BOB GARFIELD While the president revises history from the White House briefing room, Trump 2020 goes into cleanup mode.
MCKAY COPPINS The campaign has started to send cease and desist letters to local TV stations that air attack ads that highlights Trump's comment that the hype around the Coronavirus was a hoax.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Our response to Coronavirus depends on trust in institutions, which was already anemic.
DAVID SIDERS Early on in this pandemic, optimistic Democrats would say the NIH, they’ll get as much money as they want for it. And I'm not sure that we emerge from this with people saying what we need is more science.
BOB GARFIELD And as statistical models change and some begin to question the modelers, remember:
JOSH EPSTEIN Picasso said art is a lie that helps us see the truth. That's the case in all the best models.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. It was a horrifying week of widespread death.
NEWS REPORT Tonight, Coronavirus cases over 2 million worldwide. In the US, the death toll now topping 32,000. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But it was in some ways an ordinary week in Donald Trump. His threat to send Congress packing.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD His claims of absolute power over the states.
PRESIDENT TRUMP When somebody is the president of the United States the authority is total. And that's the way it's gotta be. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD His scapegoating of the World Health Organization for his own February inaction.
PRESIDENT TRUMP The delays, the W.H.O. experience in declaring a public health emergency cost valuable time, tremendous amounts of time. More time was lost in the delay it took to get a team of international experts in to examine the outbreak, which we wanted to do, which they should have done. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD His Friday tweet, inciting protesters to his word, liberate the blue states, enforcing social distancing rules and perhaps most predictably, spinning revisionist claims about his limited travel bans, which he says refute the charges of incompetence swirling around him.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I saved tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives by… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All of this playing out live in his evening briefings before a press corps, which till now has been largely unable to penetrate the presidential fog before being insulted or raged at and then cut off.
REPORTER When you said that Americans were scared, I guess nearly 200, dead. 14,000 more are sick. Millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?
PRESIDENT TRUMP I say that you're a terrible reporter. That's what I say.I think it's a very nasty question. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But then on Monday suddenly happened. CBS News correspondent Paula Reid managed a sustained barrage of questions about what the administration chose not to do for the entire month of February.
BOB GARFIELD McKay Coppins is staff writer at The Atlantic. He's been analyzing the pivot by the president to the latest revision of contemporaneous history. McKay, welcome back.
MCKAY COPPINS Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Now, the last time you were on a little over a month ago, you said that reality would assert itself. The truth would out, that you cannot spin your way out of a pandemic. How's that prediction looking right about now?
MCKAY COPPINS Well, in a way, I think it has happened in the sense that a month or so ago, the president and his right wing media allies were still saying that the Coronavirus was no big deal, the media was overreacting to it and Democrats were just playing politics with it. That was the narrative back then. Now we've reached a point where tens of thousands of Americans have been killed, hundreds of thousands have gotten sick. It's effectively shut down the United States economy. So the president and his coalition have had to pivot their spin, come up with a new narrative.
BOB GARFIELD One that makes what's going on now look like their victory.
MCKAY COPPINS Exactly. The new message coming out of the White House and the conservative media is that he was actually prophetic, that unlike the media and Democrats, he saw the threat on the horizon when nobody else did. It's essentially a narrative that is diametrically opposed to reality but that hasn't stopped them from pushing it pretty aggressively.
BOB GARFIELD The president's rhetoric hinges on his January 31st decision to limit flights from China. Here's what his chief media proxy, Sean Hannity, had to say about that.
SEAN HANNITY The president's China and European travel ban, I predict, will go down as the single most consequential decision in history. That's not political. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So what really happened?
MCKAY COPPINS The president did make this decision as the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan was becoming clear in January and he got some blowback for it. But if you talk to experts about what this decision amounted to, they will say, first of all, that this was not a travel ban, it was a travel restriction. There still was plenty of travel to and from the United States and China.
BOB GARFIELD 40,000 people, if I recall.
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, that's right. And a lot of skeptics, both on the right and the left, frankly, will say that this was essentially a token measure. While this travel restriction bought the United States time, that time was then squandered throughout February and early March. What this time should have been used to do was to implement a national testing infrastructure, to acquire necessary medical supplies, to basically brace the U.S. healthcare system for a flood of sick people. And instead, the president spent that time saying that this was no big deal. That action that he had taken had effectively saved the country from an outbreak.
