What are the odds that I am dead wrong?

Ever since I transitioned from Iowa-based snowbird to full-time Floridian, news accounts of the storied “Florida Man” now show up regularly in my news feed. To find your own “Florida Man doppelganger,” you simply Google “Florida Man” in quotes, followed by your birth month and day, and then see what news headline comes up. My search yielded this:

“Florida man, drunk and naked, allegedly set house on fire in failed cookie baking attempt.”

Florida Man always acts with complete confidence of his intelligence and correctness, but winds up dead wrong (and sometimes literally). For me, Florida Man makes for an interesting statistical problem worth pondering. Most of us, including myself, are convinced that our beliefs and actions are the correct ones. This is, it seems, the very essence of today’s political environment. What are the odds that I am wrong?

On the more serious side, the recent tragic tornadoes in Illinois and Kentucky illustrate the basic math of this bet. While as many one hundred people may have died in one night’s storms, hundreds of thousands of people took precautions that were, in the end, unneeded. Some people who took no precautions just 100 yards from the tornado’s path walked away unscratched, while tragically, the best precautions were insufficient for a few. Finally, some basic, well-worn safety measures literally saved hundreds of lives. Who guessed right and who guessed wrong?

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic I compared the odds of infection to the math of drunk driving. By far, most drunk drivers will get home safely tonight, and that “success” will reinforce their “Florida Man” behavior. Safe drivers, on the other hand, live in a very different statistical universe, where one could still die in an auto accident on a nice day of defensive driving. However, your odds of death in this latter case drop to lottery-level minimums, and get even lower in the places where the “Florida Men” drunk drivers are kept off the road.

Hundreds of Evangelical pastors have preached from their pulpits about the lack of faith of those getting vaccinated for Covid-19, while their own their unvaccinated parishioners who were hospitalized or dead from Covid-19 did not hear that message. And those unvaccinated ministers who have died from Covid did not preach last Sunday. The rest of the flock, however, has rested safe from infection in “God’s grace.” Or, thanks to a probability function.

The probabilistic odds are that, if you are in that demographic, you are still hearing ardent anti-vax messages regularly, and receiving a lot of cultural pressure against vaccination to boot. And the odds are still that you, personally, will not die of Covid-19 regardless of your actions. But at this point, if you do get intubated all the while denying the deadly power of the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccines, you may get a “Florida Man” tag on your way out. As Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha has recently noted, Covid-19 “is now a largely vaccine-preventable disease.”

Is my world a safer place?

Welcome to my world, where I try to study the data, listen to medical experts, and usually attempt to act appropriately, whether it be in disease prevention, driving, storm precautions, or general Florida dangerous living. How can I be sure that my path is a better road than the alternatives? How do I know that I am not “dead wrong”? Here is some of my reasoning:

Likely no one reading this is an expert in any of these controversial fields, including myself.  We all rely on authoritative writings and “experts” to guide our thinking. The “argument from authority” is one of the classic logical fallacies that even the most informed can fall prey to. If we say that something is true because “Dr. X” says it is, then we can be conned by the many “experts” whose authority leads you down a cultist’s path.

I just made an argument from authority above in quoting Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha. How do I know he is not just another quack or shill for Big Pharma? We start with the organizations that they represent. Jha is the Dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, one of the most respected in the nation, and he landed there after a long career in the public health field and teaching at Harvard. If I look for others in similar positions, they will all say pretty much the same thing as Dr. Jha when it comes to the current state of the coronavirus and vaccines. If I am wrong here, I will be in good company.

In short, this is also a bet. My alternative authority is perhaps a doctor with no experience in virology or public health, who shows up to opine about anything medical on daytime talk shows, often touts modalities that have little scientific backing, and makes a pile of money endorsing products of dubious value. I have put my money down on the authority with the better track record and who holds to the consensus of the scientific researchers.

Unfortunately, Americans have become increasingly tribal. Science in general is not trusted by many, especially if that science has the imprimatur of government. There is an ecosystem of voices on social media, some with apparent credentials, who reject scientific consensus and even basic concepts such as evolution, and whose outsize egos cloud their scientific training. Hint: Betting against evolution, even as we run through the Greek alphabet of evolved coronavirus variants, is a losing bet in the long run.

