The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts

Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Worst Model in History: How the Curve was not Flattened

"Flattening the Curve" was an incredibly successful meme during the early stages of the Covid epidemic. Unfortunately, it was based on a model that we can describe as the worst ever proposed in history (or maybe the second worst, after the one that assured Napoleon that invading Russia in Winter was a good idea). Here, I explain why the model was so bad, and I also include a discussion on whether climate change models might suffer from the same problems.  

You may have heard the quote, "all models are wrong, but some can be useful." It is true. But it is also true that wrong models can be misleading, and some can be lethal. In history, some of these lethal models were fully believed ("let's invade Russia, what could go wrong?), while the lethal consequences of following some current models are still not understood by everyone ("economic growth can continue forever, why not?"). Other models are telling us of the lethal consequences of not following them; it is the case with climate models. There are many kinds of models, but you can't deny that they are important in determining human actions. 

In this post, I'll discuss the model that gave rise to the concept of "Flattening the Curve" at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic. It was based on the idea that "non-pharmaceutical measures" (NPIs) would slow down the diffusion of the virus and avoid overloading the healthcare system. It was one of those models that looked good at the beginning, but that turned out to be a disaster. Among other things, it gives us a chance for a critical examination of climate models: could they suffer from the same problems? 

About the "Flattening the Curve" story, this idea of slowing down the diffusion of a viral infection was not wrong in itself. For millennia, people had noted that many illnesses were transmitted from person to person and that staying away from sick people could reduce the chances of infection. But country-wide lockdowns, universal masking, and the like had never been tried before. So how would you know that they could have a significant effect? 

Indeed, before the great Covid scare, the general opinion among practitioners and experts was that quarantines and other drastic measures were counter-productive, if not completely useless. Then, in early 2020, a new concept burst into the scene and took the memesphere by storm: "Flattening the Curve." It was expressed in the form of a graph that appeared over and over on the media in slightly different forms, but always showing the same concept. Here is an example among the many.

Image from "The New York Times," 2020,

Let's start by noting that the model is based on the typical shape of the curves describing an epidemic cycle. It occurs when something grows (e.g., a virus) by exploiting a resource (e.g., human beings). If the resource is limited, as is the case for the number of people that can be infected, then the growth of the infection will start slowing down, reach a maximum, and then decline. The result will be a "bell-shaped" curve, a behavior that has been known from the time of the Great Plague of London in the mid-17th century. (note, incidentally, that epidemic curves do not normally show the "Seneca Effect," that a faster decline in comparison to growth. It is because the system is relatively simple, and viruses are not affected by "pollution"). 

So, the "Flattening the Curve" model was based on something real; nevertheless, it had enormous problems. Take a careful look at the figure above. The model implies no less than two separate miracles. The first is that the "zero" of the x-axis is supposed to coincide with the "first case." It implies that, miraculously, the government would be so farsighted to decide to lock down a whole country on the basis of a single observed case or just a few. Such a government never existed, and you may argue that it cannot exist in the real world. In practice, NPIs were mandated only when the epidemic was well on its way and fast growing. Note also how the "Protective Measures" curve touches exactly the limit of the healthcare system's capacity without overcoming it. How the measures could be calibrated so precisely is another miracle. 

The need for two miracles is bad enough for a single model, but there is a much worse problem with it: the model shows two curves with the same shape; they differ only in scale, a parameter that cannot be reliably determined in the early phases of an epidemic cycle. Then, of course, in the real world, the epidemic will follow only one of the two curves, and how do you know which one? In other words, how do you know if the measures are having any effect? Remarkably, the question was almost never publicly asked during the epidemic. The "flattening the curve" model soon became a political issue and, in politics, there are questions that you are not allowed to ask. 

So, let me try to step out of politics and use science to ask a forbidden question: how would the curve react to the "measures" applied while the curve has already started to grow? Everybody expected an effect, of course, and, obviously, a strong effect if it had to be worth the effort. Tomas Pueyo correctly used the term "the hammer" to describe the expected effects of NPIs (one of the very few correct observations he ever made). And if you hit something with a hammer,  you do expect some immediate effect. But what kind of effect, exactly? 

