Statistically feeling bad

The last few weeks and the coming few months most of us have shared and/or looked at more statistics than ever (there are probably some numbers for that as well, but to be honest I am basing this statement on my gut-feeling).

Those statistics we are sharing about the virus spreading, the different behaviours influencing the projections of the curve and death rates by age groups are big, sometimes easy to misinterpret, often global and scary.

They are also like everything, something we will in some sense get used to.

And they are statistics and numbers to begin with. And quite often statistics make it feel like looking on from the outside while you are actually directly in the middle of it. Even if you know that you or your loved ones are exactly as likely as this statistic says in numbers to become part of it, even if you understand it intellectually, the human brain is very bad at “feeling statistics”.

Just last week I had a first-hand experience of becoming part of a different Covid19 unrelated statistic I had known of but not really felt fully until I became an affected part of, and maybe I will write about that at some point when I feel up to it. It is very different to know and to maybe even feel for than to experience and feel by yourself.

In the next few weeks and months, many of us and our loved ones will become part of the statistics we are now reading and sharing. And I think even if we are already caring and aware of the problem now, those experiences will change how we feel. And even so many people all across the world will go through the same experience each of us will also do so individually. Feeling afraid, sad or confused is not devalued or less impactful because many people go through the same experience.

Therefore I want to make this thread space where we share moments where fear or confusion manifest or surreal strangeness becomes temporarily unbearable and help each other through it with listening and validation of each individual case of this strange global experience.

At the same time, this is not supposed to be alarmist. Sharing and giving space to temporary emotional reactions in awareness that many go through similar but also the validity of these reactions is not mass panic, but hopefully a helpful coping and processing mechanism.

When I feel bad I want both, to know that I am not alone and that many go through similar experiences, but also that it is ok for me to feel bad for a while and to work through my emotions in the time and intensity I need.

Please share.

  • What have been moments that made you feel the meaning of the numbers?

  • How are you currently feeling?

  • When you talk about this situation, what are you talking about? What topics do come up again and again and what do you feel is under-discussed?

  • What has helped you when you or friends or family members of yours when they felt afraid, sad or confused for a moment?

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Yeah I’m pretty worried about both parents and a younger sibling who is not in any condition to care for themselves properly. They are situated in a different country - it’s pretty stressful not being able to take care of them. Simple stuff like do groceries, sanitise everything and stick it in the fridge/freezer for them.

The constant onslaught of posts etc laying out different stats for how badly everything is going is not helping. Especially since there is a lot of contradictory information from self proclaimed “experts” with dubious credentials drawing curves and offering loooooooooong winded explanations for why they are right. By the 2nd paragraph I am so stressed out about whether or not I am wasting my time reading bs, and when I leave the post then I am stressed that I may have missed out on some important information.

What keeps on popping up in conversations around me is: My cats, Food, Exercise and work stuff, like the Online Course we are building for distributed /remote collaboration. My brain hurts from reading the manual Matt & co put up, as I think a lot of others with adhd or internet/stress induced inability to digest large volumes of information. It’s helping putting together a team to build a Mooc out of it.

I am done with the stats. Like ok we get it, wash your hands properly, keep 2m distance, avoid crowds, disinfect everything properly etc. And I am limiting my consumption of online information to fun/beautiful, forward thinking (ok what is working well right now that we can do more of in the future) or credible instructables for how to do useful things like make ventilators, intubate loved ones if things come to that or managing your nutrition or whatever. Credible - as in validated by medical experts with solid credentials not some random person with a keyboard.

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I am better than average at statistics. Not a statistician myself, but I took several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in statistics. I can do simple statistical models, and understand more sophisticated ones.

People around me, I find, are made anxious by statistics on COVID-19, just like you say, @MariaEuler. I try to help, by making really stupid examples: “if fatality is 1% or reported cases, and reported cases are underestimated by a factor 2, that means one infected person in 200 dies. Imagine you are playing a football tournament, and there are 18 teams. Now imagine one player is picked randomly and pulled out of the tournament. That’s one person, out of 18 teams. It does not seem like many, but on the end it is not zero people. That one person could be you! Does it feel risky to you?”

I consider myself lousy at statistics, for an economist. But I spent a long time staring at probability distributions, and eventually that made me acquire a kind of a superpower. All statisticians have it. This: I can hold different states of the world in my head at the same time. I can look at COVID-19 reported cases, and see various scenarios, from bad epidemics + recession + back to business to full-on zombie apocalypse. So people ask me “well, Mr. Scientist, so what will happen? Which one is it?” And I say “We don’t know. All of these outcomes are possible, and none is certain.” For me, this is a very reasonable answer, but people sometimes get frustrated, because they would like it to be either one, or the other.

Anecdotally, however, it seems that these conversations help my non-statistically minded friends in some way. Maybe it’s just monkey see, monkey do: “hey, this statistician dude is contemplating these horrific scenarios, and yet he is not running howling in the streets and resorting to cannibalism, so things cannot be that bad”. Or maybe things are that bad (and they are, with some probability!), but there is something empowering in someone, anyone, having the ability to stare into the abyss, and still deploy rational thinking to try and come up with a thought-through response. Maybe this ability is even infectious, like a virus, but a benevolent one.