BOB GARFIELD It's not just the president. In preparation for the November election, the Republican Party has been cultivating the same narrative about Trump action, about Democratic obstruction and media fear mongering. There was a push poll in Texas?
MCKAY COPPINS Not just Texas, but I spoke to a woman in Texas who late last month said that she got this strange phone call from a woman asking if she could administer a poll about the press's coverage of the president. And she said yes, and she gave her answers. And then the voice went on to express frustration with the way that the media had been so unfair to President Trump. And this woman who I spoke to actually believed that she was talking to a live voice. It took her a little bit of time to realize that it was a robocall. When I looked into it, I found that this call had gone to 120,000 numbers at the end of March, right around the time that shelter in place orders were going into effect across the country and that it actually came from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
BOB GARFIELD There was also an attempt not just to overwhelm but erase history. In your latest piece, you call it ‘memory holing’.
MCKAY COPPINS The Trump campaign has started to send cease and desist letters to local TV stations that air a specific attack ad from a liberal superPAC that highlights Trump's comment, where he said that all the hype around the Coronavirus was a hoax.
You remember he said this at the end of February during a rally. The campaign's position is that the attack ad in question takes his comments out of context and that it's actually defamatory. You know, if you actually talk to fact checkers, they'll say it's a little bit more complicated. His comments weren't totally clear. In any case, the political purpose of this is clear, which is they are trying to force TV stations to remove an ad reminding people of this comment. And in general, they've been extremely aggressive about pushing back against any reporter who brings up this comment. In fact, after my story was published this week, the official pro-Trump superPAC America first went after me on Twitter saying that this was the media performing revisionist history, that the media hadn't been taking the Coronavirus seriously until mid-March, which is conveniently right around the time the president started to take it seriously.
BOB GARFIELD Well, the Nasdaq is doing poorly, but we're definitely in a bull market for projection. I want to get back to the daily press briefings. On Monday, Trump did, in fact, do something, as he likes to say, never before seen in the history of the country for the whole world hanging on to the latest news from the COVID-19 front lines, he showed essentially a campaign video.
MCKAY COPPINS It was very strange. It began with this onscreen text that said the media minimized the risk from the start and then proceeded to show a series of clips of people on CNN and other networks from January, downplaying the likelihood that there would be a really serious coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
NEWS REPORT They’re concerned about the coronavirus, because you're hearing a lot of news about it right now, but the reality is comparing it to the flu, for example. It's not even close to being at that stage.
NEWS REPORT How worried should Americans be about coronavirus?
NEWS REPORT Coronavirus is not gonna cause a major issue in the United States. [END CLIP]
MCKAY COPPINS These were sort of cherry picked clips, but this is essentially the culmination of weeks of propagandizing around this. Recall, this was at a briefing of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce. These briefings are supposed to be providing information to the public about this ongoing public health crisis. And instead, it was turned into this almost Orwellian display of propaganda and revisionist history that is clearly aimed at benefiting him politically..
BOB GARFIELD There has been plenty of discussion about how the press should deal with these briefings, with all the lies and misinformation and video shorts and so on. Are you satisfied with this status quo?
MCKAY COPPINS My personal preference would be to air portions of these briefings that are important and then intersperse them with fact checking and reporting. Look, I think almost all of this is sort of beside the point, because the reality is, unless you had every media outlet in America link arms and decide not to air these briefings live, there is going to be a lot of people who watch them. I mean, the ratings for these briefings at times have rivaled The Bachelor. There are signs that these briefings are helping the president politically. I spoke to one Democratic strategist who told me that they tested the effects of these briefings and showed voters 90 seconds of one of them and found that after voters saw 90 seconds of one of these briefings, Trump's performance in a general election matchup with Joe Biden improved by more than 2 points.
