Nobody knows anything

There’s an old saying in Hollywood; “Nobody knows anything”. That is, no one can predict which films will do well and which films will bomb at the box office—at least back in the days when we had “box offices”.

I’d like to argue that nobody knows anything about the coronavirus epidemic.  Of course that’s an exaggeration; we know a bunch of things.  But it’s striking how little we do know, given how much scrutiny the problem has received.  I recently saw a video of doctors from all over the country saying that they had no idea if the medical treatment they were giving Covid-19 patients in intensive care was doing more good than harm.  

About 6 weeks ago, the virus was seemingly under tight control in Singapore, and completely out of control in South Korea.  Even worse, Korea’s in the temperate zone most prone to high infection rates, and Singapore’s a hot humid place right on the equator.  Even worse, Singapore has far more “state capacity” than South Korea.  Even worse, Korea never shut down its economy.  So raise your hand if 6 weeks ago you predicted that the two places would go in completely opposite directions.  I’d guess that among the 7.8 billion humans on Earth, exactly zero predicted Korea would quickly control its epidemic and Singapore’s would spiral out of control.  And even after it happened, no one knows why.

Cafes bustled with customers, parks teemed with sunbathers, and the first Apple store to reopen outside China had lines snaking out the door as many South Koreans — almost all wearing masks — emerged from months of self-isolation.

The scene in Seoul on a picture-perfect Saturday contrasted sharply with other nations where major cities look like ghost towns as governments lock down huge swaths of the population or impose strict restrictions on social gatherings.

Initially one of the hardest-hit with the second-highest number of cases globally, South Korea has managed to curb the spread without taking measures that were too severe. It didn’t require businesses to close or restrict travel.

Despite government pleas to remain indoors with a warning of a flare-up, many Koreans ventured out Saturday, saying they believe the worst of the pandemic is over.

And since no one knows anything, I have no idea whether this will still be true in another 6 weeks, or if it will reverse again, with Singapore under control and Korea out of control.  No one knows.

PS.  I will say that mask wearing was far more widespread in Korea than in Singapore.   🙂

For months, Singapore’s leaders urged citizens to wear masks only when ill, especially after locals panicked and rushed to stores to grab bundles of the essentials as the coronavirus spread. Now, they’ve shifted tack.

In a live address to the nation Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government will stop discouraging the general public from wearing face masks in public.

And this:

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) confirmed on Wednesday (April 7) that Singapore is among the New Southbound Policy (NSP) nations that it will be donating over 1 million medical masks to.



34 Responses to “Nobody knows anything”

  1. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    18. April 2020 at 12:48

    “Nobody knows anything…except I” – Ray Lopez

    If Sumner bothered to Google it, the reason Singapore spiraled out of control lately was the crowded foreign worker dorms, which spread C-19. Other than that, good article.

  2. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    18. April 2020 at 13:26


    your explanation doesn’t necessarily contradict Scott. I think we are quite adept at finding rational or pseudo-rational explanations in retrospect as to why something happened.

    But we’re rather bad at anticipating, especially in this corona crisis. One or two superspreaders for example, and everything can change. Scott is right, the course of this crisis seems unpredictable.

    It was predictable that the virus would first start on the West Coast in the USA, but that the virus would then jump to NYC and form such a large cluster there, introduced from Canada and Europe, hardly anyone would have thought that.

    Or that countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh are supposedly hardly affected at all. But Iran is.

    Or that in Europe, Northern Italy is affected first and most, and that the virus then jumps to Spain, maybe because of a football match.

    Or that Greece has hardly been affected so far. And Turkey not being affected at the beginning either, but now so much.

    Again Scott is right, the course of this crisis is unpredictable.

  3. Gravatar of Matthew W Matthew W
    18. April 2020 at 13:28

    This is also my position at this stage. Its similar in the Oz vs NZ debate that you alluded to in a previous post. NZ is going for elimination whereas Oz is going for suppersion. For the last 4 weeks NZ has had tighter restrictions. But the disease prevalence in the two countries has followed a very similar path. NZ is about to ease restrictions (still in line with its elimination policy). And Oz is also now talking about similar restriction easing cycles as NZ (4 week cycles). So pretty soon we may have two countries with virtually identical policies, identical disease prevalence, but genuinely different strategies. Because noone knows.

