Terrible but not likely, likely but not terrible

May 17 JDN 2458985

The human brain is a remarkably awkward machine. It’s really quite bad at organizing data, relying on associations rather than formal categories.

It is particularly bad at negation. For instance, if I tell you that right now, no matter what, you must not think about a yellow submarine, the first thing you will do is think about a yellow submarine. (You may even get the Beatles song stuck in your head, especially now that I’ve mentioned it.) A computer would never make such a grievous error.

The human brain is also quite bad at separation. Daniel Dennett coined a word “deepity” for a particular kind of deep-sounding but ultimately trivial aphorism that seems to be quite common, which relies upon this feature of the brain. A deepity has at least two possible readings: On one reading, it is true, but utterly trivial. On another, it would be profound if true, but it simply isn’t true. But if you experience both at once, your brain is triggered for both “true” and “profound” and yields “profound truth”. The example he likes to use is “Love is just a word”. Well, yes, “love” is in fact just a word, but who cares? Yeah, words are words. But love, the underlying concept it describes, is not just a word—though if it were that would change a lot.

One thing I’ve come to realize about my own anxiety is that it involves a wide variety of different scenarios I imagine in my mind, and broadly speaking these can be sorted into two categories: Those that are likely but not terrible, and those that are terrible but not likely.

In the former category we have things like taking an extra year to finish my dissertation; the mean time to completion for a PhD is over 8 years, so finishing in 6 instead of 5 can hardly be considered catastrophic.

In the latter category we have things like dying from COVID-19. Yes, I’m a male with type A blood and asthma living in a high-risk county; but I’m also a young, healthy nonsmoker living under lockdown. Even without knowing the true fatality rate of the virus, my chances of actually dying from it are surely less than 1%.

But when both of those scenarios are running through my brain at the same time, the first triggers a reaction for “likely” and the second triggers a reaction for “terrible”, and I get this feeling that something terrible is actually likely to happen. And indeed if my probability of dying were as high as my probability of needing a 6th year to finish my PhD, that would be catastrophic.

I suppose it’s a bit strange that the opposite doesn’t happen: I never seem to get the improbability of dying attached to the mildness of needing an extra year. The confusion never seems to trigger “neither terrible nor likely”. Or perhaps it does, and my brain immediately disregards that as not worthy of consideration? It makes a certain sort of sense: An event that is neither probable nor severe doesn’t seem to merit much anxiety.

I suspect that many other people’s brains work the same way, eliding distinctions between different outcomes and ending up with a sort of maximal product of probability and severity.
The solution to this is not an easy one: It requires deliberate effort and extensive practice, and benefits greatly from formal training by a therapist. Counter-intuitively, you need to actually focus more on the scenarios that cause you anxiety, and accept the anxiety that such focus triggers in you. I find that it helps to actually write down the details of each scenario as vividly as possible, and review what I have written later. After doing this enough times, you can build up a greater separation in your mind, and more clearly categorize—this one is likely but not terrible, that one is terrible but not likely. It isn’t a cure, but it definitely helps me a great deal. Perhaps it could help you.

We still don’t know the fatality rate of COVID-19

May 10 JDN2458978

You’d think after being in this pandemic for several weeks we would now have a clear idea of the fatality rate of the virus. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The problem is that what we can track really doesn’t tell us what we need to know.

What we can track is how many people have tested positive versus how many people have died. As of this writing, 247,000 people have died and 3,504,000 have tested positive. If this were the true fatality rate, it would be horrifying: A death rate of 7% is clearly in excess of even the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Fortunately, this is almost certainly an overestimate. But it’s actually possible for it to be an underestimate, and here’s why: A lot of those people who currently have the virus could still die.

We really shouldn’t be dividing (total deaths)/(total confirmed infections). We should be dividing (total deaths)/(total deaths + total recoveries). If people haven’t recovered yet, it’s too soon to say whether they will live.

On that basis, this begins to look more like an ancient plague: The number of recoveries is only about four times the number of deaths, which would be a staggering fatality rate of 20%.

