Quote of the Day
”The best test of a person’s intelligence is their capacity for making a summary”
- Lytton Strachey
Understanding the virus
It’s a very complicated and (still) poorly-understood organism. The Atlantic has published this really helpful explainer. Sample:
Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19. But despite this deluge, “we haven’t seen a lot of huge plot twists,” says Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington. The most important, he says, was the realization that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms. But even that insight was slow to dawn. A flawed German study hinted at it in early February, but scientific opinion shifted only after many lines of evidence emerged, including case reports, models showing that most infections are undocumented, and studies indicating that viral levels peak as symptoms appear.
This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”
For example, Stanford University researchers recently made headlines after testing 3,330 volunteers from Santa Clara County for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The team concluded that 2.5 to 4.2 percent of people have already been infected—a proportion much higher than the official count suggests. This, the authors claimed, means that the virus is less deadly than suspected, and that severe lockdowns may be overreactions—views they had previously espoused in opinion pieces. But other scientists, including statisticians, virologists, and disease ecologists, have criticized the study’s methods and the team’s conclusions.
One could write a long piece assessing the Santa Clara study alone, but that would defeat the point: that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19. About 30 similar “serosurveys” have now been released. These and others to come could collectively reveal how many Americans have been infected. Even then, they would have to be weighed against other evidence, including accounts from doctors and nurses in New York or Lombardy, Italy, which clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 can crush health-care systems. The precise magnitude of the virus’s fatality rate is a matter of academic debate. The reality of what it can do to hospitals is not.
It’s a long read, but worth it.
Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.
En passant. There’s been a torrent of research papers on the virus since the crisis broke. Some of this is making it way through the peer-review vetting process of traditional scientific journals. But an awful lot of it is winding up on so-called ‘preprint’ servers, where (more or less) anyone can publish anything that bears a superficial resemblance to ‘scientific’ or scholarly work. These preprint archives have their uses, and peer-reviewing isn’t perfect. But when mainstream media sees an unreviewed preprint and then draws sensational conclusions from it, then that only makes things worse.
Julie Pfeiffer of UT Southwestern, who is an editor at the Journal of Virology, says that she and her colleagues have been flooded with submitted papers, most of which are so obviously poor that they haven’t even been sent out for review. “They shouldn’t be published anywhere,” she says, “and then they end up [on a preprint site].” Some come from nonscientists who have cobbled together a poor mathematical model; others come from actual virologists who have suddenly pivoted to studying coronaviruses and “are submitting work they never normally would in a rush to be first,” Pfeiffer says. “Some people are genuinely trying to help, but there’s also a huge amount of opportunism.”
From Private Lives to Public Memory
Absorbing conversation on Lapham’s Quarterly about the 1918 flu pandemic with the historian Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds Of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
It’s fascinating for all kinds of reasons, of which the first is that 1918 was the last time that the US and Europe went through something akin to our current crisis. Lots of differences, of course, but also similarities. For example:
In general, the common pattern was a lot of community commitment, and folks nationwide stepped up to do the right thing. You hear stories of schoolteachers whose school districts were closed down and were asked to serve as volunteer nurses instead. In an email from a colleague this week, I learned the story of schoolteacher who spent the pandemic holding the hands of the dying in an emergency ward. And that kind of story is not unusual. People formed soup kitchens, they helped in the emergency hospitals, they delivered food, they ran temporary orphanages to take care of children whose parents were ill. So again and again you see people doing really heroic things to help one another. And this is an era in which, because they can’t identify the virus, and they don’t really have the same kind of understanding of personal protective equipment we do now, those who offered that kind of help were often putting their own lives at risk. Across the country you see examples of communities really stepping up and of individuals stepping up to be their best selves, of being what Rebecca Solnit describes as part of “a paradise built in hell”: this idea that we can be our best selves in the midst of a catastrophe and that that’s actually a common reaction for human beings. You see that a great deal in 1918.
The private and public lives of Albert Einstein
Lovely review article in the TLS by P.D. Smith of five books about Einstein’s life, relationships and experiences. Includes lots I hadn’t known. Including this:
On September 9, 1933, something spooked Einstein, who was by then living in exile in Belgium. Apparently fearing for his life, he travelled alone to England at short notice. Einstein turned to Oliver Locker-Lampson, whom he had met on an earlier visit, for protection. A Conservative Member of Parliament and decorated former soldier, Locker-Lampson was “an impulsive romantic” and, according to Robinson, Einstein clearly liked the “commander’s can-do, gung-ho personality”.
Locker-Lampson took Einstein to his thatched holiday hut in Norfolk. In what sounds like an episode of Dad’s Army, he armed locals with shotguns to protect Einstein from Nazi assassins. Einstein used the “admirable solitude” of the countryside to continue working on his unified field theory, a project which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The sculptor Jacob Epstein came to model him and recalled his “wild hair floating in the wind”, like “the ageing Rembrandt”. His wonderful bronze bust of the scientist is in the Tate Gallery.
Dominic Cummings: the plot thickens
From this morning’s Politico London newsletter:
Lockdown story of the morning: Irresistible scoop from Bloomberg News’ Alex Morales, who reports that Dominic Cummings did indeed heavily influence the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers at a crucial meeting last month. Morales speaks to two sources who say Cummings “played far more than a bystander’s role at a crucial SAGE meeting on March 18,” five days before Britain went into lockdown. Yikes. Guardian readers will be frothing at the mouth to learn that Cummings checks notes “asked why a lockdown was not being imposed sooner, swayed the discussion toward faster action, and made clear he thought pubs and restaurants should be closed within two days.” Oh.
OK, OK: It will of course concern an awful lot of people if an unelected history graduate with zero science expertise is swaying our most eminent scientists on their crucial advice to the government. Downing Street has repeatedly denied Cummings in any way influenced the committee, and this was backed up on the record at the weekend by one of its members, Professor Neil Ferguson. We may never know for sure, but certainly Cummings’ position as described should not come as a surprise — the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported last month that Cummings swung heavily and forcefully behind a strict lockdown once scientists modeled the vast loss of life associated with the initial ‘herd immunity’ plan.
Quarantine diary — Day 39
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