Trying To Make Sense Of The Data

One of the frustrating things about the coronavirus is the lack of a meaningful context in which to make sense of the data.  Statistics are breathlessly reported by the news media without any way to assess what the statistics actually mean for those of us out in the world at large.  It’s a good way for news sites to increase their clicks and visits — the New York Times has reported that news sites have experienced significant usage surges, as readers seek the latest information about COVID-19 — but what’s the right takeaway from the flood of information?

article_24febbraio_2014Consider the reports about increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S.  Are reports about the number of confirmed cases in a particular location doubling in a week, for example, bad news . . . or just a product of the fact that as tests become more available and more people are tested, we’re inevitably identifying more people who have the virus?  We know that many people who are infected with coronavirus experience only mild symptoms, and increased testing is going to identify an increasing number of those mild cases.  And, as we identify more people who are walking around with the virus, we’ll inevitably see a decline in the mortality rates, because we know from fifth-grade math that an increase in the denominator of confirmed cases, by adding in more newly discovered mild cases, will necessarily result in a decline in the overall death rate percentage.

And speaking of the mortality rate, is reporting on people who have had the coronavirus and died really a meaningful measure, in the abstract, or does it tell us something only if we know more about the circumstances of the deaths?  Take Italy, for example.  The reported mortality rates in Italy are among the worst in the world — worse, even, than the reported rates in China (and I emphasize “reported” for a reason).  But as this article from the Telegraph points out, the high Italian death rates appear to be the product of several factors that seem to undercut the ability to draw meaningful inferences from the Italian statistics.  For example, Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, the  vast majority of the individuals who have died have been older and dealing with other health issues, and Italian doctors record coronavirus in the cause of death records even if the individuals were suffering from other, significant health problems that contributed to their death.  Given those factors, how should we react to Italian statistics?

And finally, I’ve seen reports that China has closed the hospitals it built to deal with its coronavirus cases, and is reporting a decline in coronavirus cases.  But, should we credit anything China has to say about COVID-19?  It’s pretty clear that China wasn’t exactly transparent with the world when the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan province, and I’m skeptical about trusting anything that government says about COVID-19 at this point.

The need to put some context to the data is important not only for those of us who are scratching their heads about how to deal with the issues presented by the coronavirus, but also for the decisionmakers who are weighing when to open businesses, schools, and restaurants.  Our daily lives always involve some form of risk calculation, and most of the risks — whether it is the risk of death in a traffic accident, from a choking incident, from a falling tree limb, or from an operation gone bad — are risks that we are willing to accept.  If the increased testing produces a surge in the number of reported cases and a correspondingly steep drop in the mortality rate, at what point do the authorities conclude that it is okay for us to leave our houses and go back to work?  If the death rate from COVID-19 is twice that, or four times that, of H1N1, and we compare that risk to the damage that would be done to the economy and to individuals who live paycheck to paycheck from a prolonged shutdown, do we accept that risk?

And finally, how do the publicized cases of sports and entertainment figures who report having the coronavirus affect the public perception of the risk equation?  If all of the NBA figures, football coaches, and movie and recording stars who have contracted COVID-19 survive the experience, will that put pressure on authorities to let us get on with our lives?

When you are talking about data, context is so important.  Mark Twain was right about lies, damn lies, and statistics.  I feel that the news media is letting us down, and focusing on the sensational, click-bait headlines while forgoing the nuts-and-bolts reporting that really would be useful during this period.

Going Medieval

The New York Times had an interesting piece on Friday about how the coronavirus is spurring a “new” approach to dealing with disease — “new” in the sense that it is different from how the modern world has handled disease over the past few decades, but really not new at all in that it harkens back to the methods used in medieval times.  The “new” approach is called the quarantine.

quarantineAs the Times article points out, the quarantine is a disease control method that’s as old as time.  During the medieval period, when the spread of disease wasn’t understood from a scientific standpoint, authorities still had techniques they used during a health crisis:  they fought the spread of the Black Plague by closing borders, quarantining sick people on ships and in pest houses, and heading out of the cities into the countryside to get away from the sick zones.  That method of dealing with the spread of disease lasted for centuries.

