Models, their limits and the importance of not downplaying what is clearly known

April 13th, 2020  |  Published in Uncategorized

It’s past one month since I was at a journalism conference where we learned that someone had tested positive for COVID-19. I found out this information waiting for a train to Chicago. In this in-between space, the area between “fuck it, there’s nothing I can do at this point” and “what are the minute things I can do to tip the scales for my own health and others” felt so murky.

Those days were a different world, but the confusion and calculation is even more acute. There is so much that is still unknown, but I find comfort in understanding a bit more about how that unknowing works, and the things that are very clearly known. I thought this quote, from Brian Resnick’s COVID modeling explainer captures this well:

What’s very important is not the details of the model, it’s that this is a virus that can crush health care,” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist who studies infectious diseases at Harvard. “That’s not a model result, that’s an observation. We know it because of Wuhan, we know it because of Italy, because of Spain, we know it because, now, of New York.

The explainer also breaks down some of the variables that go into a model, different types of models, what they can and can’t tell us, and what is needed to make them actionable.

538 took on models in comic form, with an emphasis on how getting good inputs to the models is really challenging.

But I want to go back to the things that you don’t need a model to know. 19 children detained by the U.S. in a Chicago shelter for unaccompanied minors have tested positive for COVID-19. There are 300 cases of COVID-19 in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Three people incarcerated there have died.

While models both influence policy and their variables are dependent on policy, there are stark realities right in front of us that those who have the space and mobility in this moment to feel like they have choices must choose how to respond. The parts of the present that feel ghastly are because of sick choices from the past.

Ok, a few media things that are not about a virus

This Bad Moves single has brought me a lot of joy, along with a playlist they compiled of other new music.

My friend Jenny made a lovely radio piece about a lovely poem that can feel like a game.