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Occam’s Razor and Chinese conspiracy theories

Summary:
Conspiracy theories are a powerful drug, as Penn Jillette once observed (in a Joe Rogan interview.) So powerful that people rarely stop to consider how implausible many of the claims actually are.Let’s start with the conspiracy theory that China initially covered-up the severity of the pandemic. There’s actually some truth in the theory (as I’ll explain later), but first let’s consider the implausible lengths to which some push the conspiracy theory. China first admitted person-to-person transmission of coronavirus on January 20, 2020. On January 23rd, the central government put Hubei into lockdown. The close proximity of those two dates is easy to explain if you don’t believe in vast dark conspiracies. If you are conspiracy-minded, you need some pretty fancy footwork

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Conspiracy theories are a powerful drug, as Penn Jillette once observed (in a Joe Rogan interview.) So powerful that people rarely stop to consider how implausible many of the claims actually are.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theory that China initially covered-up the severity of the pandemic. There’s actually some truth in the theory (as I’ll explain later), but first let’s consider the implausible lengths to which some push the conspiracy theory.

China first admitted person-to-person transmission of coronavirus on January 20, 2020. On January 23rd, the central government put Hubei into lockdown. The close proximity of those two dates is easy to explain if you don’t believe in vast dark conspiracies. If you are conspiracy-minded, you need some pretty fancy footwork to explain why China waited until January 23 to lock down Hubei.

Think of it this way. What would China’s government have done if they had known about the severity of the epidemic prior to January 23? The answer is obvious. A Hubei lockdown would have been vastly preferable if done earlier. Today, China locks down entire provinces when there are just a couple dozen cases. There is only one plausible explanation for China delaying the lockdown until January 23—ignorance. They knew they had some sort of “problem”, but they were ignorant of the extremely dangerous epidemic they actually had on their hands.

And the same applies to other areas where China has been blamed, such as the delay in allowing the world to know the disease was highly contagious, or the delay in shutting down flights out of China. If the Beijing government had fully known what was going on, it would have known that this information would get out eventually. It would have known that the flights would be cancelled quite soon–if only by foreign countries. It could have gotten a lot of positive PR by doing these things first.

And yet, there clearly were Chinese cover-ups. So what sort of “conspiracy theory” makes sense? Not a grand conspiracy theory, but a couple small, boring, mundane conspiracies.

The first conspiracy was the Wuhan’s government’s decision to silence doctors so as to not threaten the Wuhan economy, especially as a major conference that was being planned. This was a very small conspiracy, probably not known by Beijing. The local government had no idea it was the beginning of a global disaster.

During January, the problem did become increasingly visible, even to the central government. But it was still a very small epidemic, a total of 17 deaths by January 22. What did the Chinese central government assume when they first heard about this problem? I’d guess it was exactly the same thing I assumed when I first heard about it—“Oh, another SARS problem”. On the other hand, it was known fairly early that coronavirus was much less deadly than SARS, which killed only 800 people worldwide. They weren’t wrong about the lesser severity of the illness, rather they were wrong about the implications of a high R0. Heck, the US stock market didn’t understand this as late as mid-February, by which time stock traders had far more data on coronavirus R0 than the Chinese government had in mid-January.

Given those facts, the Chinese government probably initially believed that things like travel bans were unneeded. Why do I think that? Because they didn’t even impose travel bans within China! They also recalled how panic over SARS had significantly damaged the Chinese economy in 2002, and wanted to prevent panic until the scale of the problem was better understood. Their attitude was “we’ll hold back info until we know exactly what we have on our hands.” Unfortunately, that’s how authoritarian governments behave.

Thus for at least 6 days (maybe 13) they covered up strong evidence of human-to-human transmission, although they never denied it was possible.

