What Do We Really Know? with Nate Silver

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With so many opinions on what we should do next in response to the Coronavirus, Andy focuses on what we really know and what we don’t know— a much longer list. To do this, Andy sits down with 538’s Nate Silver who built an industry on predictions and has been focused on what the data says about the spread of COVID-19, what’s working, and how we get back to normal life.

Show Notes 


[00:38] Dr. Anthony Fauci: I will not say we have it under control, Margaret. That would be a false statement. We are struggling to get it under control, and that’s the issue that’s at hand right now.


[00:51] Andy Slavitt: Hi, it’s Andy Slavitt, here with my son, Zach Slavitt, and welcome to In the Bubble. The voice you heard is Dr. Anthony Fauci, of course, at this point, a very recognizable voice, from the National Institutes of Health. And that was a segment he did on Face the Nation. If you’re keeping score the last three openings, you’ve heard the voices of Winston Churchill, the pope and Anthony Fauci, which kind of sounds like the beginning of a three guys walked into a bar joke without a punchline. We are at a place where we’ve been, really many of us, on stay-at-home social distancing for the better part of a month, if not longer.


[01:31] Andy Slavitt: And it probably feels to you like it does to me, like it’s really hard to measure time. The thing about #stayhome is whether it’s been difficult or easy. It’s been a relatively simple message. We all know what to do. And I think we have pretty good evidence now that it’s working. Now, as we get to the end of April, we have the president and other politicians suggesting that perhaps it’s time to move to a new phase. Saying that this phase is coming to an end and we should be doing something different. The question I think a lot of us are asking ourselves is, well, now what? Now what do we do? And I think it’s important that we not ask that question simply through the lens of what the politicians want us to do. But what do we think is right for ourselves, as I know so many of you are doing. As you make your way through the kind of information that helps you make a decision., you’re finding that almost anything you want to believe, you can find a story to confirm it. In a single day, you can read a story about how a vaccine is right around the corner. You can read another one about how it’s 18 months away. And you can read yet another one about how it’s impossible. So here’s what I’m here to tell you about all that. 


[02:42] Andy Slavitt: There is much more that we don’t know than we do know. And if you are listening to sources, and trying to figure out what’s right from wrong and what to do next, the message I’d have for you is if you’re not hearing people say, “we don’t know” very often, then you’re probably listening to the wrong sources. Because we are at a stage with a new virus where there’s a lot of things that we’ll know in maybe 10 years. Some we’ll know in five, some we may know next month. But a lot of them are things we don’t know today. And so today on the podcast, we have a guest who I think makes a living out of telling us what we do know, what we don’t know, and how to think about the things that we don’t know. And that’s Nate Silver, who is the founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight. He’s well-known for his political handicapping, but he’s really written a lot of really smart things about Coronavirus and how we should think about the data and the facts that we’re seeing. So you should roll up your sleeves and get prepared for kind of a numbers wonky conversation. I think you’ll really enjoy it. 


[03:52] Andy Slavitt: And I hope you’ve enjoyed the other conversations we’ve had with Anthony Scaramucci, with Mark Cuban, with Senator Amy Klobuchar. Before we get to that, I just want to cover a couple of things. One of the questions that I’ve been asked frequently is, hey, Slavitt, besides tweeting and podcasting, what is it that you actually do all day? So I thought it’d be helpful if I just give you a rundown of my day yesterday, which was Sunday, since we’re recording this on a Monday. Just so you get a feel for the kinds of things I’m doing all day. I talked with two different lab CEOs and the White House special advisor working on the lab pieces to figure out what’s going on with lab volumes and why we’re not increasing them. I talked to Chelsea Clinton about the WHO and what we can do to make sure that it continues to get funded. Talked to two Republican senators and the speaker’s office about the bill that is being negotiated in Congress right now, and some of the issues. 