But as I said, it’s far more likely that this is an overestimate, because we don’t actually know how many people have been infected. We only know how many people have been infected and gotten tested. A large proportion have never been tested; many of these were simply asymptomatic.
We know this because of the few cases we have of rigorous testing of a whole population, such as the passengers on this cruise liner bound for Antarctica. On that cruise liner, 6 were hospitalized, but 128 tested positive for the virus. This means that the number of asymptomatic infections was twenty times that of the number of symptomatic infections.

There have been several studies attempting to determine what proportion of infections are asymptomatic, because this knowledge is so vital. Unfortunately the results are wildly inconsistent. They seem to range from 5% asymptomatic and 95% symptomatic to 95% asymptomatic and 5% symptomatic. The figure I find most plausible is about 80%: This means that the number of asymptomatic infected is about four times that of the number of symptomatic infected.

This means that the true calculation we should be doing actually looks like this: (total deaths)/(total deaths + total recoveries + total asymptomatic).

The number of deaths seems to be about one fourth the number of recoveries. But when you add the fact that four times as many who get infected are asymptomatic, things don’t look quite so bad. This yields an overall fatality rate of about 4%. This is still very high, and absolutely comparable to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

But the truth is, we just don’t know. South Korea’s fatality rate was only 0.7%, which would be a really bad flu season but nothing catastrophic. (A typical flu has a fatality rate of about 0.1%.) On the (deaths)/(deaths + recoveries) basis, it looks almost as bad as the Black Death.

With so much uncertainty, there’s really only one option: Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Assume that the real death rate is massive, and implement lockdown measures until you can confirm that it isn’t.

Motivation under trauma

May 3 JDN 2458971

Whenever I ask someone how they are doing lately, I get the same answer: “Pretty good, under the circumstances.” There seems to be a general sense that—at least among the sort of people I interact with regularly—that our own lives are still proceeding more or less normally, as we watch in horror the crises surrounding us. Nothing in particular is going wrong for us specifically. Everything is fine, except for the things that are wrong for everyone everywhere.

One thing that seems to be particularly difficult for a lot of us is the sense that we suddenly have so much time on our hands, but can’t find the motivation to actually use this time productively. So many hours of our lives were wasted on commuting or going to meetings or attending various events we didn’t really care much about but didn’t want to feel like we had missed out on. But now that we have these hours back, we can’t find the strength to use them well.

This is because we are now, as an entire society, experiencing a form of trauma. One of the most common long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder is a loss of motivation. Faced with suffering we have no power to control, we are made helpless by this traumatic experience; and this makes us learn to feel helpless in other domains.

There is a classic experiment about learned helplessness; like many old classic experiments, its ethics are a bit questionable. Though unlike many such experiments (glares at Zimbardo), its experimental rigor was ironclad. Dogs were divided into three groups. Group 1 was just a control, where the dogs were tied up for a while and then let go. Dogs in groups 2 and 3 were placed into a crate with a floor that could shock them. Dogs in group 2 had a lever they could press to make the shocks stop. Dogs in group 3 did not. (They actually gave the group 2 dogs control over the group 3 dogs to make the shock times exactly equal; but the dogs had no way to know that, so as far as they knew the shocks ended at random.)

Later, dogs from both groups were put into another crate, where they no longer had a lever to press, but they could jump over a barrier to a different part of the crate where the shocks wouldn’t happen. The dogs from group 2, who had previously had some control over their own pain, were able to quickly learn to do this. The dogs from group 3, who had previously felt pain apparently at random, had a very hard time learning this, if they could ever learn it at all. They’d just lay there and suffer the shocks, unable to bring themselves to even try to leap the barrier.

The group 3 dogs just knew there was nothing they could do. During their previous experience of the trauma, all their actions were futile, and so in this new trauma they were certain that their actions would remain futile. When nothing you do matters, the only sensible thing to do is nothing; and so they did. They had learned to be helpless.

I think for me, chronic migraines were my first crate. For years of my life there was basically nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting migraines—honestly the thing that would have helped most would have been to stop getting up for high school that started at 7:40 AM every morning. Eventually I found a good neurologist and got various treatments, as well as learned about various triggers and found ways to avoid most of them. (Let me know if you ever figure out a way to avoid stress.) My migraines are now far less frequent than they were when I was a teenager, though they are still far more frequent than I would prefer.

