Since COVID-19 hit the scene, the art of predicting where this bus is going has become the latest contact sport. How many people will be infected? How many of those who are infected will get sick and recover? How many of those who get sick will die? How many who become infected will be completely asymptomatic? These are critical issues that can directly impact the quality and even perhaps the length of our lives. The question of economic impact is also open to speculation. We know there will be some degree of economic decline, but will it be mild and short-lived or severe and prolonged?
Recently two of the heavyweights of the practical application of statistics have faced off with opposing views on many of these issues. One is John Ioannidis, a physician at Stanford specializing in epidemiology and the statistical evaluation of medical phenomena. I know John, and he is a brilliant thinker. John graduated number one in his medical school class in Athens, Greece, and my wife Irene graduated number 2. He is one of the most cited academic researchers in the world. This article was one of his earliest speculations about COVID-19. He also wrote another article that ended up creating quite a backlash. In this article, he speculated that we were making important decisions about COVID-19 without adequate data.
In most cases where this happens, adverse outcomes can increase. Many in the academic community aggressively disagreed with his views, and Ioannidis was criticized, ostracized, and shunned by many professions. He later wrote this article claiming that many people had misinterpreted what he was trying to communicate. I thought that his explanation was well written with the right combination of facts and professional respect for others.
One of his most vocal critics is another heavyweight in the world of statistics—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the book “The Black Swan.” I loved his book, and it is likely one of the best books that I have ever read. Taleb’s perspective is that periodically “black swan” events will occur. These are massively disruptive events that are unpredictable and can have massively negative consequences. Think about world wars I and II, a tornado hitting your home, and the Spanish Flu outbreak in the early part of the last century. Once a black swan even suddenly appears, Taleb recommends reacting as aggressively as possible, as soon as possible. Kill it before the egg hatches. He also recommends preparing for Black Swan events by expecting they will happen and taking appropriate precautions to protect yourself and your family. This article summarizes his views about COVID-19. I also agree that his views make a lot of sense.
What is comes down to is whether or not COVID-19 is merely a new type of flu that should be viewed somewhat like influenza, or is it a true black swan event that is unpredictable with possibly devastating consequences. At this point, I think it’s a tough call. If we do get an effective vaccine soon, and the epidemic starts to trend downward across the world, we could view it like supercharged influenza—dangerous, but predictable and controllable. This is the perspective that Ioannidis seems to be taking.
On the other hand, there are hints that the epidemic is heading in the wrong direction. Despite initial successes like flattening the curve, the virus keeps chugging along and popping up in unexpected places like a dangerous whack-a-mole game. Nobody has been able to accurately predict where this is going over a period of time. This would suggest that we are dealing with a possible black swan event. If so, sitting back and waiting to see what happens would be a hazardous course. At this point in time, I am leaning toward the views of Taleb. My opinion is based more on a gut feeling rather than any hard data. I smell a black swan, and I don’t want to be caught unprepared if it is.
Thus, I believe we should take very aggressive actions against COVID-19 with no expectations of how long this will last. We will also have to accept that there will be fairly severe economic consequences, but the human race has survived such meltdowns in the past. Hence, I am optimistic that at some point, things will return to normal, especially if we take the appropriate actions now. Although there is a push to send kids back to school in the fall, I am leaning towards keeping our six-year-old daughter at home. Even though the mortality is children from COVID-19 is very low, it isn’t zero. How much risk do you want to take with your kids, especially if dealing with a real black swan event?
If we do get a vaccine and things settle down into a predictable event like influenza only somewhat worse, I will reconsider my options. Until then, I’m keeping the bomb/storm shelter in the basement fully stocked and my deer rifle nearby. I’m cheering for Ioannidis to be right, but I’m following Taleb until we fully understand where we are headed. I suggest that you take these issues into serious consideration for the sake of yourself and those you love.