  4. Gravatar of Daniel R. Grayson Daniel R. Grayson
    18. April 2020 at 14:10

    Re: ” they had no idea if the medical treatment they were giving Covid-19 patients in intensive care was doing more good than harm”

    That reminded me of this:

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. April 2020 at 15:48

    Ray, Love these “explanations” from people who totally failed to predict it.

    Matthew, Good point.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. April 2020 at 15:55

    Daniel, Interesting.

  7. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    18. April 2020 at 16:23

    “ I recently saw a video of doctors from all over the country saying that they had no idea if the medical treatment they were giving Covid-19 patients in intensive care was doing more good than harm.”

    If this is true, how likely is that within the next six months doctors do figure out how to improve care and outcomes for patients? I was listening to an interview with Ron Klain, Obama’s Ebola Czar, and he claimed that case fatality rates in the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak went from 70% in the early part of the outbreak to around 30% about 9 months later. Is that kind of learning by doing the norm with outbreaks of new viruses?

  8. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    18. April 2020 at 16:31

    Masks do not work but masks work against the virus. A nation should shoot for herd immunity, or a nation should lockdown. The C-19 virus is artificial but the virus cannot be artificial. The death rate from C19 is 3% but it might be 2% or maybe 1% or maybe 0.1% or less than the flu.

    We might save an unknown number of lives through lockdowns, or ultimately we might not save any but for a few months at best.

    That we have implemented the 2020 Depression is certain, and that exit from the Depression is not certain is undeniable, at least on any timetable I would wish to ponder.

  9. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    18. April 2020 at 20:19

    Scott, yes, the big numbers mostly come from the dorms that house foreign construction workers.

    I wouldn’t call them overcrowded, but the volume of space is probably more comparable to the Diamond Princess than the rest of Singapore.

    I guess it doesn’t help that they shut down the construction sites. (As in, it might not have made anything easier, because keeping the workers in the dorms doesn’t isolate them better from each other than on site. Though it does keep them more isolated from the rest of the population.)

    There have been quite a few charitable drives. Including for some entertainment devices, because those young lads must be bored out of their minds.

    One silver lining: the construction workers are physically fit and generally young.

    Our lockdown sucks, but it’s not as insane as eg the Italian one. You can still go for a walk, and don’t need a dog as an excuse. Public transport is also still running. You can get take-away coffee at your favourite cafe and takeaway food.

    Grab, our local Uber clone, has hired lots more people to deliver food. Amazon and Red Mart have also expanded their capacities.

    Cloth mask making materials are in higher demand. But the fabric shop we visited a few days ago had full shelves.

    The number of infected per million inhabitants is still relatively low. It’s not out-of-control.

  10. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    18. April 2020 at 20:22

    We may not know definitively but we can make some pretty good guesses and test our hypotheses. As you will recall more than 3 weeks ago (and again a week ago), I postulated that average size of households in urban areas affected the transmission rate. Clearly the spread of the virus in densely packed worker dormitories in Singapore supports that thesis and should come as no surprise.

    The problem is not that we don’t know anything, but that we listen to a bunch of innumerate morons (especially on U.S. TV) who don’t know anything.

    As a first step, we need to look at the facts and see if there is anything that contradicts our theories. Like….if masks significantly help, why does Tokyo have 15 million daily unmasked subway riders and still have extremely low cases, low morbidity and low mortality.

    If we ignore facts that contradict our theories, you can be sure we won’t know anything.

  11. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    18. April 2020 at 20:23

    P.S. We had a case in a dorm early on. Perhaps two months ago or so.

    Back then a lot of people, including me, were expecting that would be the start of the pandemic ravaging through the dorms. But we got lucky that time, and the containment worked.

    That luck ran out eventually.

  12. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    18. April 2020 at 22:52


    what Matthias said: The dorms are Singapore’s cruise ship. Tightly packed, community kitchens. New daily cases in dorms as of yesterday; 900+. New daily community cases (non dorm/foreign workers): 22, and it’s been at around that daily level for weeks, very stable. So it’s a dorm problem mainly.

    For the rest I completely agree. The exact same thought had crossed my mind. Example, masks are now mandatory in SG after being discouraged initially. Yet my original opinion stands, I still have no idea how much masks help overall. If they were that great, then Japan should be fine right now, right? But it isn’t. And severe lockdowns seem to work at varying speeds in different countries. Who knows, maybe the summer will still cure it after all?? what do I know.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    18. April 2020 at 23:17

    To address this (dead economy), Congressional leaders have made two separate proposals, one that would provide Americans over the age of 16 with a $2,000 monthly check for up to 12 months, and one that would cancel rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus emergency.—-Forbes

    Well, if you suffocate an economy….

