Tag Archives: covid-19

Where preprints fit in, COVID-19 edition

I recorded a 16-minute talk on the scientific process, science communication, and how preprints fit in to the information ecosystem around COVID-19.

It’s called, “How we know: COVID-19, preprints, and the information ecosystem.” The video is on YouTube here, also embedded below, and the slides, with references, are up here.

Happy to have your feedback, in the comments or any other way.

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What happens next

Wouldn’t you like to know.

“The pandemic has exposed the messiness of science. … We all want answers today, and science is not going to give them. … Science is uncertainty. And the pace of uncertainty reduction in science is way slower than the pace of a pandemic.” —Brian Nosek

Microsoft PowerPoint - games of chance.pptx

click to enlarge

The math of probability is manageable, up to a point. In principle, you could calculate the odds of, for example (clockwise from top left) getting heads on the fake Trump coin, a novel coronavirus linking up to human proteins, surviving a round of Russian roulette, having someone with COVID-19 at your planned event, rolling 6-6-4-8-20 on the dice, have all the marbles fall under a normal curve on a Galton board, and then surviving a flight from New York to Los Angeles without hitting one of the thousands of other planes in the air. But that doesn’t mean we can tell where humanity will be a year from now.

Of course things are always too complicated to predict perfectly, but “normally” we bracket uncertainty and make simplifying assumptions so we can work with forecasts of say, tomorrow’s weather or next quarter’s economic growth — which are strongly bounded by past experience. These are “the models” we live by. The problem now is not that reality has become objectively harder to predict, it’s that the uncertainties in the exercise (those most relevant to our lives) involve events with such catastrophic consequences that a normal level of uncertainty now includes outcomes so extreme that we can’t process them meaningfully.

Once nominally predicable events start influencing each other in complex ways, the uncertainty grows beyond the capacity of simple math. Instead of crunching every possibility, we simplify the assumptions, based on past experience and the outcomes we consider possible. Today’s would-be predictions, however, involve giant centrifugal forces, so that small deviations can lead to disintegration. For example, if the pandemic further tanks the economy, which provides more unemployed people to populate mass protests, leading to more military crackdown and turning more people against Trump, it might make him lash out more at China, and then they might not share their vaccine with us, and an epidemic wave could overwhelm the election and its aftermath, giving Trump a pretext for nullifying the results. And so on.

To make matters more ungraspable, we personally want to know what’s going on at the intersection of micro and macro forces, where we don’t have the data to use even if we knew what to do with it.

Examples

For example, as individuals try to ballbark their own risks of covid-19 infection, and the likelihood of a serious outcome in that event — given their own health history — they might also want to consider whether they have been exposed to tear gas at the hands of police or the military, which might increase the chance of infection. In that case, both the individual and the state are acting without quantifiable information on the risks. For another example, Black people in America obviously have a reasonable fear of police violence — with potentially immeasurable consequences — but taking the risk to participate in protests might contribute to political changes that end up reducing that risk (for themselves and their loved ones). The personal risks are affected by policy decisions and organizational practices, but you can’t predict (much less control) the outcomes.

Individual risks are affected by group positions, of course, creating diverging profiles that splinter out to the individual level. Here’s an example: race and widowhood. We all know that as a married couple ages, the chance that one of the partners will die increases. But that relationship between age and widowhood differs markedly between Blacks and Whites, as this figure shows:

widowhood probability

Before age 70, the annual probability of a Black woman being widowed is more than twice the chance that White women face. (After that, the odds are higher, but not as dramatically so.) Is this difference big enough to affect people’s decision making, their emotions, their relationships? I think so, though I can’t prove it. Even if people don’t map out the calculation at this level (though they of course think about their own and their partner’s specific health situation), it’s in there somewhere.

For most people, widowhood presents a pretty low annual probability of a very bad event, one that might turn your life upside down. On the other hand, climate change is certain, and observable over the course of a contemporary adult’s lifetime (look at the figure below, from 1980 to 2020). But although climate change presents potentially catastrophic consequences, the risks aren’t easily incorporated into life choices. If you’re lucky, you might have to think about the pros and cons of owning beachfront property. Or you could be losing a coal job, or gaining a windmill job. But I think for most people in the U.S. it’s in the category of background risk — which might motivate political participation, for example, but doesn’t hang over one’s head as a sense of life-threatening risk.

temperature anonamlies trend

If not imminent fear, however, climate change undoubtedly contributes to a climate of uncertainty about the future. Interestingly, there is a robust debate about whether and how climate change is also increasing climate variability. Rising temperatures alone would create more bad storms, floods, and droughts, but more temperature fluctuation would also have additional consequences. I was interested to read this paper which showed models predicting greater change in temperature variability (on the y-axis) for the rest of the century in countries with lower per-capita income (x-axis). When it comes to inequality, it rains and it pours. And for people in poorer countries of the world, it’s raining uncertainty.

tempvar

What comes next

I wrote about unequal uncertainties in April, and possible impacts on marriage rates, and I’ve commented elsewhere on fertility and family violence. But I’m not making a lot of predictions. Are other social scientists? My impression they’re mostly wisely holding off. My sense is also that this may be part of a longer-term pattern, where social scientists once made more definitive predictions with less sophisticated models than we do now that we’re buried in data. Is it the abundance of data that makes predicting seem like a bad business? I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the diminished general confidence in the overall direction of social change. Or maybe predictions have just become more narrow — less world revolution and more fourth quarter corn prices.