BOB GARFIELD Some of us have loudly saw it as sort of Spartacus moment in which after Trump cuts off or insults a reporter for her question, the next reporter takes up the same question. And if no direct response again, the next reporter does the same until he is finally forced to provide a satisfactory reply. Now, maybe that's just fantasy. But in that back and forth we played earlier with CBS’s Paula Reid, Trump seemed to be on his back foot. Likewise, on Monday, when CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pushed back on his assertion of absolute authority over the states.
KAITLAN COLLINS You said when someone is president of the United States, their authority is total. That is not true. Who told you that?
PRESIDENT TRUMP OK. We're going to write up papers on this. It's not going to be necessary because the governors need us one way or the other. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And a moment later.
KAITLAN COLLINS Has any governor agreed that you have the authority to decide when their state opens back up?
PRESIDENT TRUMP I haven’t asked anybody. You know why, you know why? Because I don't have to. Go ahead please.
KAITLAN COLLINS But who told you that president has the total authority?
PRESIDENT TRUMP Enough. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD McKay, could we be at an inflection point where the leverage shifts from the podium to the press pool?
MCKAY COPPINS The president is accessible now to the White House press corps in a way that he has not been for most of his presidency. Another thing that's happened is that because of social distancing measures implemented by the White House Correspondents Association, there are only a handful of reporters in the briefing room on any given day, whereas in typical briefings, you have a lot of different reporters from a lot of different outlets competing for time and they're trying to get their questions in and that sometimes, I think gets in the way of actually getting information out of the president or holding him accountable. I think now with this smaller group, it's much easier for the reporters to demand answers to questions. Now, one of the president's go-to tricks in these briefings is to try to turn them into fights about the media. When he doesn't like the tone of a question, he’ll bark at reporters to rephrase the question in a more flattering way, or he'll say, “you’re fake news. You're biased.” The White House press corps is at its worst when it takes the bait and kind of starts to fight with him on those grounds. But what I think we've seen in the last few weeks is the press corps, for the most part, being very laser focused on questions about the government's response to this crisis, trying to get answers in a way that I think is really important.
BOB GARFIELD In fact, there was one especially impressive moment in that Paula Reid exchange. It happened when Trump was showing a timeline graph of his administration's heroic actions. But Reid spotted a gap, you know, like the gap in the Nixon Oval Office tapes. But it wasn't an 18 and a half minute gap, it was a 30 day gap.
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, the line of questioning was all about February. Basically, you implemented this travel restriction at the end of January. And then in March, middle of March, you decided to implement travel restrictions from Europe and do a series of other things. But what about February? What about that lost month? And you know, that that was a really important question. And in fact, I think the single most important question in why our government was so ill prepared for this virus and he didn't have an answer for it, but his various tricks to evade that question didn't work. And she just kept pressing and pressing. And the more we can do that, the more we'll be able to get the answers that we need as we move forward.
BOB GARFIELD One more thing, McKay, if you ask me, the president has seemed, even by his own standards, inarticulate and maybe right on the edge of losing his equilibrium in front of millions of viewers, as he's widely reported to do often in his staff meetings. What do you think?
MCKAY COPPINS What I will say is that he has not faced a situation like this before in his entire political career. He has not been in a situation where there is a genuine crisis that he has to confront, not a political crisis, not even impeachment, which was more about his own political prospects than it was about life and death matters within the country. He has to take questions every day from reporters. I think it's a good thing, by the way, credit to him for being up there and taking these questions. But it's clearly getting to him. He constantly is lashing out at these reporters. I think it's taken on a more frenzied quality. Recently, The New York Times reported that President Trump at the beginning of all of this was seriously considering launching a White House talk radio show. He ultimately decided not to do that because he didn't want to compete with Rush Limbaugh, a friend of his. But I can't help but think that that helps us understand how he's treating these briefings right? He ultimately doesn't want to go up there and answer tough questions from reporters. He wants to use these briefings as a platform to push campaign for reelection and advance these propagandistic narratives. That's what he's been trying to do with these White House briefings. And the more reporters kind of get in the way of that, the more frustrated he seems to become.
BOB GARFIELD McKay, thank you.
