Speculations on Information flow and Covid

Entering speech-to-text experiment. Please let me know in the comments what you think of this and the previous text to speech experiment. Is it any different from my normal writing style with my fingers? Since this is our second experiment, I’ll be in a little better at using this technology. One thing I noticed last time was that I was talking too fast for the technology to really keep up with, and so in the end I had some very garbled paragraphs that I had to completely discard because I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say anymore. I’m sure the app was doing its very best to figure out what I was saying, but this time I’m going to speak more slowly–I know you can’t tell that on your end, but I do wonder if it does something to the writing process.

Much as I would like to talk about something other than corona, when everyone is talking about corona, well, you talk about corona. Watching how people react to this pandemic has been very interesting to watch (the pandemic itself, of course, is awful). I can’t discuss corona from the point of view of a doctor or an epidemiologist or a virologist because I’m not one of these things. I can discuss it from my point of view as a lay person, watching the the social dynamics unfold. Early on in China, we had a few doctors noticing that there was an unusually bad flu and pneumonia season going on. I believe the first doctor reported on this was actually an ophthalmologist–an eye doctor–not a not an emergency, not a flu or pneumonia doctor. I’m not sure how this opthamologist actually knew that their bunch of pneumonia was going on–he must have been talking to other doctors, maybe some doctor friends of his. This means he wasn’t really the first person to notice that something bad was happening; he was just the first person to try to convey the information more broadly, perhaps because he already perceived it as well-known among people he knew.

He reported this in, I think, a doctor-based chat group he was in and and then, as we know, he was censored. Interestingly, he wasn’t harshly sensor by the CCP. It’s not like some big censoring agency collects all the chat log information and automatically sensors them, or automatically reads everything produced in China. Somebody actually in his chat must have reported him to the authorities. He reported him for being sensationalist, and this report made its way up the chain of command to the police and then they came and had a talking to him and told him not to raise any more alarms. So I don’t even know if the police had actually looked into what he was saying in any substantive way at that time, or if they were just going on the authority of the guy who’d complained about it. “If someone complained about it, it must be a problem,” kind of thinking.

And I’ve seen people even in the US defending the censors. They’ve compared it to yelling fire in a crowded theater–except, the thing is, the theater was on fire.

It’s reasonable to say “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” if the theater is not on fire, but first you have to make sure the theater is not actually on on fire. If the theater is on fire and you tell people not to yell fire, then everybody dies in a fire.

And this is the situation we have now in Wuhan and other parts of the world: things got way further out of control than they would have if the doctor had been able in the first place to report what he was seeing to the government or to the right authorities. If he’d  been able to get support instead of being told “hey, you’re being alarmist,” then things would have gone a lot better. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be alarmist to raise an alarm.

I feel like I’ve had the same pattern of conversation many times–take Galileo. We can talk about Galileo’s theories, whether they were right or wrong, but the fact is Galileo did end up under house arrest, possibly for being rude to the pope and for having theories about the way the universe works that the pope didn’t like.

Here’s where people jump in and argue that Galileo’s theories were wrong, therefore he deserved to be put under house arrest. Utter bullshit. You don’t put people under house arrest just because they have funny theories about the tides. (Disclaimer for the confused: Galileo claimed that the tides were proof that the Earth was sloshing around in space. The Earth does move through space, but the tides are not evidence of this.)

If you want to have scientific inquiry, some of your scientists will come up with funny theories, and if you put every scientist who comes up with a wrong theory under house arrest, you will very quickly run out of scientists. Was Galileo a jerk? Was he rude? I don’t know, but we don’t put people under house arrest for that, either. If you want people who can look at the established orthodoxy, who can look at authors like Galen and Aristotle who’ve been revered for about a thousand years, and proclaim that they’re wrong, then I think you have to accept that those people tend to be, by nature, cranky misanthropes.

If you limit your scientific inquiry only to people who are polite and deferential and never in their whole lives are rude to people (especially people whom they think are imbeciles), you’re not going to get a lot of science. And if you limit your alarm system about pandemics to people who can kiss the right ass while never sounding alarmed in any way, then you’re just going to end up dead.

Looking at the way information has spread, it’s been very striking how may “official” outlets were, early on, exceedingly wrong, eg:

Fox News? Wrong. CNN? Probably wrong. My local news network? Useless. Vox? Wrong. Official British medical experts who came up with the “herd immunity” plan? Wrong. CDC? Run by morons.

At least in the early stages, these folks seemed to know less about corona and its spread than, as I put it, random nobodies on Twitter. I know my little corner of the internet is interested in China–I follow a 3D printing account based in China, for example–I think people who are interested in technology are more likely to have contacts in their information orbit who are either in or reading Chinese publications, because there’s a lot of technological development going on in China, not to mention being home to a ton of technological industry. And of course some people are fascinated by autocratic governments like China (or just like the culture), Nick Land, for example, lives in China. It’s not just right-wingers, either: I know plenty of more liberal people who pay attention to things happening in China. I think it has more to do with being interested in technology or culture, and of course diseases.