One of the books I haven’t written yet, crappily titled Craptastic when I pitched it in 2017, would address this:

My theory for Craptastic is that the catastrophic thinking and uncontrollable feelings of impending doom go beyond the very reasonable reaction to the Trump shitshow that any concerned person would have, and reflect a sense that things are turning around in a suddenly serious way, rupturing what Anthony Giddens describes as the progress narratives of modernity people use to organize their identities. People thought things were sort of going to keep getting better, arc of the moral universe and all that, but suddenly they realize what a naive fantasy that was. It’s not just terrible, it’s craptastic. …

I suspect that if America lives to see this chapter of its decline written, Trump will not be as big a part of the story as it seems he is right now. And that impending realization is one reason for the Trump-inspired dysphoria that so many people are feeling.

Social science is unlikely anytime soon to be the source of reassurance about the future some people might be looking for — not even the reassurance that things will get better, but just confidence that we know what direction we’re headed, and at what speed. I don’t know, but if you know, feel free to leave it in the comments. (Which are moderated.)

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Rural COVID-19 paper peer reviewed. OK?

Twelve days ago I posted my paper on the COVID-19 epidemic in rural US counties. I put it on the blog, and on the SocArXiv paper server. At this writing the blog post has been shared on Facebook 69 times, the paper has been downloaded 149 times, and tweeted about by a handful of people. No one has told me it’s wrong yet, but not one has formally endorsed it yet, either.

Until now, that is. The paper, which I then submitted to the European Journal of Environment and Public Health, has now been peer reviewed and accepted. I’ve updated the SocArXiv version to the journal page proofs. Satisfied?

It’s a good question. We’ll come back to it.

Preprints

The other day (I think, not good at counting days anymore) a group of scholars published — or should I say posted — a paper titled, “Preprinting a pandemic: the role of preprints in the COVID-19 pandemic,” which reported that there have already been 16,000 scientific articles published about COVID-19, of which 6,000 were posted on preprint servers. That is, they weren’t peer-reviewed before being shared with the research community and the public. Some of these preprints are great and important, some are wrong and terrible, some are pretty rough, and some just aren’t important. This figure from the paper shows the preprint explosion:

F1.large

All this rapid scientific response to a worldwide crisis is extremely heartening. You can see the little sliver that SocArXiv (which I direct) represents in all that — about 100 papers so far (this link takes you to a search for the covid-19 tag), on subjects ranging from political attitudes to mortality rates to traffic patterns, from many countries around the world. I’m thrilled to be contributing to that, and really enjoy my shifts on the moderation desk these days.

On the other hand some bad papers have gotten out there. Most notoriously, an erroneous paper comparing COVID-19 to HIV stoked conspiracy theories that the virus was deliberately created by evil scientists. It was quickly “withdrawn,” meaning no longer endorsed by the authors, but it remains available to read. More subtly, a study (by more famous researchers) done in Santa Clara County, California, claimed to find a very high rate of infection in the general population, implying COVID-19 has a very low death rate (good news!), but it was riddled with design and execution errors (oh well), and accusations of bias and corruption. And some others.

Less remarked upon has been the widespread reporting by major news organizations on preprints that aren’t as controversial but have become part of the knowledge base of the crisis. For example, the New York Times ran a report on this preprint on page 1, under the headline, “Lockdown Delays Cost at Least 36,000 Lives, Data Show” (which looks reasonable in my opinion, although the interpretation is debatable), and the Washington Post led with, “U.S. Deaths Soared in Early Weeks of Pandemic, Far Exceeding Number Attributed to Covid-19,” based on this preprint. These media organizations offer a kind of endorsement, too. How could you not find this credible?

postpreprint

Peer review

To help sort out the veracity or truthiness of rapid publications, the administrators of the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers (who are working together) have added this disclaimer in red to the top of their pages:

Caution: Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information.

That’s reasonable. You don’t want people jumping the gun on clinical decisions, or news reports. Unless they should, of course. And, on the other hand, lots of peer reviewed research is wrong, too. I’m not compiling examples of this, but you can always consult the Retraction Watch database, which, for example, lists 130 papers published in Elsevier journals in 2019 that have been retracted for reasons ranging from plagiarism to “fake peer review” to forged authorship to simple errors. The database lists a few peer-reviewed COVID-19 papers that have already been retracted as well.