MCKAY COPPINS Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There may have been no Spartacus moment here, but in Puerto Rico, the press and the public have linked arms against propaganda remotely, of course. Our producer, Alana Casanova-Burgess alerted us to a protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS In keeping with social distancing guidelines, dozens of car protesters assembled outside a government funded, government friendly TV station. They called it a protest drive-through.
We are demanding the test. People need to get tested. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Tests and also transparency. Governor Wanda Vasquez had taken to hosting Coronavirus briefings at the station, which are closed to outside reporters. The governor's staff insisted that they weren't press conferences, but rather informative special shows. Another station, Telemundo, said it's, quote, something not even President Trump would dare to do and refused to broadcast them. In the meantime, there's also been socially distant protests of banging pots and pans out of windows. Puerto Rico is behind all 50 states for per capita testing. Protesters say the strict shelter in place order is insufficient if the government is botching the testing measures and not doing much of anything else. The urgent call made from a safe distance is for more action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, shoulder to shoulder protests this week in Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Michigan are calling for less.
NEWS REPORT Pressure mounting to reopen parts of the economy at the Michigan state capital, Protesters blasted a strict stay at home order, which includes interstate travel restrictions. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The protests, dubbed Operation Gridlock by its conservative organizers, was an attempt to shut down the shutdown to pressure Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to lift restrictions they say infringe on civil liberties. Frustrations cheered on by Fox’s Tucker Carlson.
TUCKER CARLSON When the virus hit Michigan last month, Whitmer had no clue what to do. So she responded with a mixture of comical ineptitude and a weird kind of arbitrary fascism. She banned the sale of carpets and paint and potted plants. She told people they couldn't fish or go to church or drive alone to their own homes. But at the same time, wittmer kept liquor stores, weed shops and lotto kiosks open. It was just a matter of time before the people suffering under this insanity said something about it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Before COVID 19 went global, some of us here wondered whether it could set up an epistemological collision between Trumpian spin. It's nothing to worry about. I alone can handle it. And deadly reality. A crash that might create a space for a genuine national reckoning. We shouldn't have wondered because we've been here many times before. Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria still feel the pain of reckoning denied with incompetent leaders, an unknown death count, economic stagnation and an unknown end.
NEWS REPORT Let's take from what happened in Puerto Rico.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I think Puerto Rico is incredibly successful. Puerto Rico was actually our toughest one of all. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE History shows that this administration adamantly denies the historical record when it doesn't serve and as we heard from Coppins is doing so with increasing transparency. There's no reason to stop until enough of the nation says as the president has enough and moves together to deny the deniers.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, science is under attack. That's not new. But this time, it's epidemic modeling under fire. And most of us are still struggling with the lexicon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The way we live now. Most of us, anyway, is based on models which are to some degree or another predicated on flow of data or close study of behavior or both, all subject to adjustment as more information flows in.
NEWS REPORT I heard the CDC director say that U.S. coronavirus deaths could be much lower than the 200,000 predicted. So what do you make of this?
NEWS REPORT What I make of that is that it's giving us proof bad staying at home, sheltering in place, and the physical distancing could actually work because a large majority of the country is doing it. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What scientists see as the effect of public health measures, however, some partisans are spinning as proof of reckless overreaction by the media and public officials.
NEWS REPORT The prediction turned out to be four times larger than what actually happened. Social distancing didn't do that. Something else skewed the numbers. We don't know what it is. We should find out.
NEWS REPORT Would our response have been less damaging to the economy and to the lives of all of you, millions of Americans, if we had had more accurate models from the start? And should this experience make us less willing to rely on the same experts to help determine when and how we should reopen our economy? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yes, as Politico's David Siders has reported, quote, Coronavirus modeling has become the latest partisan flashpoint.
DAVID SIDERS Well, I think that there is an effort in the most generous interpretation on the right to understand why models are changing and to express some grief about the economy having been shut down or people being excited about shutting it down when the models looked much more dire. And then in the other interpretation, I think what's happening is an effort to shift blame. The president has come under weeks of criticism. His public approval rating on his handling of the virus is underwater now, first time this week in a Morning Consult poll. So I think that there's an effort to shift blame for why we might have a bad economy in November to something else. And that's models.
BOB GARFIELD As much as we'd like to think of scientific modeling as pure, objective, definitive, free of bias. That's not exactly so, is it?