  14. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    18. April 2020 at 23:46

    And what we think we know we sometimes don’t. COVID-19 is something of a disaster in New York City and far, far less of an issue in the rest of the US.

  15. Gravatar of John John
    19. April 2020 at 03:29

    Why do some commenters think “Singapore is fine if you exclude the 5% of the population among whom cases are most concentrated,” is a good argument? That’s like saying the US is fine if you exclude people who take public transportation, such as most of NYC.

  16. Gravatar of Stanley Greer Stanley Greer
    19. April 2020 at 04:12

    New cases tell you very little about how much COVID-19 is spreading in a country, because that indicator often simply reflects increase testing. New hospitalizations is a much better indicator, but the major sources furnishing us with virus data don’t furnish us with those data. Perhaps because their aim is not to enlighten us.

  17. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    19. April 2020 at 04:58


    I don’t think anyone is saying Singapore is fine. But when cases are concentrated to 95% in a subpopulation that rooms together and isn’t mixing with the general population, then the situation is more like Japan and its cruise ship a couple months ago. If the transmission is circumscribed in a specific location and subpopulation, and you know it, it would be odd to ignore that knowledge and proceed right to averaging it all.

    BTW that is also the case for the US. NYC does skew the picture for the US and the weird thing isn’t so much that NYC is so affected, but that cities with similar densities and public transport use in the US East and Midwest (Chicago!) are not seeing similar numbers.

  18. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    19. April 2020 at 06:05

    Generally agree with the title. Too many anomalies etc—-Don’t want to repeat myself from past posts—but we all know what they are, innumeracy, bad data, no data,, and conflicting data.

    So, when we realize “we don’t know” enough to make sweeping prescriptions, what should we do? I like the “early” Scott who spoke of “scaredy cat” overly risk adverse people. I don’t think the answer is “do nothing”——but It is never “do nothing”. We always do “something”.

    The most interesting question is “how did the entire world decide to voluntarily eliminate 30% of the global economy.” And believe that was the best “do something”? I believe we are unlikely to ever do this again——but we still have many months of unwinding what we have done and there will be many who do not want to let go.

    I sometimes believe the general global reaction to Trump was the cause———crazy and impossible is my meager rational brain’s reaction to this thought. But the good old lizard part of my brain is drawn to it.

    Not a conspiracy——that is even more insane. But one of the infinite random hypothetical paths that are always in front of us—-of which one always emerges——was some how heavily weighted toward this outcome——because the reaction to Trump has been so extraordinary (even under Scott’s 3% rule for presidents)—-and the extreme degree of support on the one hand and loathing on the other——has its own internal logic which played out in this manner.

    I believe on average Trump supporters are more against the shutdown and Trump loathers are more in favor.

    One thing is for certain——we have never ever considered this kind of action before.

    If Hillary won, this would not have happened is also what I am saying. I cannot say I believe it—it is stupid as it is not even remotely possible to demonstrate.

    However, it is easy to believe that a lockdown was ideal, if, as many think, that ridding the world of Trump is the “existential” requirement.

    Just a weird thought

  19. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    19. April 2020 at 06:05

    Scott, you are right that there are many things we don’t really understand about this virus. We are relying a lot on natural experiments and then trying to interpret the results. This is why I would like to try Hanson’s experiment with say 1000 people. They should be tested all through the experiment. Then after this we should have a much better picture of asymptotic cases along with other much useful data.

  20. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    19. April 2020 at 06:13

    PS—-further relating to The idea of “nobody knows anything”——it is what I think about climate change. Even the term has no identifiable definition in any scientific sense. —don’t know Scott’s views on this. Climate science is so complex that the idea of “science is settled” is crazy.. Yet man’s carbon emissions are treated like Covid for the extreme believers.

  21. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    19. April 2020 at 07:29

    3 Months from Dec. 2019 TO Mar. 2020 for M1 = 29.2% change

    The FED is too tight!

  22. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    19. April 2020 at 07:48

    @Scott Sumner re: “Perhaps people will put money in the bank, which will lend it out to finance investment.”

    That’s decidedly contractionary. Banks don’t loan out existing deposits. Bank create deposits when they lend/invest. All bank held savings are un-used and un-spent, lost to both consumption and investment, indeed to any type of payment or expenditure.