This comparison suggests that the standard of truthiness cannot be down to the simple dichotomy of peer reviewed or not. We need signals, but they don’t have to be that crude. In real life, we use a variety of signals for credibility that help determine how much to trust a piece of research. These include:

  • The reputation of the authors (their degrees, awards, twitter following, media presence)
  • The institutions that employ them (everyone loves to refer to these when they are fancy universities reporting results they favor, e.g., “the Columbia study showed…”)
  • Who published it (a journal, an association, a book publisher), which implies a whole secondary layer of endorsements (e.g., the editor of the journal, the assumed expertise of the reviewers, the prestige or impact factor of the journal as a whole, etc.)
  • Perceived conflicts of interest among the authors or publishers
  • The transparency of the research (e.g., are the data and materials available for inspection and replication)
  • Informal endorsements, from, e.g., people we respect on social media, or people using the Plaudit button (which is great and you should definitely use if you’re a researcher)
  • And finally, of course, our own assessment of the quality of the work, if it’s something we believe ourselves qualified to assess

As with the debate over the SAT/GRE for admissions, the quiet indicators sometimes do a lot of the work. Call something a “Harvard study” or a “New York Times report,” and people don’t often pry into the details of the peer review process.

Analogy: People who want to eat only kosher food need something to go on in daily life, and so they have erected a set of institutional devices that deliver such a seal (in fact, there are competing seal brands, but they all offer the same service: a yes/no endorsement by an organization one decides to trust). The seals cost money, which is added to the cost of the food; if people like it, they’re willing to pay. But, as God would presumably tell you, the seal should not always substitute for your own good judgment because even rabbis or honest food producers can make mistakes. And in the absence of a good kosher inspection to rely on altogether, you still have to eat — you just have to reason things through to the best of your ability. (In a pinch, maybe follow the guy with the big hat and see what he eats.) Finally, crucially for the analogy, anyone who tells you to ignore the evidence before you and always trust the authority that’s selling the dichotomous indicator is probably serving their own interests as least as much as they’re serving yours.

In the case of peer review, giant corporations, major institutions, and millions of careers depend on people believing that peer review is what you need to decide what to trust. And they also happen to be selling peer review services.

My COVID-19 paper

So should you trust my paper? Looking back at our list, you can see that I have degrees and some minor awards, some previous publications, some twitter followers, and some journalists who trust me. I work at a public research university that has its own reputation to protect. I have no apparent way of profiting from you believing one thing or another about COVID-19 in rural areas (I declared no conflicts of interest on the SocArXiv submission form). I made my data and code available (even if no one checks it, the fact that it’s there should increase your confidence). And of course you can read it.

And then I submitted it to the European Journal of Environment and Public Health, which, after peer review, endorsed its quality and agreed to publish it. The journal is published by Veritas Publications in the UK with the support of Tsinghua University in China. It’s an open access journal that has been publishing for only three years. It’s not indexed by Web of Science or listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals. It is, in short, a low-status journal. On the plus side, it has an editorial board of real researchers, albeit mostly at lower status institutions. It publishes real papers, and (at least for now) it doesn’t charge authors any  publication fee, it does a little peer review, and it is fast. My paper was accepted in four days with essentially no revisions, after one reviewer read it (based on the summary, I believe they did read it). It’s open access, and I kept my copyright. I chose it partly because one of the papers I found on Google Scholar during my literature search was published there and it seemed OK.

So, now it’s peer reviewed.

Here’s a lesson: when you set a dichotomous standard like peer-reviewed yes/no and tell the public to trust it, you create the incentive for people to do the least they can to just barely get over that bar. This is why we have a giant industry of tens of thousands of academic journals producing products all branded as peer reviewed. Half a century ago, some academics declared themselves the gatekeepers of quality, and called their system peer review. To protect the authority of their expertise (and probably because they believed they knew best), they insisted it was the standard that mattered. But they couldn’t prevent other people from doing it, too. And so we have a constant struggle over what gets to be counted, and an effort to disqualify some journals with labels like “predatory,” even though it’s the billion-dollar corporations at the top of this system that are preying on us the most (along with lots of smaller scam purveyors).

In the case of my paper, I wouldn’t tell you to trust it much more because it’s in EJEPH, although I don’t think the journal is a scam. It’s just one indicator. But I can say it’s peer reviewed now and you can’t stop me.

Aside on service and reciprocity: Immediately after I submitted my paper, the EJEPH editors sent me a paper to review, which I respect. I declined because it wasn’t qualified, and then they sent me another. This assignment I accepted. The paper was definitely outside my areas of expertise, but it was a small study quite transparently done, in Nigeria. I was able to verify important details — like the relevance of the question asked (from cited literature), the nature of the study site (from Google maps and directories), the standards of measurement used (from other studies), the type of the instruments used (widely available), and the statistical analysis. I suggested some improvements to the contextualization of the write-up and recommended publication. I see no reason why this paper shouldn’t be published with the peer review seal of approval. If it turns out to be important, great. If not, fine. Like my paper, honestly. I have to say, it was a refreshing peer review experience on both ends.