Does anyone have similar experiences? @matthias? @trythis? @mstn? @msanti?

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I have a journal with 102 categories of medical observations about myself, and over the longer term it gives me insights about my body/mind system that I could hardly gain from literature. Now because it fits into this topic, I’ll share the latest insight it gave me. Of course, strictly speaking it’s only my own theory about myself. But you might find elements in it that you can generalize.

So: both after the earthquake in Nepal, and now in the coronavirus pandemic, and in one more situation in the past, I observed that my body/mind system can switch to a kind of high-alert mode more or less immediately, and then stay there for considerable time (weeks to months).

I’ll attempt to illustrate this with the time around the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. @natalia_skoczylas had arrived 4 days before me and gone through the first 7.8M earthquake already when I arrived. She and everyone with that experience would notice all the little aftershocks, and I wouldn’t notice anything. Natalia would scold me for scaring her by accidentally pushing against our office table (because it felt like an aftershock). Then there was a second, 7.3M earthquake, and afterwards I was also in that high-alert mode, being very sensitive to any slight aftershock and getting scared by any sudden movement that felt like one. We’d make little competitions of guessing the magnitude of the aftershock and then looking it up online, and quite often we were accurate earthquake sensors.

The interesting observation to me is how it only took one un-ignorable moment of danger to switch me to this high-alert mode. Some call this trauma or a psychological adjustment disorder. I think it’s just an operation mode of the nervous system that we’re largely unaware of but that is very useful in times of danger. It’s also normal that this kind of high-alert mode fades again after a few months without that danger. Just be patient. Don’t stress yourself about “having anxiety” or something.

tl;dr / back to the topic: I find it useful to be aware of being in “high-alert mode” because it helps to react to statistics more rationally. Such as, by calculations (cf. micromort). I mean, numbers are just not compatible with a primal flight reflex, while both are useful. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Hey, my report from the trenches.

Before the lock-down, real Italian experts had a fight on Twitter (yeah, maybe we deserve the Apocalypse after all) about the actual threat of covid. We can deduce two facts: 1) this epidemic is not text book 2) top notch virologists (or put here any academic title) are not necessarily expert in statistics (and vice versa). We will understand what is happening in one or more years from now.

My brother asked me if I am happy to know that everybody now lives like me. Work from home, limited social contacts, not a big fan of hugging and hand shaking. So, personally, my life has not changed much. Said that I miss my bicycle and hiking. I cannot move more than 200-500 meters from my home. However, restrictions are not clear. You can find contradictory information on official sources.

People near me are worried but not in panic.

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:exploding_head: That’s it. I always suspected it but now I am sure you cannot possibly ever sleep.

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For me, statistics work the way of the more hopeful reality check. History though makes for the bleaker picture, if you think about 50million people dead from the Spanish flu only a century ago.

I realise that chances are most of my community will make it through. But what is fundamentally informing my decision making - to stay indoor, or cancel travels is not the risk I run into as much as the strain you put on the system if you act against the preventative measures.

You are not so much putting yourself at risk but you put others at risk if you become a casualty or even if you become an additional number in the whole of numbers that the system has to deal with:
costs of tests, quarantine, expatriation, and any health costs that might save you, but make it harder to save others who might not be so lucky.

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I think I would characterize myself as in ‘more alert’ mode. Not sure how high it is.

I mainly worry about accidentally becoming a carrier. Even though I am 69 and thus in a high risk group, I am a healthy person right now who takes no medications, all tests normal and just completed some reasonably serious days of hiking. But some people close to me are much higher risk of a bad outcome if they get infected.

@martin, you mentioned the challenge of people not understanding what exponential growth actually means and therefore sending the wrong messages. Could you share a concrete example of that or of a story/experience that helped people to understand the meaning of theses numbers better?

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Hello Maria - I plan to work on a text. Martin

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A fairy-tale about numbers & behaviour (in six languages):

p.s. Numbers, figures, data - they talk, but not to anybody and in multiple languages. As long as there is a joke about ‘lies, dammed lies and statistics’ something is deeply wrong… …education missing!

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Those of you who are saying – you are just going to shut it all off because you don’t know who to trust – that’s a much better attitude than feeling certain you know who to trust when in fact you don’t really know. Knowing that you don’t know is a big advance over thinking you know when you don’t.

I am in a different situation – being a VERY math/stats-oriented person I don’t get stressed out at all by the statistical posts; I love reading them because I do feel I can understand the math and evaluate what they’re saying. And to be honest, how reliable an analysis is doesn’t always correlate with credentials – for the most part, actual epidemiologists talking about this situation are largely saying things that make sense mathematically – but not always. The “experts” mostly but not entirely agree, so if you can’t evaluate the arguments yourself you can’t just look at the credentials to decide. Similarly, that dude with the Medium post might well be spewing BS but in fact might be quite astute – I’ve seen both, in large quantities, during all this. I’ve been reading a lot of articles that say something like “if you aren’t an epidemiologist, just stop posting about this and leave it to the experts”. Yet, the “experts” are mostly but not 100% in agreement either; there are some greatly varying outlier views amongst them. And quite honestly among the non-credentialed, there are some making very good arguments and some making convincing sounding but awful arguments.

