Don't Get Fooled Again & Sweeping it Under the Rug
- John Tierney, "Won’t Get Fooled Again", City Journal, Spring 2022
After a great disaster, the traditional response is to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to investigate it, and a bill has already been introduced in Congress to create a Covid commission. In theory, this could be a worthy public service, allowing experts to sift the evidence impartially and determine which strategies worked, which ones failed, how much needless damage was done—and whom to blame for it. But in practice, which experts would the current Democratic administration or Congress appoint? Presumably, the pillars of the public-health establishment—the same luminaries whose advice was followed so calamitously the past two years. …
The public needs to learn what went wrong during the pandemic, but they’re not going to hear it from the Biden administration. It…would surely resist any serious investigation of its Covid strategies. … Scott Atlas, the health-policy analyst from the Hoover Institution who joined the Trump administration’s Covid task force and fought unsuccessfully against [Anthony] Fauci’s pandemic policies, says that his experience in Washington has convinced him that any government-run commission would be a mistake.
“It’s massively naďve to think that our government will do anything objective,” Atlas says. “Any U.S. government panel would be viewed as, or be in reality, 100 percent partisan. It could be smarter to have an international organization do it, looking at the overall questions of management, because if it’s only an assessment of the U.S., then it naturally becomes a political blame game.” But which international organization could be trusted to do a fair investigation? The obvious candidates, like the World Health Organization or the World Bank, would presumably rely on establishment figures loath to admit their mistakes. And even if they honestly evaluated the pandemic strategies, how much impact would the report have? The mainstream press would probably either ignore it, as it ignored a recent meta-analysis concluding that lockdowns had “little to no effect” on Covid mortality, or attack it with the same tactics used to smear the Great Barrington Declaration as “not mainstream.” …
“Public trust in science is over unless there’s a thorough review of the pandemic policies,” says Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, one of the Great Barrington Declaration scientists. Unlike Atlas, he believes that a federal Covid commission could serve a purpose. “The harms of the lockdowns are so obvious, and the failure to protect the vulnerable so obvious, that it would be hard for a commission to whitewash the facts. It’s going to take political will, but it needs to be done to restore trust in public health.”
I'm afraid that I agree with Atlas that a government commission will be a whitewash, and I wouldn't waste my time reading its report. Only an investigation by an independent organization could be trusted, but I don't know what group could do it. The following article gives a foretaste of the report of such a government commission.
- Serena McNiff, "CDC looks to rebuild trust after sweeping review", United Press International, 5/10/2022
In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…underwent a monthlong review to examine their current systems and inform future strategies. …[C]riticisms have centered around inconsistent messaging and the unsophisticated data collection systems that inform the agency's guidance. CDC leadership has suggested that the agency's overhaul is partly in response to these criticisms. …
The fallout over messaging has cost the agency some public trust: In an NBC poll from January, only 44% of Americans said they trust the CDC's information about COVID-19. According to Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan's chief medical executive, dwindling public trust in the CDC has a trickle-down effect, jeopardizing the authority of public health messaging across the board.
"When the public doesn't trust what the CDC is saying, that also affects the public trust that we have at the state level and that our local health departments have with their communities," Bagdasarian told HealthDay News. "And I'm also hearing from medical providers, from my colleagues who are practicing clinically, that it's affected their clinical relationships with patients. It becomes just a lack of public trust in healthcare recommendations."
Not all of this can be blamed on the CDC. As I've written previously, some state health agencies have also been less than honest1.
As the evaluation of the CDC wraps up and the agency looks to improve its communication strategy in the future, Bagdasarian emphasized the importance of finding better ways to communicate uncertainty. She said public health authorities should clarify that recommendations will evolve with the science and change over time. "So far, I think that hasn't been done. Guidance has been issued as 'this is the new guidance,' when instead it should be, 'this is the guidance for where we are right now, but we expect things to change,'" she added.
