Quarantine Day 35: History’s Most Consequential Projection

To see other COVID posts, visit my Quarantine blog.

History turns on minor moments as the current Wuhan Virus crisis bares out. First there was the decision by the Chinese government to cover up the accidental release of the COIVD virus from their bioweapons lab based on projected death counts, impact to their economy, and loss of global prestige. Then came the U. S. decision to cripple our economy and quarantine hundreds of millions based on erroneous projections. Both these moments, as consequential as they are, are not among the most consequential in history.

A far more consequential projection occurred the early 1950’s involving the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller who fled Nazi persecution during WWII winding up in New Mexico as part of the secret Manhattan Project. Though widely known, he remains controversial within the scientific community because many believe he committed the most mortal sin one can in science; taking credit for someone else’s work. Specifically, the foundational work Nicholas Metropolis did in the development of the hydrogen bomb..

Soon after the completion of the Manhattan Project, while the devastating effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still being assessed, a team of Los Alamos scientists began work on a new kind of a bomb, a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb, first envisioned by Enrico Fermi. At that time no one understood the effects of a thermonuclear detonation, but there was a widely held theory suggesting that detonating a hydrogen bomb could result in igniting the atmosphere possibly destroying the entire planet.

A meeting was held to determine whether or not to proceed with a planned test. In attendance were Los Alamos Laboratory leadership as well as top scientist, many of whom had won Nobel prizes. A heated debate ensued where some passionately believed the risk of igniting the atmosphere was too high to warrant proceeding with the test. Others countered that the threat to the free world should Russia finish their hydrogen bomb development first was to substantial not to proceed with risk.

As the debate wound down, a vote was taken with Teller voting last. The tally prior to Teller’s vote was unanimous in favor of proceeding with the test. Teller considered his vote with all its implications and voted no. When later asked why, he explained that if he voted in favor of the test and everything turned out okay, no one would remember him or his genius. However, if he voted no and the test was a failure, he would go down in history as the world’s smartest man. Of course there would be no history because the world would be destroyed, but to his point, he would be the smartest dead man in what used to be the world.

MIT and their Teller-like role in the COVID modeling melodrama

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has entered the COVID modeling melodrama in a Teller-like role. The MIT model is based on machine learning algorithms but unlike other COVID, the MIT model does not include information about past pandemics. Rather, it relies on current COVID data, established epidemiological equations about outbreaks, and neural network-based inference (i.e., how people interact).

The MIT model was developed by a student as a class project and warns that if quarantines are lifted too soon, the pandemic will re-surge. Keep in mind that for weeks we’ve been told quarantine measures were necessary to flatten the curve so the healthcare system would not be overwhelmed. We were told that the goal of social distancing was not to reduce the number of infections or deaths, but rather to spread them out. In mathematical terms, this implies that flattening the curve causes it to elongate while the area under the curve (i.e., number infections or deaths) stays the same. So either MIT is wrong about resurgence, or we were lied to by federal and state governments regarding the goals of curve flattening.

This story ties to the COVID modeling melodrama and MIT’s role in a similar manner. Since late January we have destroyed our economy and suspended constitutional freedoms based on erroneous models from Fauci, Brix, and the University of Washington. Their incompetence has cost our country over five trillion dollars and seriously brought into question the role of government in times of crisis. Now these very same people who have not gotten anything right since the beginning of Wuhan outbreak, are telling us that their models indicate all is good and we can return to our normal lives with a measured reopening schedule.

But throwing a monkey wrench in these best laid plans is MIT saying not so fast. They have an unvetted model that projects if you reopen the country too soon infections and deaths will surge. While the MIT models doesn’t go so far as to suggest the atmosphere will ignite, their projected outcome is nonetheless dire. So in the context of a Teller-like prediction, if MIT is wrong no one will remember; after all it is just a student model. But if MIT is right, they’ll go down in history as being the lone academic institution that correctly predicted the true COVID outcome while all the other “experts” got it wrong.

Based on what I’ve learned about federal and UW modeling competency since COVID started and my inference regarding how the MIT model is probably written, I can make a projection of my own. If COVID were a natural virus, it would attenuate, but so far this Chinese made virus is showing no signs of attenuating. That means that means that once we return to some version of normalcy the infection and death rates will increase. The world and the nation are no where near infection and death rates for past pandemics or even a normal flu season so we still have a ways to go.

My projection is that both the UW and MIT models are wrong. UW has not gotten anything right this crisis as started and they’ve yet to demonstrate in a modicum of competency. The MIT model, though based on whiz-bag algorithms is probably fundamentally a “fuel” model – more fuel in means more fire out. Both models are right in how policy should be determined, just as right as any rational human would be. We should go back to as much a level of normalcy as possible understanding that infections and deaths will increase/continue. As I have advocated all along, we should target support and resources on those demographics most vulnerable and at risk and let less at-risk demographics get on with their lives; like we do during every flu season.

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