[04:48] Andy Slavitt: Talked to a leading disability rights advocate, Rebecca Cokley, and some people in Congress about how to make sure that the disability rights issues are getting heard. And spoiler alert, they’re not. Talked to Beto O’Rourke about how to make sure that Texas, which does not have a state government that’s focused on things quite the way that other states are, does it’s best to save lives. Talked to people at the Department of Agriculture about funding for food banks. Had a call with a couple of national security folks to look at the national security implications. Spent time with 15 scientists and epidemiologists to try to figure out how to put together a plan for contact tracing, which is to say, how do we make sure that we know who is getting this illness when we can? And we put out a plan a little bit earlier from United States of Care, which is an organization I founded to advise the federal government on what we should do. So that was my Sunday. It’s what a lot of days have been like recently.


[05:45] Andy Slavitt: And I hope that through all of that, we can do some good. Now I want to turn to everybody’s favorite segment, which is getting some facts out of Zach. Zach, you know who we have on the podcast today, don’t you? 


[05:58] Zach Slavitt: Yeah, Nate Silver. 


[05:59] Andy Slavitt: Do you feel like you’re going up against — sort of like challenging the gods by putting some facts out when we’re gonna hear from Nate Silver today? 


[06:06] Zach Slavitt: Yeah, a little bit. I’ll do my best. 


[06:08] Andy Slavitt: OK. Let’s see what you got. 


[06:12] Zach Slavitt: OK. From L.A. Times. And there’s a new type of machine that they made where they can decontaminate N95 masks. About 20,000 of them per day, per machine. And make them so they’re reusable. 


[06:29] Andy Slavitt: That sounds pretty promising. Is it a new machine, is it on the market so far? 


[06:33] Zach Slavitt: Yeah, the first one is about to start being used in California. And I don’t know that if they’re making more. 

[06:42] Andy Slavitt: Thank you. I’m not even going to ask Nate to refute it because I completely trust you. 


[06:48] Andy Slavitt: So unfortunately for Nate, he’s gonna have to give his facts and opinions after Zach. And I think that’s a little unfair to him. But I think you’re going to find this to be an incredibly interesting interview. Nate Silver is the founder and CEO of FiveThirtyEight. And his forecasts, if you haven’t seen them on politics and sports and now the Coronavirus are really required reading for people who really want to know what the numbers have to say, and we’ll welcome Nate. 


[07:15] Andy Slavitt: Zach, are we tested? We on? My 18-year-old son Zach is here. He does this thing on this podcast where we could call Zach’s facts, where he finds a fact out there that could be sourced. And so like this is gonna be the most intimidating time you ever have to introduce a fact because you’ve had literally Nate Silver on.


[07:35] Nate Silver: I appreciate it. 


[07:37] Andy Slavitt: As we sit here in mid April 2020, there’s a lot more that we don’t know than we do know about Coronavirus, how it spreads, who it impacts, why it’s more lethal to some people than others. And one of the best ways to understand where we are is actually to talk to the best statistician on God’s green earth. And that’s why we invited you, Nate. Welcome to the show. 


[07:55] Nate Silver: That’s pretty intimidating.


[07:56] Well, welcome. I find that when I read things you write, the number one thing I conclude is you reveal my own biases. You help me to see where I have put my intellectual or emotional thumb on the scale instead of looking at the cold, hard facts. Do you see that as part of the service you provide? Do you see that as something there’s a lot of opportunity for here in this situation?


[08:24] Nate Silver: Oh, for sure. Yeah. I mean, the goal here is to provide dispassionate analysis. And the goal is to provide information for people to help them make better decisions, but not to put a finger on the scale for anything. Which also doesn’t mean, though, it’s also very, very, very not the old-school kind of “both sides” mentality. I mean, if you cover elections, which is my main beat, there are times, entire election cycles, when the data looks consistently good for one party. And that one party is probably going to win. Barack Obama’s probably to win reelection in 2012. You can’t both-sides that, right? You can’t kind of pretend that that was a toss up election when it wasn’t. But at the same time, we’re not trying to advocate for any particular cause. I think with stuff related to Coronavirus, I mean, there is especially a need to be careful, right? Because, number one, there are a lot of uncertainties. And part of the kind of implicit and explicit thing that I’m trying to get across people is like there’s a lot we don’t know here. We’re kind of forced to make plans under constraints of high uncertainty. 


