Where should LessWrong go on COVID?

post by Elizabeth (pktechgirl) · 2020-04-13T21:39:53.675Z · score: 61 (21 votes) · LW · GW · 22 comments

About 6 weeks ago the LW team chose to go really hard on COVID-19 (including contracting with me), for reasons discussed here [LW(p) · GW(p)]. The time for that seems to be winding down; people-besides-me are asking fewer covid questions and more non-covid questions, my posts get fewer comments every day, and there's not the same urgency adding to the links DB. Looking at people I know in the real world seems much the same: after a mad sprint to prep and then adjust to covid, people are settling in and catching up on the rest of their lives. So I and the LessWrong team are taking this moment to reevaluate what LessWrong’s role in covid response should be.

My question for you is: where do we go from here? Should we slip back to normal, except with a covid section? Relegate covid work to personal posts since it’s not timeless? Do you want practical posts like “how to disinfect a mask?”, or big picture things like “what does the world look like in a year?”?

What would help you, specifically, right now? In a month? In a year?

Answers I’ve gotten from people I polled before posting:

And remember that if you're entirely sick of this, you can use the new filter tool on the frontpage to make sure you never see covid content.

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by TheMajor · 2020-04-14T08:17:53.155Z · score: 21 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is still very unclear what the situation a medium (~a few months) to long (~a year) amount of time from now will be like. I would love to see more discussion on this. On a related note, I think mental health and self-help are going to very important very soon, and while I am in a fine place personally I would still like to know a lot more about this, including how to help others. This strays a little bit from the other COVID discussion topics, but I do think LessWrong might have a comparative advantage here (especially compared to the crapshoot baseline that is the internet).

comment by Dagon · 2020-04-13T23:15:40.309Z · score: 20 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This has been great, and it is both impressive and refreshing to see this question asked explicitly. Thank you for all of it!

The main thing I'd like to see is a short-term (say, on May 1 looking back on 2/15-4/15) and then medium-term (maybe in September or November) retrospective on what LW did well and what we could have done differently. Things like:

  • Was there any advice or thinking that was mistaken or misleading?
  • what meta-models were helpful to figure out what was important to analyze more closely?
  • what level of detail of advice was useful to what groups?
  • did we have the right balance between noisy detail and hard-to-use very-abstract thinking?
comment by jmh · 2020-04-14T13:23:47.385Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably could be included in much of the above but perhaps summary of starting priors and knowledge and how they evolved and updated. How did that impacted recommendation or analysis over the period.

Another might be something of a poll, not sure. I suspect there has been a lot of information many here would never be aware of had the pandemic not occurred. In what ways has this stimulated people's interests in new areas or knowledge? In what ways did the new information and views spark new thoughts on old, familiar subjects (if at all)?

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-04-13T22:48:58.051Z · score: 14 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My current sense is that we're still in a pretty advantageous position in the online sphere (relative to twitter and facebook etc) to understand what's happening and do analysis on the ongoing effects and secondary effects (what the recession will look like, what actions can be taken to mitigate the effects), and that on-site we want to continue discussing important and under-explored covid ideas for some time (e.g. on my new justified key insights thread [LW · GW]), even while we've now passed peak covid discussion. (As I look at the frontpage, 4/13 posts are covid, and I expect that it will maybe level out at 15%-20% for a while, perhaps with several valleys of no covid when nothing much happens.)

It's less clear to me that there is infrastructure for the team to be working on (like the links database, adding a coronavirus tag, adding a section for covid posts to the top of the frontpage, etc), and it seems that we should primarily try to take advantage of all the increased demand for online events and other online things and other than that get back to work as normal on things like tagging, wiki, making a book of the LW review, and other work.

Am interested in ideas for other things for us to build or counter views.

(Remember, if you don't like the covid discussion on LessWrong, you can use the new filter tool on the frontpage to make sure you never see it.)

comment by orthonormal · 2020-04-14T02:46:01.831Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like a better model of possible infection and death trajectories than the models driving discussion at present. I think we might be capable of that.

Metaculus only represents the outputs of people's models. There's been a lot of talk in the rationalsphere criticizing overly simplistic/rigid/overconfident models, but little explicit discussion of what a better one might look like. It would be great if such models could be done through Guesstimate, but still valuable in other formats as long as they're easily readable.

comment by DanielFilan · 2020-04-14T03:43:29.869Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that Metaculus also estimates things that are likely inputs to models e.g. "the" IFR.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-04-14T03:16:50.473Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Epidemicforecasting.org is doing some of this, though sadly with the model behind the project not being super transparent (since it's based on some commercial epidemiological modeling software).

comment by Decius · 2020-04-14T04:19:22.320Z · score: -4 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would take extraordinary evidence to convince me that LW can do better at applied cryptography than the current standard of cryptography. That's because it would take extraordinary evidence to convince me that LW can do better at any well-developed field than the current standard.