This sounds like the usual bureaucratic insistence that the fault is in its messaging, and not in its message, let alone its performance. The problem is not that the CDC's guidance changes, but that it changes for obviously political rather than scientific reasons. I could give many examples of it and other public health authorities blowing in the political winds, but I'll cite just the most recent case from Anthony Fauci. In an interview with PBS on the 26th of last month, Fauci said:
We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase. … So, if you're saying, are we out of the pandemic phase in this country, we are. …[R]ight now, we are not in the pandemic phase in this country.2
He said the same thing three times, which doesn't make it true, but it does mean that this was not a slip of the tongue; rather, it was a considered statement. Nonetheless, in an interview the very next day he back-pedaled:
Right now, we’re at a low enough level that I believe that we’re transitioning into endemicity. … We’re not in the full-blown explosive pandemic phase. That does not mean that the pandemic is over…. In our country, we’re transitioning into more of a controlled endemicity.3
So, he went from we're not in the pandemic phase, period, to we’re not in the "full-blown explosive" pandemic phase. Later the same day, Fauci completed his back flip:
We are in a different moment of the pandemic…we’ve now decelerated and transitioned into more of a controlled phase…. By no means does that mean the pandemic is over.4
Why did Fauci flip-flop? There was certainly no change in scientific knowledge in the day between flip and flop. If he was wrong the first time, he should have apologized for misleading people. However, he was not wrong; instead, he obviously caved to political pressure to maintain the notion that we're still in a pandemic. As we'll see shortly, the CDC wants to hold onto the emergency powers given to it as a result of the pandemic.
Now, let's return to the McNiff article:
The systems for collecting and analyzing data are another weak point for the agency. "The CDC is only as good as the entities that provide the information to them," [Kyle] McGowan said. "And I think it's important to understand that the CDC really owns no data of its own."
Managing infectious disease outbreaks properly requires massive amounts of data. On the most basic level, data allows the CDC to track the number of infections, infection severity, where infections are occurring, and who is affected. There is no comprehensive or standardized system for collecting this information. Instead, the CDC gathers data from a patchwork of sources, including private sector companies, academic institutions, and state health departments. States relay regional case numbers to the CDC on their own timetable and with varying levels of precision as part of a voluntary reporting system.
With more extensive data, the CDC can run better analyses to help predict future trends or outbreaks. "We now need to be preemptive, proactive, and look ahead and provide this type of information very much like a weather forecast, and then also provide instructions for how we want people to prepare," Bagdasarian said. …
However, the CDC is limited in the data it can collect. In an interview…Walensky explained that the agency is the "compiler of the data, but we do not have the authority to collect it," according to CBS. With a public health emergency in effect due to COVID-19, the CDC has benefited from looser restrictions, allowing the agency to receive more direct reports from laboratories and hospitals. The CDC could lose access to this data when the COVID-19 emergency declaration expires, which, barring another renewal, is scheduled to occur in July.
Translated from bureaucratese, this means that Walensky wants the CDC's emergency powers to be renewed. If as Fauci said three times, we are now out of the pandemic phase and into the endemic phase, how are we still in an emergency?
How the agency will go about enacting the goals they've signaled in recent months remains uncertain. Obstacles include limitations on data collection and a lack of flexible funding. "The CDC needs to have congressional funding that is sustainable and flexible. It also needs the data authorities to truly do its job," McGowan said. "And if we wait until Congress temporarily gives funding or temporarily gives authorities during the next public health emergency, we've already failed as a country because the people are already sick, and we need the CDC to have those authorities and that funding now and during peacetime so that we can better prepare so that we never have to live through something like COVID again."
Translation: Give us more power and money. The CDC wants to be rewarded for its failures and incompetence by increased funding and greater power. Of course, this is completely standard operating procedure for bureaucrats, who always blame their failures on lack of funding and authority. "If only we had more money and more power we could have avoided this!" they always say.
What incentive do bureaucrats have to improve when they are rewarded for failure with a promotion and a raise? If the CDC's funding and power are increased, the next pandemic will be even worse than the last one.
The following mid-length article is very much worth reading as a whole and I found it difficult to cut anything out, but I do include a short excerpt below because it relates to the following reading.