DAVID SIDERS No, I think you said it right that it's a best guess. And I do think there are some biases when people are doing especially public health modeling. And the main one is that if you're going to make a mistake, you hear people in public health say this over and over, that the preferred mistake, at least from their perspective, would be to overestimate the amount of response that they want the public to have rather than underestimate because it's more dangerous and has a greater impact on public health if you underestimate the problem because more people die.
BOB GARFIELD The Washington Post had a comparison, they said if you're standing in the middle of a freeway and a truck hits you, you could ask modelers what would happen to you and they would have different ideas for where the different parts of your body will land. The outcome will be the same. And all of the models will try to tell you one thing: don't step in front of a truck on the freeway. It gives you some direction.
DAVID SIDERS That's a great comparison. The other one, of course, is to climate change. Does it matter if you reach a tipping point in nine years or nine and a half years or 20 years, the model is trying to tell you to do something.
BOB GARFIELD Well, if you wanted to cast doubt on the expertise of the elites, the past couple of months have offered some talking points because the predictions do seem to be shifting from the more dire to the less. For instance, the change in the number of ventilators needed, it has moved sharply down and this has been offered as proof positive of the media's chicken little hype. But what do you think the changes, for example, in the ventilators estimate really tell us?
DAVID SIDERS Well, a couple of things. I think all sorts of things have come down--the number of days that people are expected to stay in the hospital if they're sick, the number of deaths. And then there's some anecdotal evidence that doctors are beginning to think that not always should they move so quickly to a ventilator that some of the low oxygen readings they see when it's a COVID patient may not require the same kind of ventilation that they would in another circumstance. And so it may be better to roll them on their side, move them in some way to help them breathe or give them oxygen through the nose before moving them to a ventilator, because there can be some serious outcomes for people who recover on ventilators. From what I gather, that's not a uncomplicated procedure. But you're right, it does provide a talking point for people to say that the media being chicken little and it's a critical talking point for the president who campaigned in 2016 and will campaign again as the anti-Washington anti institution president. It's, I think, important for him to be able to paint himself against the entire apparatus of not only Washington but of academia. And this plays into that.
BOB GARFIELD Obviously, the mortality predictions of at one point up to 240,000 Americans looks overstated at the moment as the quarantines continue and it's the curve flattens. Not to suggest that 80,000 thousand deaths or whatever the toll will be somehow just a flesh wound. But is the recomputation itself a smoking gun of anything besides the benefit of a concerted public health effort?
DAVID SIDERS Well, it's the benefit of a concerted public health effort. Plus, new data that reconstituted number is going to matter, though the president's already signaled that it has. If deaths come in below 100,000, the president will very much be happy to talk about models because he will say the models had more than 100, we’re under 100. That's another way that this thing will get whiplashed around between now and November.
BOB GARFIELD Maybe he'll be the hero of the republic if the final death toll is substantially below what his own administration had predicted as a worst case?
DAVID SIDERS That's right. I mean, we're still so, what, six months away or more from the election and while we may have more than one wave of this and things could be completely dire by then, there's another scenario in which the death toll is below 100,000 and the economy does not need to be good to benefit the incumbent president. It only needs to be improving. So if the public has a perception that things are on the mend, that's politically significant to Trump. I think it's too early to say that he's going to be the ultimate loser in this politically. I think that jury's still out.
BOB GARFIELD I want to get back to the rhetoric. It's as though the soundbites that we heard earlier are the same as we've heard for decades. Only you remove the words, let's say tobacco or climate change and substitute coronavirus. Denialism, the propaganda of doubt. Is it that simple?
DAVID SIDERS I think the political right does have an effective argument arguing against science and institutions. In some ways that's being tested this time because you do see broad public support for massive government interventions. You see Republican support for big government, big institution public health institutions. When it comes down to the basic science, though, and I think this is why the indictment of modeling by the right wing is so effective, Republicans do still have a lot of doubt in that. Early on in this pandemic, optimistic Democrats would say, well, you know, the NIH, they'll get as much money as they want forever. And I'm not sure that's the case. I'm not sure that we emerge from this with people saying what we need is more science.
