Friday, September 11, 2020

Superspreader? Supersoaker? Superscience?

      None of the above?

     Spin, spin, spin.  I've already read people claiming the President didn't say what he said on tape, with a handwavy "editing" offered in explanation.  Yeah, no, nobody's that good; more to the point, Bob Woodward's not that good: audio editing is as much art as science and you don't get good at it without doing a lot of it, hundreds and hundreds of hours.  Even then, it leaves traces, abrupt changes in background noise, changes in breathing patterns, changes in speech patterns.*  The comments are almost certainly context-stripped; conversations, especially lengthy ones, wander and expand and unless you have the entire tape, you'll never know quite how any snippet of it came to be.

     But, as I pointed out recently, it doesn't matter.  If you liked the President, you still will.  If you disliked him, you still will.

     The Sturgis motorcycle rally is another example.  Leading up to the event, it was already established that having a large number of people in confined indoor spaces for an extended length of time was an ideal situation to spread a respiratory virus, no matter if it was COVID-19 or the common cold.  ("Con crud," the nasty colds that run through science-fiction conventions, is an example that goes back decades.)  Outdoor events are much less predictable -- and Sturgis mixes both.

     Bikers, you may be surprised to learn, are not lab rats; they're not even very good experimental subjects.  There is no tally of who attended, where they came from, what routes they took or where they went afterward.  There's no "control group" of bikers who stayed home to compare them to.  There's no real data.

     Some economists did a study and inferred a fairly high number of additional infections among rally attendees, their families, and those with whom they came into contact; I read far enough into the news reports to glean that fact and marked it as "interesting but unsubstantiated."  The actual known case count -- people who were at Sturgis for the event, went in for testing or treatment afterward and tested positive for COVID-19 -- is two or three orders of magnitude smaller.  This all very interesting, but it doesn't tell us much; it just sets a lower and upper limit, with a very wide error band in between, and if you are engaged in a heated argument over it, you're fighting fog: we don't really know a darned thing either way.

     Telling people to "get the facts" when there aren't any facts isn't helpful.  Calling yourself a "skeptic" when your mind is made up is simply incorrect. 

     The world is, in fact, duller and less convoluted than it appears.  Most everyone is muddling through.  Some have less mud in their way; some have got a nice collection of tools to help cope with the muddiness; but the only people with a crystal-clear vision are either mistaken or delusional.  Not only is there a lot we don't know, there's a lot we can't know -- not because it's secret, sneaky machinations but because it is unknowable: life does not take place under laboratory conditions.

     It is very difficult to see what is really there instead of what we want to see, especially peering into the haze of uncertainty that is our actual world.  It's nevertheless rewarding to make the effort.
* One of the best analog-tape editors I have known learned her trade producing a talk show hosted by a local writer on public radio.  The host had a nice turn of phrase and an easy manner; he was a natural interviewer.  He also had a huge "um, er, ah, I meant to say..." habit that required hours of razor-blading to remove.  Edited, he was witty and erudite, moving deftly from topic to topic.  Unedited, his verbal grace was significantly less evident.  It was fun to play "find the edit" when listening to the show -- and became more difficult with every new one she did.


Stephen said...

I had a similar experience in radio. A one hour interview plagued by every subvocal noise that can be produced by the human body became 40 minutes of crisp dialog after the editor got through with it.

dakotared said...

I admire how well and how often you cut to the chase and trot out the truth. If our dear "leaders" would admit to not knowing from the garbage collector, mechanic, surgeon etc. we'd all be better off. You help me deal with all the people, both meat space and tv/internet who are absolutely certain about something. A questioning mind must always have doubts. Life is a true bell curve. Some things are more believable than others. Always wonder, always question. Thanks.