We have so little data for how we’re supposed to live in this social-distancing world…
You could go out for groceries and prescription drugs and dog walking. You could go out if you performed an “essential service.” You could go out for a walk or a run or a bike ride so long as you kept 6 feet between you and other human beings. Instantly many more people than usual in Berkeley took to the streets and, instantly, you could see that no one was quite sure how to behave. No one had ever tried to estimate 6 feet every time they passed another person, and people had different ideas of how much it was. Basically everyone avoided eye contact and small talk — as if any human interaction, no matter how remote, might cause a coronavirus infection.
If you ranked all American towns and cities by the likelihood that passing strangers would acknowledge each other’s existence, Berkeley would fall some place in the middle. Ahead of New York City, behind any place in Mississippi. (New Orleans would rank first.)
The first day of the lockdown, people on the streets of Berkeley became New Yorkers. But it felt less like indifference than some combination of guilt and uncertainty. Here was a new social situation for which the etiquette manual had yet to be written.
By the second day, behavior on our streets changed, radically. People kept their physical distance but now made more of an effort with each other than I’d ever seen here. Everywhere you turned you saw total strangers not only saying hello but also stopping to chat. All of a sudden we all had something in common! (Aside from our left-wing views.) We were all in lockdown! And we were all outside! The streets of Berkeley for a moment felt almost like the streets of New Orleans.
Within a few days the novelty mostly wore off, and people went back to treating each other with the same old indifference. Except the old people. The old people are still making eye contact.
There’d been only a couple of reported Covid-19 cases in town, both contracted someplace else. So far as anyone could tell, no one in Berkeley had caught the virus from someone else in Berkeley. And so we’re still waiting, for an answer to a question. Italy or Germany: Which will we be? Italy has only twice as many cases as Germany but almost 50 times the deaths. Maybe the Italians are especially old or vulnerable, but it’s more likely the Germans have tested huge numbers of people and the Italians have tested only people with serious symptoms. That is, some vast number of Italians have had the virus but were never tested, either because their symptoms never sent them running to the hospital or they never even knew they had it. We in the U.S. have tested far fewer people than the Italians. We’ve tested fewer people than basically every advanced country — which raises another question? Are we still one?
The nation that led the data revolution, that invented the job title of “data scientist,” that has held up better data analysis as the key to smartening up everything from political campaigns to baseball teams is now, at its moment of greatest peril, without data.
This is a problem.
If you don’t know who has the virus, you can’t see where it is and where it isn’t. If you can’t see where it is, you don’t know how to fight it, except by shutting everything down and telling people to stay away from each other. On the one hand, there are probably a lot of data geeks here who don’t mind being told they can’t go out; on the other, it’s a little odd that the corner of California that gave birth to the data geek was the first in the country to be told it had to take extreme measures to prevent people from killing each other — because there is no data.
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It seemed like a good time to call Bill James. James is in some ways the father of the data revolution – or at least the idea that people who have good data, and know how to use it, have a huge advantage over people who don’t. In the early 1970s, he began to marshal data about baseball players, and to argue that Major League Baseball teams didn’t understand the value of their own players, or the wisdom of their strategies. His ideas reached the Oakland A’s, who used them to win lots more games than they should have, given how little money they had to spend on baseball players. I wound up writing a book about this, called “Moneyball,” and James wound up being hired by the Boston Red Sox – who in short order won their first World Series in nearly a century. Now James’s idea has infected every corner of American life, except, oddly, the corner in which this virus is meant to be fought. A kind way to view President Donald Trump’s administration is to think of it as being run about as well as the 1970 Cleveland Indians.
It’s interesting how people are spending the pandemic. James, 70, is staying more or less locked inside his home in Lawrence, Kansas.
“There’s nobody on the streets here,” he said.
“Nobody. The only time I go out is to walk the dog in the morning.”
He’d recently left his job with the Red Sox but thought he might join another team. The virus put a hold on that ambition. Instead he’s using the time he now has on his hands to rethink how to measure the value of a baseball player’s defense, as he thinks the baseball establishment has it wrong. Former Atlanta Braves outfielder Andruw Jones is on the ballot for the Hall of Fame and that fact alone troubles James. Jones was more famous for his defense than James thinks he should have been, because the data on baseball defense, and the ability to analyze it, is inadequate. James is busy building a new metric that will reveal more truth. Thus one consequence of the pandemic is to make it a bit more difficult for Andruw Jones to enter the Hall of Fame.
I asked James a question I’ve been asking lots of people: What are the three things that he’s saddest to have lost?
“The NCAA tournament,” he said, without missing a beat.
“My Jayhawks were the consensus No. 1 team.”
After that he mourned the delay to the start of the baseball season. “That’s going to tear a huge hole in my daily life.”
He rattled off the years that MLB’s season was shortened, by war or strike: 1918, 1919, 1972, 1981, 1994, 1995. A few days earlier he’d put a poll up on Twitter, asking people to predict this year’s Opening Day. He had his own prediction: May 15. More than a thousand people took his poll. All but one thought he was being wildly optimistic.
James has no privileged information about the virus. He reads the news like everyone else.
“It’s hard to distinguish between what is being said responsibly and what’s just being said,” he told me.
But he also has a history of looking at data and deciding to think one thing, even when everyone else is thinking another, and being proved right.
“I have four reasons for thinking what I think,” he said.
First, warm weather might deaden the virus’s spread.
Second, the global medical research community might prove surprisingly resourceful.
“I believe we will find medicine that will combat this more quickly than most people seem to believe,” he said.
“I think most people have the sense not to pay attention to the rules that don’t make sense to pay attention to, and so doctors will be doing more freelancing and we’re going to start hearing people say, ‘I’ve got a medicine that works.’”
Third, he thought that the country with the best testing data had the most accurate view of the disease. And that it was possible that a huge number of Americans have it now, or have had it, without really knowing it.
“If 30% of the population has already been exposed to this then that number will go to 70% in two weeks,” James said.
Assuming that having the disease left you with immunity to it, the crisis would then be as good as over, and baseball could begin.
“What’s the fourth reason to your argument?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s another reason, but being an old person I can’t remember what it was.”
“What’s the third thing you are saddest about having lost?” I asked.
“I had a goal of going to lunch with a friend 100 times this year. That’s not going to happen.”
I said goodbye to Bill James and checked our local news site. Berkeleyside, it is called, and it is suddenly the go-to place for the news that matters most. An hour earlier, the site reported, an 80-year-old Berkeley man had tested positive for the virus. His girlfriend (!) said that the man hadn’t gone anywhere for a long time. But he had, a few days earlier, shopped for his groceries at our local Safeway.