BOB GARFIELD I guess ultimately the question is this politicization of the discrepancies in the models. Is it gonna work?
DAVID SIDERS I think that it will work with the audiences who are skeptical of models to begin with. On the other hand, I would have been hard pressed, I think, to talk about modeling in any or be interested in modeling as an enterprise before this. And the media is writing about that all the time. And so is creating some new public awareness around science and public health that maybe hadn't been there in 100 years.
BOB GARFIELD Dave, thank you.
DAVID SIDERS Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD David Siders is national political correspondent for Politico.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, how a leading edge modeler models the rest of us.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If epidemiological modeling is new to the political press, it's also new to the rest of us, even though we are all enlisted in the effort to, quote, flatten the curve. But Josh Epstein, director of New York University's Agent-Based Modeling Lab, is an old hand. And he says the partisan attacks on the projections misunderstand what they're for.
JOSH EPSTEIN I think it's reckless, anti-scientific blather honestly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why is it so wrong?
JOSH EPSTEIN Well, first of all, I don't know which models they have in mind. I mean, most of the models that I'm familiar with have made conservative estimates of the likely fatality rates and cases. Here's what happens if you do nothing. And then there are projections of what happens if you undertake social distancing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There is a model that is being cited often by the White House.
NEWS REPORT The University of Washington model that the White House is citing today is done by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
NEWS REPORT The University of Washington, that models from cases up utilizing the experience around the globe.
NEWS REPORT In the United States, they have been projecting 81,756 deaths and now they're projecting 60,415. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about that model and how it's made and how it's working.
JOSH EPSTEIN Models generally produce forecasts, but they can arrive at them in very different ways. The kind we build at my lab represents individual people moving around on maps. They bump into each other, they sneeze on each other, they give the guy the bug, he gets over it after some time and so forth. And there's a detailed history for every little software person in the model. All these details and an actual transmission dynamic is represented. That's one kind of model. Another kind is the kind at the Institute for Health Metrics, and they call themselves health metrics, not health modeling. A sensible name because they don't do modeling of the kind I just described. They take statistical data and extrapolate forward as it comes in. As more data comes in, they change the extrapolation, just like weather forecasts change their extrapolations as data comes in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you think that maybe it's had too much attention because it hasn't predicted behavior and so it was bound to be off because behavior is vital in considering these things.
JOSH EPSTEIN If they had a model that had anticipated that distancing was going to happen, then they'd have anticipated the initial curve would bend over as distancing took place so they wouldn't be in this position of having a first exponential estimate without distancing. And the second one with it, they'd incorporate distancing and behavior into their model, as other people do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the most prominent models is the one that comes from the Imperial College of London.
NEWS REPORT In the U.K. a big increase in restrictions on everyday life has been partly prompted by research from Imperial College London, a scientific modeling from a team that warned that Britain was on course for a catastrophic epidemic.
NEWS REPORT It’s been warned in a new study that without traumatic action, the novel coronavirus could kill as many as 2.2 million people living in the United States. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did you think of that model?
JOSH EPSTEIN It's really a very, very well done study with quite credible conclusions about what would happen in a completely do nothing scenario. Now, you know, you don't ever get to test that one because it was so scary that people did something. And I think that's constructive. So, look, I mean, they're operating under a lot of uncertainty, too. They published the model before all the data is known. I'm sure they revised their model as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do you think of this bit of advice that Dr. Fauci offered late last month on Jake Tapper's CNN show? It was a warning about projected worst
case scenarios regarding deaths.
- FAUCI I've never seen a model of the diseases that I've dealt with with the worst case scenario actually came out. They always overshoot. So when you use numbers like a million, a million and a half, two million, that almost certainly is off the chart. Now, it's not impossible, but very, very unlikely. Looking at what we're seeing now, you know, I would say between 100 and 200 thousand deaths. I mean, we're going to have millions of cases, but I just don't think that we really need to make a projection when it's such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people. [END CLIP]
JOSH EPSTEIN Nobody would say I predict absolutely. They're saying, look, here are reasonable assumptions subject to the data in hand on those assumptions. This is a range of outcomes that's plausible. And the upper end of that range are these numbers. It's not like I predict that and I overshot, it's I feel a responsibility to give you the range and to be conservative analysts because we need to prepare for the worst one. It's like hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm reminded of the people who made fun of the Y2K hysteria after the fact. They failed to realize that those warnings did spur people to make changes. Therefore, the disaster was averted.