[09:29] Andy Slavitt: Sure, yeah, people trying to fill the void. People often ask me who are the best sources for information here? And I typically say, if you don’t have someone who says the words, ”I don’t know” occasionally, you probably have the wrong source. But I will say even people who think they know — so I convene a couple times a week, epidemiologists, risk managers, Homeland Security people. And they have an incredibly wide perspective. You know, there is a very storied epidemiologist who publicly says that he thinks that the death toll in the U.S. is going to be a million and a half people. And he’s eminently qualified. There are other epidemiologists that I know not quite as well who believe that it’s going to be under a hundred thousand. And people listen to that and they think, OK, somebody is wrong. And I want to get to in a minute, just a statistical phenomenon of being wrong when something is growing exponentially, how a slight change can make you look way, way off. I’m going to show the audience how great I am with statistics by using the words “confidence interval” being very, very wide. But, you know, we have this situation where it’s pretty wide and all based upon, I believe, pretty reasonable assumptions. How do you cipher through a situation where you have such a wide variety of outcomes? 


[10:46] Nate Silver: Yeah. I mean, whenever you are dealing with something exponential, then you can have radically different outcomes based on small changes in the initial inputs. Why did New York have I don’t know what the exact magnitude is, but let’s call it 10 times more problems than Chicago? It may be something as minor as that a group of tourists decided to visit New York in mid-February instead of Chicago. And that you had two weeks of undetected and unconstrained spread in New York. And at the rate Coronavirus multiplies, that could lead to there being ten or 15 or 20 times as many cases before someone goes, uh oh, we have a problem. So factors like that, that might seem kind of random and circumstantial, can have outsized and non-linear effects in the early stages in particular of an epidemic. 


[11:35] Andy Slavitt: The example that Zach used with me was in 10 generations, at a spread of say 2.3, which is a little lower than what you said, 4,100 people are infected in between 40 and 50 days. And if the spread is 1.3, only 14 people are affected. And if it’s over 3, you don’t want to know the number. I think people’s brains tend to work more linearly. So when you look at why does New York have an extra zero at the end of it compared to California, could that have been Gavin Newsom acting six days earlier than New York did? 


[12:09] Nate Silver: It certainly could have been. And I tend to think that California had a more effective response by an important margin than New York did. The problem, though, is if you start playing that game too much, then everything that you do has an outsized impact, including factors that are more random, so to speak. So we can look at countries like Sweden, for example, where Sweden has a different strategy. They’re doing much less social distancing of their people. They’re kind of saying, hey, look, as long as hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, then young people can get it. It’s OK. And we slow down a little bit. But that’s kind of sometimes the so-called herd immunity strategy, and Sweden has like one of the higher death rates in Europe per capita, but Belgium has a considerably higher one. As far as I know, Belgium has had a very conventional series of shut downs. And so the point is because there’s this noisy relationship, and it’s not linear, then like if 30 percent the result is a result of policies and 40 percent is a result of kind of immutable social and cultural characteristics — so things like geography and density and how many people live and how many households and how much older and younger people mix. And then 30 percent is just dumb luck related to where did supercenters happen to be early on and what was the weather like on a certain day? There’s some debate that weather could matter. Then you’re going to kind of make a lot of wrong inferences in both directions. Where on the one hand, a smart strategy in some places like Belgium might fail, right. On the other hand, a dumb strategy might work because you get lucky for other reasons. We’re only testing a fraction people who have it. The rate of people who are tested who come up positive is also quite high in the U.S., which is kind of further evidence that we’re just kind of capturing the tip of the iceberg. But there are a lot of disputes about exactly how much we’re missing. You know, we’ve been publishing an experts survey at FiveThirtyEight that asks epidemiologists questions like, of the case in the U.S., how many more infections are there, really? Those answers tend to gravitate toward around a 10 to 1 ratio. So if a certain state has 500 recorded cases, they probably have 5,000 actual infections, some of which may be asymptomatic. But there’s a wide range there. You can hear anywhere from, you know, on the low end, maybe three to five times as many, to on the high end, 30 or 50 times as many, or even maybe more than that in some studies, 50 to do 100 times as many.


