Do we already know the answer?

We are now entering the ‘Endgame‘ of this blog – there’s only 4 more posts to go after this one about the science of our situation, as I see it. I was hoping to post about ‘second’ waves this time, but instead I feel I need to write one last time about our current situation in the UK.

Take-home message: We should look at evidence first and then try to decide what it shows… Deciding what we think the answer is and then looking for evidence to prove it is perhaps the best way to be wrong and not even know it.

So let’s go for it…

Thinking about scientific data

COVID-19 essentially threw us all into a situation where we’re presented with masses of scientific data in real-time – for anyone who hasn’t worked in scientific research, don’t worry, this is what it’s normally like… Yes, it’s confusing, frustrating, and it constantly requires a willingness to change our opinion if new data show we’re wrong.

One of the most important traps not to fall into when looking at new data/information in science is called “confirmation bias.

Essentially, if someone has already decided what they think the correct answer is, confirmation bias will cause them to unconsciously seek out information that proves they’re right – or even worse, to interpret any new confusing information as supporting their predetermined answer… And we’re facing a hell of a lot of new confusing information at the moment! To get to the truth, we have to evaluate the evidence fairly first, then decide what the answer may be.

I was trying to think of a good example of confirmation bias that we may all be able to relate to – so think back to when COVID-19 was very first spreading around the world… Did you ever think it wouldn’t affect us in the UK? Perhaps you may have had or heard the following sort of conversation:

There’s a new respiratory virus in China

Oh, these kind of things happen in that part of the world…

But now COVID-19 is spreading in Italy?

Oh, they have large family homes with multiple generations living together so it’ll spread more easily there…

Then COVID-19 spreads in Spain?

Oh, they have a tactile culture and hug lots so it’ll spread more there…

COVID-19 starts spreading in France?

Oh… Er…Some stereotype to do with France makes it spread quicker?”

Then COVID-19 hits the UK…

“…Oh…”

There was no real reason to think COVID-19 wouldn’t spread in the UK – and confirmation bias probably played a big part in thinking the countries that had been hit were doing something different…

Confirmation bias right now

So the question for me is, is there any confirmation bias when we look at our current situation? For example, have we already decided that we’re governed by idiots who don’t know what they’re doing? After all, our leaders are ultimately responsible for any successes or failures on their watch…

Let’s look at schools – Westminster must be full of idiots as they’re just following the Scottish government on masks in schools, etc. – right?

Yeah, maybe… Aside from the fact that Scottish schools went back on the 11th of August, weeks before English schools, so surely it would make sense to follow Scotland’s lead? This isn’t a competition. It’s not Scotland vs. England. It’s humanity vs. the virus… And we’ve literally just spent the summer criticising governments for not learning from the successes of others… Obviously we don’t want to make U-turns, but we absolutely should make them if it may save lives.

Just because Nicola Sturgeon decided not to drive off a cliff, should we expect Boris and Gove to drive off it?…
…Actually, don’t answer that one…

Well, what about having to wear a mask in the supermarket but not in the pub? Or having to wear one getting takeway from Pret-a-Manger, but not when eating in? Makes no sense – we’re run by idiots, right?

Maybe… Certainly seems confusing… But we could actually just draw up a decision tree to explain when to wear a mask when doing something indoors in public:

Seems to work surprisingly well actually?..

Well, surely any country with a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy must be run by idiots – right?

Maybe… ‘Whack-a-mole’ is certainly an idiotic description in my opinion… But actually acting on outbreaks at a regional level surely makes sense – if there is an outbreak in t’North of England, why lockdown Cornwall?

Thank you Wikipedia!

Well, what about giving ~2 days notice before quarantines come in – idiots, right?

Maybe… But what are the other options? Giving no notice at all, so people get off a plane or ferry to be told they immediately have to quarantine for 2 weeks with no warning whatsoever, and no preparations at the border? Or long delays before bringing in quarantines to allow everyone to get home first, thus defeating the point? I guess a balance had to be struck there.