Yet, I think I still have not fully unlearned the helplessness that migraines taught me. Every time I get another migraine despite all the medications I’ve taken and all the triggers I’ve religiously avoided, this suffering beyond my control acts as another reminder of the ultimate caprice of the universe. There are so many things in our lives that we cannot control that it can be easy to lose sight of what we can.

This pandemic is a trauma that the whole world is now going through. And perhaps that unity of experience will ultimately save us—it will make us see the world and each other a little differently than we did before.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your own risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 infection, like washing your hands regularly, avoiding social contact, and wearing masks when you go outside. And of course you should do these things. But the truth really is that there is very little any one of us can do to stop this global pandemic. We can watch the numbers tick up almost in real-time—as of this writing, 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths in the US, 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide—but there is very little we can do to change those numbers.

Sometimes we really are helpless. The challenge we face is not to let this genuine helplessness bleed over and make us feel helpless about other aspects of our lives. We are currently sitting in a crate with no lever, where the shocks will begin and end beyond our control. But the day will come when we are delivered to a new crate, and given the chance to leap over a barrier; we must find the strength to take that leap.

For now, I think we can forgive ourselves for getting less done than we might have hoped. We’re still not really out of that first crate.

Is this another Great Depression?

Apr 12 JDN 2458952

In the week from March 15 to March 21, over 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment. In the following week, this staggering record was broken, when over 6.6 million filed for unemployment. This is an utterly unprecedented number of unemployment filings in a single week; while the data is not as reliable further back, we think this didn’t even happen in the Great Depression.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down over 26% in the past quarter. The S&P 500 is down over 23% over the same period. The only comparable stock market crashes are Black Monday and the 1929 market crash.

Does this mean we are on track for another Great Depression? Fortunately, it does not.

This is all happening very fast, because of the rapid shutdowns of businesses during the pandemic. So when we look at short time horizons, things look very scary. But currently unemployment is still only 4.4%, and it is forecasted to rise to about 10% or 11%. This will certainly be a recession—indeed comparable to the Great Recession in 2009—but it will still pale in comparison to the Great Depression, when unemployment hit nearly 25%.

Also, we have a good reason for all this unemployment: We’re making people stay home to stop the spread of the virus. And it seems to be working: California and Washington took some of the most drastic measures, and have shown the fastest reductions in the spread of the virus.

This isn’t a normal recession. We are causing this unemployment on purpose. Paul Krugman makes the analogy to a medically-induced coma: We are shutting some functions down intentionally in order to make it easier to heal.

There is a significant chance, however, that this recession will end up being worse than it’s supposed to be, if our policymakers fail to provide adequate and timely relief to those who become unemployed.

As Donald Marron of the Urban Institute explained quite succinctly in a Twitter thread, there are three types of economic losses we need to consider here: Losses necessary to protect health, losses caused by insufficient demand, and losses caused by lost productive capacity. The first kind of loss is what we are doing on purpose; the other two are losses we should be trying to avoid. Insufficient demand is fairly easy to fix: Hand out cash. But sustaining productive capacity can be trickier.

Given the track record of the Trump administration so far, I am not optimistic. First Trump denied the virus was even a threat. Then he blamed China (which, even if partly true, doesn’t solve anything). Then his response was delayed and inadequate. And now the relief money is taking weeks to get to people—while clearly being less than many people need.

When Trump was first elected, I had several scenarios in my head of what might happen. The best-case scenario was that he’d turn out to be a typical Republican, or be kept on a tight leash by other Republicans. Obviously that didn’t happen. The worst-case scenario was a nuclear war with China; we are all very fortunate that this didn’t happen either. But this is honestly much worse than my median-case scenario, which was that Trump would be like another Reagan or another Nixon. Somehow he turned out to be another Reagan, another Nixon, another Harding, and another Hoover all rolled into one. He somehow combines the worst aspects of every President we’ve ever had, and while facing a historic global crisis his primary concern is his TV ratings.