After advances in science and medicine, the invention of the microscope, and the development of ways of discovering, and treating, diseases and viruses, the approach to public health changed.  The Times article reports that the last time the U.S. government, for example, imposed a national restriction on entry into the country was in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison ordered that ships from Hamburg be kept offshore for 20 days because Hamburg had lied about a cholera epidemic.  Since then, the U.S. has adopted the “modern” approach, which involves accepting the spread of the disease and trying to deal with it through antibiotics, vaccines, and other forms of treatment.

With the coronavirus, the Trump Administration has combined the “modern” approach with the “medieval” approach.  The Administration imposed a very early ban on entry into the country by non-citizens from China and discouraging travel to China, and over the weekend President Trump announced additional restrictions on travel to areas where new outbreaks have occurred:  Iran, and specific areas of South Korea and Italy.  And, as the Times article points out, these restrictions seem to have worked.  Although there are coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., the incidence rate is far below what some other countries have experienced, and the travel restrictions gave the country time to prepare for the virus.

When it comes to dealing with communicable disease. harsh measures are sometimes necessary, and time is frequently of the essence.  If travel bans and quarantines help public health officials, I’m all in favor of going a bit “medieval” in response to the coronavirus.

The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

The Oldest Oral Tradition

No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.

So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.

Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.



Deciphering Alien Communications

Astronomers have discovered an intriguing fact:  an object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is sending us regular, repeating radio signals.

602x338_cmsv2_c88622f3-b54d-5980-a3e0-35b6c127b70c-3573104Fast radio bursts are not uncommon in the universe — observatories have recorded more than 100 in recent years — but repeating fast radio bursts are rare.  And this particular radio burst, which was first recorded in 2017, is the only one that is sending out fast radio bursts in a regular repeating pattern.  The bursts come in 16.35-day cycles, with 1-2 bursts per hour over a four- day period and then 12 days of silence before starting up again.

In short, the source is like the Old Faithful of fast radio signals.  And, intriguingly, at a distance of 500 million light years it’s the closest fast radio burst we’ve detected.

So, what’s causing this regular pattern of radio bursts?  Scientists have come up with several hypotheses:  it could be a natural radio signal-emitting object, like a neutron star or a binary system, where the frequency of the bursts is caused by the object’s wobbling or orbit or rotation.

Or, it could be aliens.  There’s no way to know for sure.

It raises a serious question:  if there are aliens out there, how do we know if they are trying to communicate with us, and what they are trying to say?  The 16-day cycle of radio bursts could be sending a clear, friendly greeting, or an important warning, using the alien version of Morse code, with the initial bursts being the dot-dot-dashes and the 12-day interval the method of letting us know that the message is repeating.  But without knowing the code, we can’t decipher the meaning — or even recognize the radio bursts as a message in the first place.  It’s similar to the inability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

It reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

“As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

Unfortunately, a mysterious repeating radio signal is no more understandable than the farting, tap-dancing Zog.

A Really Bad Interview

Here’s an example of a really bad interview.

The sports editor of the Grand Valley State University student newspaper was doing an interview with the football team’s new offensive coordinator and asked the coach to name three non-football historical figures he’d like to have dinner with.  According to news reports, the coach responded as follows:

interesting-hitler-health-fact“This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler.  It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.”

(The coach also named John F. Kennedy and Christopher Columbus as his two other historical dining companions, in case you’re interested.)

Of course, Hitler directed the genocidal murder of millions of Jews and was the direct cause of a worldwide war that killed additional millions and left his country a crushed and ruined shell, and his brutal and repressive regime has left an indelible moral stain on the German people.  That’s not what most people would view as the record of a great leader, but the legacy of a seriously disturbed psychopath.  Not surprisingly, Grand Valley State University promptly suspended the coach, and he then resigned.  In a statement posted on social media, he said:  “In a poor effort to give an outside-the-box answer to a question, I mistakenly communicated something absurd,” and added: “There is no justifiable excuse — it was insensitive and not my intent.”

So what in the world was he thinking?