Well, how can the UK even be quarantining people coming from other EU countries when we’ve had so many more deaths than any other European country? SURELY that must show we’re run by idiots?

Maybe… Although personally I think this is probably the most clear example of confirmation bias I have come across. As I have written about before, the most accurate measure of our current situation is not the death toll, it is the COVID-19 tests (explained here, here and here). Here’s the current UK case numbers compared to the rest of the EU:

Data processed from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (1st September)

The UK’s case numbers are now better than 2/3rds of the countries in the EU, despite being right at the bottom of that chart in March/April… But as Donald Trump keeps telling us, testing more means higher case numbers – so what about accounting for test numbers by looking at the % of COVID-19 tests that come back positive (explained here)? Here it is:

Data processed from Our World in Data (August 25th as this was the most recent complete dataset for these countries I could find).

The UK has the 5th lowest % positive rate in Europe (0.6%)… On April 7th 84% of all the COVID-19 tests in the UK came back positive by my calculations. To put that into context, if that blue bar next to the UK is 1 cm wide on your screen, it would have been nearly 1.5 metres wide on April 7th

So, looking at the data of where we are now compared to March/April, I have to ask the question:

Are we definitely run by idiots who don’t know what they’re doing, or could this be confirmation bias from those horrendous and tragic mistakes in March/April?

Obviously this is just my interpretation of the situation, I’m not an epidemologist, and yes, I could have my own confirmation bias – so I should probably point out that I actually don’t like many of our current leaders… I’m in England, I’ve never voted for this government, I don’t like many of their policies, and I think the British exit from the European Union will be such a monumental mistake that I don’t even want to use that trivial name for it anymore… There’s also many more examples that I think are completely inexcusable and that I pray there will be inquiries into and people are held to account (herd immunity, care homes, mutant algorithms, Barnard f***ing Castle eye-tests, to name but a few)… And I’m not even actually saying we’re definitely not run by idiots…

My point is that the data shows the UK’s COVID position is actually now better than many other countries in the EU… and that’s despite having the worst outbreak on the continent… Despite all the confusing rules, accusations of reopening too quickly or too soon, the U-turns, the useless apps, and in my opinion having governing parties that can seem like an episode of The Muppets written by George R. R. Martin… Despite all of that, we are where we are… So perhaps we should try to look at the data more objectively and then decide if we can trust our leaders to get us out of this? After all, aren’t our leaders ultimately responsible for any successes or failures on their watch?…

I obviously don’t have time to discuss every other rule or bit of data out there (the ‘what abouts?..’) as I’m just doing this in my spare time, but I hope the methods I’ve used in these posts (Chesterton’s Fence, evaluating data first) may be useful when thinking about these and drawing your own conclusions.

There’s 3 final thoughts I wanted to give about the current COVID situation in the UK:

1. This is not a competition. This is not Eurovision 2003 or Euro ’96. This is humanity vs. the virus. There’s a human cost behind every one of those numbers so we shouldn’t be happy because we’re in a better position than other countries at the moment.

2. This may not last. Just because we have done well recently fighting COVID-19 doesn’t mean we should assume we will do well in future. That’s the way into more confirmation bias.

3. Well done. The leaders of a country that’s had over 40,000 tragically avoidable deaths probably can’t say this, but I’m just a scientist saying what he sees in the data, so I can: Well done. To every person who stuck with their handwashing, who wears their mask, who keeps their distance, who missed their loved ones but still followed the rules: Well done. To everyone who felt confused or disheartened, let-down or doubted what they were doing, everyone who felt angry, alone or afraid, but who kept fighting and stuck with it all the same: Well done. You just dragged this country out from the bottom of the well. There will undoubtedly be more challenges to come, and there will also be a time to hold our leaders to account for their mistakes. But for now, I believe our way out is not through anger, I believe it is through hope, trust and working together – and that is what I see in the data right now…


Next time I’ll get back to ‘second’ waves.

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