News: April 2020
Do you remember the lament of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner?
Water, water, every where
And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, every where
Nor any drop to drink
I have a new take on that old “rime”.
Clamor, clamor every where
And all our minds did shrink
Clamor, clamor every where
Nor any chance to think
On day 17 of the coronavirus shut down here in Colorado that is exactly how I feel. So much clamor, so little clarity. I must confess if I hear another person make reference to, “The experts say” I’m likely to run from my house screaming. If we learn anything from this corona virus catastrophe I hope it is this simple reality: The experts don’t know as much as everyone thinks they know and they seldom agree with one another.
Just a few days ago, for example, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx shared that the White House’s assessment of how the pandemic would unfold closely mirrors the predictions of University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the so-called Murray model. That group last week estimated 81,114 deaths over the next four months, with 95% confidence that the number would be between 38, 242 and 162, 106. How’s that for clarity?
Sadly, that is but one of the many models currently being employed to try and provide some framework for the momentous and highly controversial decisions currently being made by governments all around the world. So, why are there so many different models, especially since two of those ubiquitous “experts” recently observed that “the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the limits of scientific modeling to predict the future.” (WSJ, Coronavirus Lessons Learned From the Asteroid That Didn’t Hit Earth, April 1, 2020)
As the authors of that article go on to observe, “The most consequential coronavirus model, produced by a team at Imperial College London, tipped the British government, which had until then pursued a cautious strategy, into precipitate action, culminating in the lockdown under which we area all currently laboring. With the Imperial team talking in terms of 250,000 to 510,000 deaths in the U.K. (this same group estimated over 2,000,000 deaths in the US) and social media aflame with demands for something to be done, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had no other option.”
They then go on to note, “But last week, a team from Oxford University put forth an alternative model of how the pandemic might play out, suggesting a much less frightening future and a speedy end to the current nightmare.” Then this question. “How should the government know who is right? It is quite possible that both teams are wrong” because, and please pay careful attention to this, “Academic studies often suffer from a lack of quality control.” Ponder that statement for a moment.
If I learned anything during my doctoral studies at the University of Delaware it was this simple fact – always question the research. That thought was pounded into my head by Dr. Rita Filos who taught a course titled, Statistics and Analysis. It was, by far, the most difficult course I took during my nine semesters of doctoral work.
Time and again Dr. Filos would distribute to our class samples of the “assured results” of the research done by any number of well-known experts. And time and time again as we, under her prodding, discovered multiple flaws in research design and even more failure of analysis. On one hand it was intriguing, on the other dispiriting. How could so many bright people reach such dissimilar and often faulty conclusions?
The answer to that question was actually not all that difficult to discover. It goes something like the old adage of programmers when trying to create software: GIGO. You might recognize that simple formula: Garbage In, Garbage Out. It simply means this. If the information you feed into your model is garbage, is flawed, is distorted in any way, then the predictions that emerge from that model will be garbage as well.
That’s not a big problem if you are creating a model to predict some esoteric outcome about something of interest to only a handful of interested academics. But “When competing models (based on faulty data) are giving wildly different, and in some cases frightening predictions, the pressure on governments to adopt a draconian approach can be overwhelming. But as we are seeing, the costs of such measures are extraordinarily high. Nations cannot afford to lock down their economies every time a potentially devastating new virus emerges.”
Every time I see a head-line on 24/7 cable news or on the front page of one of the flagship newspapers I am reminded of an editorial that once appeared in one of those flagship papers.
“A man-carrying airplane will eventually be built, but only if mathematicians and engineers work steadily for the next one to ten million years.”
New York Times, December 1903
Please note the date. It was on December 17, 1903 that the Wright brothers stunned the world with a man-carrying airplane. Kudos to the New York Times. Of course that wasn’t the last time they’ve had egg on their face. Such is the consequences for people who put too much faith in the assured pronouncements of the experts. In fact the editorial staff at the NYT could be forgiven their confidence given the fact that in that same month, December 1903, Simon Newcomb, one of the worlds most respected “experts” declared that, “Man will fly, but the craft will be the size of a matchbook and carry an insect for a passenger.”
Remember that story the next time you hear or read anything that begins with “the experts say.” There is just so much we don’t know about so many things.
So what do we know? We know that God is sovereign and that He oversees the affairs of men. As Jesus reminds us, not even the fall of a sparrow escapes God’s notice. Knowing that truth should give us comfort even when facing great danger and potential tragedy. God is ultimately in control of our fate.
That doesn’t mean that we should approach life with a fatalistic attitude. I still wash my hands repeatedly throughout the day especially after a trip to the grocery store. After all I’m ground zero for this virus; I’m over 70 and I am a Type 2 diabetic. I refuse, however, to live in fear. People die every day. In fact, 7, 450 people die every day in the US; that’s 12 people every second of every day.
Death is inevitable. It is not to be sought but it is the constant companion of every man, woman, and child who lives on this planet. As a follower of Jesus Christ, however, we have nothing to fear from death. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
That truth is illustrated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story, Lord of the Rings. There is a powerful and poignant conversation between Gandalf the White Wizard and Pippen one of the Hobbits at the moment when the fierce battle against the forces of Saruman seems to be lost.
Pippen: I didn’t think it would end like this.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one we all must take. The gray-curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippen: What Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippen: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No, no it isn’t
In the midst of all the craziness that currently surrounds us remember those words and find comfort in them.
In His grace,