Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 4/4/2020: Letting The Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Good, And Other Blunders

Why is today unlike any other day?

1. What’s wrong with this picture? This, courtesy of ABC News, was the scene on a New York City subway yesterday:

My question is this: how can everyone be cheering Governor Cuomo’s leadership during the pandemic crisis when this is still going on? I heard Cuomo say, in one of his briefings, “You can’t stop public transportation. You just can’t.” Yet if you are going to allow the above scene all day, every day in your state’s largest city, why bother with the rest of the measures? Just wall off the Big Apple and let everyone get sick.

2. And speaking of New York…and while we’re justly bashing China for all the lies and disinformation,  this blogger finds the charts , models and projections showing how the health care system will be overwhelmed by April 15 puzzling, and asks,

Did the modelers take into account the fact that elective surgeries have been stopped?
Did they take into account the tent hospitals that are being built, or the ships that are being sent to various coastal cities that need them, or the medical personnel who are being recruited (from the military, retirees, etc) by the government? Do they assume this peak of April 15 will be reached all over the US all at once? That seems unlikely to be the case.

Also, I see (for example) that on their graph of predictions for ICU bed needs (go here and click on the “ICU beds” tab to see the chart), it says that for Mar 31 (yesterday) 21,569 ICU beds would be needed. But on the chart for the USA at Worldometers (which may or may not be accurate, although it’s what everyone seems to use) it says the number of cases in the US that are serious or critical is presently 5004, and that yesterday it was 4576. That’s a huge disparity between the model and what’s actually being reported. And I’m not at all sure that all serious cases go to the ICU rather than regular hospital beds, so the disparity may even be greater than it seems…Did about a fifth of all the ICU cases in the US die in a single day? Seems unlikely, although I have no figures on whether it’s possible I can’t really tell who’s right and who’s wrong, and how many people are actually in ICUs in the US right now….

Am I doing the math wrong? I’m tired of the number crunching and checking and re-checking, so I may be getting careless and making errors. But I just can’t make head or tail of that ICU bed chart compared to reality – not that reality is easy to get figures for, either.

Read it all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the United States has some kind of profession or institution that had the job of clarifying such issues, even if all it communicated clearly was “all of the models and projections are just guesswork, we really have no idea what’s going to happen”? I would call that profession “journalism.”

3. You know those other “first world nations” that we’re always being told America is backwards if it doesn’t do like they do? Here’s what “democracy” looks like under stress in Australia:

The State of Western Australia has given itself the power to install surveillance devices in homes, or compel people to wear them, to ensure that those required to isolate during the coronavirus crisis don’t interact with the community…they’ll only be used if: “Someone who is directed to self-isolate and fails to comply.”

The law enabling the regime, passed yesterday after very brief debate, is the Emergency Management Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020 … the State Emergency Coordinator has the power to…

  • Direct the person to wear an approved electronic monitoring device.
  • Direct the person to permit the installation of an approved electronic monitoring device at the place where the person resides or, if the person does not have a place of residence, at any other place specified by the officer.
  • Give any other reasonable direction to the person necessary for the proper administration the electronic monitoring of the person.

Attempts to damage, remove or interfere with the operation of the devices, or refusal to hand one over to authorised officers, can result in a year behind bars, or a fine of AU$12,000 (US$7,400, £5,900).

4. On the plus side, at least it wasn’t torn down by students who felt it memorialized a period in German history that offended them. A 196-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall was removed suddenly this week. Developers tore down a section of the historic structure in  a borough in northeastern Berlin so they could construct luxury condominiums. The Berlin Wall Foundation, established in 2008, was not informed about the removal. Because the wall fragment had no special heritage designation, developers did not have to meet any requirements to tear it down.

“The partial demolition of the continuous piece of the hinterland wall … is a clear loss of original wall remains,” Manfred Wichmann, head of the foundation said in a statement.

5. The Ethics Alarms position: letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is usually unethical…and stupid. From reader Mark Metcalf comes the news that public school districts are not providing online instruction for their students because some of the poorer students don’t have WiFi capability. In other words, all of the students are being forced to have their education constrained by the limitations of a few.

