The Better Letter: Nobody Likes Bad News

On the need for experts

Emmylou Harris plaintively and beautifully asked, “If I needed you would you come to me | Would you come to me for to ease my pain?”

That cry for help takes on a new and powerful meaning in these days of pandemic and crisis.

My brother-in-law (my darling bride’s brother) and I have been friends for more than 40 years now. He is a pulmonologist in New York, facing off with COVID-19 and its impact every day. I worry about him all the time. Even though he no longer needs to work, and even though many colleagues are falling ill, like medical workers throughout the world, he treats many patients sick with COVID-19 every day. He comes to them for to ease their pain.

It is profoundly inspiring.

Joan Didion wrote, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” So it is with this crisis and the resulting lockdown. This week’s focus is on the difficult analysis and policy choices that are before our governments as they consider loosening the coronavirus “lockdown” restrictions as well as when and how to “reopen” the economy.

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Nobody Likes Bad News

Worldwide standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century and have continued to improve – dramatically – ever since. 

Source: Our World in Data

We are living much better and longer as a result.

Source: Our World in Data

As the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has argued, these advances were due to the development of science and developments in social organization, most prominently the growth of free-market economies and the rule of law. Significantly, science and the law both include carefully derived and articulated, fact-based systems and methods of assessing and verifying what is real, what is true, and what those discoveries mean. 

Science. Knowledge, as it was espoused in medieval universities and monasteries, was dominated by the ancients, the likes of Ptolemy, Galen, and Aristotle. Learning was predominantly a backward-facing pursuit, not pushing into the unknown. Indeed, before the scientific revolution, the concepts of “fact” and “evidence” were unknown terms of art. 

The scientific method is the process by which we, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent, and non-arbitrary) representation of the world. It is a careful, systematic, and logical search for knowledge, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon the discovery of better or additional evidence.

Crucially, testing can be reproduced by any skeptic, which means that you need not simply trust the proponent of an idea. It is by far the best method we have for ascertaining what is real and true.

Bob Grant outlined its promise in The Scientist

“The scientific method, as a mode of observation piloted by humans for generations, has probed outer space, the depths of the oceans, and the inner reaches of cells, molecules, and atoms—our amazing brains at the helm.”

The quality of the lives we lead testifies to the great power and utility of science and its rigorous truth-seeking method. In practice, however, science is not always so calculating and pure because it is practiced by humans. 

The space shuttle Challenger and its crew were destroyed in a fiery, catastrophic explosion on January 28, 1986.

NASA appointed the Rogers Commission to investigate the disaster. Despite recalcitrance and opposition, Nobel laureate and commission member Richard Feynman painstakingly ignored “management” and went to the best available sources to examine the evidence. He discovered enormous irregularities, dooming the mission. As Feynman detailed in his personal appendix to the official report, at every level, politics, haste, and optics were deemed more important than getting it right, demonstrating a profound scientific failure at NASA.  

Scientific advance is not as consistent and smooth as we imagine. At the personal level, Edward Teller, brilliant scientist though he was, routinely let his emotions get the better of him and color his analysis, as described by the great polymath, Freeman Dyson. Teller would “win the argument” not through the power of his intellect and his arguments, but “by throwing a tantrum.” 

It is often said that science is not a matter of opinion but, rather, a question of data. That’s true, but largely aspirationally true because data must be interpreted to become useful, and fallible humans do the analysis.

Science is amazing. Scientists are human.

Law. A staple of commercial television is the color-by-numbers police procedural, wherein the crime is definitively resolved in an hour. Most often, the resolution is made possible by a feat of forensic skill, whereby the staff scientist sherlocks some technological razzle-dazzle to prove whodunnit.

However, in real life, that narrative can be a load of crock. The judicial standard for allowing and applying expert testimony intentionally gives a great deal of flexibility and discretion to judges and juries in individual cases. That leaves a lot of room for junk science. 

A landmark 2009 National Academy of Sciences study questioned the scientific basis for virtually every forensic discipline used to convict criminal defendants and send them to prison. With the exception of DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” In the decade since the NAS study, things are surprisingly little changed, as “experts” resist criticisms of their careers and methods and prosecutors resist scientific standards that make it harder to convict defendants.

Science is amazing. The people who apply it? Not so much.

Assessing Reality. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann brings William Vogt and (especially) Norman Borlaug back to splendid, quirky life. Vogt was a writer whose 1948 book, Road to Survival, prophesied destruction if the world’s citizens didn’t start caring for their planet. Borlaug was the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist whose painstakingly bred strains of wheat exponentially increased the world’s food supply and inspired a technological worldview that seeks always to overcome Earth’s limits.

Most of today’s experts seem to belong in one of those camps or the other, even though the available evidence suggests that both approaches are necessary to solve the world’s big problems. For example, air pollution in the U.S. has been greatly reduced over the past fifty years on account of both technological wizardry and government regulation.