- See: Charts & Graphs: Why, Oh Why?, 2/2/2021
- "Dr. Fauci on why the U.S. is ‘out of the pandemic phase’", PBS News Hour, 4/26/2022
- Joel Achenbach & Bryan Pietsch, "U.S. no longer in ‘full-blown’ pandemic phase, Fauci says", The Washington Post, 4/27/2022
- "Fauci: US in ‘a different moment’ but pandemic not over", The Associated Press, 4/27/2022
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.
An article, "How to be a Prophet", is. Since it's a perennial rather than a topical subject, I've placed a link for it under the Main Menu to your left instead of including it here in the Weblog.
Check it out!
Quote: "If we see the world as a series of puzzles instead of a series of battles, we will come up with more and better solutions, and we need solutions more than ever."1
Title: The Puzzler
Subtitle: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life
Comment: This is a good subtitle if it accurately describes the book but, at the risk of hair-splitting, I'll note that "the meaning of life" is not a "puzzle" in the same sense as a crossword or jigsaw puzzle: it's a philosophical problem. Though philosophical problems are sometimes called "puzzles", unlike crosswords and other recreational puzzles, they're not guaranteed to have solutions. Sometimes the correct answer to a philosophical problem is that there is no solution.
Another demur I have is with the emphasis on solving "the most baffling puzzles ever". As a puzzle solver and occasional creator, I know that it's extremely easy to make puzzles that are extraordinarily difficult, and even unsolvable for all practical purposes. For instance, the puzzle I posted earlier this month involved finding the combination of a lock with only three tumblers2; there are only a thousand possible combinations to such a lock, so it's theoretically possible to solve the puzzle with brute force. However, it would be easy to make such a puzzle harder by simply increasing the number of tumblers: a four-tumbler lock has 10K possible combinations; a five-tumbler one 100K. A puzzle of this type with a lock that had six tumblers, and thus a million possible combinations, would probably be virtually unsolvable.
The trick with puzzle creation is to make one that is difficult enough to be interesting, but not so hard as to cause people to give up in frustration. Most of the fun of puzzles is in successfully solving one, but it's no fun if there's no challenge. Yet, who wants to spend hours or even days trying to solve a puzzle only to fail?
Author: A. J. Jacobs
Comment: I've read Jacobs' previous book The Know-It-All, in which he wrote about his attempt to read all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and found it interesting. He reminds me of George Plimpton, who died almost twenty years ago and so is probably not widely known to readers under the age of fifty. Plimpton was a sort of professional amateur who wrote books such as Paper Lion, about playing on a professional football team, and The Bogey Man, in which he played golf against pros. I devoured those books as a kid.
Jacobs appears to be doing something similar in this book: competing in puzzle tournaments against the best solvers and pitting himself against "the most baffling puzzles ever". I haven't read any of Jacobs' other books, because their topics don't really interest me, but The Puzzler really does.
Original Puzzles By: Greg Pliska
Comment: The book includes twenty new puzzles created by Pliska: one for each chapter3. In addition, there's a puzzle contest with a prize of $10K for the winner. To participate in the contest, you have to find a secret passcode that is hidden in the introduction to the book. The introduction can be downloaded free from the book's website4, so you don't have to buy the book to compete in the contest.
Summary: Based on the Table of Contents, the book has chapters on various different types of puzzle: crosswords (Chapter 1), Rubik's cube (2), jigsaws (6), chess problems (12), riddles (13), and so on. I'm not very interested in the Rubik's cube, which I was never able to get anywhere with, and it doesn't take Deep Blue to beat me at chess, so I'm not much interested in those chapters. The most interesting ones to me are chapter 8, on math and logic puzzles, together with chapter 11 on Sudoku and KenKen, which are basically abstract logic puzzles.
