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Coronavirus: Fake news that an elderly lockdown is remainer revenge could spread

Coronavirus: Fake news that an elderly lockdown is remainer revenge could spread

The attention of policy makers has been focused on the science of how viruses either spread or are contained in social networks.

Just as crucial in the current circumstances is the spread of beliefs and behaviour. Will people continue to observe social distancing once the lockdown is eased, or will they revert to pre-lockdown patterns of behaviour?

For all their sophistication, epidemic models are a product of 20th century science.  Understanding how patterns of behaviour evolve requires the 21st century science of network theory.

Much remains to be discovered in this innovative scientific field. But much is already known.

For example, a recent major study in the top journal Science established that fake news seems to have more novelty and attraction than real news. Fake news tweets typically show a much higher level of emotion in their overall content.

A piece of fake news is not certain to spread and be believed. Most stories just fade away. But fakes have a better chance than true of getting traction.

A recent example is the idea that coronavirus is spread by 5G technology. Fortunately, belief in this seems to have been contained to a relatively small group. But 5G phone masts continue to be attacked.

We now have much more evidence. Across the West, well over 90 per cent of deaths from the virus are of people with an underlying health condition. A fit 70 year old is at far less risk of death than a grossly obese 35 year old.

If a substantial proportion of the 9 million over 70s were to believe they were the target of Remainer Revenge, the police would be totally powerless in the face of widespread disobedience.

The police themselves understand this only too well.  In essence, the phrase “policing by consent” means that the vast majority of people have to hold the belief that the police can be trusted to act reasonably.

Their fear is that this could easily crumble. One idea being floated is that family “bubbles” would be created for social mixing. The former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester made it clear over the weekend that the police would basically not want to be involved in its enforcement.

These are just a few examples of the importance of network science, a discipline which involves mathematicians, computer scientists and social scientists. This must become a key part of “the science” on which the government relies.

As published in City AM Wednesday 30th April 2020
Image by Omni Matryx from Pixabay
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Once we reach a social distancing tipping point, more restrictions won’t help at all

Once we reach a social distancing tipping point, more restrictions won’t help at all

How long should the lockdown last? Should it be tightened or relaxed? An abstract concept from both epidemiology and network theory can give a powerful insight into these highly practical problems.

This is the concept known as the “threshold”, sometimes called the critical point or the tipping point.

The basic idea is a very familiar one. Imagine you take a cube of ice out of the freezer. It will be ice regardless of whether the temperature is set at minus 10 or minus 2 degrees. Changing the starting temperature makes no difference.

But as soon as the temperature is above zero, it starts to turn to water. A threshold has been passed. You put the water in a pan and heat it up. It stays as water until it gets to another threshold — boiling point — when it changes into steam.

Close to thresholds, small changes can make massive differences.

The maths of epidemic models tells us that as soon as the degree of social distancing is sufficiently high, the number of true new cases of any virus begins to drop immediately.

In other words, there is a threshold in terms of the amount of social distancing in a society. Below this critical level, more distancing has little impact on the spread of the virus. Above it, being more rigorous and having more restrictions yield diminishing returns.

The essential thing is to get above the threshold.

Last week, a group at Sydney University published a study which modelled the spread of Covid-19 across all 24m inhabitants of Australia, linking epidemiological models with detailed census data. In terms of social distancing, they found a powerful threshold effect.

Suppose zero represents the usual world in which there is no social distancing at all. At the other end of the scale, 100 is absolute and total lockdown — something that not even the Chinese police state could enforce.

The Sydney team argued that the threshold for coronavirus was around 70. Moving, say, from 40 to 60 did very little to check the virus; moving from 80 to 90 controlled the spread a bit better. But the key thing was to get above 70.

In the UK, we seem to be well above the threshold. Before social distancing measures came in, epidemiologists were predicting at least 250,000 deaths in the UK from the virus. The various experts are properly cautious, but there is now every hope that the eventual toll will be 25,000 or fewer.

What does this mean in practice? Anyone who is now working from home and follows government guidelines has probably on average increased his or her social distancing from zero to at least 90. A minority of people still have to work, but even then their social interactions have been curbed substantially. Overall, as a society we seem to be well above the threshold at which social distancing works.

There is therefore no need to hand more powers to police forces, some of whom are already seeking to emulate the Stasi. Mid to late April will be the time for fewer, not more, restrictions.

As published in City AM Wednesday 1st April 2020
Image: Social Distancing by GoToVan via Wikipedia is licensed for use CC BY 2.0
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Puzzled over Australia’s shock election result? Economics can help explain

Puzzled over Australia’s shock election result? Economics can help explain

The surprise of the week was the re-election of the centre-right Coalition government in the Australian General Election.

The Labor opposition had led every major opinion poll for the past two years. But Scott Morrison of the Coalition is still Prime Minister – and it is his Labor opponent who is resigning as leader.

Economists, regardless of their own political views, can take pleasure in this result. It is yet another illustration of the importance of what economics calls revealed preference over stated preference.

The concept of stated preference is the bedrock of the entire polling industry. People are asked to give their views on hypothetical questions. Who will you vote for? Do you prefer Pepsi or Coke?

George Gallup introduced opinion polls in America in the 1930s. His flash of genius was to combine questionnaires with what at the time was the infant science of statistical theory. He used the latter, for example, to work out that a broadly accurate picture of opinion in the whole of the US could be obtained from a sample survey of only a few thousand people.

Since then, polling techniques have become much more sophisticated. Their fundamental problem is not the statistical science, but the fact that their results depend upon stated preference. In contrast, with revealed preference people quite literally reveal their preference by making an actual choice. They vote for the Coalition and not Labor. They buy Pepsi and not Coke.

On social media, people – perhaps unwittingly – reveal a great deal about themselves, their opinions, and their emotions. Analysis based on this data will surely supplant the existing approaches of the polling industry.

This is of course by no means the only close result which opinion polls have failed to call. In our own 2017 election, for example, most polls indicated that Theresa May was heading for a comfortable majority.

But the Australian election is also particularly interesting because of the issues over which it was fought, reflected in the results.

There were big swings against Labor in Queensland, for example. A key issue here is coal mining – in particular, a major new mine proposed by the Adani company.

A secret opinion survey was leaked on 14 May. It claimed to find that in Queensland itself the coal mining industry was “nearing crisis” and had “strong negative perceptions”.

Yet on 18 May, the Queensland electorate swung decisively against Labor, which had made climate change and emissions control a major part of its platform.

Similarly, Labor campaigned on the policy of abolishing franking credits. These may seem esoteric, but the effect was widely understood: pensions would become taxed more heavily. As a result, over-65s voted overwhelmingly against Labor.

No matter how right-on they may seem and how much support they get in polls, many environmentalist policies are not popular in practice. The gilet jaunes movement in France is further testimony to this.

And people reveal a consistent preference for paying less rather than more tax.

Whoever becomes Conservative leader might find it useful to learn from the Australian result.

As published in City AM Wednesday 22nd May 2019
Image: Australian Voting Booths by Australian Electoral Commission via Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY 3.0 AU
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