In a previous post, I described a simple SIR (sane, infected, removed) epidemic model, not a sophisticated model but several steps higher on the scientific scale than a purely qualitative two-curve diagram. The model can be easily tweaked to show the effects of a sudden reduction in the transmission factor (Rt) of the infection as a result of NPIs (note that it doesn't apply to vaccines, which can only be introduced gradually). Below, you see a typical result of my calculations. 

The vertical axis is the infected fraction of the population (the "prevalence"), which should be proportional to the number of measured positive cases. The horizontal scale is the time; a typical epidemic cycle lasts a few months. The graph is roughly modeled on the Italian case in early 2020, and it assumes that the "measures" are mandated on the 20th day of the start of an infection cycle that lasts a few months. The model assumes that the NPIs reduce the infectivity (Rt) of the virus by 50% (as it was commonly expected to happen). 

The result is that the slope of the prevalence curve changes when the NPIs are put in place. You can play with the parameters in different ways, but, for a significant decrease in the virus transmission rate, you will always see a discontinuity in the curves in correspondence to the start of the measures. NOte also that there is a certain latency time before a contact with an infected person will lead to a positive result to a PCR test, but for Covid this latency is estimated as of a few days, no more than five. The effect of the latency time will be to smooth the transition, but the change of slope should remain detectable. Overall, this is what the real "flattening the curve" should look like.

Of course, there exist much more sophisticated epidemiological models, but good modelers know (or should know) that complicated models are not necessarily better than simple ones. Here I don't want to enter into the academic debate on the effect of NPIs (it never reached policymakers and the public, anyway). Just as a quick note, you may wish to take a look at this 2020 paper. It was published by the group led by Neil Ferguson at the Imperial College in London, who was one of the main proponents of lockdowns. The authors argue that lockdowns were effective, but, if you examine the paper carefully, for instance, looking at fig. 2 of the extended results, you'll see that their own results do not support their conclusions. (and I am not the only one who noted the problem).

But rather than going into the details of complicated models, let's just use common sense. The NPIs are a sudden change in the parameters of the system. When the government orders people to stay locked at home, most of them do that immediately. So, you do expect an immediate effect on the shape of the epidemic curve. The problem is that you don't see anything like that in real-world data. Below, the case of Italy in 2020. NPIs were enacted on March 9th, when the curve had reached about 25% of the peak. The curve continued to grow along the same trajectory for 19 days more. 

Italy is just one case. Maybe, if you are a real first-class sleuth, you might find some cases where you can evidence a discontinuity in an epidemic curve in correspondence with the NPIs being enacted. But we have hundreds, probably thousands, of examples, and they are almost always smooth, except for the unavoidable random noise. The conclusion can only be that if the NPIs had an effect, it was very small. Incidentally, these observations are consistent with the recent Cochrane Review that used different methods to examine the effectiveness of face masks and other NPIs in slowing down the diffusion of viruses. No detectable effects were found. 

In the end, more than two years of "measures" were imposed on citizens on the basis of a model that implied miracles and didn't include methods to verify the effect of the recommended actions. The damage done to society was enormous in psychological, economic, and human terms, all for effects that turned out to be so small not to be measurable. We are still reeling from the disaster, and it may take several more years before we completely recover -- if we'll ever recover. 

The question, then, becomes how it could be that almost everyone in the world was completely overtaken by such a bad model -- possibly the worst one ever developed in history? It is a story related to the military implications of epidemics as bioweapons, but I'll tell it in a future post. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Bye-bye, university! How to leave research and be perfectly happy

 Imagine a university campus seen from a drone. Zoom down to one of the buildings. There, imagine a human figure running out of it, screaming while holding his head with his hands. Imagine him running and running, dashing out of the campus gate, and then disappearing in the fog, still running at full speed and screaming. That was me, leaving the University of Florence forever. 

I still had some time before mandatory retirement, but I couldn't take it anymore. The Covid regulations were the killing blow to an institution that had already become a monstrosity. And I left my university this March, after 40 years of employment. 

To explain why I quit my job, I should tell you how it is to work at a mid-level university. Of course, the definition of "mid-level" depends on the parameters you use, but the University of Florence is normally ranked somewhere within the first 500 universities worldwide. This is not so bad considering that there are tens of thousands of institutions in the world that label themselves as "universities." But it is nothing to be enthusiastic about. 