I can’t tell you how long this is going to last. I can’t tell you just how bad it’s going to get. But I am confident of a few things:

It’ll be worse than it had to be, but not as bad as it could have been. Trump will continue making everything worse, but other, better leaders will make things better. Above all, we’ll make it through this, together.

Do I want to stay in academia?

Apr 5 JDN 2458945

This is a very personal post. You’re not going to learn any new content today; but this is what I needed to write about right now.

I am now nearly finished with my dissertation. It only requires three papers (which, quite honestly, have very little to do with one another). I just got my second paper signed off on, and my third is far enough along that I can probably finish it in a couple of months.

I feel like I ought to be more excited than I am. Mostly what I feel right now is dread.

Yes, some of that dread is the ongoing pandemic—though I am pleased to report that the global number of cases of COVID-19 has substantially undershot the estimates I made last week, suggesting that at least most places are getting the virus under control. The number of cases and number of deaths has about doubled in the past week, which is a lot better than doubling every two days as it was at the start of the pandemic. And that’s all I want to say about COVID-19 today, because I’m sure you’re as tired of the wall-to-wall coverage of it as I am.

But most of the dread is about my own life, mainly my career path. More and more I’m finding that the world of academic research just isn’t working for me. The actual research part I like, and I’m good at it; but then it comes time to publish, and the journal system is so fundamentally broken, so agonizingly capricious, and has such ludicrous power over the careers of young academics that I’m really not sure I want to stay in this line of work. I honestly think I’d prefer they just flip a coin when you graduate and you get a tenure-track job if you get heads. Or maybe journals could roll a 20-sided die for each paper submitted and publish the papers that get 19 or 20. At least then the powers that be couldn’t convince themselves that their totally arbitrary and fundamentally unjust selection process was actually based on deep wisdom and selecting the most qualified individuals.

In any case I’m fairly sure at this point that I won’t have any publications in peer-reviewed journals by the time I graduate. It’s possible I still could—I actually still have decent odds with two co-authored papers, at least—but I certainly do not expect to. My chances of getting into a top journal at this point are basically negligible.

If I weren’t trying to get into academia, that fact would be basically irrelevant. I think most private businesses and government agencies are fairly well aware of the deep defects in the academic publishing system, and really don’t put a whole lot of weight on its conclusions. But in academia, publication is everything. Specifically, publication in top journals.

For this reason, I am now seriously considering leaving academia once I graduate. The more contact I have with the academic publishing system the more miserable I feel. The idea of spending another six or seven years desperately trying to get published in order to satisfy a tenure committee sounds about as appealing right now as having my fingernails pulled out one by one.

This would mean giving up on a lifelong dream. It would mean wondering why I even bothered with the PhD, when the first MA—let alone the second—would probably have been enough for most government or industry careers. And it means trying to fit myself into a new mold that I may find I hate just as much for different reasons: A steady 9-to-5 work schedule is a lot harder to sustain when waking up before 10 AM consistently gives you migraines. (In theory, there are ways to get special accommodations for that sort of thing; in practice, I’m sure most employers would drag their feet as much as possible, because in our culture a phase-delayed circadian rhythm is tantamount to being lazy and therefore worthless.)

Or perhaps I should aim for a lecturer position, perhaps at a smaller college, that isn’t so obsessed with research publication. This would still dull my dream, but would not require abandoning it entirely.

I was asked a few months ago what my dream job is, and I realized: It is almost what I actually have. It is so tantalizingly close to what I am actually headed for that it is painful. The reality is a twisted mirror of the dream.

I want to teach. I want to do research. I want to write. And I get to do those things, yes. But I want to them without the layers of bureaucracy, without the tiers of arbitrary social status called ‘prestige’, without the hyper-competitive and capricious system of journal publication. Honestly I want to do them without grading or dealing with publishers at all—though I can at least understand why some mechanisms for evaluating student progress and disseminating research are useful, even if our current systems for doing so are fundamentally defective.

