Absence of Evidence

Graphic of telepathy from Pinterest.

Shepherd: It’s my belief that those sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds. Observe their behavior. …witness their attmpts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as… plummet. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.) …One thing is for sure, the sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.)

Tourist: But where did they get the idea from?
Shepherd: From Harold. … He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standin’ around for a few months and then bein’ eaten. … He’s patently hit on the idea of escape.
Tourist: Well why don’t you just get rid of Harold?
Shepherd: Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.

Could there be ESP? Can sheep fly? Monty Python speculated about it…

The topic of Extra-Sensory Perception came up yesterday, and my initial reaction was that it was too broad to write about and that it hadn’t affected me personally, so I had nothing to say. I then got it into a hot debate with my spouse about the limits and definitions of ESP–does it include ghosts? is telepathy part of ESP and therefore BS whereas telekinesis might be possible so it’s not BS? what about twin studies? and so on. This led me down the Internet rabbit hole; what exactly is the research? I realized that I never have nothing to say.

This Provocative Question was asked by blogger Fandango (in summary): “Do you believe in ESP, defined as 1) Telepathy; 2) Clairvoyance; and 3) Precognition?”

Fair enough. For definitional purposes, let’s not include all unexplained phenomena, no ghosts, traveling back from the dead, global consciousness, or UFOs. Let’s get even simpler. Telepathy, and its corollary, telekinesis. Moving and communicating with just your mind.

Belief is the Wrong Word

While assessing whether ESP is possible might seem a simple question, I have to start by picking at the word “belief.” Belief can be a function of drawing a conclusion based on facts, even though the dictionary suggests that “Belief=confidence in truth of something without proof.” Proof is a bit dodgy, since it could be limited to what I’ve observed, but ought instead to be limited to what has been developed by experiment. This is important: Belief in scientific fact can’t be limited to what you have personally experienced.

I believe the world is round based on photos I’ve seen and textbooks I’ve read. I haven’t personally seen the “roundness.” I believe there is a sub-atomic world. I believe that there were giant sloths (we have the bones). I believe there could have been unicorns.

Continue reading “Absence of Evidence”

T is for Triathlon

The Spirig/Jorgensen duel in Rio 2016, a remarkable race that garnered little notice. Photo at ESPN.com.

Today’s A to Z challenge entry was originally a chapter in my Olympics book, cut for brevity’s sake (more info on Triumphs You Didn’t See here). I still had the notes though; never throw away all your edits! Because the Women’s Triathlon in Rio remains one of the most memorable races I’ve seen.

Gwen Jorgensen, American Olympic triathlete, was doing tax work as an accountant at Ernst & Young when she got the call.

For the record, there have been other accountant athletes — Ray Wersching, champion kicker on the 49ers and Craig Counsell, second basemen for the Brewers, to name a few. Accountants take the CPA exam to get employment, a set of professional tests after college, a tough, exhausting exam. At two and a half days long, it covers four separate sections, fourteen hours of seat time. Most people don’t pass it the first go-round, and it takes months or years of preparation, typically with coaching.

Kind of sounds like a triathlon.

Continue reading “T is for Triathlon”

Gimme Shelter, Gimme Testing Data

On Day 2 of our Alameda County Shelter-in-place order, I am creating graphs, mostly for my sanity. Today’s topic is data, in particular, Covid-19 testing data. If you’re a data geek like me, this is for you.

I have blathered on for days (?or is it weeks? I’ve lost track…days seem like weeks) that our biggest problem right now is lack of testing. We don’t know what we don’t know. Because the U.S. didn’t roll out testing capacity early on, people who feel sick or at risk for Covid haven’t been able to get tested. We’ve heard that for weeks and are still hearing it. Because people who know they’re sick can’t get tested, we have no idea who is sick and how many would test positive. Without knowing that, everyone has to STOP moving. That’s the problem right now.

Yes, it’s definitely a problem that hospitals are starting to become overwhelmed and might become swamped. It’s definitely a problem that travel is cancelled and that there is a black market for toilet paper and sanitizers. (Anybody know where we can get some ramen? That turns out to be a big concern in our house.) It’s an even bigger problem that we don’t know how long this will last, and we won’t know until there’s a robust testing structure in place. South Korea put in an excellent testing structure early on, and they seem to be moving into a better part of the pandemic curve. We can learn something from their experience, and we can learn something looking at data.