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Graduation remarks, 2020 edition: ‘We need you.’

Graduations are online this year. The good news is you can shop around for whatever speeches they want (Your choice: Barack Obama or Melania Trump). If you want one that’s under 5 minutes, with a 75/25 dark-uplifting ratio, aging leftist sensibility, a little sociology, and fair-to-middling production value, I offer this (transcript below):

Congratulations to the students graduating this year. You deserve to be congratulated for your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your family and community members as much as any other graduating class in history. Congratulations.

If that’s all you wanted to hear you can turn it off now. I won’t begrudge you. Because what’s next is going to be dark.

It’s common in graduation speeches to tell the promising graduates that the future is in your hands. That you will determine the course of our history in the future. I hope that is true. I sincerely hope that’s true. But I can’t promise you that, and neither can anyone else. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Humanity has gone through and is still going through a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Millions of people have been sickened, many have suffered horribly, and hundreds of thousands have died, in the pandemic. And everyone has been disrupted, personally, economically, socially.

This virus travels the world on the backs of the healthy to infect and kill – among others – the old and the weak. The devastation has been worse in the United States than anywhere else, because of our systemic weaknesses, but now that it has set its sights on the poorer countries of the world, that likely won’t be true for long.

And that’s not the extent of our problems, of course. We’re in this predicament now because “normal” was already not on a sustainable path. Trump and the racist, nationalist horse he rode in on, the obscene concentration of wealth, climate change, guns, segregation, xenophobia, sexual violence, the degradation of our infrastructure, including science and science education, were all setting us up for this moment. Even if we can contain this pandemic, there is no sustainable normal to get back to.

And our tools for responding may not be up to the task. Our democracy is frail. Our discourse is polluted. Social media generates ever-expanding spirals of polarization, and it has displaced many of our other communication tools. Like journalism.

This pandemic will bring out more bad things. It will exacerbate inequality. It will lead people to shut down, and shut in, fear others, blame others. It has already put a damper on travel and social exchange across all kinds of boundaries, which has been a force for good – and that might last for a long time. And more people will suffer and die, many unnecessarily.

It could make bad things worse, if the economic crisis is long and deep, xenophobia rises, conflict flares up, war, political paralysis. No one can tell you these things are not very real possibilities.

But. In the contours of this crisis we can also see how to begin to make things better, how we could turn things around. If we make it possible, we could recognize the importance of collective action for global problems, including public health but also climate change. We can learn the importance of science and education. We can see the value of investing in social and material infrastructure, including the tools for public health. We might even learn the usefulness of government for saving us from the threats we face.

And you – You can still have great lives. Happy and productive and kind and generous and adventurous and doing the best you can. Which is what people have always hoped for. And you can do those things even if you can’t turn this all around. Look, people have made good lives in hard times before. You make life worth living by what you put into it, which is no more true in good times than bad.

And, we do need you. Even if you’re not not ready to invent this vaccine or fix our broken government. I hope you have your chance to do things like that, too. But before that we need you to figure out how we live with purpose and perspective. How we avoid turning inward and shutting down even as the physical distances between us grow. How to pull down barriers within our own walls. I hope you’ll help us, and yourselves, and the generations to come, figure this out.

Thank you. Good luck.

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The COVID-19 epidemic in rural U.S. counties

I’ve been working on the COVID-19 epidemic in rural U.S. counties, and have now posted a paper on SocArXiv, here: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/pnqrd/. Here’s the abstract, then some figures below:

Having first reached epidemic proportions in coastal metropolitan areas, COVID-19 has spread around the country. Reported case rates vary across counties from zero to 125 per thousand population (around a state prison in the rural county of Trousdale, Tennessee). Overall, rural counties are underrepresented relative to their share of the population, but a growing proportion of all daily cases and deaths have been reported in rural counties. This analysis uses daily reports for all counties to present the trends and distribution of COVID-19 cases and deaths in rural counties, from late March to May 16, 2020. I describe the relationship between population density and case rates in rural and non-rural counties. Then I focus on noteworthy outbreaks linked to prisons, meat and poultry plants, and nursing homes, many of which are linked to high concentrations of Hispanic, American Indian, and Black populations. The growing epidemic in rural counties is apparently driven by outbreaks concentrated in these institutional settings, which are conducive to transmission. The impact of the epidemic in rural areas may be heightening due to their weaker health infrastructure and more vulnerable populations, especially due to age, socioeconomic status, and health conditions. As a result, the epidemic may contribute to the ongoing decline of health, economic, and social conditions in rural areas.

