

For me, the most compelling statistic about Covid-19 is that more than 96 percent of American physicians are fully vaccinated against it. Doctors have real expertise, relevant experience, and serious skin in the game. That nearly all of them have chosen to get fully vaccinated tells me most of what I need to know.

If you aren’t, please get vaccinated. I want each of you to survive and thrive. And I don’t want you to win a Darwin Award.


Mail Call

Your point about Richard Feynman [last week: “In his famous 1974 Caltech commencement address, the great physicist (but general creep) Richard Feynman…”.] brings up a couple of questions:

(1)  After about thirty years we now judge Feynman to be a “creep.” His behavior in the 1980s and before are completely unacceptable – these days. How do we know when an author's criticism years later is presentism? After all, the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Should we condemn them for being creeps or worse or were they just following the mores of the times?

I wrote about this issue in some depth here. As you will see there, I generally think holding people of the past to our moral standards is silly. With respect to Feynman, however, as I read the record, he was a creep by the standards of his day – especially if you ask women. I have no doubt the women of the Pasadena area then were well aware of Prof. Feynman’s creepiness. I’d bet they shared stories (and warnings), too.

(2) Is it not possible to separate science from the person? The Nazis experimented with throwing Jews into cold water to see what happens. While clearly unethical, does this mean we must not use any knowledge derived from these experiments to further human life today? Should we not use modern Covid vaccines because they have been derived from aborted fetuses long ago? Must the people today continue to pay for the sins of their fathers?

It is possible. Indeed, I don’t propose Feynman’s “cancellation.” He was brilliant and important. His books are terrific. His investigation of the Challenger disaster is the stuff of legend. He was also a misogynist creep.


Totally Worth It 

Two weeks ago, President Biden told George Stephanopoulos that the United States would stay in Afghanistan past August 31, 2021, if there were still Americans needing extraction. But the Taliban objected to an extended stay and the U.S. left Afghanistan as scheduled, abandoning more than one hundred Americans there in the process. Meanwhile, the Taliban is going door-to-door, killing people they promised to spare, even as President Biden declared the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan an “extraordinary success.” A senior State Department official, however, told multiple news outlets that the Biden administration believes it left behind “the majority” of Afghan interpreters and allies who applied for visas in an effort to escape the Taliban. Private relief and rescue efforts have tried to bridge the gap there. One organization is still trying to extract 200 Christian families, but the Biden Administration has actively obstructed the rescue effort. 

Irrespective of your views of President Biden’s Afghanistan policy, the withdrawal was a disaster.

Thirteen American families are still in mourning today. Untold Afghanis mourn, too. May we honor those we have lost and sing those poor, brave souls home. 

Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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This is the best fun thing I saw or read this week. This was the best serious thing.  The most heinous. The coolest. The craziest. The funniest. The sweetest. The silliest (in a good way). The most fun. The most absurd. The most explanatory. The best customer response. The least surprising. The worst karma. The worst tribalism. An excellent startTacos.


Benediction

This week’s benediction is René Clausen’s “Set Me as a Seal Upon Your Heart,” using Song of Solomon 8:6-7 as its text.

Set me as a seal upon your heart | As a seal upon your arm | For love is strong as death | Set me as a seal upon you heart | As a seal upon your arm | For love is strong as death

Many waters cannot quench love | Neither can the floods drown it | Neither can the floods drown it | (Neither can the floods drown it | Neither can they drown it) | Set me as a seal upon your heart | As a seal upon your arm | For love is strong as death

Love is as strong as death.

Thanks for reading.

Issue 77 (September 3, 2021)