from the armchair-epidemiology dept
Richard Epstein is a very famous law professor, known for his “libertarian” take on the world. Lots of people who know him insist he’s a brilliant legal mind… who seems to think that his brilliance in that area allows him to be brilliant in fields where he has no experience at all. For years, I’ve followed him being just ridiculously wrong when it comes to internet law and (even more so) on any issue related to copyright or patents, which he views as identical to tangible property. He has long refused to even consider that he might be wrong about that. Still, it was pretty shocking last month to see him jump into the deep end of the debate over the seriousness of COVID-19 by writing a piece claiming that he expected US deaths to top out at 500 tops. This was on March 16th, at which time California and Washington were already shutting down and it was blatantly clear many more people would die. Still what he initially wrote was:
[I]t seems more probable than not that the total number of cases world-wide will peak out at well under 1 million, with the total number of deaths at under 50,000 (up about eightfold). In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.
Remember, Epstein is a law professor, not an epidemiologist, not a statistician, and not an economist (though he often acts as if he is one). That pronouncement, which bolstered the claims coming from the White House and Trump’s supporters at the time that COVID-19 was still no big deal, quickly made its way to the White House, because clueless powerful people love an echo chamber.
As the death toll quickly passed 500, Epstein hastily revised his article to say he actually meant 5,000 US deaths, and that he regretted what he called “a simple stupid error” in his calculations. Epstein was roundly mocked for all of this, and continues to appear painfully unwilling to recognize his own ignorance in this issue, as was evidenced in this truly incredible interview Epstein gave with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in which he tries to defend his indefensible argument, and comes off like a total condescending asshole who assumes that because he’s a law professor he somehow knows more about epidemiology than a journalist who he insists must know nothing at all.
I know, but these are scientific issues here.
You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you?re going to say that I?m a crackpot.
That?s what you?re saying, isn?t it? That?s what you?re saying?
I?m not saying anything of the sort.
Admit to it. You?re saying I?m a crackpot.
I?m not saying anything of the?
Well, what am I then? I?m an amateur? You?re the great scholar on this?
No, no. I?m not a great scholar on this.
Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!
O.K. I?m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I?m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should?ve thought harder before writing it.
What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.
O.K. Can I ask you one more question?
You just don?t know anything about anything. You?re a journalist. Would you like to compare your r?sum? to mine?
No, actually, I would not.
Then good. Then maybe what you want to do is to say, ?Gee, I?m not quite sure that this is right. I?m going to check with somebody else.?
Of course, Chotiner did check with many other people and added multiple fact checks to his interview, quoting actual experts who respond with things like saying that what Epstein is saying is “completely inaccurate.”
Incredibly, earlier this week, Epstein tried again, with a new piece complaining that governors are overreacting with their lockdown decrees. Incredibly, he uses the evidence that these lockdowns are working and bending the curve to decrease the number of deaths as evidence that we should end the lockdowns, and that magically businesses will be able to handle the rest.
The question is why Cuomo thinks that doubling down on government restrictions is justified by the science and data. His own daily report of April 17 indicates that the rate of new infections is down and that the number of hospital discharges in the state now far exceeds the number of new admissions. Further data prepared by the New York Times reveals that the rate of infection is now slowing down rapidly throughout the United States. It also shows that new cases peaked at about 35,000 on April 3, with an erratic decline since that time.
That’s because of the lockdown. If we lift the lockdown too soon, those infection and death rates go back up.
Still, when the article came out, I went to go look for the original Epstein piece claiming only 500 deaths, and was surprised to find that the link now contains this:
[Correction & Addendum as of March 24, 2020:
My original erroneous estimate of 5,000 dead in the US is a number ten times smaller than I intended to state, and it too could prove somewhat optimistic. But any possible error rate in this revised projection should be kept in perspective. The current U.S. death toll stands at 592 as of noon on March 24, 2020, out of about 47,000 cases.
So… uh… what? Everything about that appears to be gas lighting. First off, the original estimate was 500 deaths, not 5,000. And he claims that was due to a “simple stupid error.” But now that we’re rapidly approaching 50,000 deaths, he’s claiming that it was the 5,000 that was the “original erroneous estimates” and that he “intended to state” 50,000? Really?
I was confused and really wondered what happened to that original 500 estimate, and thankfully John Macke figured it out making use of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and it appears that someone did some tricky shit to try to hide the original estimate — whether it was Epstein directly or someone else at the Hoover Institution:
As Macke dug into how the original article changed over time, he found that in early April, after the original hubbub died down, Epstein (or someone else at the Hoover Institution) appeared to change the “correction” from one that admitted the original estimate was 500, to the one that claimed it was actually 5,000.
As plenty of others have pointed out, this is “beyond academic fraud”:
Of course, now that those revisions have been caught and started to go viral, with little fanfare (and it appears to have happened while I was writing this post, someone quietly added a new correction to the old corrected correction (got that?):
[APRIL 21, 2020 EDITOR’S NOTE:
DUE TO AN EDITING ERROR, THE CORRECTION & ADDENDUM ABOVE IS INACCURATE. IT SHOULD STATE:
That estimate is ten times greater than the 500 number I erroneously put in the initial draft of the essay, and it, too, could prove somewhat optimistic. But any possible error rate in this revised projection should be kept in perspective. The current U.S. death toll stands at 592 as of noon on March 24, 2020, out of about 47,000 cases. So my adjusted figure, however tweaked, remains both far lower, and I believe far more accurate, than the common claim that there could be a million dead in the U.S. from well over 150 million coronavirus cases before the epidemic runs its course.
WE REGRET THE ERROR AND ANY CONFUSION IT HAS CAUSED]
But again, that “editing error” was only introduce weeks later after the “correct” error message was there. What would make them go back and change an error message that was shown for two weeks and make it false? Is it possible that an editor somehow went in and changed around the correction to take it from accurate to false? Perhaps, but it still seems… quite odd.
Of course, the bigger question is why should anyone ever take Epstein’s ideas on all this seriously, given his dreadful track record, and lack of expertise in this particular field?
Filed Under: covid-19, economics, epidemiology, law, rewriting history, richard epstein