JOSH EPSTEIN Think about modeling the way Churchill thought about democracy, right? It’s the worst of all possible worlds except for the alternatives. You have no other way to think in an orderly manner without models.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a quote often attributed to a British statistician named George Box. All models are wrong, but some are useful?
JOSH EPSTEIN Yeah, that's a very nice quote that all modelers are fond of. What Box is saying is all models are idealisation, all models have to simplify, Orheas once had an anecdote about a map of the United States. That's the same size as the United States. It's not useful to have a map that's a complete replica of the thing it's mapping. It's only useful if it simplifies and models are caricatures and simplifications and idealisations. Picasso said, art is a lie that helps us see the truth. And I think that's the case in all the best models. Of course they're not right in some engineering high fidelity sense, but they capture what's essential to the dynamics with as few moving parts as possible so that the core drivers of events are visible and are testable against data. So I think that's what Box is saying. It's not a dismissive point at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. Is there anything that the public can do to assess the reliability of a model that they're looking at?
JOSH EPSTEIN You know, I think what modelers have to do is be as transparent as possible about how it really works and try to provide an understandable narrative of events as the model rolls ahead, as it iterates through the possible futures day by day. It should explicitly identify the known data that it's using. I mean, if we're having a new estimate of the reproductive number that are not the incubation period, the case fatality rate, I mean, be explicit about how you're using those in your model and what difference they make to the forecast. You know, this is like weather forecasting. You'll update your forecast as data comes in and just be explicit about your uncertainties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then you can take a Sharpie and include Alabama?
JOSH EPSTEIN That's why you use models. So you're not making Sharpie estimates off the top of your head.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned R naught and a number of other terms. So let's talk about the lexicon we have recently acquired. Start with the Flatten the curve graph. Let's picture them. There are two lines, one with a high peak where we do nothing, one that's lower and wider as a result of social distancing. You've said that they’re simplifications that means they're not really so smooth. Right?
JOSH EPSTEIN Yeah. I mean, in the real world, there's a lot of noise. They jiggle around and they don't have this perfect smooth shape that those diagrams show. But they're qualitatively right. They all rise to a peak and then descend after the peak. And typically in real epidemics and in those curves, half the transmission happens after the peak. I think a lot of people are really misunderstanding what it means to be at the peak of an epidemic. You hear a lot of talk about we're at the peak and so you can breathe a sigh of relief and we're out of the woods. Typically, the peak of an epidemic is the midpoint of the epidemic. You're not out of the woods. You're in the very heart of the woods. And roughly half the cases are in front of you. So anybody who thinks we should just reopen the economy because we've made it to the peak is reckless error. If you can flatten the curve, the peak isn't as high, so it doesn't exceed the hospital capacity. So it's not that you're getting fewer cases, they're just coming at you at a different pace. Deaths would probably be lower because you have more capacity to ward off these fatalities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Even if we do nothing, infection curves have a peak. They just don't keep going up and up and up and up until we’re all exterminated. Do they?
JOSH EPSTEIN No, they don't. Because people are recovering from the disease as the infection grows. But I mean, this brings us to this question R naught. All right. The R naught value is calculated this way. It's if I take a bowl of susceptible, perfectly healthy people and I drop one infected person into that bowl, how many susceptible people will directly get the infection from that infected person? The R naught is just this one initial number that's very useful in estimating the early exponential phase of an epidemic. But it doesn't stay exponential. It reaches a peak and then comes down and R naught is just
the first of these numbers. But all these so-called reproductive rates fall in the course of the epidemic as you run out of susceptibles. A lot of people use R naught as if it were a kind of doubling rate like rabbits multiply. But that can't happen. If I have ten rabbits, the first one gives it to two, they give it to two so there's four. They give to two so there's eight. They give it to two so there's sixteen. No, you can't have 16 because I ran out of rabbits at ten. The thing can't keep going at R naught indefinitely because you run out of--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Susceptible rabbits.
