My view

'Flattening the curve'

By JOHN PACE
Posted 4/1/20

Mathematics may be our window to the universe: Undoubtedly, it is the foundation of computer science and thus enables much of our modern technological society. Nonetheless, it has real limits on its …

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My view

'Flattening the curve'

Posted

Mathematics may be our window to the universe: Undoubtedly, it is the foundation of computer science and thus enables much of our modern technological society. Nonetheless, it has real limits on its utility and usefulness in explaining some aspects of the human condition.

In the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, “number-cruncher” experts of all kinds have rushed in to “clarify” the quantitative aspects of what we might expect from this hellish disease. In that rush, confusion is a more likely outcome.

For example, as multiple graphs and curves have been presented to the public (via NYT, WSJ, etc.), which one is the curve that we are (famously) trying to flatten? If we plot the daily new virus cases (vertical axis) versus the days since the first case (horizontal axis) for any severely affected city or region (see www.bit.ly/myview

flattencurve for more detailed information), we will see a steep rise and eventually—hopefully—a fall in the curve. Theoretically, if the rise in cases gets too high on any given day, then our medical resources will be exhausted. So, certain quantitatively inclined and usually well-meaning folks run in to opine that we must “flatten the curve”, i.e. lessen the number of new cases. We already knew that anyway.

Here’s the rub: We have not done enough testing in most places to actually know that the cases we are discovering on any given day are new or perhaps have been there, undiscovered, for many days. Is the testing uncovering our ignorance of the situation, or is it giving us some information that should only be cautiously and carefully interpreted? In either case, essentially, the data that is being “crunched” is incomplete (dirty) and likely misleading when grossly interpreted with disease models that typically expect clean data for them to be coherent and perhaps predictive.

All this means is that there are at least as many cases out there as are being reported and probably many more. Whether you are politically liberal or conservative, err on the side of behavioral conservatism and follow strict guidelines regarding human contact, hand washing, face masks, etc.

The price is too high to do otherwise.

John Pace and his wife are retired NJ college professors that have lived as full-time residents of Honesdale since 2009.

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