Saturday, March 20, 2021

Unclear on the concept: Washington Post and anecdotes about the AstraZeneca Vaccine

You may have heard that some European countries have postponed the use of what is called the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 amid fears that it might lead to blood clots. (For what it's worth, that vaccine hasn't yet been approved for use in the U.S.)

This Washington Post article [paywall, probably] argues that such fears are unfounded. Public health officials state that there is no proven link between taking that vaccine and the onset of blood clots. They also state that what evidence there is seems to back them up.

The only evidence for the supposed blood clot/AstraZeneca link is "anecdotes." Some people who have taken the vaccine have had blood clots. And the public health officials claim that the incidence of clotting is actually somewhat lower among AstraZeneca takers than what we might expect among the general population.

Fine. I buy the argument and accept it. (And for what it's worth, I'm terrified of blood clots. They can kill you. And the main way to treat and manage them is to take blood thinners, which have a narrow therapeutic range and come with their own complications, such as nosebleeds that are difficult to stop. As a epistaxiphobe, that terrifies me, too. I have also heard, though I'm not sure how well-established this point is, that Covid-19 itself can lead to blood clots.)

Unfortunately, the same article relies includes these two paragraphs, one after the other and without a hint of self-aware irony:

Evans [Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine], who is 77, said he has received two doses of the vaccine and did not experience any serious adverse effects.

The current concerns surrounding the vaccine are an example of “anecdotes being turned into data, which is not what epidemiologists deal with,” he said.
Anecdotes are not what epidemiologists deal with....unless they're relating their own personal experience with the vaccine.

I don't really mean any of this as a criticism of Mr. Evans. The reporter probably asked him, "have you taken the vaccine and experienced any adverse effects." He probably honestly said, "no," and then went on to explain that anecdotes aren't data.

I also don't mean this article's use of anecdotes to combat other anecdotes disprove the article's argument.

I do suggest two things, though. The first is that this is sloppy reporting, or sloppy editing. The Washington Post article seems clueless about the irony here. It uses an anecdote to refute other anecdotes, all the while insisting that we shouldn't rely on anecdotes.

Second, it's quite possible that anecdotes are indeed "data." Almost by definition, anecdotes are not systematic data. They're not collected and related in a controlled process, with a control group. But they are one piece of real, lived experience. We shouldn't build public health policy on anecdotes, at least not as a general rule. But they might clue us in to something. Early studies and comparisons with general populations might simply be wrong. And that one nugget of information we dismiss as "anecdote" today might prove tomorrow to have signaled something.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The capitol riot and the spirit of 1776

The riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 was emblematic of the spirit of 1776 and that's a bad thing.

As I've tried to argue elsewhere, the American Revolution, so called, was essentially an expression of mob violence. You don't like the Stamp Act? Tar and feather the stamp collectors. You don't like people who stand by their oath to support the King (the same oath you took just a few short years ago)? Burn their property and chase them out to Canada. You don't like Catholics? Rail against the Quebec Act as the abolition of "the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies." You don't want to respect the boundaries of American Indian nations, or "merciless Indian savages" as the Declaration called them? Defy the compromise of 1763 and settle on their lands anyway.

The supporters of the Revolution voiced some very good ideals, and sometimes acted on them. The changeover to popular democracy it helped usher in was probably, on balance, a good thing. Most important, I believe and have believed for a long time that the Revolution initiated the process which eventually led to the abolition of slavery in North America. 

That said, let us not forget the essence of the Revolution. Its proponents used violence to overthrow a government that they called tyrannical but that was only a dim and incomplete instance of "tyranny." The Revolutionists' idols were some cant about taxation and representation or freedom or some such. The idols of the capitol rioters were basically the same, perhaps with a touch of hero worship of the former president. Ideals were the currency of the violence, and the real goal of struggle was power, or perhaps some visceral embrace of violence for the sake of violence.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The rationalist community & me

You may have heard of the "rationalist community." To the (very imperfect) extent I understand what it is, it's a group of people who profess to observe reasoned inquiry. That inquiry requires being aware of one's own biases, owning up to and being honest about the "epistemic status" (i.e., degree of certainty) of what they know, and using statistical probabilities in an approach known as "Bayesian analysis" to resolve questions. My apologies to any member of that community who might be reading, for I'm sure I've misrepresented them.