A father writes in the Wall Street Journal that his child’s school district in Berkley District told him, essentially, that they would “rather let everyone drown than save as many as possible and fulfill their educational mission,” saying “There are existing inequities in our educational system and right here in Berkeley that will only be exacerbated by going fully online.” He adds that school districts in Kentucky and Washington state have made similar decisions, and the  Philadelphia school system, with enrollment over 200, 000, ordered its teachers not to offer “instruction to some students unless all students can access it.”

Let’s guess which of the Democratic candidates for President would endorse that approach. Maybe it would be simpler to guess which of the candidates, past and present, wouldn’t support this approach.

NOTE: On this one, you can vote as many times as it takes to register all your choices.


11 thoughts on “Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 4/4/2020: Letting The Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Good, And Other Blunders

  1. RE #2: I’m a math major from the late 60s so I do love numbers but wasn’t subjected to subsequent generations of educators preaching the genius of computer generated models (CGM). My first job after college was in the research department of a well-known consulting company. One of the whiz kid consultants from Stanford was all about computer models (this is when we were still using teletypes to communicate with the mainframe).

    I’ll never forget how impressed I was with his modeling and he, very wisely, cautioned me that it was difficult to remove personal bias from a computer model. He told me that our brains work more efficiently than any computer and, when faced with a problem that may require analyzing huge data series (i.e. perfect project for a computer), we, with our human brains, already have a “gut” conclusion which creeps into the modeling and very well may influence its neutrality. That piece of advice has stayed with me lo these 50 years and makes me skeptical about the reliability of any CGM.

    The discrepancy that we are observing in the virus models is remarkable because the medical field has had for years the benefit of the most advanced statisticians who are specifically trained in recognizing the nature of different types of medical data and how differently they behave which allows for generally pretty accurate results. This is one case where the data has not been available and, thus, garbage-in, garbage-out.

    Now, to my main point–climate science models are much less reliable because there is not an army of statisticians, thus far, trained specifically in the analysis of climate-associated data. My understanding about many of the models that support the IPCC reports is that there are numerous variables for which there is not an adequate time series available so they’re left out of the model all together. Thus, we don’t even have garbage-in to criticize; rather, we have half-baked results kind of like baking a cake and leaving out half of the ingredients.

  2. No surprise about the Marxists in Berkeley School District. Didn’t they consider that WiFi modems could be purchased by the district at a deep discount and installed at a nominal fee for those low income families that wanted them. No, I suppose they’d rather sit in their district office and dream of the upcoming Socialist revolution.

    • #1 “Just wall off the Big Apple…” Couldn’t be easier to isolate the island (okay, not “easy” but do-able)

      #3 Electronic monitoring devices were probably the first thought that came to public health officials everywhere. The second thought would have been as to who and how many would be needed to monitor the monitors.

    • Sorry, wrong place.

      Point of (possible) interest: As happens in several town-and-gown communities, Berkeley the University and Berkeley the City have a difference of opinion – in fact, I can’t think of anything they are in agreement with. The city structure is quite conservative. The famous Peoples’ Park and the kind of people who peopled it and its like were (and are) consistently fought. It’s a losing battle in terms of numbers (41,910 student body to 7,985 families with children under 18); but the latter, forever on the defensive, make the rules and see they are enforced when it comes to Berkeley Proper.

  3. 2) Here’s a seeming paradox- a local hospital just furloughed 50 people. Why? We’re in a lightly hit area (just hit double digits for the whole county). Meanwhile everyone stopped elective surgeries, making the hospital almost a ghost town.

    4) I was proud of our small town ISD. Their policy is learning will continue as usual, just at home. They have even threatened summer school for students who don’t do the work – these are somewhat empty threats according to my wife who works at the school, but a good message to send to the public nonetheless. My elementary age kids do around 4 hours a day of school work. We’re a suburban rural area (small town with lots of people who work in the big city), so we don’t have a large low-income population, but they are trying their best to give options for kids to learn. Packets of paper school work is available to pick up at the schools. Their WiFi was set up to be available in the school parking lots for those without internet at home. The teachers seem to actually care and try to teach remotely, even setting up on-line meetings for students who may need help from a teacher.
    Some of the other districts around have given up; I know from friends and coworkers that some kids have 2-3 hours of work for the week; after Monday morning, they’re done for the week. Yes, it’s extra work for me and Mrs Shadow, but I feel like my kids are still getting an education.

    • With the additional benefit of having that much less time for your children to become bored, restless, resentful and miserable. It’s a plus for everyone in the family.