I used to have some very nice theories about liberals and conservatives being split by their emotional reactions to disease, but the data in this pandemic is not supporting that.

blog_coronavirus_partisan

The NYTimes has this poll, but broken down by state so you can compare how concerned Republicans in New York are vs Democrats in New York, but the result is the same: in every state, Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans.

What’s the big difference between this outbreak and ebola? Speculatively:

Ebola: makes you explode, terrifying
Corona: suffocates you. Slightly less visually graphic, but still awful.
Ebola: Africa. Corona: China.
Ebola: quarantine would affect mostly people returning from Africa
Corona: quarantine affects everyone
Ebola broke out during Obama’s administration, so Fox News hyped it up to show how Obama wasn’t doing enough to protect us
Corona broke out during Trump’s admin, so Fox News has been downplaying it so Trump doesn’t get blamed.

Operating theory: where you get your news from matters. Those of us who get our news from the internet were plugged into Chinese happenings (not just internet racists). Those of us who get our news from the TV, by contrast, were less informed (even the TV racists).

Or maybe normies just aren’t as concerned about disease.

Whatever was going on, for whatever reasons, people on the internet were talking about the situation in Wuhan back in January. It was difficult to get trustworthy numbers, but it was pretty easy to get very concerning reports about things like “entire cities shut down.” At the time, we didn’t know whether China was overreacting or not, and we didn’t know whether the virus would spread or not. We’ve had previous concerning viruses like Ebola, SARS, MERS; these were bad viruses, but they never spread that well. (Technically, Covid is a SARS virus.)

The early stages in Wuhan were concerning because the CCP was definitely reacting like this was a huge deal, and this is coming from a government that has not historically acted like it has a huge concern for human life and well-being (at least from the outside perspective, eg, things like the Great Leap Forward killed millions of people,) but that makes it all the more concerning. If a government that doesn’t normally seem to care whether people live or die is suddenly concerned that people are going to die, you get worried.

(It may be that the Chinese government has changed a lot in its concern for human life since the Cultural Revolution and now puts in more effort to take care of its people, but that’s waiting into the weeds of Chinese policy and I don’t really know enough about China to comment coherently.) My point is just that the Chinese response certainly looked concerning.

It was concerning enough that very online people in the US were starting to plan ahead for the pandemic shutdown back in January. For example, I have talked to people who said they had started stocking up on food gradually, just buying a little bit extra each time they went to the store, a bag of rice here, a few cans of soup there, etc. This is a sensible way to do it, because if corona had turned out to be nothing, they you’ll eat the food eventually, and if there is a quarantine, you won’t be caught flat-footed. But most people simply ignored the news back in January–I think most people weren’t even aware that anything was going on in China.

Meanwhile, the reaction from governments and governmental bodies was much more muted. It’s been amazing to watch official medical folks working for the British government come out with ideas like “let’s just go for herd immunity,” which any idiot could have told you was terrible terrible idea. At that point, we had the examples of Iran and Italy in addition to China, so there’s really no excuse for proposing this terrible idea. Being ignorant about what an absolute disaster the Italian hospitals were at that point seems like almost willful ignorance, which is rather frightening.

Unfortunately the same thing is true here in the US. The CDC completely flubbed its early response to Corona. I’ve read a few of the emails released from the CDC, and I don’t see a lot of malice in these documents; I simply see a slow-moving organization that can’t get its act together and doesn’t realize how fast it needs to act. Some of this is probably because most of the health problems in the US, prior to Corona, were slow-moving problems. Our biggest issues these days are things like obesity and heart disease, conditions that will only kill you after multiple decades. The only major new communicable disease we’ve had is AIDS, which also takes years to kill you and hasn’t been a huge deal since the 90s. (You also generally have to be involved in some specific activities to catch AIDs. You can catch corona, by contrast, just by breathing.) So the CDC has not had to actually deal with a new, fast-spread epidemic disease in a very long time (if ever) and weren’t ready to act quickly. For example, they tried to deploy a digital questionnaire to airports for screening international arrivals, but the questionnaires had major problems, like an inability to save the information entered. Unfortunately, “predicting pandemics” and “coding questionnaires” are two different skillsets.