My experiences with the community are in the e-world. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Myth/fact lists don't work

I've long believed that presenting a list of "myths" that you debunk with "facts" is recipe for, shall we say, less effective advocacy. I won't say "myth/fact lists" are completely ineffective. They probably teach some people some things and probably change some minds along some margin. But they usually, in my experience, do a poor job at it.

I propose three reasons for that. 

The first is that the "facts" used to refute the "myths" are themselves often not "facts" in the sense of something that can be verified or falsified. They are usually interpretations based on verifiable/falsifiable facts. The interpretations themselves might be plausible and defensible. But it's usually contestable.

The second is that the "myth" usually contains some truth. That's one reason for its survival as a "myth." Myth/fact lists err, when they do, by framing the myth in a way that obfuscates--or denies--the truth behind it.

The third reason is that the person who believes a "myth" usually does so for reasons the myth buster usually doesn't acknowledge. The myth usually reflects an underlying concern that in itself is either legitimate, or sincerely felt. The facts/interpretations used to bust the myth usually don't touch this underlying concern.

The three reasons can be summed up in larger "meta-reason": myth/fact lists are a way of talking down to those you are trying to convince of something. You may say that ignorance is no excuse for ignorance, and that it's your responsibility to educate people and not coddle them in their errors. In response, I say, "good luck with that." If you really want to convince someone of something, or enlighten them about something, you assume a certain burden of doing so effectively (As an aside, if you're using "educate" or "enlighten" as transitive verbs, that's a sign you're possibly talking down to someone.)

I hedge my bets. I say "usually" a lot in this blog post. Many, maybe most, myth/fact lists make good points. There's often at least one myth that is clearly untrue and debunked by the facts. Just beware that myth/fact lists might not do the work you think they do.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

About that New York Times piece on Slate Star Codex

My small corner of the blogosphere is aflutter about the recent New York Times piece, by Cade Metz, about Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander's former blog. Those of you familiar with that blog and the controversy know that last summer, Alexander shut down his blog because he feared the Times was going to dox him (that is, reveal his true identity) in a story about the Alexander's ability to successfully predict the covid-19 crisis. Alexander later re-posted his blog online for public viewing--it had been offline for only about a month or so, if I recall--and a month or so ago, he created a new blog, Astral Star Codex.

I agree with almost all the criticisms I've read of the Times article. E.g, Scott Aaronson, Cathy Young, Alan Jacobs. It was shoddy reporting. It made arguments by innuendo and association. You can read those critics I just linked to for more details. One thing I'll add that I haven't yet seen other commentators say is this. Metz seems to suggest that Alexander's taking his blog offline was some sort of nefarious action, perhaps akin to a criminal preparing to skip town before they're served with a subpoena. (See what I did there: Metz said none of that, but I teased out something nefarious, Metz-style, from what actually was said.) Metz does mention, later in the article, that Alexander re-posted his blog. But the mention is so far away that we're left with a sense of  "Alexander tried to escape responsibility for his actions."

That said, I don't believe, as Alan Jacobs seems to, that this necessarily represents a decline in journalistic standards. True, if the New York Times or if Mr. Metz observed higher standards--if they showed their work and stuck to demonstrable facts--the piece would have been better. But I think even the most conscientious journalist, working for the most conscientious news organization, will distort anything by writing about it. The journalist needn't be a liar and the news organization needn't be vindictive for that to happen. It will get things wrong because the reportage is at least one step removed from that which it is reporting. That's the definition of reporting. Even a putatively sympathetic account of Slate Star Codex will probably portray it in a misleading light. (I'm also not saying Metz is a liar or that the Times is vindictive, though I do suggest their behavior with that article is not up to snuff.)

I was a fan of Slate Star Codex and I'm a fan of Astral Star Codex. I'm glad Alexander has returned to the blogosphere.



Sunday, February 7, 2021

The perils of impeachment

[Note: I originally posted this at Ordinary-Times a couple weeks ago. I have edited this version from that one, and my most extensive edits concern my point about the electoral college. I'll state this, too. I wrote this post after the House had voted for articles of impeachment, but before the Senate took up the articles. So some of what I say here is dated by those developments.]

If you support impeaching Donald Trump now that he's out of office, you should account for certain hazards 


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Crocodile tears and the mad rush

The covid vaccine will possibly be made available to me sooner than to other people who probably need it more

That's thanks to my job. Although the details of the vaccine rollout are still sketchy, it seems that my state ranks employment at a university one step ahead of the general public when it comes to getting the vaccine.

I don't believe I should be given any special priority.