Monday, July 6, 2020

A Response to Carl Bergstrom and His Failure to Understand Risk

By David Burns

Carl Bergstrom is widely considered one of the top American academics regarding Covid 19. He's an adviser to major sports leagues. He writes columns for the NYTimes. His fame has exploded this year.

He's also completely incapable of understanding the basics of risk.

Take this tweet for example (first screenshot). In response to critics who question the need for both social distancing and masks (neither of which are needed anyway for anyone but the absolute highest risk groups), Bergstrom mocks "if parachutes work, why do we need a reserve chute?"

Oh good one, Carl. You got us. Except for your complete lack of understanding of risk. If your parachute fails and you don't have a backup, your chance of death is 100%. If you don't social distance and don't have a mask, your chance of death is infinitesimal. Got that? It's so low you can't even fathom the number.

Carl wants you to think going to the store without a mask on will lead to immediate death to you and everyone around you.

But Stanford scientists have at least tried:

"Methods: We calculate the probability of a confirmed infection, hospitalization, and death resulting from a county-level person-contact using available data on current case incidence, secondary attack rates, infectious periods, asymptomatic infections, and ratios of confirmed infections to hospitalizations and fatalities. Results: Among US counties with populations greater than 500,000 people, during the week ending June 13,2020, the median estimate of the county level probability of a confirmed infection is 1 infection in 40,500 person contacts (Range: 10,100 to 586,000). For a 50 to 64 year-old individual, the median estimate of the county level probability of a hospitalization is 1 in 709,000 person contacts (Range: 177,000 to 10,200,000) and the median estimate of the county level probability of a fatality is 1 in 6,670,000 person contacts (Range 1,680,000 to 97,600.000)"

Oh I'm sure you heard critics like Carl tell you there are "problems" with this study.... Where are their numbers? Carl wants you to think it's 100% chance of death - see his parachute analogy above.

Here's example #2 of Carl's inability to be truthful about the risks of Covid 19. A recent study by the CDC shows infection prevalence among Americans is about 10 times higher than initially expected.

What is Carl’s response to this news?

There are two glaring lies in this tweet, so let’s unpack them both. Lie #1 is that most epidemiologists believed the death rate could be this low (notice how he spreads the range all the way up to 1.0% to cover himself).

But lets focus on the real whopper, that there are 125k deaths to date.  Anyone who says that to you is lying and they know it.  There have been 125k (and growing) Covid-related deaths to date.  It’s very important to understand the distinction.  If every single one of the Covid-related deaths was actually due to coronavirus, then Carl would be right to say the CDC work implies a 0.5% fatality rate. But we know that isn’t the case. How do we know this? Is it a great conspiracy?  No! They told us! The public health officials have been telling us for months that they count everyone who is probable, everyone who tests positive no matter the cause of death. 

If you doubt these public health officials and believe that every single death is caused by coronavirus, in direct opposition to their own on the record statements, then please explain why the All Deaths CDC graph from 2009-2020 looks like this (the trailing line at the end is due to delay in reporting, but the peak has passed and the peak is the interesting aspect of this graph):

But fine, we’ll use 0.5%. We know that skews radically upward for the older population. What does that mean the probable iCFR is for those of us under 60?   What are our chances of getting Covid and dying by just going about our daily lives?  Was it a good idea to dramatically increase the risk of so many other dangers, completely shut down our economy, and make all normal live cease?

Carl Bergstrom thinks so. I think he should quarantine himself and his twitter account and let the adults go back to their lives.

David Burns is a cyber security engineer living in Virginia Beach. He can be reached at

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