Therefore, I would need extraordinary evidence to convince me that LW can do better at epidemiology than the current standard of epidemiology.

Why should I believe that LW can recognize and promote to attention the people who are currently better epidemiologists than the current experts, with at least 50% specificity?

comment by orthonormal · 2020-04-14T17:40:27.520Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nobody's forcing you to help with this! And if you just want to point out why particular proposed models are bad [LW · GW], that's a good way to help as well.

Academics are indeed very smart, but under time pressure they have many additional constraints, most particularly the need to have everything pass peer review (now or later), which entails some unfortunate requirements like

  • "tighter confidence intervals look better"
  • "a single model is more justifiable than an ensemble"
  • "you can justify a handpicked parameter more easily than a handpicked distribution over that parameter"
  • "if your model looks at all like someone else's you'd better cite them, so either keep things in spherical cow territory or do a long literature search while people are dying"

We're not constrained by the same factors, and so it's perhaps possible to do better.

comment by Decius · 2020-04-14T20:45:01.490Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no doubt that LW is more than capable of making models beyond *my* ability to find fault with.

And I am actually confused that "Our models won't pass peer review" is being used as evidence of higher quality.

Is there a betting market where I can take the house position against modelers who think they can outperform some publicly available professional epidemiologist's model?

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2020-04-16T22:02:07.302Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just wanna encourage you to not create COVID threads for the sake of creating COVID threads. I contributed to some of those threads, but in retrospect I think my contributions were kind of a waste of time, because there's just been so much COVID discussion on LW and it's not organized very well. (One example: this overview [LW · GW] suggested high-dose vitamin D and exercise could be good, I had posted links from sources I think are reasonably credible saying both of those could be harmful. I'm not certain they're harmful but given that the LW userbase skews young, think it's better to avoid high variance treatments since the default outcome for us is good.)

This is one of my big complaints about LW in general but for whatever reason it's been seeming especially acute lately.

comment by Kenny · 2020-04-14T00:48:40.372Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm worried about supply chains where I live (in NYC and the U.S. broadly), especially food. I don't think there's much I can do practically, besides deal with whatever happens the best I can, or possibly consider leaving NYC at some future point.

I am curious tho about the relevant 'gears-level' explanations for why we should or should not expect specific medium-term or longer-term disruptions.

Here's a post about the recent closure of a meat processing facility:

Should I be worried? Should we all be worried? Is anyone thinking about how to adapt and adjust workplaces for 'essential' industries to limit the risk of COVID-19? Are the relevant politics likely to prevent or greatly slow the necessary economic disruptions?

I haven't been able to order groceries for delivery like I wish I could. I'm also generally reluctant to leave my apartment, especially to go my neighborhood grocery store. How often should I leave to go shopping? What can I or others do, both individually but also in small private groups, to mitigate the likely impending disruptions? I'm resigned to likely running out of toilet paper soon; that's easily worked around, if unpleasant. But I'm less sure how to work around not being able to buy groceries where I live in the medium-term.

comment by Elizabeth (pktechgirl) · 2020-04-14T01:50:49.083Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Double checking that you've seen this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] on the supply chain thread (which deals with produce)?

comment by Kenny · 2020-04-14T19:37:01.945Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I saw that; thanks!

I've seen a few mentions of the labor problem since. Your update about mechanization pointed out a countervailing or mitigating aspect.

I'm now less sure of this point you made:

It's likely that some amount of labor will be found, one way or another

I can't think of how this would definitely be easy enough, even beyond the short term. Short term, I expect a lot of produce and meat animals to be 'wasted' because of the immediate shortfalls in the chains.

comment by Pattern · 2020-04-14T16:59:37.927Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Relegate covid work to personal posts since it’s not timeless?

The Alarm Bell [LW · GW] posts seem like a possible exception.

comment by Jimmy Watts (jimmy-watts) · 2020-04-14T19:49:48.499Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is the time for starting the post-mortem on public responses, assessing long term economic and political fallout, and emphasizing strategies for diminishing the effects of future pandemics. That last point, in particular, as this coronavirus isn't that lethal - imagine an equally infectious but more fatal virus.

comment by Kenny · 2020-04-14T19:46:51.411Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm particularly curious about the individual and small-private-group strategies – one big lesson seems to be that everyone needs to ensure there's sufficient Slack all over. Just focusing on state level strategies leaves people vulnerable to those strategies failing.