Here are COVID-19 cases in rural counties across the country. Note that the South, Mid-Atlantic, Michigan, and New England have the most (fewer in West and upper Midwest). When you look at cases per capita, you see the concentration in the South and isolated others.

F1 rural county cases maps

COVID is still underrepresented in rural counties, but their share of the national burden is increasing, as they keep adding more than 2,000 cases and just under 100 deaths per day.

F2 new cases and deaths

Transmission dynamics are different in rural counties. They show a weaker relationship between pop density and cases. This suggests to me that there are more idiosyncratic factors at work (prisons, meat plants, nursing homes), which are high concentrations of vulnerable people.

F3 population density and cases

These are the rural outbreak cases I identified, for which I could find obvious epidemic centers in institutions: Prisons, meatpacking and poultry plants, and nursing homes. These 28 select counties account for 15% of the rural burden.

F4 rural county selected cases

In addition to the institutional concentration, these outbreak cases also show distinct overrepresentation of Hispanic, American Indian, and Black populations. Here are some of the outbreak cases plotted against minority concentrations.

F5 rural county minority scatters

And here’s a table of those selected cases:

crt2

Lots more to be done, obviously. It’s a strong limitation to be restricted to case and death counts at the county level. Someone could go get lists of prisons and meatpacking plants and nursing homes and run them through this, etc. But I wanted to raise this issue substantively. By posting the paper on SocArXiv, without peer review, I’m offering it up for comment and criticism. Also, I’m sharing the code (which links to the data, all public): osf.io/wd2n6/. Messy but usable.

A related thought on writing a paper about COVID19 right now: The lit review is daunting. There are thousands of papers, most on preprint servers. Is this bad? No. I use various tools to decide what’s reliable to learn from. If it’s outside my area, I’m more likely to rely on peer-reviewed journals, or those that are widely citied or reported. But the vast quantity available still helps me see what people are working on, what terms, and types of data they use. I learned a tremendous amount. Much respect to the thousands of researchers who are doing what they can to respond to this global crisis.

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How big will the drop in weddings be? Big

With data snapshot addendum at the end.

In the short run, people are canceling their weddings that were already booked, or not planning the ones they were going to have this summer or fall. In the long run, we don’t know.

To look at the short run effect, I used Google Trends to extract the level of traffic for five searches over the last five years: wedding dressesbridal shower, wedding licensewedding shower, and wedding invitations (here is the link to one, just change the terms to get the others). These are things you Google when you’re getting married. Google reports search volume for each term weekly, scaled from 0 to 100.

Search traffic for these terms is highly correlated with each other across weeks, between .45 and .76. I used Stata to combine them into an index (alpha = .92), which ranges from 22 to 87 for 261 weeks, from May 2015 to last week.

For the graph, I smoothed the trend with a 5-week average. Here is the trend, with dates for the peaks and troughs (click to enlarge):

wedding plans searches.xlsx

The annual pattern is very strong. Each year people people do a lot of wedding searches for about two months, from mid-January to early-March, before traffic falls for the rest of year, until after Thanksgiving. There is a decline over these five years, but I don’t put too much stock in that because maybe the terms people use are changing over time.

But this year there is a break. After starting out with a normal spike in mid-January, searches lurched downward into February, and then collapsed to their lowest level in five years — at what should have been the height of the wedding Google search season.

Clearly, there will be a decline in weddings this spring and summer, or until we “reopen,” whatever that means. A lot of people just can’t get married. When you think about the timing of marriage, most people getting married in a given year are probably already planning to at least half a year in advance. So even if no one’s relationships are affected, and their long term plans don’t change, we’ll still see a decline in marriages this year just from canceled plans.

Beyond that, however, people probably aren’t meeting and falling in love as much. People who are dating probably aren’t as likely to advance their relationships through what would have been a normal development – dating, love, kids, marriage, and so on. So a lot of existing relationships – even for people who weren’t engaged – probably aren’t moving toward marriage. Even if they get back on track later, that’s a delay of a year or two or however long. This says nothing about people being stressed, miserable, sick (or worse), and otherwise not in any kind of mood.

In the longer term, what does the pandemic mean for confidence in the future? The crisis will undermine people’s ability to make long term decisions and commitments. Unless the cultural or cognitive model of marriage changes, insecurity or instability will mean less marriage in the future. This could be a long term effect even after the acute period passes.

