The Precautionary Principle
Statistics are one thing, reality something else
(Kazimir Malevich, Sportsmen)
The working group on mathematical modeling of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus epidemic in Ukraine on May 28, 2020 announced during an online Facebook press conference in Kyiv that the worst of COVID-19 is behind us.
"We can say that we avoided the peak, if we understand it as a very sharp rapid growth. But we did not avoid it, if we talk about the peak as a maximum. We had a plateau phase, it lasted about two weeks, we overcame the plateau phase. From the point of view of mathematics, the phase of the plateau is the peak when there is a maximum number of cases. There was a peak, and we overcame it." - Ihor Brovchenko, Deputy Director for Research at the Institute of Mathematical Machines and Systems of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, PhD of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (Mechanics of Liquid, Gas and Plasma)
Lest you get the impression the Brovchenko thinks scientists use computer models because they can magically make ideas correct and not because it's less boring than using an abacus to calculate the development of the epidemic, he invoked the Precautionary Principle a day earlier because there are so many unknowns.
“We have now come to a very important point in the development of the epidemic. On the one hand, we reached the maximum number of new infections per day, on the other hand, officials have started to remove restrictions and the number of contacts among the population will increase. Therefore, the situation requires great care, an effective monitoring system, an operational decision-making system and an effective system for implementing these decisions. It is too difficult to ‘invest’ it all in mathematical models. These models must be developed and used by decision-makers who have up-to-date information on the functioning of the system as a whole and the problems of each city and hospital. It is advisable, of course, to create think tanks at the line ministries in advance, and not just to develop models during an epidemic.” - Ihor Brovchenko, interview, Svit. May 27, 2020.
We know, of course, that the Precautionary Principle is ambiguous—we might be especially precautious about harms of the virus, or we might be especially precautious about the harms of the lockdowns. The Precautionary Principle itself is silent on how to balance the competing relevant concerns.
Which brings us to the icky problem of distinguishing science from pseudo-science and Ukraine’s COVID-19 disaster.
In Ukraine, like anywhere else, science reaches reliable results because scientific claims are usually subjected to intense scrutiny – a stress testing of the concepts, data, and methods over an extended period of time – by members of rival research programs through conjecture and refutation.
That has not happened.
(to be continued)