[14:38] Nate Silver: In New York there have been a lot of tests done there, they’re mostly people who have severe symptoms. But that ratio will be different in, say, South Korea, where testing is pretty good, than in the U.K., where they’re not doing very many tests. What you see now is you see places they’re going back and they’re doing serological services, going back and saying, how many people had this at one point and now have antibodies to it? And those results are also kind of all over the place so far. I think there is maybe some evidence that the number of undiagnosed cases is higher than people thought originally, which oddly is good news. It’s good news because it means that like we’re able to capture many of the people who died, not all of them, importantly, but if many people died, but a huge number of people had Covid then that in the long run is a little bit less scary than if many people died, but relatively few even had it in the first place. 


[15:37] Andy Slavitt: So if indeed there are more people infected, some might say that’s a good thing for the reason you said. But there is a case to be made that that’s a really bad thing in that if there are a large number of asymptomatic spreaders, that this is a kind of Stephen King-like condition that hides in very young, healthy people, passes around very rapidly without people knowing it. And people, by the way, who don’t have a lot of motivation to stay inside because they’re feeling pretty good. So these people are great hosts until it finds somebody to whom it’s lethal. To me it in some ways it makes it more dangerous if you’re in a high-risk group, if that’s the case. What portion of people do we believe are asymptomatic versus symptomatic? What do we know? What don’t we do? 


[16:15] Nate Silver: I mean, that also varies a lot based on kind of who you talk to. I mean, the problem is like you capture a symptomatic case, in fact, the more symptomatic and severe the symptoms the more likely you are to kind of capture that case. I know some studies on cruise ships is kind of a controlled environment because you can test virtually anyone. I think it was the Diamond Princess where initially 50 percent of people that tested positive were asymptomatic. Later on, it turned out some of the people developed symptoms later. So that led to estimates more like maybe 30 percent are asymptomatic. That’s where, from my reading, the consensus seems to be. But that also is maybe going up a little bit. When you’re doing these kind of wide-scale surveys of people in the general population, and the rates in some places come up fairly high. You know, maybe more like half of them were asymptomatic. I mean, I think part of the challenge here is — and I’ve talk to people about this, I’m not sure there’s clear answers — what’s it mean when you have symptoms? You know, I can remember a period where I was actually in Kansas City with my partner visiting family when things kind of got crazy. So we stayed there for a few weeks before coming back to the East Coast. 


[17:19] Nate Silver: But like if you had told me, right now, if I took an antibody test and turned out that like I had Covid, or had it at some point, I would assume it’s from that peak period where I’d been traveling a ton in February to Boston, New York and Miami and places like that. I’m like, well, I would’ve picked it up one of those places. I never really had any symptoms. But if I went back and thought about those periods, say, well, actually, I did have some indigestion sometimes and I had a runny nose sometimes and I coughed a couple times because I ate some spicy food because I ran and was out of breath. But because the symptoms are so common and so broad that it’s a little bit hard to know what is defined as symptomatic or not. Right. Because a baseline two-week period, I probably ate heavy, spicy food too much. And I probably have some times where like I have a runny nose. I always kind of have allergies in the spring. So it’s like pretty hard to know kind of what we’re defining as symptomatic versus like the kind of signature symptoms of Covid, and also what symptoms people might report in real time versus retrospectively, if you’re asked to recall symptoms. And so kind of more widespread testing, asking people what symptoms have you had, that could potentially help. But we haven’t necessarily had that data yet. 


[20:20] Andy Slavitt: It’s fascinating listening to you because I think you’re the sort of everyman statistician, you put things into these terms. And just reflecting the fact that we’re clutching at a cruise ship, where people are presumably older, but that becomes one of their best data sources. Or a town in Italy where a bunch of people were tested. Or a town in Colorado. That that’s the point we’re at today. And just the humility to know that we could be way, way, way, way wrong in a lot of different directions. And it makes calling the shots harder, but also knowing what to do. Let me ask another question. What do we know about why certain people have severe symptoms and this becomes lethal for, versus other people — there are now hundreds and hundreds of papers, medical papers, not peer reviewed because we don’t have the time, and each one of them has to get to the public domain, has an interesting headline. Like it attacks your brain or this or that, because, you know, nothing is done at a double-blind trial at this point. But there’s hundreds of these things out there. 