Excerpt: "…[P]uzzles are not a waste of time. Doing puzzles can make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent. I'm not just talking about staving off dementia and keeping our minds sharp. Yes, there's some mild evidence that doing crossword puzzles might help delay cognitive decline…. I'm talking about something more global. It's been my experience that puzzles can shift our worldview. They can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mindset―a mindset of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships―and a desire to find solutions. These insights sparked the idea for the book you are holding now. I decided to embrace my passion and do a deep dive into the puzzle world. I pledged to embed myself with the world's greatest puzzle solvers, creators, and collectors and learn their secrets. I'd try to crack the hardest puzzles in each genre, from jigsaws to crosswords to Sudoku."5
Comment: Based on personal experience, I'm convinced that working puzzles can improve one's problem-solving ability. Solving problems is a skill, and just like other skills such as swimming or piano-playing, it's learned and improved by practice. I'm more doubtful about Jacobs' grandiose notion that puzzles will save the world, though I do think that a problem-solving mindset would help.
- Marcel Danesi, The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life (2002)
- Derrick Niederman, The Puzzler's Dilemma: From the Lighthouse of Alexandria to Monty Hall, a Fresh Look at Classic Conundrums of Logic, Mathematics, and Life (2012)
Disclaimer: I haven't finished reading this book yet, so can't review or recommend it. However, its topic interests me, and may also interest Fallacy Files readers.
- P. xv, paragraphing suppressed. All page citations are to the new book.
- Crack the Combination I, 5/4/2022
- P. xvi.
- "The Puzzler", accessed: 5/5/2022.
- P. xiv.
Crack the Combination I
The combination of a lock is three digits long, each digit differing from the other two. Here are some incorrect combinations:
- 507: One digit is right and is in the right place.
- 526: One digit is right but it's in the wrong position.
- 785: Two digits are correct but both are in the wrong places.
- 908: One digit is right but in the wrong position.
Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?
Explanation: From clues 1 & 2, we can deduce that 5 is not in the combination, since it can't be in both the right and the wrong position. From clues 1 & 4, we can infer that 0 is not in the combination for the same reason. Since neither 5 nor 0 is in the combination, 7 must be the third digit, from clue 1. Since 5 has been ruled out, 8 must be the first digit of the combination, by clue 3, since it's in the wrong position. Finally, the middle digit must be 6, by clue 2, since 2 would be in the correct position in the combination.
Hardy or Hearty?
A recent newspaper article on a small town restaurant included the following sentence: "They liked supporting a local business, the hardy yet inexpensive meals and the sense of belonging—even if they’d never been to this particular diner before."1 What the reporter meant was a hearty "yet inexpensive" meal.
"Hardy" means "strong", especially in the sense of surviving difficult circumstances2. "Hardy" applies literally only to living things; for instance, "a hardy plant" is one that would survive a harsh winter. In contrast, "hearty" means "large", or "filling" when applied to food3. So, the breakfast served in the local diner was large despite being cheap.
Obviously, one reason why "hearty" and "hardy" are easy to confuse is that their pronunciations are so similar. In fact, unless enunciated very carefully, they are pronounced identically, at least in American English. Only one of the reference books I routinely check noted that these words are easily confused4, despite the fact that a search of the web shows many examples of such phrases as "hardy meal" and "hardy breakfast", and a book search on Google produces several instances from books and magazines.
Unlike many of the other easily confused pairs of words that we've looked at in this series, the misuse in this case goes both ways. For instance, a web search for "hearty plants" brings up the headline: "Unkillable Plants: Hearty Options for Your Home Office"5, and this from a landscaping site that should know better.
Since both words are English adjectives, it's unlikely that a spelling or grammar checking program will catch the mistake of using one where the other is meant. I checked the sentence from the newspaper article quoted above in my old copy of Microsoft's Word program, as well as three online checkers, and none discovered the mistake. So, file this in your mental checker under "Confusibles".
- Salena Zito, "Diner breakfasts are perfectly normal, no matter what D.C. elites think", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/13/2022.
- "Hardy", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 5/1/2022.
- "Hearty", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 5/1/2022.
- Bill Walsh, Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print―and How to Avoid Them (2000), p. 144.
- "Unkillable Plants: Hearty Options for Your Home Office", Plantscapers, 1/28/2021.