Monday, April 13, 2020

How Smart are Epidemiologists?

Tyler Cowen has published an email from a correspondent where he has removed identifying information and simply says the individual attended a very very good school.

At this time when most of the country is in a panic because of epidemiologic forecasts about COVID-19, the email is quite insightful. Here are key snippets:
First, some background on who I am.  After taking degrees in math and civil engineering at [very very good school], I studied infectious disease epidemiology at [another very, very good school] because I thought it would make for a fulfilling career.  However, I became disillusioned with the enterprise:
  1. Data is limited and often inaccurate in the critical forecasting window, leading to very large confidence bands for predictions
  2. Unless the disease has been seen before, the underlying dynamics may be sufficiently vague to make your predictions totally useless if you do not correctly specify the model structure
  3. Modeling is secondary to the governmental response (e.g., effective contact tracing) and individual action (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks)
Now I work as a quantitative analyst for [very, very good firm], and I don’t regret leaving epidemiology behind.  Anyway, on to your questions.


How smart are epidemiologists?

The quantitative modelers are generally much smarter than the people performing contact tracing or qualitative epidemiology studies.  However, if I’m being completely honest, their intelligence is probably lower than the average engineering professor – and certainly below that of mathematicians and statisticians.

My GRE scores were very good, and I found epidemiology to be a very interesting subject – plus, I can be pretty oblivious to what other people think.  Yet when I told several of my professors in math and engineering of my plans, it was hard for me to miss their looks of disappointment.  It’s just not a track that driven, intelligent people with a hint of quantitative ability take. 
What is the political orientation of epidemiologists?  What is their social welfare function?
Left, left, left.  In the United States, I would be shocked if more than 2-5% of epidemiologists voted for Republicans in 2016 – at least among academics.  At [aforementioned very very good school], I’d be surprised if the number was 1%.  I remember the various unprompted bashing of Trump and generic Republicans on political matters unrelated to epidemiology in at least four classes during the 2016-17 academic year.  Add that to the (literal) days of mourning after the election, it’s fair to say that academic epidemiologists are pretty solidly in the left-wing camp. (Note: I didn’t vote for Trump or any other Republican in 2016 or 2018)
I was pleasantly surprised during my time at [very, very good school] that there was at least some discussion of cost-benefit analysis for public health actions, including quarantine procedures.  Realistically though, there’s a dominant strain of thought that the economic costs of an action are secondary to stopping the spread of an epidemic.  To summarize the SWF: damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead


  1. Very interesting. It is only one person's perspective...but an interesting one nonetheless. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Just as an actor is only as good as his last successful movie, the epidemiological model is only as good as its data.

  3. As the emailer alluded to, the relationship between the human immune system and viruses is too complex to be accurately represented by data. The gossip about intelligence and academic responses to emailers choice of epidemiology is immaterial. Although the latter response suggests even the academics have a vague understanding of the limitations of math and statistics. The truth is that epidemiology is far more complex than engineering.

    1. Same problem with econometrics?