[21:21] Nate Silver: I will try to avoid answering any questions about the actual medicine or physiology behind this. I think it’s important when you read those studies to remember, though, that like there are different types of publication bias, right. Where when you do a lot of experiments, then some of them are randomly A or B because you design experiment badly, going to produce an interesting result. And if you only kind of publish the studies that show surprising, unexpected findings, then a large portion of the literature, especially pre-published studies have not been peer-reviewed may consist of findings that are dubious or even potentially a bit wrong. I mean, there certainly is an issue with like clickbait headlines, right? And there are certain types of headlines that I have learned to be cognizant or skeptical of, I guess I’d say. Headlines saying, oh, this treatment is going really well and it may come way ahead of schedule. Or this vaccine is going really well and may come way ahead schedule. I have learned to be skeptical of those. It may be true, but like I don’t know, the people who I think are the smartest thing to be “let’s wait and see until we’re in a deeper stage of clinical trials.” Headlines about, oh, there are patients that have been reinfected. Look, I think the immunity question is complicated and uncertain, but I think those headlines, the way people interpret them, probably mislead more than they lead people to the truth. 


[22:46] Andy Slavitt: So would you say it’s probably the case that you do have some period of immunity after being infected? 


[22:51] Nate Silver: There is a great piece by Marc Lipsitch, who is a Harvard epidemiologist, in the New York Times. It’s very, very detailed about all these questions and very honest. And like, I think the consensus that, like, it is very likely the case that many or most people are immune for some period of time. Now, that leads to a lot of uncertainty, right? It could be that like everyone who has a tiny sliver of this ever is immune forever. Probably not. It could be that like only the severe cases are immune and then only for six months to a year. Right. It would be pessimistic, probably also plausible, but unlikely. It’s probably somewhere in between is how I read that. But there are artifacts, too, where like if you have false negatives and false positives in a test, or if you teeter above and below a certain threshold for how many of a certain indicator you need to test positive, then like I can with the same underlying condition test negative on Thursday and then take a different test or the same test and test positive on Saturday. By the way, if you read anecdotal accounts of people who have Covid or talk to friends who have had it, they talk about boy, this is a really weird disease. Where it felt like I was going through multiple cycles of getting better and getting worse. Was a bit of a roller coaster. And some of the evidence from the actual medicine of it says the same thing is happening. That actual detectability of the disease is going to vary over a period of time. So if you kind of have people who incorrectly test negative, and some of them take another test, so then we’ll test positive because they were actually positive the whole period. 


[24:18] These tests are not perfect. And when you deal with populations where the underlying incidence is low, that can have pretty big effects. Like the study in Santa Clara County, California, which is not a site of a terribly bad outbreak, there’s a study that came out and said, we did random tests and estimated that whatever, two or three percent of the population actually had it. Well, if the test is only 98 percent reliable, meaning that two percent of people who actually didn’t have it, show up as being positive, then that finding becomes pretty meaningless. It could just reflect potentially false positives. So for that reason, one has to be very careful.


[24:53] Andy Slavitt: You wrote a great piece about that that I encourage people to look at that’s very understandable. So as people try to plan forward in their lives, knowing there are a couple of big questions on the horizon, the big one I’m going to get to is the election, because that’s a fun one. But for people personally who have a wedding coming up, or they want to decide whether to open the baseball season, which I know is important to you personally, or they try to think about it plan forward, is the second wave likely going to be driven by the rate of open, or is it going to be some other factor like seasonal? Or in some respects, is there sort of inevitability that because it’s so infectious that it’s just a matter of pacing it out? How should people think about the next few months?