It feels as though I have been running a marathon, but was only given a vague notion of the route beforehand. There were a series of flags to follow: This way to the bachelor’s, this way to the master’s, that way to advance to candidacy. Then when I come to the last set of flags, the finish line now visible at the horizon, I see that there is an obstacle course placed in my way, with obstacles I was never warned about, much less trained for. A whole new set of skills, maybe even a whole different personality, is necessary to surpass these new obstacles, and I feel utterly unprepared.

It is as if the last mile of my marathon must bedone on horseback, and I’ve never learned to ride a horse—no one ever told me I would need to ride a horse. (Or maybe they did and I didn’t listen?) And now every time I try to mount one, I fall off immediately; and the injuries I sustain seem to be worse every time. The bruises I thought would heal only get worse. The horses I must ride are research journals, and the injuries when I fall are psychological—but no less real, all too real. With each attempt I keep hoping that my fear will fade, but instead it only intensifies.

It’s the same pain, the same fear, that pulled me away from fiction writing. I want to go back, I hope to go back—but I am not strong enough now, and cannot be sure I ever will be. I was told that working in a creative profession meant working hard and producing good output; it turns out it doesn’t mean that at all. A successful career in a creative field actually means satisfying the arbitrary desires of a handful of inscrutable gatekeepers. It means rolling the dice over, and over, and over again, each time a little more painful than the last. And it turns out that this just isn’t something I’m good at. It’s not what I’m cut out for. And maybe it never will be.

An incompetent narcissist would surely fare better than I, willing to re-submit whatever refuse they produce a thousand times because they are certain they deserve to succeed. For, deep down, I never feel that I deserve it. Others tell me I do, and I try to believe them; but the only validation that feels like it will be enough is the kind that comes directly from those gatekeepers, the kind that I can never get. And truth be told, maybe if I do finally get that, it still won’t be enough. Maybe nothing ever will be.

If I knew that it would get easier one day, that the pain would, if not go away, at least retreat to a dull roar I could push aside, then maybe I could stay on this path. But this cannot be the rest of my life. If this is really what it means to have an academic career, maybe I don’t want one after all.

Or maybe it’s not academia that’s broken. Maybe it’s just me.

Fear not to “overreact”

Mar 29 JDN 2458938

It could be given as a story problem in an algebra class, if you didn’t mind terrifying your students:

A virus spreads exponentially, so that the population infected doubles every two days. Currently 10,000 people are infected. How long will it be until 300,000 are infected? Until 10,000,000 are infected? Until 600,000,000 are infected?

The answers:

300,000/10,000 is about 32 = 2^5, so it will take 5 doublings, or 10 days.

10,000,000/10,000 is about 1024=2^10, so it will take 10 doublings, or 20 days.

600,000,000/10,000 is about 64*1024=2^6*2^10, so it will take 16 doublings, or 32 days.

This is the approximate rate at which COVID-19 spreads if uncontrolled.

Fortunately it is not completely uncontrolled; there were about 10,000 confirmed infections on January 30, and there are now about 300,000 as of March 22. This is about 50 days, so the daily growth rate has averaged about 7%. On the other hand, this is probably a substantial underestimate, because testing remains very poor, particularly here in the US.

Yet the truth is, we don’t know how bad COVID-19 is going to get. Some estimates suggest it may be nearly as bad as the 1918 flu pandemic; others say it may not be much worse than H1N1. Perhaps all this social distancing and quarantine is an overreaction? Perhaps the damage from closing all the schools and restaurants will actually be worse than the damage from the virus itself?

Yes, it’s possible we are overreacting. But we really shouldn’t be too worried about this possibility.

This is because the costs here are highly asymmetric. Overreaction has a moderate, fairly predictable cost. Underreaction could be utterly catastrophic. If we overreact, we waste a quarter or two of productivity, and then everything returns to normal. If we underreact, millions of people die.

This is what it means to err on the side of caution: If we are not 90% sure that we are overreacting, then we should be doing more. We should be fed up with the quarantine procedures and nearly certain that they are not all necessary. That means we are doing the right thing.

Indeed, the really terrifying thing is that we may already have underreacted. These graphs of what will happen under various scenarios really don’t look good:

pandemic_graph

But there may still be a chance to react adequately. The advice for most of us seems almost too simple: Stay home. Wash your hands.