Is it a bad thing to work at a mid-level university? Not necessarily. I have experience working in top-level ones (just to name one, I was a post-doc at Berkeley) and I know that in a higher-level university I could have had a higher salary, more support, and more chances to attract financing. But also more stress, more pressure, and more control. 

So, I don't envy the life of the colleagues who have been running the rat race. The way scientific research is organized nowadays implies discouraging interdisciplinary and innovative research. Actually, not just discouraging -- the whole system aims at carpet bombing with napalm everything and everyone who tries to do something new. If you work in a top-level university, you are supposed to perform. And performing means acting strictly according to the rules. But, in a mid-level university, you are not so heavily pressured, and that gives you a chance to explore new ideas and move to new fields. 

To be clear, this is not a hymn to mediocrity. Being in a mid-level university does not mean you can't do top-level work. By all means, you can, and you should. True, you don't have the same kind of financial support you can have at the top scientific watering holes. From the periphery of the Global Empire, you just can't access the old boy networks that manage scientific funds. But you can compensate with creativity and flexibility. As an example, the Chemistry Department of the University of Florence, where I was working, scores consistently as the best department of chemistry in Italy, and it is at the top level worldwide in several fields. It has done so well, I think, because researchers were left mostly free to organize their work and to pursue the lines they thought were most rewarding. 

So, what led me to run away screaming from a structure that I considered not so bad? In one word: bureaucracy. It has been a slow trend but, year after year, bureaucrats had been penetrating more and more into the organization of research. They were the administrators, but also colleagues who gradually transmogrified themselves from researchers into paper-shufflers. As a result, we were asked to list our "products" (the name that bureaucrats give to scientific papers), to declare our bibliometric indices, and to fill out plenty of forms reporting on our performance. Also, bureaucrats saw the university as a cash cow and they made sure to take a larger and larger toll on the university budget. The number of administrative employees kept increasing and the salary of a top bureaucrat became higher than that of a senior faculty member. Eventually, the administrative director could fire the rector (not officially, but it happened in Florence). All that is not just a problem with the University of Florence, it is the same in all the universities of the world. 

The final nail in the coffin was the pandemic. It gave bureaucrats the possibility of scoring an epochal victory on faculty members. Truly, it was not just a victory, it was the complete annihilation of the enemy. Before the pandemic, the university was still a relatively open institution, where I was free to go anywhere on our campus and to receive anyone in my room. I could invite anyone to give a talk, from Italy or abroad. I could invite researchers from anywhere to work in my group. My students could visit me at any time, and the door of my office was always open. 

All that was vaporized by the regulations: a garden of delights for bureaucrats. The new rules were typically not based on verifiable data, but they were always strict, detailed, and rigid. Social distancing, face masks, sanitizing everything, even delicate and expensive instruments that didn't benefit from being sprayed with solvents. If I wanted to receive someone in my office, I had to ask permission from the director of the department at least 24 hours in advance, and explain who was the person I wanted to meet, why I wanted to meet him/her, and for how long. To enter our department, we were tested, sanitized, masked, QR-ed, and our body temperature measured. You see in the picture one of the infernal machines that appeared at the entrances of all the university buildings. It was correctly referred to as a "totem" -- an offering to evil deities. And no more socializing with your colleagues and students. No more than two persons per room, eating or drinking on the premises was strictly forbidden. Even the coffee machines in the corridors disappeared. (recently, they reappeared, but the surrounding conviviality didn't return: you have to keep at a certain distance, stay in line, follow the arrows painted on the floor). 

But that was nothing in comparison to what happened to teaching. For most people, a chemistry class is like a session with a dentist: you don't expect it to be pleasant, and you want it to be over as soon as possible. Yet, before the pandemic, lessons could be interactive, lively, and -- as much as possible -- interesting. You dealt with real human beings sitting in front of you, and you could discuss matters even not strictly related to the subject of your class. I had my students doing hands-on experiments, playing operational games, I had them learn how to make fire with a flint and once I had them sing a piece of polyphonic music. Maybe it was not chemistry, but they enjoyed that. 