[25:34] Nate Silver: I think we as a society, both Americans and other parts of the world, have not really decided yet whether we want to try to repress or suppress case count or not. So let me explain what I mean by that. There was one original definition of flattening the curve, which is like, well, everyone’s gonna get it eventually until we reach herd immunity. But we want to have people get it at a slow rate so the medical system is not overwhelmed. That was one interpretation. The other interpretation is hey, look, we want to keep this going down as long as we can, and then hopefully we’ll get some treatments or vaccines or other ways that don’t involve social distancing to help stop the spread. Or maybe weather will help a little bit. Or we can quarantine people more effectively. But that did not accept it as inevitable that half the population would get it. And I don’t know that society has decided kind of which one of those paths we’re ultimately on. Right. Even though in some ways, like the data in New York, Presbyterian has been pretty good, for example, there are things that are encouraging. You know, I mean, it’s kind of dawned on me now that I don’t think there is a consensus about that problem.


[26:41] Nate Silver: I think we’re going to lead to a lot of kind of fairly uncomfortable conversations over the next few weeks as Western society is trying to figure out how it feels about that. Because it’s one thing to say everyone can agree, let’s lock down for three to six weeks. And in many ways, I have been impressed, and almost kind of proud of Americans and part of the country, for like having been so successful at kind of doing distancing and being conscientious about it. Not everyone who did that agreed for how long it would go on for, what the conditions would be for turning it back on, and for what risk we’re all willing to bear in terms of how you trade off economic well-being with, you know, with maybe more people dying. We make those tradeoffs all the time when we set speed limits or in a million different decisions in society. And so we’re kind of learning that, I think, in real time. And those are actually an uncomfortable combination of kind of political and scientific questions. The science can say, OK, here is roughly how many people we think will acquire it, depending on different measures, and how many people will be hospitalized, and how many people will ultimately die. Now, those numbers are uncertain, which makes debates more complicated, but that’s in the purview of science and empiricism. The question of, OK, if I reopen schools next year, then a small number of additional people might die, but also kids will get another year of education. And it’s very important their long-term well-being. And that has all types of consequences in the long term. The best science can do is try to estimate the different sides of that equation. But how to balance those two considerations is in the realm of politics and ethics and is not a scientific problem, per se. And so I think we’re gonna be facing one of those questions. I mean, look, I tend to think that like any type of large gathering are the least likely to come back online soon. 


[28:34] Nate Silver: Can I have a Fourth of July barbecue with five friends? You might feel pretty optimistic about that. Can I have a wedding in September with 300 people from all over the world? I’m not sure about that. 


[30:56] Andy Slavitt: We’ve just gone through a parade of unknowns at unknowables. We both, I think, agree that there are a couple knowables that, to the extent that you can do it, staying home and socially isolating helps, but we know it’s hard. I think we probably also agree that people who are high risk are people that are going to have to keep that going. If you have people in your lives that are high risk, we’re going to have to keep them protected for the duration. And I think I would describe those as things you do under every circumstance, right?


[31:20] Nate Silver: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, if you look at, again, this Swedish strategy, which is trying to not necessarily actually stop it from spreading as fast as other places, there still are a lot of things they are doing. And one of them is to try to protect and isolate people who are older or vulnerable. In Sweden, apparently, it’s easier because a lot of old people — I’m not saying it’s good for society,  I’m saying like this is like kind of a fact of Swedish life. A lot of older people live by themselves, which can make it easier, potentially. But yeah, like I mean, you know, if you’re in a high risk category, then whatever stage everyone else is in, you’re one stage behind. So in stage one, where they start to reopen gyms and barbershops and some restaurants with very careful protocols, maybe you should still avoid those things. When young people are finally going back to crowded bars in a year from now, maybe now you can go to a not-super-crowded shopping mall or something. 


[32:19] Andy Slavitt: That’s good advice. So let’s finish up on the fun stuff. This podcast is decidedly not partisan because, for once, we have a collective problem that we can all acknowledge. And unless you have data otherwise, I think that we know Coronavirus passes between Democrats and Republicans and not just within party, which is why we tend to not approach this in a partisan fashion. Because we all need to kind of think through this together. We might reach different conclusions, but we need to go through this together. 


[32:46] Andy Slavitt: But it will be a political season again soon. And you are probably most well-known for helping people make sense of all the polling. How do you model an event like this? What do you think changes about the election? With this going on and who does it favor? 


