Does anybody know anything?

The phrase, or admonition, “nobody knows anything” has become a popular one. It took off after the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump surprised nearly everyone supposedly in-the-know by defeating Hillary Clinton.

The phrase can’t be taken literally. Even in 2016, we knew that Clinton would carry New York and Trump would carry Alabama.

We can’t even say that nobody knew anything significant about the election. We knew that Clinton would win the popular vote, a non-trivial piece of information.

But we didn’t know the answer to the vital question — the decisive one: Who would win the election? And we haven’t really known that answer in most recent presidential elections. Of the elections in this century, I would argue that we knew this answer only in 2008.

The claim that “nobody knows anything” seems more applicable to the Wuhan coronavirus — a novel virus– than to politics or sports, where it is normally applied. When the pandemic began, it was almost literally true. We knew the virus came from China, but not its source there.

We knew it kills people, but no one had any good idea how many deaths it would cause (I’m too embarrassed to state the over-under number we came up with on one of our Power Line shows) or how to minimize them.

We still don’t know very much, The virus continues to confound predictions. Its spread sometimes increases when most think it will decrease and abate just when most believe it’s going to intensify. And there is still fierce debate over the efficacy of preventative measures. (One thing I know is that having followed the mandated and recommended precautions until recently, for the first time in my adult life, I’ve gone nearly two years without being sick — not so much as a cold.)

David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out that in the closing weeks of summer, many believed that, with schools and movie theatres reopening (among other things), covid cases would surge. The Washington Post, he says, cited an estimate that daily caseloads in the U.S. could reach 300,000 in August, higher than ever before. An expert quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested the number could be higher yet.

In fact, the number of new cases has plunged — by 40 percent. Hospitalizations are down about 30 percent. Deaths, which typically change direction a few weeks after cases, have declined 13 percent since September 20.

It amazes me that with all the unexpected twists and turns associated with the pandemic, so many people speak with such certainty about all matters related to it. It doesn’t amaze me that these utterances align closely with the ideology of the utterers. It shouldn’t amaze me that people on both sides are quick to excoriate those who disagree with them.

Leonhardt writes:

As unsatisfying as it is, we do not know why cases have recently plunged. The decline is consistent with the fact that Covid surges often last for about two months before receding, but that’s merely a description of the data, not a causal explanation.

“We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, has told me.

Accordingly, Leonhardt recommends covid humility. I second the motion.

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