  4. Re #4: Seems to me that’s on the Berlin Wall Foundation. If they didn’t want that particular section torn down, they should’ve taken steps to protect it. The Smithsonian article says there are other sections still standing because they DO have some kind of protection.

  5. I worked for a software project which did a lot of modeling and analysis of demographics and you often had to understand how to identify ‘garbage out’ answers. I saw the same kind of error in other sciences in college from majors in meteorology to geography and I learned that computer models only magnify and speed up any errors in the designers’ conception. We know that a cloak flows around a behind, but training a computer to show that realistically without the fabric passing through the skin is sophisticated modeling.

    Look at a cape flapping inside a leg in some MMO and tell me modeling is robust. Then pull the other one.

  6. The education piece is a little more complicated, and part of it involves things like federal law, so the idea that schools are “not providing… due to wifi…” is somewhat understated. Special education students are guaranteed free and equal access to education, for instance, and this was almost literally the first thing to come up in the conversations at districts in my area. Accommodations for SPED students based on their IEP requirements can’t be made in many cases, so online education can be considered “illegal,” if you will (not a great word, but it works for now). When my wife was teaching a senior English class, she had, in one section, 25% SPED students, each of which had a slightly different modification allowed or required for their instruction. Every test, every assignment, every lesson, had to have these accommodations included. The logistics of doing that with online learning may take more time to figure out than we actually have. (Who qualifies for SPED services and how that happens is an argument for another day; today we are dealing with current laws and regulations.)

    Students in our district (94 square miles), a largely white, middle-class, rural-to-suburban district, have about a 65% access to wifi, which was a huge surprise to all involved when that was announced. Making assignments available online is great, but if a kid can’t get them, he/she can’t do them. So now we add the access for everyone problem to the SPED problem.

    Worksheets and such are great. Dana will be working on online Latin assignments and lessons as well as some paper and pencil supplemental materials. What are the due dates? How will teachers collect and grade these assignments? Can the students understand the new material without teacher input? How will the parents who live 20 miles from their child’s building, and who work in an essential business, be able to get to the school during school hours (still to be established by the local health departments) to pick up or drop off these assignments for their kids to complete or return?

    Speaking of online, what restrictions need to be in place in order to have any environment of quality learning? As a musician, I have supported a person in another state by taking online lessons (I could really improve my jazz chops) the last few weeks. What is to prevent a student in a similar situation from telling his/her parents that “Mr. Keith did my lesson in his underwear” whether it happened or not? “Well, we can record it.” Nope. The kid is a minor. No recording. “Zoom lessons!” Yes, that seems to be the answer for large groups at the moment, but there are still bugs being worked out in that system, which has suddenly “zoomed” to the top of the app heap because it works so well. Unless it doesn’t, like when someone manages to break into the meeting and post inappropriate content, like a pornographic image (this has happened – Zoom fixed the issue after the fact). But a Zoom meeting doesn’t allow for individual instruction very well. I joined one the other day with 19 people (my wife’s Latin II class has 32), and the amount of confusion as to who was speaking and what they were saying would have been impossible to deal with if this had been a “class.”

    I know you are not a fan of public schools in general, but believe me when I say that teachers and administrators have gone to great lengths the last few weeks just to see that their students are fed, for instance. Free and reduced lunch students still need to eat – the family budget might not plan for school calendar meals, and now with layoffs happening the problem is worse. Our district has distributed nearly 70,000 individual meals the last few weeks. This and many other acts of selflessness by many teachers and districts are happening on a daily basis to make sure kids and families are kept safe and healthy physically and mentally.

    So while access to wifi may have been the sound bite used or announced, I’d ask you to look deeper into what exactly has to happen in order for “education” to take place.

    • This is all helpful and provocative, and raises several fascinating ethics issues. Thanks.

      It goes well beyond the topic of the post, as I’m sure you know, which is pretty simple: should the majority of students have something withheld that would enhance their education because a minority won’t be able to access it? And the simple answer is “no.”

      “Speaking of online, what restrictions need to be in place in order to have any environment of quality learning?”

      I don’t think quality learning for children via wifi as opposed to live interaction with faculty and other students is possible….but then, I have a bias, since in my field live presentations are demonstrably superior to remote ones, and providers choose the latter anyway because they are cheaper.

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