journalism

Omicron (Persei 8) and some reasons to chill out

Fear sells. And we’re all buying.

The Omicron variant could be the death of all civilization. Anything could. Each day is a gift.

I’m not taking this lightly. Omicron could be the worst variant we’ve ever seen. You’ll also find no sympathy for anti-vaccine, anti-mask nonsense here.

But the media coverage of Omicron has been as sensationalist as anything else the media ever cover. And that’s saying a lot.

Where’s the harm?

It’s obvious. Panic.

Also, shutting things down has either a financial or human cost. Japan’s travel restrictions forced the cancellation of figure skating’s Grand Prix Final. Imagine if we lose the Olympics.

So far, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Will we need to tweak vaccines? When will we finally be able to go maskless in schools?

Look away from the breathless Omicron Watch in most news organizations, and you’ll find some more grounded analysis. This is from the financiers at Raymond James:

The new variant is on everyone’s radar now that it has been labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, we cannot emphasize enough that its transmissibility, severity, and its evasiveness against our current toolbox of vaccines and therapeutics remains uncertain at this time. Even the medical experts—from the CDC to Moderna to Pfizer to Oxford—have varying opinions. The best case scenario is that the variant does not become mainstream (best outcome) or that symptoms are mild and existing vaccines provide protection against the most severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death (most likely outcome). The worst case is that the efficacy of vaccines significantly decreases and hospitalizations and deaths spike. However, even this scenario, while tragic, has a path to improvement as new vaccines would likely be introduced at an expedited pace. We will continue to monitor its progress and would avoid making knee-jerk reactions to portfolio allocations based on these headlines as there is not yet enough evidence to provide clarity

This is from STAT News, which specializes in health-care journalism:

(T)hese studies measure how well just one component of the immune system — neutralizing antibodies — recognizes the variant in question. The body has multiple layers of protection, including other antibodies and immune fighters like T cells. These studies then are like a robber only checking to see how strong of a lock the front door has, without having much clue about the other alarms, defenses, and booby traps that might await.

And from Reuters:

In South Africa, where the daily number of reported COVID-19 cases doubled on Wednesday to 8,561, symptoms for reinfected patients and those infected after vaccination appear to be mild.

That’s normal. If a virus causes less serious illness, it may spread more readily. A virus that quickly kills people has little chance to spread.

So we’re looking at a likely scenario in which our vaccinations and the natural evolution of viruses render Omicron far less serious. (At least, if you’ve been vaccinated.) We also have better treatment and better prevention strategies in place.

Which leads us to the big question:

Even if Omicron is far worse than the early evidence suggests, what are you going to do differently?

Hopefully, you’re getting your shots and your boosters, and you still wear a mask in public places. That, or you’re one of those people who suddenly turned against vaccines when a Democrat moved into the White House, and you’re desperate to own the libs even if you and your loved ones die. Again — no sympathy for anti-science here.

But let’s tamp down the anxiety for now. We have plenty to worry about already. Did you hear about the sharks?

journalism

Positivism and objectivity (or, data and calling b.s.)

I somehow stumbled into a long think piece about the inadequacies of “Big Data,” which includes everything from FiveThirtyEight to, somehow, dating sites. Echoing Jay Rosen’s work on the futility of a purely “objective” view, it’s called “View from Nowhere.”

The gist of it is that the positivists, here defined as people who think we can figure everything out through data (my philosophy professors probably defined it differently, but this definition actually makes sense to me), are conceited in their belief that they can step away and let data discern truth. We all have biases, writer Nathan Jurgenson says, even if they only show up in the way we ask questions. It’s like the old saying on computers’ fallibility being directly attributable to bad programming: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Jurgenson’s critique is reasonable, but I also found myself thinking about a recent post from the most grounded journalist or ex-journalist I know, Lex Alexander, who fretted about the media’s outright refusal to call bullshit on anything or anyone.

The terms get slippery here. To some extent, Lex and Jurgenson are both criticizing the “View from Nowhere” that has indeed led to some journalistic malpractice over the years. My McCarthy studies taught me how easy it is to manipulate journalists who are trying to get “both sides” of an argument. Reporters and editors must have the inclination, the guts, and the knowledge base to say, “Yeah, hang on, I’m going to check that out.”

But my issue with Jurgenson’s piece is that I hope people, while recognizing the limits of “Big Data,” can also see it an important tool for calling bullshit.

A lot of controversies in modern media aren’t opinions. They’re facts. We have people in elected office who go against science on climate change and evolution. They go against history on … well, American history. They go against economics whenever convenient.

Outside politics, we have a populace that believes in a lot of junk. Anti-vaccination movements. The latest chain email from Grandma about that African-born Obama trying to usher in an Islamofascist state. And so on.

Big Data isn’t perfect. No source is. And frankly, the data journalists like Nate Silver are really good at explaining the limitations of their own work. Silver doesn’t just pass along numbers from Rasmussen without challenging the methodology.

But in a land of people so desperate to believe whatever someone tells them to assuage or reinforce their fears, we desperately need Big Data. Because Big Bullshit is a monster.