I think these people working for the CDC were probably watching ordinary TV news, which hasn’t done a great job of getting on the ground information about what’s going on with corna in different countries–CDC employees aren’t magic, after all. They have to get information from somewhere, and most of them are probably ordinary people who watch ordinary sources. If you watch MSNBC and MSNBC is not airing frontline reports from inside Chinese or Italian hospitals, then you have to go on YouTube to see videos of people dying in the hallways of Italian hospitals (maybe that’s not even on YouTube anymore. Maybe you have to go to LiveLeak). If you’re not the kind of person to seek out this information in the first place, or maybe you’re not in a group of people online who are talking about it, then you might not hear about it. It’s possible that maybe these CDC guys really just did not realize how serious this is and how fast they needed to act. They’re watching the media for information, and meanwhile the media is taking its cues from the CDC, and the whole thing becomes a circle with insufficient “official” sources of information.

As I’ve joked, early on you could have gotten better information from some random guy on Twitter named something like AnimeNaziTits999 than from the official government websites, but the CDC obviously can’t go getting its information from random anons. I can, because I’m just a random person with a blog, but the CDC has to get its information from official sources, or at least sources that don’t have really embarrassing names. The way some information sources are designated “official” is interesting, too. Sometimes that works–sometimes you really need to go to the official experts. For example, if you want to know about quantum thermodynamics, it’s really best to find an actual professor or read a real textbook on the subject, rather than listen to random lay people. People who haven’t put a lot of effort into learning quantum thermodynamics tend not to know anything about it (I don’t know anything about it, either), but there’s a ton of feel-good woo bullshit on anything related to “quantum.”

By contrast, there’s clearly no official route to get information from Wuhan, China, (or Italy) to the CDC–or if there are official routes, they have numerous choke points where people are suppressing information.

It’s not just China that’s suppressing information. I noticed the official news here in the US, until very recently, has had very little coverage of what’s actually been going on at the hospitals. I understand why we didn’t get much information about what was happening in Wuhan hospitals, but what about Italian hospitals? Our media can bring us a drone footage of migrants marching through Mexico, they can get into the front lines of refugees trying to cross from like turkey to Greece, they can even get embedded in military operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but they couldn’t get into an Italian Hospital.

I don’t believe that for an instant.

I think somebody didn’t want this information getting out. Not necessarily because they’re evil, scheming people, but for the same reasons that the police didn’t want that doctor talking in China: they didn’t want people to be alarmist. Or they just weren’t set up to write articles on the subject. Clearly the New York Times was ready to write articles about Catholic highschool students who smiled awkwardly at Native American activists, but they weren’t ready to write articles about pandemics overwhelming Italian hospitals.

So we end up with very strange reports. We get told that in Spain they’ve commandeered ice rinks to store the bodies. That’s pretty graphic, but the net effect is like a media blackout on was actually going on in hospitals in the US.

Or perhaps the doctors don’t want things to reflect badly on their hospital, or are too busy to go pursuing media contacts. As an acquaintance pointed out, it’s very normal for employees to not be allowed to speak directly to the media about their jobs. So in China they have centralized censorship and in the US we have decentralized censorship. Great. Huge improvement.

But even if doctors can’t say much, you’d think media personnel who pride themselves on their investigative journalism heritage as the descendants of Woodward and Bernstein would say, “screw non-disclosure, I’m taking a camera down ER.” Folks who could get themselves embedded in a war ought to be able to manage an Italian ER, but I guess not.

We needed to know just how bad this was back in January. We needed to be making plans in February. At that point, people were still playing games and writing articles about how the flu was a bigger deal than Covid. The CDC needed to be raising the alarm and going on full alert, yelling that this was going to be a huge problem, but I don’t think they realized just how bad it was going to be, because they didn’t have the right information because their information chain, while normally good, wasn’t going through the right people and there were too many people with choke points on crucial information. We’ve got too many HR managers, too many PR guys at the hospitals telling people not to talk with the press, and too many people in the press saying that random anons on the internet are not valid sources of medical information (even though many of these folks on the internet are actually epidemiologists, virologists, doctors, etc).

An this has been happening in tandem with attempts by different organizations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to crack down on the “invalid” information sources. Censorship, basically. Google has changed parts of their search algorithm to decrease results from blogs and increase results from more official websites, for example (before you run off to Duck Duck Go, I don’t think my blog is even indexed on Duck Duck Go). Shortly before corona really blew up, the social networks were debuting a beta program for identifying “fake news.” We can just imagine in a case like this where there has been a lot of incorrect information just because it’s a developing situation and we don’t know what’s going on yet, (we may never know how many people actually died in Wuhan) many legitimate news stories could get censored. Trying to weed out all of the fake news puts a damper on the real news and too many real things will get labeled as fake because we don’t know they’re real, yet. The real is in the future; it’s still developing. We don’t know what it is, yet. Too many real stories will sound, like the ophthalmologist raising the alarm in Wuhan, like a guy yelling fire in a crowded theater when the theater is actually on fire.

This is why I am against censorship and in favor of letting people run around saying dumb things, like that the tides prove the Earth. Yes, Galileo was wrong–and yet, the Earth moves.