All that disappeared in a whooshing sound with the pandemic. Suddenly, the students were turned from human beings into stamp-size images on a screen. And that was when they agreed to show their faces, you couldn't force them to. You had no idea if they were listening to you or playing games, or watching movies on their screens (If they were there at all). Even worse was the "mixed" mode that appeared in 2021. A few masked students could reserve seats in the classroom, and each occupied seat was spaced from the next one by two unoccupied ones (a rule surely based on solid data). The majority of the students would remain in remote mode, and you had exactly zero interaction with them -- you had no idea of who was listening to you if any did. A colleague of mine in another Italian university was suspended for six months from teaching as a punishment for having told her students on a hot day that they could lower their masks if they wanted. 

What was most shocking is how my colleagues took this bureaucratic storm. No protests, no questions, no discussions. I mean, we are supposed to be scientists: someone could have asked questions about the rules: what proof do you have that washing one's hands with solvents has any useful effect? On which basis were we forbidden to touch a piece of paper previously handed by a student? What proof do you have that staying at 1 meter from each other prevents infection? 

But no rule was criticized, no matter how quixotic. Administrators, and even many faculty members, were enthusiastic about the new rules. As in the Milgram experiment, they were given a chance to abuse their colleagues by taking formal or informal roles of guardians of the heavenly palace, and they took it gleefully. Before the pandemic, the lady at the reception desk was always smiling and kind. Afterward, she became something like a prison guard, even though she wasn't wearing a uniform. I can tell you that I have been a guest researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the guards at the entrance were more friendly. 

I don't remember what exactly was the last straw, but at some moment I found myself packing. Books, papers, pictures, equipment, and various stuff accumulated in forty years. Of my books, I donated some 350 of them to our library. The librarians were moderately happy to receive that gift, but they (and I) are perfectly aware that our students are becoming unable to understand English, so most of these books will just collect dust until they will be consumed in some fire at the end of our civilization. But so is life. In the picture, you can see me in the inner caverns of the library, with the books I laboriously carried there. 

And now what? Initially, I was a little afraid. Mandatory retirement in Europe is a terrible experience for the people who are forced to retire while still active and perfectly able to do their job. But, in my case, I have to thank the small peduncled creature that made me hate my job. I can tell you that I am not feeling anything like the "retirement shock" that killed some of my colleagues. No kidding: they fell sick and died shortly after retiring. And they were in perfect health before. 

So, right now, I am in perfect shape, and perfectly happy. It is over with boring classes, filling forms, attending meetings, be part of committees, and more useless ways to spend one's time. God, you really love me!!! I can spend all my time doing the things I love to do. Like spending an inordinate amount of time writing posts on the "Seneca Effect" blog. But not just that. Science can be a lot of fun when you are not pressured by review committees and funding agencies (see below). And I am also working on some weird things I won't tell you anything about. 

Hard times seem to be coming, but we have to accept what the universe has prepared for us. And so, the future is waiting for us. Who knows what expects us once we'll be there?


Fun with science

Science used to be something done just for the sake of learning new things, and I think it can still be done in this spirit. Check our paper (with Ilaria Perissi) on the "6th law of stupidity" and you'll see what I mean. Of course, the reviewers were horrified by a paper that was not boring. But, eventually, we overcame their criticism with good arguments and persistence. We (with Ilaria and others) also published a paper on dragonology (not exactly the science of dragons, but the dragons of science). 
Another paper written with Ilaria was inspired by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" novel. We described how the cycle of whaling of 19th century is an example of the overexploitation of natural resources. It is a dynamical cycle that we simulated using a boardgame for educational purposes. The paper is under review, for the time being, you can take a look at an earlier version called the "Oil Game."  

We are now (again, with Ilaria) world-renown experts on mousetraps as related to nuclear explosions (the paper is on Arxiv, we have a full paper under review). In the picture, you see a mouse I captured recently. Don't worry, the little fella was not mistreated. It was released, alive and well, in a place where I am sure it can find food. 

You think all this is not serious science? Well, if you want serious science, here is serious science, at least in terms of words full of sound and fury: "The Role of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) in Complex Adaptive Systems" (Perissi, Lavacchi, and Bardi). Serious stuff, but it was fun to study this subject, even though we wrote the paper in a rather boring form, full of mathematical formulas. 