Good policymaking merges these divergent outlooks into an integrated whole.

Americans appropriately have a great deal of confidence in science and scientists. In 2019, 86 percent of Americans had confidence that scientists act in their best interest. Moreover, “six-in-ten Americans say scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues.”

Republicans are much less likely to trust scientists and to want them to be involved in policy debates. However, that gap relates almost entirely to environmental and climate issues, where the partisan policy gaps are wide. That said, even though nuclear power is by far the safest and most climate-friendly major energy source (see chart below), it is Democrats who are much more likely to reject that scientific evidence. More specifically, 57 percent of Democrats oppose the use of nuclear power, compared to only 34 percent of Republicans. For a vast majority of us, across the political spectrum, ideology trumps data all too often.

Source: Our World in Data

In that context, consider the current debate over whether and how to “reopen” the economy. Doing so requires careful consideration of complex scientific learning in a highly volatile and fraught environment amidst wild uncertainty.

For example, the first Bad Axe Throwing location reopened in Atlanta a week ago. Bad Axe CEO Mario Zelaya anticipated that consumers wouldn’t rush back to throwing axes and drinking beer (side note: What could go wrong?). He expected roughly 10 percent of the customers of a typical weekend. “That was the worst-case scenario, especially with all the marketing we did,” Zelaya said. Instead, “The reopening weekend was a disaster. We had two customers all weekend.”

Most retail businesses work with very small margins. Even a relatively small reduction in the amount of business done could have enormous deleterious effects. Note, for example, J. Crew’s bankruptcy filing this week, and closer to home, the Souplantation restaurant chain announced yesterday it has closed for good on account of the coronavirus. 

In light of the current crisis, shopkeepers need to convince customers that their products are good, as before. They are also going to need their customers to be convinced that it’s safe for them to go out. That will take careful communication from experts.

Public health officials naturally focus predominantly upon the relevant medical issues, as they should. They aren’t often well qualified in matters of economic policy. The planning fallacy applies to science, too. 

Freeman Dyson has said he believes that the truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won’t come to pass. Scientists “who work with models always tend to overestimate their models,” Dyson explained. “They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.”

Scientists and policymakers have a very tough job. Balancing the costs of a horrific disease with the economic costs of keeping the economy effectively closed requires careful and difficult analysis. The inherent medical and scientific uncertainties make it harder still. The range of possible outcomes provides a classic instance of wide variance. It will be an enormous communications challenge, too. Scores of non-experts in epidemiology are pretending to understand COVID-19 well enough to know that it’s safe to go back to work and out to eat.

Prior to COVID-19, President Trump’s primary political asset was a roaring economy. Over 30 million new unemployed workers in the last six weeks may have altered that calculus. Most expect the monthly jobs report to be released this morning will put the April unemployment rate at 15 percent or higher — a Depression-era level. Therefore, Mr. Trump has a strong incentive to try to get the economy moving again as quickly as possible.

We should always be skeptical when somebody finds that powerful evidence supports a preexisting viewpoint.

The president distrusts experts generally, and so do his base supporters. But experts – true experts – are in the best position to give helpful advice based upon their knowledge and experience. Even though it isn’t perfect, betting against science is dangerous business. 

Where experts often go astray is when their advice moves beyond their expertise and into policy. There is no clear demarcation, of course, but science needn’t dictate policy.

Especially when experts recommend policies we disagree with, it’s easy to dismiss them as knowing nothing. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

That’s almost always a mistake.

This pandemic is testing us in ways personalintellectual, familial, scientific, political, economic, social, national, and even spiritual. Maybe especially spiritual. Our profound pathologies, and those of our society, are being revealed in this crisis, including a loss of faith in experts and institutions. Most profoundly, at a time we must pull together, trust – in each other, in our government, in science, and in our culture – has been severely compromised and responsibility for our actions is routinely denied.

Americans trust science generally. We simply reject it when it’s inconvenient, it counters our favored commitments and narratives, or we oppose its implications. Nobody likes bad news.

Our desire to group means more than that, of course. Our identifications become ideological and inherently tribal, influencing what we see as facts. Worse, brute fact requires both meaning and context in order to approach anything like truth or understanding. The great historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out that “the so-called facts proved never to be mere facts, independent of existing belief and theory.”

That’s why we need experts. 

I have already offered my views on reopening the economy. It won’t be easy. But, as the poet Seamus Heaney said, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”


Totally Worth It

The most inspiring thing I read this week was this Twitter thread. Please take a minute (or less) and read it.

The best thing I read this week is this smart, incisive, great narrative, with an insightful dive into an impressive investment process: Digging Moats, by Ryan Krueger.

Here is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, rearranged for brass, performed by the Barclay Brass, of which my son-in-law is a member.


Benediction

Twenty-five Pittsburgh churches united to sing a blessing over their city for Easter. It is this week’s benediction. 


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 12 (May 8, 2020)