Consensus science can be wrong, but how it handles any emerging controversy is key to who holds the stronger hand. One early Covid fear was assuming that the coronavirus could be spread through touching and contaminated surfaces. Note that this was a high-probability “Bayesian prior” (the most reasonable “bet” when coming into a new, unknown situation). The noroviruses that have long plagued cruise ships and the staphylococcus infections that continue to bedevil hospitals spread easily on contaminated surfaces, and so ignoring the probability of surface spread would have been foolish and potentially catastrophic.

The better controversies quickly generate numerous controlled studies from good schools and labs under varied assumptions and conditions. The consensus findings downgrading surface transmission probabilities, while up-scaling aerosol transmission of the coronavirus, literally changed the best Bayesian priors going into the next round of studies. In the same way, an inaccurate hurricane forecast makes future forecasts that much better after the new data goes back into the forecast models. The best models always get better — by design.

On the other hand, the most reputable studies of Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin for treating Covid-19 had the opposite effect, reducing the Bayesian prior odds and thus rejected, for good reason, from treatment protocols at all decent hospitals. Hundreds of millions of injections later, the data overwhelmingly supports the safety and efficacy of the Covid vaccines as, literally, your best bet.

Understanding percentages and statistics

Did you know that 99.75% of Americans have not died from Covid-19? That percentage, expounded in many variants around social media, sounds impressive. But that remaining 0.25% of Americans amounts to 800,000 people whose lives have been cut short by Covid. One in 100 older Americans have died. Normal people can get tripped up by impressive-sounding percentages. I always try to think of the people behind the numbers.

The informed users of basic statistics principles know, better than most, that people can obscure the truth, or even outright lie with statistics. Most people have little knowledge of the field, or that of mathematics in general, and can be easily swayed. If you know the math, you know the weaknesses in your own data. I could write an entire post of caveats in interpreting any one of my own graphs and charts. All of these presentations simplify realities that are much more complicated in real life than a nice Excel chart. However, the best charts do reveal more than they conceal.

Here is another mathematical anomaly floating around the internet. In places where vaccination rates now approach 90% the number of vaccinated people who die from Covid actually rises. What is going on here? When a new burger restaurant comes to town, McDonalds will suffer the largest number of “defections” to the new place, simply because of their market dominance. In many communities now, we the vaccinated are by far the “biggest restaurant in town.” Again, it is a question of absolute numbers versus risk percentages.

That is the math of the “Markov chain.” The earliest deaths from the first variants of the coronavirus were the elderly and the immunocompromised. As more and more “at risk” people got vaccinated, they moved into a very different “Covid risk restaurant.” When the Delta variant emerged, the demographics of deaths quickly skewed younger. However, as more of that demographic gets vaccinated, Covid-19, in absolute numbers but by a much lower percentage of the population as a whole, returns to its roots mostly impacting the elderly and the immunocompromised. That is just the Markov math of “which restaurant” you are in, the big group or the small group. It is the percentage of infections and deaths, not the absolute number, that will punch your “lottery ticket.” And the “unvaccinated burger joint” remains the riskiest place to eat by far.

Beware the conspiracy-mongers and con men

As I have written before, the probability of maintaining “grand conspiracies,” those that involve hundreds of politicians, dozens of large businesses, and several foreign governments, is near zero. In short, the number of people required to maintain “trust against a lie” with every other person in the chain in order to keep the lie going quickly grows factorially (e.g., 100 x 99 x 98 x 97…). Attempts at grand conspiracy collapse under their own weight. And yet, millions of people are currently in thrall of multiple alleged grand conspiracies regarding vaccines and voting. The math is simple. Don’t bet that your grand conspiracy is true.

On the other hand, small conspiracies, which involve only a limited number of close family members and super-loyal associates, only require a strong Mafia-like omertà (code of silence) to hang on for a long time. When the omertà chain breaks the conspiracy folds, but that is a resilient code of silence. Indeed, wherever you see omertà going on, you can pretty well bet there is either some financial or sexual hanky-panky being covered up somewhere.

Likewise, con men are easy to spot, because they have most likely conned before, taking companies bankrupt, screwing investors, and getting rich by extracting cash from people with little to give. Wise up, folks!

Now, I may be dead wrong in all this…but probably not.

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