I don’t know the answer to this. What I will say is this: if you are starting from a position of knowing you don’t know, you’re already better off than most, as I said above. From there, however, I will say one more thing: you CAN understand it, if you really want to, if you have the humility to know you don’t know, the amount of work it would take to be able to figure out for yourself what is and isn’t credible here is actually within the reach of almost everyone. What’s missing isn’t the ability to understand, but the critical capacity to realize what you don’t yet understand and put in the energy and concentration to figure it out. That’s true of most things, really, but certainly here.

However, if you’re strongly WANTING to believe one particular story, you’re not going to be able to get there. And I’d say a large number of people do have a very strong motivation, conscious or not, to want to believe one story or another. It is difficult to really get to the bottom of anything with that sort of mindset.

To get back to the question however – what is to be done? Is there a better way of discussing this stuff? I really do wonder this. What does seem to be happening though is that slowly, over time, the “expert” consensus does seem to be converging on a sensible picture of what is going on, what is likely to happen next, and what are the likely best ways to deal with it. I have been heartened by this; yet online, there is still a flood of misinformation, bad analysis, bogus interpretations of data, and motivated reasoning. So no wonder people feel stressed out.

I would like to help with this flood. What is the best way to address this? Not only for this crisis, but for the long future? Because honestly our future as a species may well depend on us getting better at this.

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Thank you for your post @syntheticzero

I totally agree that one can learn to understand when being open to critical thinking and approaching the subject with an open mind and humility.

Another thing I was aiming at when writing the start post here was the difference between understanding something on a cognitive level and processing it emotionally. I read that 15-20 % of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, 75% of those in the first trimester. I am perfectly able to calculate the probabilities of that happening to me, but I did not grasp the reality of it until I experienced it myself and became part of those 15% -20% and felt the loss.

I would also like to address this second layer of emotional processing and discuss if that is even possible without experiencing something yourself or via a close friend or family member. And if people think that that helps people to appropriately evaluate the meaning of the information or if that might also lead them astray in another way, as of course, your understanding is much less objective.

However, your approach and intent for dealing with this food of information are very important:

I was wondering if maybe this “Infodemic Design challenge” posted by @daveed would be interesting for you? “simplifying knowledge” is one of the intents, but designing for critical thinking and low barrier information processing in parallel is probably the right way to go.

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That’s a very good point, but I actually think it may be the case that the biggest problem is when you haven’t yet confronted the reality of a situation in a personal way; I think a lot of the problems many people have when trying to come to terms with anything traumatic is that we don’t want to accept that it is happening or can be happening, in a way, running away from our feelings. So to the contrary I don’t think feelings necessarily make us less objective; wanting to ignore or minimize our feelings, deny them – I think that’s what causes the greatest distortion of perception and thought. Just my personal view.

This is a really sad story but I am reminded of a letter I read a couple weeks ago to an advice columnist, from a parent who was annoyed that their partner wanted to send their daughter to a child care club organized by other parents during the lockdown. Despite misgivings, they ended up sending their child. The advice columnist said that this was not a little wrong, it was BIG wrong. Just yesterday I read the follow up letter – all the children came down with COVID, including their daughter, even though they had only sent her for one day and pulled her after the first day. Multiple children were going to the hospital, one of whom had preexisting conditions and was in dire condition, and they were all so regretful. It’s such a horrific story yet part of the problem was before this happened many of these parents were just not really in touch with the potential very visceral reality of this situation we are all in. In fact it took the personal experience to bring the full reality of it to the forefront for them.

I’m very interested in this. I will take a look at it.

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Yeah I am having a similar argument with someone I know about sending their kid to school with a full pandemic on. The issue is not imminent as schools are not going to be opening. There are two points of tension.

The first is to do with hubris- zooming in on what you think you know rather than erring on the side of caution. Or taking seriously the fears of the mother on the basis of his having “rationally” analysed the data.

The second is not having a sense of what the data actually means in practice - how small the margin for error is.

Hans Rosling was unparalleled in his ability to make stats palatable to the many, even though the ideological framework through which he interpreted the data was (imo) problematic.

Angela Merkel, however, is one of few politicians able to communicate the statistics in such a way as to make tangible the possible consequences of how you act on the information available to you:

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this links to the post about the infodemic

Maybe there are similarities to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

There are certainly for a miscarriage, even an early one. And for many other things that people have to process.

In the current context it would be interesting to see if that could be applied to interpret the response to the information and measures of the pandemic.

In 1918-19, the big flu pandemic that killed so many millions, WWI had just ended and in Philadelphia they had a huge victory celebration where many thousands of people crowed along the street for the big parade. It was not long after that the city had mass death on its hands. Going back too soon is a proven killer. And yet, some Florida beaches are re-opening today. Sometimes I wonder if American society is even capable of managing itself so this pandemic can be mitigated. Too many people over here think it interferes with their Constitutional rights to not stand next to someone and either cough on them or get coughed on. I might think there was some Darwinian justice in play with such ignorance, but it affects too many innocent people.