It might also be worth thinking about how to develop and apply 'meta-Slack'. Instead of always being prepared for the worst possible pandemic (or other disaster), maybe we could instead always be prepared to rapidly shift to being prepared for a disaster. We'll always want to prepare for disasters that spread faster than our ability to respond to them tho.

One reason why I think it's important to focus on what individuals and small private groups can do is that I don't anticipate states doing a particularly good job for what will turn out to be the actual next disaster of a similar (or greater) scale.

Strategies for larger private groups might be helpful too.

comment by Decius · 2020-04-14T04:13:34.300Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the primary benefit of having C19 discussion segregated is that people who want to not be bombarded with it can find a safe refuge, and that the primary benefit of having that content integrated is that people who have a revealed preference to be bombarded with it are bombarded less than if they had a pure source.

Any benefit that arises from useful new information being rapidly integrated is roughly countered by the harm that arises from useless or counterproductive new information being rapidly integrated.

I propose that a much higher standard for quality of information and analysis be applied than is currently, but that it not be retroactive. All of the good low-hanging fruit has likely already been posted.

comment by billzito · 2020-04-15T03:33:46.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • How should we be thinking about second waves from May - Dec? In particular, what evidence should we look for that countries / states are well-prepared to handle potential outbreaks (e.g. even countries like Singapore are having problems with second waves right now)?
  • +1 “What is my risk from delivery food, given a certain prevalence?" And the same question for packages and delivered produce, given cleaning them or not. I thought about this for ~1hr but didn't generate a great answer, I think it'd save a bunch of people time to have a good one.
  • What are the chances that various vaccine efforts will work in x months (in particular, chances of working in <12 months)?
comment by jmh · 2020-04-16T00:41:49.540Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I keep meaning to ask but keep not...

I think everyone accepts that some elements of what we've been through will be something of the new norm going forward. Particularly around the issue of preventive actions, including gear.

How much value does wearing gloves really pose for the general public over just good, frequent and particularly timely hand washing?

I've heard some suggest that mask and gloves are a good plan. However we already have a pretty big problem with plastic and rubber compounds. If everyone is wearing and throwing out 2 or 3 pairs of gloves a day...

Does it make more sense to ditch the gloves?

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-16T08:37:55.922Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just got a pair of large-size reusable rubber gloves, which I wash after using. 

comment by jmh · 2020-04-17T18:38:01.965Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That certainly addresses the disposal but still leaves me wondering about the value. However, I am not suggesting anyone stop doing anything that increases their level of comfort in terms of self-assessed safety.

Given you wash the gloves (and assume you hands) after use I suspect you are also addressing the concern identified below

One reason I started wondering about this is the wide-spread regulations regarding use of gloves by food handlers. It is premised on the exact same logic -- dirty hands spread disease.

However, just casual observation makes me wonder if that goal is accomplishes as I see plenty of cases where cross contamination risk is present but the gloves are not changed (just as too often the hands are not washed or the cutting board not changed).

I just took a look -- and this is a first look and so hardly a conclusive source I would think -- and found this link.

Here is its punchline:

The center for disease control believes gloves raise the risk of foodborne illness. According to the CDC, workers who wear gloves are less likely to wash their hands as regularly as they should. Food handlers who wear gloves wash less because they assume that the gloves will protect customers, but as Timothy Fisher a Fresh Foods Department Manager at Culinary Institute of America says: “Gloves are NOT a food safety measure if the hands wearing them aren’t washed.”
The problem lies in our handwashing culture as a whole, we all know washing our hands is important and yet we rarely pay it the same attention we might give other everyday tasks like shaving or parking the car. But with 97% of Americans not washing their hands correctly we clearly need a better solution that limits the many opportunities of human error. Gloves are not the answer. It is bad for the environment, business operations, kitchen habits, and can negatively affect quality of food (like sushi). 

So to me it all comes back to washing hands (frequently). But if we do that I don't see that the gloves then add value to anything (though may well be missing it).

So two thoughts there. First, this pandemic should (could?) lead to a better informed population about hand washing (and hygiene in general) and perhaps help in habit formation on that.

Second, we now also need to teach people, and get them practicing, good hand hygiene but also how to properly use the gloves.

Getting two things right seems to be more difficult than getting one thing right, particularly when getting the second right depends on getting the first one right.

So from a policy perspective, rather than a personal choice one, is telling everyone to wear gloves a good public policy?