What about a rebound? Eventually – again, whenever that is – there probably will be some rebound. At least, just practically, some people who put off marriage will go ahead and do it later. Although, as with delayed births, some postponed marriages probably will end up being foregone. On a larger scale, when people can get out and get together and get married again, there might well be a marriage bounce (and also even a baby boom). Presumably that would depend on a very positive scenario: a vaccine, an economic resurgence, maybe a big government boost, like after WWII. A surge in optimism about the future, happiness. That’s all possible. This also depends on the cultural model of marriage we have now, so that good times equals more marriage (and childbearing). In real life, any such effect might be small, dwarfed by big declines from chaos, fear, and uncertainty. I can’t predict how these different impulses might play against each other. However, on balance, my out-on-a-limb forecast is a decline in marriage.

kissing sailor

Data snapshot addendum

I didn’t realize there was monthly data available already. For example, in Florida they release monthly marriage counts by county, and they have released the April numbers. These show a 1% increase in marriages year-over-year in January, a 31% increase in February, then a 31% drop in March and a 72% drop in April [Since I first posted this, Florida added 477 more marriages in April, and a few in the earlier months, changing these percentages by a couple points as on June 5. -pnc.] Here is a scatter plot [updated] showing the count of marriages by county in 2019 and 2020. Counties below the diagonal have fewer marriages in 2020 than they did in 2019. Not surprising, but still dramatic to see it happening in “real time” (not really, just in quickly available data).

florida marriages.xlsx

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Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

May 1 is the traditional deadline for paying a deposit for the fall semester’s tuition. These are my thoughts for the students facing the decision about whether to enroll.

49762678626_658e07c409_k

PNCohen photo / Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/2iPmJDG

Higher education leaders are in a terrible situation as they plan for the fall. They’re bleeding cash from lost tuition, grants, and state support. With every school facing the prospect of collapsing budgets – and an unknown number on the brink of closing down – presidents, provosts, and deans are trying to make the most important decisions of their careers without the basic information they need even about the very near future. And they’re doing it from home in Zoom meetings with colleagues in their pajamas, apple sauce stuck to their laptop camera lenses, and kids screaming in the background.

Pulling off a 2020-2021 academic school year will take billions of emergency dollars, brilliant logistics, and heroic public health efforts. And most of the public is pulling for them. As Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, wrote the other day, “The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority.”

They may still make it possible for students to at least start the school year this fall. Heck, at the University of Maryland, where I work, they may need to come back in the fall just to get their belongings, which have been locked up since the university abruptly canceled their move-out plans and closed up the dorms after spring break.

But for students, the question isn’t so much will campus be open, but should they go even if it is? Higher education’s famously high opinion of itself (which I sometimes share), is remarkably resilient to assaults from reality. President Paxson wrote, “If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.” To which students might be wise to reply, “And?”

We need to be square with students on some hard questions. First and foremost, will you and your family get your money’s worth attending school this fall? Paxson says universities must maintain “the continuity of their core academic functions.” But a lot of what students get out of college results from social interaction – in labs, classrooms, gyms, stadiums, student groups, and – yes – parties. What is college worth without all that? If it’s reduced to recorded lectures and stilted online seminars, the value starts to fall towards that of a public library card (which is of course very high, but it’s also free). But the price is the same.

Practically speaking, students need to ask, if the contact tracing app beeps and I’m told to spend two weeks isolated in my dorm room because someone in my class is infected, will I get my tuition back? What if it happens more than once? What if classes move back online altogether? What is my protection if I’m kicked out of my dorm and stranded far from home?

And students also should consider their alternatives, which, contrary to the aspirational assertions of some higher education leaders, do exist. What if they stay home this fall?

They could attend a community college, which at a fraction of the cost might provide a smoother online instruction experience (and transfer the credits later).

They could take advantage of the voluminous, and expanding, array of free online lectures and instructional videos (I post the lectures for my students on YouTube, because why not?)

They could do vitally needed local (or remote) volunteer work, helping the members of their communities who are unemployed, homeless, hungry, at risk, or themselves struggling in school.

They could engage in the make-or-break effort to save democracy in the elections this fall, maybe at least slowing the country’s accelerating slide into oligarchy – and increasing the odds that we come out of this crisis moving in the right direction as we confront our health care crisis, climate change, and the rising tide of nationalism. With mandatory social distancing, campus political campaigns might not be where their efforts are best placed.

They might have a better chance of working a paid job to help support their families, including laid off parents and dependent relatives.

The people who make the most of this disastrous year will be disciplined and focused on their own wellbeing as well as the greater good, working in coordination with supportive community members and close social networks. In the best of times, a great college experience helps train people to do just that, and provides the social context in which those skills can blossom. But in the coming disarray, there may well be better, more cost effective, strategies for students.

You will have to be self-disciplined and highly motivated to make it work, but that will probably be the case more than ever at school as well in the coming year. Normally I would extol the virtues of learning together as one of the advantages of attending school, but the comparative advantage of the on-campus experience this year may be drastically reduced.

We all want a successful higher education system, and with luck we may end up with one. But let’s not put this on students, not this year. Saving higher education is not your job.

