Covid-19 modeling, Dunning-Kruger, and plausible optimism

Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Covid-19 pandemic lately. It looks to me like the current overall fatality rate may be somewhere around 1%, and since nobody has antibodies yet, I see no reason most of us won’t eventually get infected. Let’s say half the people in the USA get infected. It’s simple arithmetic: 330 million x 50% x 1% = 1.65 million dead people. In the USA alone. And maybe 10% of us here on this forum are included in that count.

But that analysis is an excellent display of the Dunning-Kruger effect—the observation that is sometimes rendered as “Stupid people are too stupid to know that they’re stupid.” The actual Dunning-Kruger effect applies to smart people. Like me. When thinking outside our own technical field, we don’t know enough to realize that we are in no position to draw reliable conclusions.

So back to Covid-19 and the dismal arithmetic I showed above. It leads directly to a sensible conclusion that likely is wrong. How can that be? Dunning-Kruger.

There’s competent Covid-19 pandemic modeling done at Imperial College: the study helped convince the UK government to intensify measures to protect the people. A nice overview is available at https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/03/new-model-examines-impact-of-different-methods-of-coronavirus-control/ with links to the original. They explore how different degrees of social distancing reduce the peak load on the medical system. The results also suggest that all the reasonable measures we are starting to take, like closing schools and gathering places, will still lead to a massive overload on the medical system: many dying people will be unable to get adequate treatment.

So what’s the way out? Where is the reason for optimism? Let’s go back to the original arithmetic. The 2 key knobs are the percent of people who get sick, and the percent of the sick people who die. If we want to turn down the first knob, we have to prevent people from getting sick before a vaccine comes out, and in any case we have to prevent completely overwhelming the healthcare system. To me that means extensive testing and strict isolation to halt the spread, as is apparently happening with success in some of the Asian countries, until such time as the vaccine prevents most people from getting sick.

But the real reason for optimism, which I overlooked until today, is the second knob, the death rate. I made the beginner’s blunder (hello Dunning-Kruger) of supposing that the death rate, currently somewhere around 1%, is a fixed property of this disease. It is not. It is a temporary effect of our current lack of medical knowledge: at present we give supportive care and wait for patients to heal themselves. When the physicians figure out effective treatments to prevent or reverse the infection and cytokine storm, then people who get treated will survive. This doesn’t require the development of a new drug, just figuring out an effective treatment protocol.

Adequate testing and isolation to enable the medical system to cope, plus learning how to treat it. That 's a plausible way to keep the number of deaths down.


Great write-up and this is now my new favorite quote. So true.

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I am acutely aware that I am stupid which puts me in an advantageous position.


True, but that statement should always be accompanied by the disclaimer “And we’re all stupid about something.”
But in some cases it’s worse than just the usual D-K effect (like where over 50% of drivers believe they are above average), for specific topics like anti-vax and anti-GMO the least knowledgeable think they know the most. This has been called a super Dunning-Kruger effect; where extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most-

The fact that anti-vax is one of the topics that exhibits this should make things very interesting once we have a working vaccine for COVID-19.


I disagree with that disclaimer option… In my mind, “Stupidity” is a choice. Stupidity isn’t ignorance…we are all “ignorant” about some things…I do agree with that. If you haven’t learned something that that’s no fault of yours…you are ignorant and we are all ignorant of plenty of things. No one knows everything.

However, if we’ve learned things throughout our lives that are based on FACTS, and choose to ignore the facts, or choose to believe something other than the facts (“alternative facts”), then that’s stupidity…and that’s a choice.

A blue crayon is blue…it isn’t green or yellow or black (unless you are color blind and don’t see the color blue). Otherwise, calling a blue crayon yellow after knowing it’s truly blue means you are ignoring the facts and are therefore “stupid.” It’s a choice.

Now, if the known scientific body of knowledge is WRONG, then that would also be considered ignorance to those who believe it. This is why scientists use the scientific method and update their known and accepted body of knowledge (“facts”) based on new information (after testing of hypothesis) discovered that were unknown until discovered.

I agree with everything else you wrote, though.


It’s going to be fun to watch anti-vaxxers try to gaslight the world how the working vaccine actually doesn’t work. :joy:


All i can say is that this is some scary sh*t and whether ignorant or stupid, we cant seem to get rid of this president of ours who is making everything that much more difficult for us to manage our very dire situation.

ok, so call me a democrat, but a wise one at that.

hoping not to offend, just offended by the situation at large.


@daisymae I just read your comment and laughed out loud. What a perfect demonstration of Dunning-Kruger. :smile:

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Stupid is subjective so is intelligence. Some people think Trump is smart…bhwahaha

Couldn’t agree more!

And now, some 22 days later, I just would like to add that I didn’t drink the Kool Aid and I aint injecting the Clorox into my veins. ( and I sure as sh*t aint vaping any Lysol either.)

did I leave anything out? God knows these won’t be his last words of wisdom as our President… :grimacing:

@daisymae DM, I don’t know where you got the idea of injecting Clorox or vaping Lysol, but the President did not mention either of those things. Maybe you got the idea from the media?

This is more what the President was referring to:

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doc, this was sent to me as jokes made by friends based on what the president did “imply.”