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Two Charts Show How Hard It Is to Make Pandemic Policy Decisions

A look at New Mexico and Ohio.
April 22, 2020
Two Charts Show How Hard It Is to Make Pandemic Policy Decisions

1. Sympathy for the Nerds

Yesterday I shared with you a graphic that my data nerd friend—let’s just call him Buckaroo Bonzai—put together that plotted the basic reproduction number (R0) of the coronavirus across time in individual states.

I included a caveat about how soft much of the R0 calculations probably are because we’re still so far behind the curve in testing/processing capacity. Which led some readers to ask, “So how can you trust these numbers?”

And the short answer is: You can’t.

When you’re fighting a fast-moving epidemiological war, you can’t ever “trust” numbers. The numbers are statistical constructs created from imperfect data sets that serve to help you understand millions of hidden events taking place in the real world.

You don’t trust these things. You have varying degrees of confidence in them.

The top limit of that confidence is always going to be < 95 percent. And you always have to keep an open mind, be cognizant of the data’s limitations, and be ready to refine what you think you know.

The alternative is flying blind.

Anyway, Buckaroo Bonzai sent along another graphic that emphasizes just how hard it can be for policy-makers to understand exactly what’s going on in the world around them. Imagine being the governor of New Mexico, for instance, and seeing this data:

So the dots are the daily new case numbers. The weirdo non-curve is BB’s attempt at a best-fit line. Here’s BB’s thoughts:

Now, exactly what line should be drawn through that mess? It’s like a connect-the-dots from hell. Is it going up? Down? Staying the same? I have drawn a line, and I can defend my line, but seriously with only 40 data points, it’s a pretty anemic data set. And this is what the governor of New Mexico has to work with. And everyone screams at her.

I just want us to stop screaming at people who are trying to do the right thing with no good options and terrible data.

Sounds about right to me.

2. On the Other Hand

Sometimes the data is less ambiguous.

One of my warnings yesterday was that Ohio looked to be in a ramp-up stage. Here’s the new-infections over time plot for the Buckeye State:

The data for Ohio isn’t nearly as noisy as it is for New Mexico. You can see pretty clear movement, even if the best-fit line isn’t perfect after April 12.

What this should reinforce for us is the idea that the national numbers mask a good deal of reality because the outbreak moved so quickly to the country’s biggest population center. Our hope was for a Gaussian distribution of both new infections and new deaths. But we should be mindful of the possibility that it might not work that way.

If the virus recedes in the Northeast only to bloom in other regions, we could get a plateau instead of an overall decline in the numbers.

3. It Came From the Deep

David Grann is my hero: A wonderful human being, a sensational writer, and the best longform reporter alive. Period. The end. And at the very top of his greatest hits is his search for the giant squid:

On a moonless January night in 2003, Olivier de Kersauson, the French yachtsman, was racing across the Atlantic Ocean, trying to break the record for the fastest sailing voyage around the world, when his boat mysteriously came to a halt. There was no land for hundreds of miles, yet the mast rattled and the hull shuddered, as if the vessel had run aground. Kersauson turned the wheel one way, then the other; still, the gunwales shook inexplicably in the darkness. Kersauson ordered his crew, all of whom were now running up and down the deck, to investigate. Some of the crew took out spotlights and shone them on the water, as the massive trimaran—a three-hulled, hundred-and-ten-foot boat that was the largest racing machine of its kind, and was named Geronimo, for the Apache warrior—pitched in the waves.

Meanwhile, the first mate, Didier Ragot, descended from the deck into the cabin, opened a trapdoor in the floor, and peered through a porthole into the ocean, using a flashlight. He glimpsed something by the rudder. “It was bigger than a human leg,” Ragot recently told me. “It was a tentacle.” He looked again. “It was starting to move,” he recalled.

He beckoned Kersauson, who came down and crouched over the opening. “I think it’s some sort of animal,” Ragot said.

Kersauson took the flashlight, and inspected for himself. “I had never seen anything like it,” he told me. “There were two giant tentacles right beneath us, lashing at the rudder.”

The creature seemed to be wrapping itself around the boat, which rocked violently. The floorboards creaked, and the rudder started to bend. Then, just as the stern seemed ready to snap, everything went still. “As it unhooked itself from the boat, I could see its tentacles,” Ragot recalled. “The whole animal must have been nearly thirty feet long.”

The creature had glistening skin and long arms with suckers, which left impressions on the hull. “It was enormous,” Kersauson recalled. “I’ve been sailing for forty years and I’ve always had an answer for everything—for hurricanes and icebergs. But I didn’t have an answer for this. It was terrifying.”

What they claimed they saw—a claim that many regarded as a tall tale—was a giant squid, an animal that has long occupied a central place in sea lore; it has been said to be larger than a whale and stronger than an elephant, with a beak that can sever steel cables. In a famous scene in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne depicts a battle between a submarine and a giant squid that is twenty-five feet long, with eight arms and blue-green eyes—“a terrible monster worthy of all the legends about such creatures.” More recently, Peter Benchley, in his thriller “Beast,” describes a giant squid that “killed without need, as if Nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end.”

Such fictional accounts, coupled with scores of unconfirmed sightings by sailors over the years, have elevated the giant squid into the fabled realm of the fire-breathing dragon and the Loch Ness monster. Though the giant squid is no myth, the species, designated in scientific literature as Architeuthis, is so little understood that it sometimes seems like one. A fully grown giant squid is classified as the largest invertebrate on Earth, with tentacles sometimes as long as a city bus and eyes about the size of human heads. Yet no scientist has ever examined a live specimen—or seen one swimming in the sea.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.