By the way, if you dabble with EROI-related things, you know that the "Hubbert Curve" is the result of the declining EROI of oil extraction. And you may have asked yourself (but never dared to ask) what is the value of the EROI at "peak oil"? Well, you won't find that datum anywhere, but we (again, I and Ilaria) know! The paper is being prepared, and the mystery will be revealed soon. And there is more in the pipeline, including a long paper on the concept of "social holobionts" -- halfway through it, right now. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Ah.... I forgot: I also edited and published a new book! "Limits and Beyond

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The lockdown in China: if the powerful are doing something that looks stupid, it is because what they’re doing IS actually stupid

I received several comments on my post "The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis," and I think that some were so interesting to be worth reproducing in a full-fledged post. The first comment comes from an anonymous commenter living in China. It seems to me believable, and also consistent with my interpretation. In practice, the Chinese were (and are) not the only ones conditioned by factors such as avoiding a loss of face. Italians did the same during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. There seems to be an enormous psychological problem that when you discover that you have been conned, you don't want to admit that. It makes little difference if you are Chinese, Italian, or another nationality. There follows a comment by "Mon Seul Desir" on which I fully agree. So much that I used it in a condensed version for the title of this post. When something looks insane, most likely, it IS insane. (UB)

A comment on "The Shanghai Lockdown: A Memetic Analysis"
by "Anonymous"

I am in Shanghai. I have been living here since 2007. I can read/speak Chinese at a high level of fluency. I also traveled extensively in the country.

There is something that most foreign analysts do not grasp: the Chinese Mind (the "collective subconscious" if you wish.)

-The Chinese Mind likes to be seen in the Struggle doing things to fight in the Struggle (no matter what the Struggle is, whether those actions give tangible results or not, at least they make great photo ops for the media.)
-The Chinese Mind is hive-like, it's blindly obedient, and it lashes out at the "Enemy" (whether real or imaginary)
-The Chinese Mind is a bit childish, it is for sure stubborn, and non-rational/logical (non-Cartesian)
-The Chinese Mind is constantly under ideological propaganda, everywhere, every time, from childhood til death, from home to the workspace...
-The Chinese Mind is never guilty, it always blames the Other (and the object of the blame is constantly shifting)
-The Chinese Mind hates losing face (what face, nobody knows) and hates being criticized (just shut up and put it under the carpet)

Remember the famines? One day, they wake up and decide to kill all the birds (that were eating bugs that were eating crops...)

Same Mindset.

Shanghai has always been seen as the most "civilized" city in China. Shanghai is often called Le Paris de l'Orient, it is an "international" first-tier city... probably the top Chinese city in terms of openness, quality of life, and access to medical care.

Nobody expected to see such levels of insanity in Shanghai... in other areas of the country, yes, but not here. Looking at the conditions in the quarantine centers... Containers without doors in a field, tents set on a highway, toilets flooded with feces... open-air zoo.

They come to take positive cases in big buses and ambulances almost daily. The police are patrolling streets at all times and we are unable to even set foot on the sidewalk. Every building that had a positive case is either: shut down with barriers OR has 1-2 men in a tent monitoring 24/7 (imagine all the manpower required.) Currently, there are 3-4 of those tents in my compound. It's basically Martial Law.

The psychological toll is quite high. The monetary one must be hard for the lower classes. Some neighbors have mental breakdowns. Some people spray alcohol in the air while walking to get tested... You'd think the Plague is upon us.

Some people were getting messages in group chat about "foreign spies" and "foreign media fueling anti-China conspiracies." Good ol' shift the blame tricks.

I have been in lockdown since mid-March, got tested 35 times, and lost about 12 pounds. The local governmental commune gave us a little bit of food, but barely enough to survive.

Luckily, we had some preps and were able to order some food. Now, most delivery guys are not allowed to deliver to our address. We can get a bit of food, but we need to get imaginative to create new recipes (boiled/sweet and sour/spicy/fermented cabbage.)

My take is:

It could be a test for something much bigger (i.e., war, energy crisis) or they are truly afraid of the unrest if lots of old people were to die. Chinese people tend to get emotional, and the last thing the authorities want to deal with is mobs lynching doctors in the streets.

Is the frog slowly boiling in the pot?