[33:03] Nate Silver: I think the most important political story is the Coronavirus response right now. So even though the Democratic primary kind of de facto ended a couple of weeks ago, I guess officially if Bernie dropped out, Joe Biden’s the only remaining candidate. I’m not super concerned right now looking at like polls of Trump versus Biden, because it may all look very different in a few weeks. And certainly by this fall, depending on how bad things get, how Americans answer the different questions they talked about before. How effective Trump is seen as and advertising against that and so forth and so on. But look, classically, when the economy is bad, that is really tough for incumbent presidents.


[33:40] Nate Silver: Now, if you have a, let’s call it a self-induced recession, which is kind of what it is. We’re saying that this is a small price to pay to prevent people from dying. But like what happens then in a kind of self-induced recession? Do people blame presidents for that in the same way they would for a different type of recession? That’s one question.


[34:00] Andy Slavitt: Said another way, will people view this as wartime and give the president the narrative that we’re going to suffer during wartime, but you’re the right guy to lead us through. Which would be maybe one thing that could change the narrative over a recession.


[34:11] Nate Silver: Right. As you know, world wars do all types of funky things to economic data. I think people would not generally say that, OK, take those economic numbers at face value and plug them into a model. They would say, OK, we need to have some type of a combination of fact that this is a world war and economic data is part of that effort and not the other way around. However, there’s a different perspective, which is, hey, look, maybe because Trump said all these things about denying the seriousness of the virus at different stages, and because by all types of reporting the government was not very prepared, and because some of these press conferences can still be a little bit zany at times. Maybe it’s the opposite. People say, well, OK, if there is a recession because of an oil shock somewhere in the Middle East, I can’t blame the president for that. But this thing maybe, you know, this thing, there is kind of things that Trump said. 


[35:01] Andy Slavitt: What are you observing about how this is helping or hurting the president politically? Anything yet or too early? 


[35:08] Nate Silver: It’s too soon, I think. I mean, at first he got a little bit of a bounce in his approval ratings. However, not that much compared to other world leaders like Boris Johnson or in Italy or in South Korea, where they all got kind of big jumps up in their approval ratings. Likewise, governors, we look at Andrew Cuomo or Mike DeWine, Gretchen Whitmer. They all have like these big jumps in their favourability ratings. And Trump has a small jump that has now mostly eroded. So you’re kind of back now and like the low 40s for his approval ratings, where he has been at for most of the past year or two. And then it’s a point at which it’s fairly tenuous for Trump. 


[35:44] Andy Slavitt: I’d like to finish on one personal question, which I try to customize because I’ve have become such a professional podcaster. I think you’re episode four. You’re a huge baseball fan and you’re like a crazy statistician. So did you play like APBA Strat-O-Matic baseball as a kid?


[36:00] Nate Silver: I had some Strat-O-Matic. Yeah, for sure. And I played like, you know, young enough where video games were common. Earl Weaver Baseball and stuff like that. So, yeah, I definitely watched that stuff for sure. 


[36:10] Andy Slavitt: So what’s your advice to sports fans like yourself, and what are you going to do if there’s no baseball season this year? How are you going entertain yourself? 


[36:17] Nate Silver: Through sports video games? I don’t know. It’s going to be tricky. Because on the one hand, the sport part itself of it, I mean, you have a finite number of players who provide entertainment for a lot of people. And like an issue of gathering people together in dense crowds is obviously not a great thing. I mean, I think we will get some sports back. Which ones? I’m not as sure about. You know, I mean, I guess like golf. 


[36:42] Andy Slavitt: I thought you said sports. 


[36:45] Nate Silver: Maybe we’ll become gigantic fans of golf and Taiwanese baseball. It’s easy to make fun of these kooky seeming baseball plans. Where like, okay, we’re going to stay in hotels in Arizona and play in spring training parks. Look, the fact is that we are not going to snap back from what we are now to normal with the flip of a switch. There are going to be an interim period of maybe 18 months where things are various degrees of weird. And so I think people should be more tolerant of weird solutions for a season, or half a season, or a season and a half, because we’re going to have to innovate in lots of different ways throughout society to deal with this situation where some things are getting better and some things are not. Because people are not going to, I don’t think, tolerate gathering until we get a vaccine.