JOSH EPSTEIN Exactly right. The reproductive numbers always fall in the course of the epidemic because it's harder for an infective to find the next susceptible. People are recovering, so the thing bends over. That's why there's a peak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about a different kind of model, how fear spreads, strikes me fear is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Why would you track it? And how did you track in your behavioral models?
JOSH EPSTEIN Well, it's double edged. On the one hand, the disease generates fear and the fear generates behavioral change. You get out of circulation because you're afraid of catching the disease. That's a good thing because it depresses the epidemic. However, fear also evaporates when the stimulus disappears. So everybody went to the basement that depressed the epidemic. Now people look around, say, hey, we're almost out of the woods. Let's go back to a normal social life. And the trouble is, if there are still infections circulating, you're pouring susceptibles back on to these embers and you can reignite a wave of epidemic. So fear is your friend when it's taking you out of circulation. But the extinction of fear is your enemy if it pushes you out into the world again too early
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you say there are four horsemen of COVID-19 fear: fear about the virus, fear about the economy, probably at some point fear about whatever the new vaccine happens to be.
JOSH EPSTEIN Well, you know, these measures of putting people back to work in a careful way, putting immunes back to work in a careful way without bringing on a second wave, these are all techniques to bridge the country until we have an effective vaccine. The problem is that we have tremendous levels of vaccine refusal worldwide and in the United States. The W.H.O. last year declared vaccine refusal to be one of the top 10 threats to global health. And you're seeing the resurgence of measles in Europe and in the United States and in swine flu in 2009, the W.H.O. declared swine flu to be a global pandemic and half of Americans refused the vaccine. So when we bring on a vaccine to COVID-19, it's another one of these behavioral factors that it's going to loom very large in our capacity to keep this thing at bay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how do we control the fear curve?
JOSH EPSTEIN OK. One of the big drivers of fear is surprise. One of the ways you control fear is not set rosy expectations that are then thwarted by the reality. President Trump did exactly that by dismissing the threat for many, many weeks. And then when the reality hits home, people are much more shocked. They're much more frightened. And it sends markets into the very panic he's obsessed with. One way to do it is tell the truth as best we know it. Don't paint a rosy picture that sets everyone up for the fierce spike when it proves false.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thanks a lot, Josh.
JOSH EPSTEIN You're welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joshua M. Epstein is a professor of epidemiology at NYU School of Global Public Health and director of the NYU Agent-Based Modeling Lab.
So I've been thinking about Shakespeare and time because we have a rich discussion about Shakespeare that we had to hold till next week for lack of time. Yeah, with time moving so slowly these days, we still managed to run out of it. We'll talk about that too. The experience of time during lockdown in a future show in our continuing effort to syncopate that drumbeat of news about the nation's physical, political and spiritual woes with stories that provoke in more satisfying ways. But back to time. During Shakespeare's time in London, plagues were severe enough to close the theaters in 1582, 1592, 1603 and 1607. Add in the perils of war, childbirth and accident and for most people, death was never so private or tidy as it's been for the last few generations. My kids are grown and since they were old enough to remember, they've seen a lot firsthand. Chaotic protests followed by tanks on the streets of Moscow in 1993. Great plumes of smoke after the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, a bruising financial crash just as they were making their way into the world in 2008. And now this. And yet recently one of them asked. This is the first crisis that I've ever faced as an adult. But is this normal? Does every generation go through something like this? Interesting, the distinction she draws between global mayhem viewed through the lens of childhood and youth. And this one experience does an entirely independent adult, actually, that should give parents some comfort. But how do you answer? Every generation thinks they faced a crisis, but not all crises are created equal. I mean, some of us have managed to slide through life pretty well. Still do. I'm talking about the lucky 34 percent of U.S. workers give or take with jobs that we can actually do at home. All we have to do is remember a couple of things which Randy Newman wrote as a PSA for Los Angeles Public Radio KPCC.
Buy the song. Proceeds from it will benefit the Ellis Marsalis Center in New Orleans.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.