The Most Important Data Is Under-Reported

The problem has been a lack of good data, and good testing data is still hit and miss. In a world that’s used to hitting the “refresh” button every minute and seeing numbers update, having data that is only reported every few days or not at all is killer to the psyche. Up until about a week ago, data on how many people were being tested was nearly impossible to find. This was due partly because few had been tested; I might also speculate that some didn’t want the public to know just how few that was.

I can illustrate this by looking at Daily Case data compared with Daily Testing data. Here is the number of cases in California, shown per day and total to date. By the way, note that the red bars (daily cases) are linked to numbers on the left side and the purple line (cases to date) linked to the right side. Showing data on different axes is important because if you show cumulative and daily on the same graph, the cumulative would make the daily increases too small to see. You would have no sense of the underlying infection curve.

Graph of California Covid cases
Graph by kajmeister based on data sources in COVID Tracking project.
Continue reading “Gimme Shelter, Gimme Testing Data”

Let Facts Go Viral

Author’s Note: I considered taking this post down, since it was written before the declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic, before the wave of infections and death hit the East Coast or, really, even Europe or California. I don’t want the tone to sound flippant. I’m opting to leave it up for two reasons. First, to point out that health experts did KNOW things before March 11 or March 20, or whatever date someone claims now is when Things Got Really Real. Secondly, it illustrates that even when knowledge is limited, people can take intelligent steps to minimize risks. There’s no better example than that photo of Mardi Gras as an illustration of what controlling risk means.

Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, photo from historyofvaccines.org

The question was asked yesterday: What’s something you’ve longed believed to be true, but now you know is not true?  When it comes to worldwide problems, we often think: It can’t happen here. I mused about this while watching the news, with story after story about the coronavirus, topped by Our Leader at a press conference emphasizing that there are only 15 U.S. cases of the virus, and really that would soon be zero. That same day, the 60th case in the U.S. was confirmed, a case which is literally Here, near-ish to where I live. At the moment, they don’t know how the person became infected, and they don’t know who she came in contact with.

It can happen here.

Americans seem to sway between attitudes of invulnerability and full-scale panic. It can’t happen to us, that’s only for exotic people in China or Iran. Next day, we’re in long lines at Home Depot asking where we can buy HAZMAT suits. I’d like to take a middle road here and discuss some fact facts about pandemics—risks, likely scenarios, treatment, and precautions.

Lessons of History

There have been pandemics before, the most prominent being the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, where 30 million people died. An estimated 500 million, 27% of the world’s population, became infected, and the death rate averaged around 2%. As many as 675,000 Americans died of the 29 million thought to have contracted the disease. The outbreaks occurred in two waves: one in the winter of 2018 during normal “cold and flu” season and a second, deadlier wave, in late summer. An unusually high number of young adults died in that second wave, unlike a typical flu. The disease hit hard even in isolated communities like the Pacific Islands and Alaska, with communities like Samoa losing 30%. In other places, such as the U.S., the mortality rate was closer to 0.5%. Not everyone was exposed. Not everyone exposed became infected. Not everyone who became infected died.

For comparison, a normal flu season in the U.S. kills between 20-40,000 people annually, about 0.1%. Like the coronavirus, the typical flu spreads when infected people cough or sneeze. People who die from the flu are usually those most vulnerable to respiratory diseases because their immune system is already compromised or they have other risk factors. Not everyone is exposed. Not everyone exposed becomes infected. Not everyone who becomes infected dies.

Continue reading “Let Facts Go Viral”

Fa-la-la-la-la Is No Accident

Piano music The Christmas Song

Christmas is the one holiday that has its own music. In fact, music is so much at the core of Christmas celebrations that three of the top fifteen best-selling singles of all time are Christmas-themed, and public venues start playing carols right after Halloween, two months early. Think about it; no other American/western European holiday involves theme music.

I realized this fact last night while attending the second holiday concert of this season, listening to a stream of sublime medieval motets and “Marian polyphony” by Chanticleer. As they sang dozens of songs about mangers and Magi, I tried to think of songs for Halloween or Thanksgiving, and they are rare, ancillary, afterthoughts. In the religious elementary school I attended as a child, Easter and Christmas were considered equally worth of pageantry, and we performed songs for parents in both. But few people would now sing “Go to Dark Gethsemane” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” while shopping for chocolate bunnies in March.

Music is a fundamental part of the Christmas experience, as old as wassailing and gift-giving, almost as old as snow and the change of the seasons.

Continue reading “Fa-la-la-la-la Is No Accident”