[37:34] Andy Slavitt: I think that’s a great theme to end on: weird solutions. That is a fantastic thing for us to contemplate because it is both hopeful and a little bit realistic. It has been a great time having you on. I’ve admired you for such a long time and it was a really fun conversation. So thanks for being on, Nate.


[37:51] Nate Silver: Cool, thank you.


[37:55] Thanks again to Nate for that heady, if slightly geeky conversation, we really enjoyed it. I hope you did as well. So now we’re at the part of the podcast that we all know is called Segment 3. I actually want to say a special thank you to all of the people who are listening to this podcast, every single one of you, whether you’re jogging, whether you’re bored at home, no matter what you’re doing. And I particularly want to thank those of you who’ve become supporting members of In the Bubble on Patreon. One of the benefits being a member of the show is you can write a question that the staff will get in front of me and we will answer some of them on the air. And when I say staff, I actually mean amazingly productive and brilliant people who make sure that I do my job. And just so you know, you can sign up to become a member of the show for as little as $5 dollars per month at LemonadaMedia.com/IntheBubble. As a reminder, if you do sign up that any of the money that goes to Zach and I gets donated to the Covid relief fund. So that gives you an extra reason to do it. We had two of our Patreon and supporters ask a really similar question this week.


[39:05] Andy Slavitt: And I think it’s one that’s on a lot of people’s minds. They’re very smart questions. Christina Enright wrote, “The Trump administration relaxation of social distancing guidelines for individuals include continued good hygiene practices, and a directive that people who feel sick should stay home. However, if the virus is most contagious in the few days before symptoms appear, won’t we end up right back where we were six weeks ago? I mean, we simply don’t know what we don’t know.” Boy, I couldn’t agree more with that last statement, Christina. The second question was of a similar vein and came from Elizabeth Ann Hoffman. She said, “If our temperatures are taken as we enter a restaurant, would an asymptomatic carrier even have a low grade temperature?” 


[39:50] Andy Slavitt: So both of these questions point out a flaw and a risk in any strategy we have to reopen the government. Which is to say that it will be the wrong expectation that we are able to completely find everybody who is asymptomatic and spreading Covid-19. If we believe that’s the case, we’re going to be disappointed. The best we can hope to do is contain the virus as much as we can. One of the devilish things about the virus, of course, is that as many as 30 percent to 50 percent of the people who have the virus never show symptoms. And even those that do are highly contagious before they even show symptoms. So we’re not dealing with the flu, folks. If we’re dealing with the flu, then you just stay home if you’re not feeling well. But we know that there’s a lot of people walking around feeling fine who are hosting this disease and spreading it to other people. And we are not going to catch all of them. So what’s the implication here? The implication is a few things. One is, even as you go back out into the world, you have to continue to socially distance. You have to assume that the people you’re running into are likely to be people who are carrying Covid-19 and may not know it. We didn’t know that in late February and early March. And that got ourselves into a lot of trouble. 


[41:13] Andy Slavitt: And so I think that kind of knowledge that we have now tells us why we’re doing things like considering wearing masks in public, why we’re still recommending people stay six feet away from one another, why we should keep washing your hands. Those things will help. But of course, they won’t fully eradicate things. And this is really all about a balance. It’s about how much do we want to go back to our normal lives and how much are we willing, to some effect, put a little bit of our safety at risk. Now we make those kinds of calculations every day. We make those calculations when we drive a car to faster without a seatbelt, all of which are bad ideas. But all of which people calculate in their minds every day. Is it worth it to me to do something like this? We take risks all the time. This is gonna be a new type of risk and it’s one that we should handle as intelligently and as safely as we can because there really is no perfect way to contain the virus. So great questions. I hope that answers them. Thanks for sharing your questions, Christine and Elizabeth. Thanks also for being a member and helping contribute to the Covid relief fund.


[42:20] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for joining us on In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt and Zach. I hope you had as much fun listening to it as we had talking to you.


[42:42] Andy Slavitt:  In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavtii is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.


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