I think so.

Except the whole planet is pot, and we're all frogs.


Posted by "Mon Seul Desir"

I think that there are far too many attempts to rationalize the conduct and policies of the powerful as being part of some astonishingly clever plan, myself, I use Occam’s razor, if the powerful are doing something that looks incredibly stupid, self-destructive and utterly insane, then it is because whatever they’re doing IS actually incredibly stupid, self-destructive and utterly insane. I don’t buy the myth that those in power are unusually clever, informed or are far-seeing. Here in Canada I’ve been witnessing the follies of our child-rulers for the past few years and the bungling of senile Brandon south of the border and this is governance on the level of Honorius and Arcadius and their corrupt intrigue-filled courts. As for China, I saw a report on Xi’s appearance before the Congress of Peoples Deputies and I wondered. How many of the deputies applauding him are actually plotting against him?

Note added after publication. Latest news from China:

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis

Despite evidence that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What's happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted -- and still be acting -- on the basis of a meme that has its origin in a military perception of the pandemic.  

A "meme" is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it "infects" people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as "boil the damn milk." It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless in the 1960s, when pasteurization had become common. 

My grandmother was not stupid: she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or harmful, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most people are unprepared to understand. We should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more -- no way! So, we rely on simplified snippets to guide our everyday activities. "Wear the damn mask," "stay home," "don't kill granny," "flatten the curve," and the like. That includes our leaders, and even many of the so-called "experts".

But how can we tell whether a meme is good or bad? One way to decide is to look at its origin. All memes have a story. Sometimes they begin as sensible precautions ("boil the milk before drinking it") but, in some cases ("lock everybody inside their homes"), they have a more complicated story. Where does the lockdown meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of "biological warfare." But let's go in order. 

The Militarization of Biotechnologies

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into besieged cities using catapults. It must have been spectacular, but it doesn't seem to have been common or especially effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that with chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times, bioweapons were never used on a large scale and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.


The Ngrams results are confirmed by an examination of the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that in the figure years go right to left in the graph and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of this renewed interest lies in the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. But they can do much more than that: what if you could "tailor" a virus to the genetic code of specific ethnic groups, or even to the DNA of single persons? That remains (fortunately) for now in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach. You can direct a virus to harm the enemy while sparing your population. You can do that if you have a vaccine, and they don't (like the old Maxim gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China often believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky's site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas: they have never been put into practice. And you are discussing lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people. What could go wrong? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. Then, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that "genetic warfare" was a real possibility. At this point, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country to react when targeted with bioweapons.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the objective of reaching the natural "herd immunity". For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others. On quarantines, they stated that "There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza." 

But when the military meme of biological warfare started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, waiting for herd immunity is not enough: the virus has to be stopped fast to allow the defenders to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. 

You can find several documents on the Web advocating an aggressive attitude toward epidemics. One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, where you can read of a scenario called "Operation Lockstep" that described something very similar to what came to pass in 2020 in terms of restrictions. Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn't use the term "lockdown" but it proposed a drastic series of measures to counter a possible outbreak that leading nearly two million victims in the United States only. It proposed a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of "flattening the curve." It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We'll go back to this graph later. 

Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, just memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 

The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov-2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone with the idea of containing an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don't see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, "People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing." I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to react, rather than act. They also tend to be authoritarian, and a drastic lockdown is surely something that they favor since it enhances their power. 

Seen in this context, it doesn't matter if the SARS-Cov-2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What's important is that the Chinese authorities reacted "by the book." That is, they put into practice the recommendations that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya's CDC paper, although, of course, that doesn't mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their own recommendations on preparedness that we may imagine were similar to those fashionable in the West. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China. We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years.


There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don't forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid during 2020 was of the order of 2-3 in a million. Infinitesimal, indeed. But was it was a success of the containment policies? Or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be? Whatever the case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success. It was a personal triumph for China's president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, masking, etcetera. They seemed effective not just in terms of "flattening the curve", but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of "zero covid." Memes such as "stay home" spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of "flattening the curve" and of "zero covid" were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends: 

Initially, it seemed that the Covid epidemic in Europe would disappear after the first wave, thanks to the NPIs. European leaders may have been genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled "Why we will be healed" taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But shortly afterward the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web. It was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle as it had been done in China. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:

Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. 

Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.


And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated. But then a new, stronger wave arrived. China didn't do so much better than the West, after all. 

The Memes that won

Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But the Shanghai lockdown changed everything. I argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 

The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let's go back to Venkayya's diagram in the 2007 CDC report, reproducing it here again. 

Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that the author, Mr. Venkayya, thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes the real-world data? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren't. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of "restrictions" during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based that show how the effect of NPIs such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak, if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was perceived to be so effective that it was replicated all over the world. The key, here, is the term "effective." If the virus had been as deadly as it was believed to be, maybe even a biological weapon, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not much more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese may have been already equipped to cope with it. That would also explain why the 2022 wave was so much stronger: the Chinese had not exposed their immune system to viruses for nearly two years, and they had become especially vulnerable to new variants.  

At this point, I can propose an interpretation for the reasons for the recent Shanghai lockdown as a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese authorities were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of the COVID virus, they reacted in the same way: with a new lockdown, convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat. 

If this is true, the Chinese authorities -- and the Chinese citizens, as well -- y must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave refused to be flattened, as it had seemed to be during the Wuhan lockdown. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don't lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were themselves another stubborn meme infecting a population.

Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from "Worldometers." What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in winter for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaigns of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. Every day in the world, some 150,000 persons die for all reasons. The graph tells us that, on the average, only about 7-8 thousand people died of (or perhaps just with) Covid every day. Even assuming that all those who died with Covid can be classified as dead from Covid (not obvious at all), more than 95% of the people who died during this period died for reasons other than the Covid. 

The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose that it was a typical "feedback cascade" in the world's memesphere. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don't mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies and individuals do ride memes for their own advantage. So, when the pharmaceutical industry discovered that they could make money with vaccines against the Covid, they pushed hard for the meme to spread. The surveillance industry did the same. And governments, of course, pushed for more control over their citizens. They are naturally authoritarian and the Chinese government may not be especially more authoritarian than the Western ones. 

But, overall, memes can be a force that moves infected people even against their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is much worse for the Covid story. A lot of ordinary people fully believed the memes that the government's propaganda machine was pushing and they did things that were positively harming them, physically, socially, and economically. They still do, memes are resilient. Daniel Dennett said that "a human being is an ape infested with memes." and the Covid story shows that it is true. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only go down. But the recent news from Shanghai is worrisome. If the Western media are to be trusted, the Chinese government is engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. It may still be way too early to say that the time of the requiem for an old meme has come. 

See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.

Note added after publication. Latest news from China (May 9th, 2022):

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. ("our measures are scientific" -- yeah, sure.....)

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Twilight of the Narrative: Why the Truth will never be Revealed

 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)

What is truth? We often have a "Hollywood" model of truth: we expect it to triumph at the end of the movie, when the bad guy confesses his crime and everyone agrees on what really happened. 

Reality is very different. Truth is multiple, fractal, hierarchical, a game of mirrors, never showing herself in full. Think of the pandemic: aren't we in the age where the "scientific method" gives us a rational, objective view of the world? And yet, the multifaceted aspects of a hugely complex story seem to be beyond our capability to process it rationally.  Truth is not coming. It may never come. (And you may also be reminded of another case whose 20th anniversary we recently commemorated -- there, too, the truth did not come out and probably never will).

In the post, below, Sheridan analyzes the structure of the memesphere and challenges at the core the idea that the "narrative (about the pandemic) is going to crack" any day now and that the "truth" will be revealed. He says, "There is no longer a unifying narrative that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there is now only a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed over them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, it's just dominant."

In essence, the memetic sphere has shattered into an infinite series of closed microspheres. The dominant macrosphere can no longer control them, despite its desperate efforts at censorship, intimidation, and obfuscation. But if the microspheres don't talk to each other, the truth won't come out, whatever it is.

Read this post: it is truly enlightening

The Twilight of the Narrative

by Simon Sheridan

November 27, 2021 (posted here by the author's kind permission)

Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. 

This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. 

This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. 

It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.

Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. 

This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representations of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?

With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold the government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. 

Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.

I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.

Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.

In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. 

We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.