I've had a scattering of emails from listeners and readers urging me to take a strong line on the panic one way or the other. Is it all an absurd over-reaction, as the Z-man says? Or are we looking at a possible fifty million worldwide deaths, as Greg Cochran has suggested?
Pass. I know both those guys personally. Both are sensible fellows and good quantitative thinkers. The difference between me and them is, I don't belong to that portion of humanity that believes it should have a strong opinion about everything.
I spent thirty-odd years of my working life up to my elbows in data. I have a great respect for data, and fancy I have a good feel for the quality of data. The quality of data in this pandemic has, from the beginning, been low.
The first numbers we got were out of Communist China, a country I know well from decades of close acquaintance. I wouldn't give a farthing for any numbers the ChiComs put out. As I had occasion to observe back in February, quote from me, borrowing from Mary McCarthy, quote: "Every word they say is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."
Then we started seeing "number of cases" reported, without elaboration. What did it mean? Number of people tested and found positive? Out of how many tested?
Likewise with number of deaths. If I suffer from hemorrhoids but die of a heart attack, what goes on my death certificate: the hemorrhoids or the heart attack? Now: What goes on my death certificate if I die in the middle of a huge national panic about hemorrhoids?
That's the kind of data that's been on offer to us. I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it. You can't deduce anything from it. Well, I'm not going to.
Politicians, of course, are not in my happy situation of being able to recline back in the Barcalounger murmuring: "Lousy data, no opinion." They have to do something. What to do?
Well, if you're a politician—and you can square and cube this if you're a politician in an election year—if you're a politician, what you do is, you take whichever course of action, according to whatever experts you can muster, offers the least possibility of really dire optics: optics like, for example, hospital parking lots full of geezers on gurneys choking in their own lung fluids.
Hence our present situation. Will it, ten years from now, when we understand much more, will it all look to have been a ridiculous over-reaction? I wouldn't be terrifically surprised.
It might also look to have been a wise and prudent response to a real, serious threat. I don't know. Neither do you. All we have is surmise based on shoddy data, and politicians who have to do something.