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COVID-19 code, data, codebooks, figures

Every day for who knows how long I’ve tinkered with COVID-19 data and made graphs using Stata. Now I’ve condensed my tools down to several elements, updated daily, which I’m sharing:

  • A program that assembles the COVID death and case data, by date, at the county, state, and country level. To this I have added some population, income, and political variables. The program is here, along with the codebook it outputs.
  • The data file is here in Stata format and CSV format. It’s in long shape, so one record for each place on each date.
  • A Stata program that makes my favorite graphs right now (currently 24 per day). The Figures are stored here in PNG format.
  • The Stata scheme I use to make them look the how I like is here.

These files are linked to my laptop so they update automatically when I revise them. Yay, Open Science Framework, which is non-profit, open source, free to use, and deserves your support.

I hope someone finds these helpful, for teaching or exploring on their own. It’s all yours.

Here are a few figures from today’s runs (click to enlarge):

counties with any cases

deaths and GDP scatter

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Pandemic path dependence and the future

Someone paid me for an hour of my opinions about what’s happening and what might happen next. I’m not supposed to say who or why, but I can share what I think. These thoughts are distilled from that conversation, yours for free, courtesy of someone richer than both of us, with a few links and figures.

Pandemic path dependence

One way to think about what the pandemic will change is path dependence. Things we invest in now, the momentum we get now in all the changes we make, are likely to continue. The idea of going back is always a myth, but I think it’s especially the case with such a big change, so fast. For example, look what I did. They moved my classes online. I looked at the different video platforms that my university had subscribed to at that point – WebEx, Zoom, Google – I decided I liked Zoom the best. Zoom had the green screen option, so I invested in this green screen, which was only 20 dollars, but I rearranged this room and set it up – so now my first choice is Zoom for meetings. That’s not likely to change right away. So you think of all the changes we’re making like that, in terms of our consumer choices, or communicating with our family members, or other investments, and whatever we’re doing now is likely to continue.

On the path dependence idea, we’re in the process of finding out right now a lot of people who are redundant at work. When organizations start losing all this money, and they have to make drastic cuts that might become permanent, their choices will have to do with what everybody’s contributing right now. We’re going to discover that we do without what a lot of people are doing. So a lot of people are going to be restructured out of their jobs. There will be lot of turnover and change and uncertainty, and that wreaks havoc on people’s personal lives. People aren’t good at making long-term decisions under conditions of existential uncertainty. So if you don’t know where you’re going to be in the big picture in five or ten years – including career, family, and so on – it’s hard to make decisions like, Let’s get married, Let’s have children.

The US birthrate has been falling since the last recession, and hasn’t been coming back. I think that may be accelerated. I don’t think people will be rushing to have children, which involves a long-term, permanent, future orientation. In the US we have a lot of unplanned births, so those may still happen, but I don’t think more people are going to decide to have children and make other long-term decisions like marriage.

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

People are asking, Will there be a baby boom? People are stuck together, they’ll have sex more and have children. That’s not really how it happens. Most people are planning. We have modern contraception. People don’t just have more children because they spend more time together. Long-term commitments may be undermined, and people making long-term decisions may be less common, up to and including marriage and childbearing.

2018update

Divorce, on the other hand, may be different. We were seeing a decline in divorce before this. Now there may be more people who want to get divorced right now, because of COVID, but fewer people who can. Divorce is logistically difficult. They may stay together because they can’t separate. That also means we are at risk of increased family violence and abuse. For some people, their families are happy and they’re doing well and they enjoy being locked up together, and it’s rejuvenating and so on – and for the people for whom family is not safe or comfortable, that could be getting worse and worse.

Unequal uncertainty

We already see the job loss and economic insecurity is divided by race, gender, and class. You can look right now at the people who compelled to keep working at personal risk – people in services, grocery stores, delivery people, medical providers, versus people like me, who can work from home. That makes me safer and that’s stratifying. We’ll have relatively more stability and security on the professional/managerial side of the occupational divide.

Slide16

There is also the issue of trust. Some of us are feeling like we must trust the government and scientists for our survival. And some of us are thinking, The government and scientists are terrible and we can’t believe anything they say. That divide was already happening, and I think it’s going to widen. That division is partly on education but also very partisan.

F3

Social division

We have a principle of fractal polarization, where if you take any group of people, no matter how small, we have the social dynamics in place to generate polarization among them. In politics, the division between Republican and Democrat, then within the Democrats, then within the Bernie movement, etc. And that’s partly social media and the way we communicate, where in order to get noticed you have to say something outside the margins, and that pushes the margins further and further apart.

On the other hand, some things could be unifying. Not just trust in science and the government, but also things like investment in public health and infrastructure. If you look at past crises, there are precedents for coming out of this with a unifying policy agenda, like investing in the healthcare system. We could end up with an even great majority for universal healthcare, and the expenses may not seem so large compared to what we’re going through now. The role of youth is important. We have seen big movements of young people, for example on climate change and gun control. Those things are still important, but we may see some of that energy swing to more health issues. We could have a unifying swing toward collective orientation on issues like that.

