Epidemiologists Vs Economists In The Battle Over Covid-19
The strong encouragement to put stay at home restrictions in place and other suggests that had a large negative effect on the US economy and its population have made some economists even questioned whether epidemiologists were intellectually equipped for the trial.
“How smart are they?
What are their average gre scores?” wondered Tyler Cowen of George Mason University in April.
Back in March there was a need for models that predicted the possible course of covid-19. Epidemiologists and Economist began to develop them using different kinds of models. In March researchers at Imperial College London used a model to calculate the potential death toll of the virus, assuming that people and governments took no measures to stop its spread. The analysis concluded that perhaps 500,000 Britons and 2.2m Americans would die in such circumstances (roughly 10x amount of deaths so far). Economists argued that the model’s assumptions were unrealistic. In a newly published essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, says economists misunderstood the aim of the model, which was to set out a worst-case scenario as a baseline against which to estimate the effects of potential policy interventions.
Given that building models is a favorite pastime of economists, the perception that epidemiologists’ efforts were not good enough led many to dig into the data themselves. This too proved problematic, writes Ms Murray. However, modeling a virus is different than economic predictions. There are certain ambiguities when dealing with a novel pathogen like the virus which causes covid-19 that economists may not have appreciated.
Rather than attempting to outdo the experts, Ms Murray writes, economists should have taken advantage of specialization, and focused their efforts on questions epidemiologists are less equipped to address.
However there is a subfield of economic epidemiology which has been studying how social factors influence the spread of a disease for decades. Confounding uncertainty notwithstanding, scholars have worked at great speed, producing hundreds of papers evaluating policy measures, analyzing the economic costs associated with outbreaks and lockdowns, and assessing how the pandemic is reshaping the global economy.
Robert Solow, a Nobel prizewinner, once dismissed critics of his profession by saying that, “When they want economics to be broader and more interdisciplinary, they seem to mean that they want it to give up its standards of rigour, precision and reliance on systematic observation interpreted by theory, and to go over instead to some looser kind of discourse.”
As Ms Murray notes, the epidemiological community was unprepared for the way in which its policy recommendations would be politicized and its public statements warped by agents of misinformation.
Regardless of what side your on, it is clear that collaboration will be needed to battle this economic and health devastation.