So far it seems like I’m making excuses for China. Actually, I’m not. The initial censoring of Chinese doctors was completely inexcusable, as was the later delay in acknowledging evidence of the transmissibility of the virus. Rather I’m saying these are the sorts of small-bore conspiracies that occur all the time in a country like China. Heck, under Trump they even occur here, as when Trump repeatedly lied in claiming that there was no shortage of testing equipment, or of PPE, or his claim that the disease was contained.

The actions of the Chinese government speak louder than its words. It’s very clear from their actions that they had no idea they were facing a serious problem until late January. There were some worrisome indicators, but if those indicators weren’t worrisome enough for them to act to protect their own people, their own economy, and the CCP’s own reputation, why would you expect them to act in such a way as to protect nursing homes in Lombardy? Do you seriously believe they actually understood what they were covering up?

Occam’s Razor also applies to the lab release theory. We know that dozens of epidemics have come from viruses jumping from animals to humans without any “lab” being involved. Why construct an entirely new theory for this epidemic?

Even more bizarre, the lab conspiracy theorists are so dumb that they think they are discrediting the CCP. Actually, the CCP would look far better (in a ethical sense) if the virus accidentally escaped from a lab doing valid and useful scientific research, rather than from disgusting “wet markets” that the CCP refused to shutdown. When conspiracy theorists are so dumb they don’t even know they are putting out pro-CCP propaganda, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they are on the right track.

Of course it’s certainly possible the virus did escape from a lab during research on bat coronaviruses. I really don’t care.

As for the effect of these actions, the cover-up only hurt a few places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which had a combined death toll of 11. In contrast, America has had over 100,000 deaths, and wasn’t hurt at all by the Chinese cover-up. Since our policy was to twiddle our thumbs until we had 10,000 cases, a warning a week or two earlier would not have made the slightest difference. Unless you think the CCP could have completely stopped the epidemic when there were already thousands of infections in multiple provinces. But in that case, why couldn’t the US have stopped the epidemic early on? Is the accusation against China that they are evil because they failed to competently do what we are too lazy to do?

I also find that people are so anxious to latch onto what they (often wrongly) see as anti-China conspiracy theories that they believe too many such theories, which conflict with each other. If the lab theory were true, especially the version that has a human engineered virus, then the other Chinese government conspiracies make even less sense. Why wait until January 23rd to act? The lack of interest at the federal level and the bungled initial response at the local level are what you expect from a natural virus, not one that escaped from a high security national lab.

PS. Today’s FT has a good article on the Chinese cover-up. This guy’s views are very similar to mine:

“We should put together a comprehensive white paper about the virus in which we recount what happened between the end of December and [Wuhan’s quarantine on] January 23, what we did and why we made mistakes,” Yao Yang, a prominent economist at Peking University, said last month in a local media interview. “We should state clearly that during this period we did indeed drag our feet and weigh [various] pros and cons, but did not purposefully engage in a cover-up.”

And then let’s investigate why the US government also dragged it’s feet, and also understated the problem.

PPS. Recall my April 4 post that suggested that 80% of the deaths might have been avoided by starting social distancing 2 weeks earlier. This Columbia University study suggests that 55% of the deaths might have been avoided by starting just one week sooner:

More than 35,000 lives would have been saved in the US if social distancing measures had begun just a week earlier than they actually did in mid-March, according to a new estimate by researchers at Columbia University.

They said simulations based on several models showed that 61 per cent of the US cases of infection as of May 3 – more than 700,000 – and 55 per cent of the more than 65,000 recorded deaths could have been averted if social distancing and other safety measures had been in place a week earlier.

Yikes!

PPPS. At the opposite extreme, here’s a spectacularly bad prediction I made in April:

About 34,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19 and the experts tell us that we are roughly half way through the first wave of the epidemic, which is expected to fall back this summer (and perhaps rise again next winter.) So if the models are correct, Orange County might end up with another 22 more coronavirus fatalities by late summer.

Just today, Orange County had another 14 deaths. While the fatality rate plunges much lower in NYC, it is soaring much higher here in OC.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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