On technology

The organizations that have the resources now to innovate, that realize they have to in order to survive… for example, universities. They were already developing online education, and they just increased the speed of that greatly. So the investment is going to be there for that. And that may apply to other services, such as telemedicine. We’re going to continue having appointments with doctors online. A lot of them will continue providing those services even when it’s not necessary. And I think the same may also be true for social services, government services. There could be benefit for that, being able to drop services directly into people’s homes. That can help with people who are either socially or physically isolated, people with disabilities, people who can’t leave the house for whatever reasons. Things may end up getting better because we end up delivering services in those situations.

Global mobility

It’s hard to imagine that travel won’t be permanently reduced. Travel for work certainly will be, with all this investment in doing things remotely, in addition to the fear of traveling. We have, in academia, massive conferences multiple times per year, around the world. And in the next year or two we’re going to discover that we can have academia without those things. And those things are really expensive. And so it’s not clear, when we realize the budgets are permanently shrunk, that we’re going to spend money again on things that we did without for a couple of years.

The free moving upper classes that did work in different countries, that saw colleagues around the world, that vacationed in remote places – although that’s very unequal, it’s a positive influence on social life anyway. I’m afraid that will be reduced. That can contribute to nationalism and ethnocentrism.

On the one hand we’re realized our global interdependence in ways that are important. Ninety percent of ibuprofen in the U.S. comes from China. So if we all depend on China for our ibuprofen, we could learn from that that we’re all interdependent, or we could conclude, Wow, we need our own ibuprofen factories. Or the same with surgical masks. That can be bad in the sense of global divisions and isolation.

When staying in is prosocial

Trust in the government, or science, is not just about the faceless bureaucracy. It’s an investment in a kind of solidarity. If you follow a government directive, at your own expense, that is an expression of faith in humanity, to some degree (unless you’re acting out of fear of enforcement). It’s paradoxical that by isolating ourselves we’re contributing to the collective good. There is a group of sociologists who are trying to get us to use the term ‘physical distancing,’ partly because physical distancing is how we stick together, socially.

However, that might not be persistent. We will get used to the habits of staying home, and having services delivered, and entertainment delivered – not going to the movies, or go to bars to hear music. After we adapt (even more) to those things, so we are less inclined to pay more if we can do it at home, then when staying home isn’t for the collective good anymore, those habits may persist, and that could be bad.

Privacy

This is all undermining privacy, especially digital privacy. For example, if we end up embracing the Google and Apple app for contact tracing, but not trusting the government to do that, that pushes us in the direction of surrendering more digital privacy to tech companies. That was already happening, but it’s likely to go further, if people see it as in their interest to surrender their privacy more explicitly. To the extent there was at least a cultural niche of people who object, I think that will be weakened. People won’t be as reluctant to give that up after they’ve been through a period when turning over their personal information was important to their survival.

Local versus online community

If we’re all stuck in our homes, then the neighborhood becomes a very different concept. I’m an academic, I’ve been a professor at three different universities. I always subscribe to the New York Times, so in a way I live in a suburb of New York no matter where I am. If everything’s inside the home, then your neighborhood is your Zoom background, and the things you get delivered, and there’s already no local news anymore – so there is a sense that the local matters less. But people still want it to matter. When you get out of the house and see the people in your actual neighborhood, that’s still something important. So there’s a paradox, a good and a bad side to that. The idea that I can be in the same virtual neighborhood as people who are thousands of miles away is socially good, but on the other hand if it undermines my relationship with my actual neighbors that’s bad. I don’t know how to bridge that.

Threats

What could get worse? War. It might seem crazy for countries to go to war at a time when national boundaries seem to matter less and less. But with the instability this has cause, and with our reliance on technology, a relatively small thing can set off huge cascading events, including flipping the switch on something like war. Even if that seems ridiculous. How could we go to war with China? Everyone would lose. But big things can go wrong, and our dependence on technology makes it more possible for those catastrophic events. I don’t think that’s that likely, but I didn’t think this was that likely.

History

We already had a history problem. Obama was part of this story of social progress. Trump undermined that drastically. The same with the threat of climate change versus technological advances. Maybe history doesn’t have a direction. Maybe there is no arc that bends toward justice. Maybe there’s just a series of random events. This pandemic feeds that sense. That creates anxiety, and dread, but also opens up a world of possibilities for directions to change. That means extremism becomes more enticing to some people, because they think they can change the direction of history. But it might also mean we have more imagination for positive developments as well.

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Health disparities & COVID-19 lecture

For Social Problems, an introductory level sociological course, I gave a lecture that combines an introduction to health disparities and some issues of disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s 23 minutes. Some slides and links below.

The first half describes the theory of fundamental causes (as I understand it), and has some basic health disparities examples. Here are some graphs:

Then I apply some of the ideas to what we know about COVID-19 impacts, and likely problem areas. Here is some of that:

The PowerPoint slides, with references in the notes, is up here: https://osf.io/d4ym3/.

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