    This is what makes economics the “dismal science” and not Irving Fisher’s “exact science”.

    Add the banking systems’ inputs, e.g., Reserve Bank credit, etc. They are all peripheral. Ergo, banks create deposits when they lend/invest.

    “Should Commercial Banks Accept Savings Deposits?” Conference on Savings and Residential Financing 1961 Proceedings, United States Savings and loan league, Chicago, 1961, 42, 43.

    “Profit or Loss From Time Deposit Banking”, Banking and Monetary Studies, Comptroller of the Currency, United States Treasury Department, Irwin, 1963, pp. 369-386,

  23. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    19. April 2020 at 07:49

    That’s why remunerating interbank demand deposits is contractionary, it destroys “maturity transformation”.

    Even Zoltan Poszar gets it wrong.

  24. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    19. April 2020 at 08:08

    It’s like George Selgin (who testified before Congress), July 20, 2017:

    “This is nonsense, Spencer. It amounts to saying that there is no such things as ‘financial intermediation,’ for what you claim never happens is precisely what that expression refers to.”

    These Ph.Ds. don’t know 2 credits from 2 debits.

  25. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    19. April 2020 at 08:10

    The only way to activate monetary savings is to spend/invest directly or indirectly via a nonbank intermediary.

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. April 2020 at 08:15

    Burgos, Good point.

    Matthias (and mbka), Thanks for the info.

    dtoh, Again, that fact that NO ONE predicted that Korea and Singapore would go in totally opposite directions it itself very revealing. Easy to explain after the fact, but weren’t you saying that warm tropical weather greatly reduces the problem? Maybe it does. (Probably does) But in that case it’s not obvious why Singapore’s doing so much worse than Korea, which also have some extremely crowded areas.

    And if crowding is the issue, why isn’t it exploding in South and SE Asia? Isn’t Dacca as crowded as any place on Earth?

    I do agree about the dorms, however.

    Lorenzo, Yes, but that’s been widely known. The same was true of 9/11, BTW, which many Americans thought was a BIG DEAL.

    Stanley, True, but that has no bearing on this post, as these two countries test very widely.

    mbka, Actually, New York is far more dense than those other cites, in many important respects. There was an article that looked at that issue closely, and the differences from even other big America cities was striking. Not in overall density of the metro area, but in crowding on subways, sidewalks, elevators, etc. Many other American cities are mostly hollow, with people now driving to suburban office parks to work. And only New York has a big subway system.

    Michael, Just to be clear, it’s really useful right now that we are scaredy cats.

    Spencer, You said:

    “Banks don’t loan out existing deposit.”

    Every time I read stuff like this it makes my hair hurt. These statements are not even wrong, just meaningless.

  27. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    19. April 2020 at 08:41

    Tyler Cowen has been blogging about epidemiologists (their education, their compensation, their models, etc.), the implication being that they don’t know anything either. Just as I hope that Sumner, the monetary apologist (in the same sense as a Christian apologist for those who don’t understand what “apologist” means in this context), is correct, I hope the most optimistic epidemiologist is correct. Don’t misunderstand: I do admire Sumner’s devotion to his ideas and theories. But we are in uncharted territory, for economists as well as epidemiologists. And it’s the perfect storm: a pandemic we don’t yet understand, and with a president who is an ignoramus and cares only about his ego and re-election. In these uncertain times, Sumner’s confidence is reassuring.

  28. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    19. April 2020 at 16:05

    @rayward – “In these uncertain times, Sumner’s confidence is reassuring” – or arrogance? Sumner is unique. He famously denied, akin to economist Peter Garber (1989) saying there was no Dutch tulip bubble, that bubbles happen (since in the long run, prices trend higher). He believes in money non-neutrality and sticky wages in this day and age of instant information and no labor unions (unions are down to 10% of the workforce from 30% sixty years ago). He worries about unemployment and its importance in national income in this day and age of robotics replacing humans (i.e., if machines do all the work, who cares? GDP trends higher, as has happened in the US manufacturing sector as factory workers were laid off, and just put laid off workers on welfare or workfare). He allows trolls to comment in his blog, apparently on libertarian grounds (most authors would have grounded me, and actually Sumner once threatened to do so, when he thought I misquoted him, maybe I should have called his bluff?). He thinks NGDPLT is not inflationary, and won’t lead to hyperinflation (hard to believe). He thinks C-19 virus did not originate in or out of a Wuhan lab, despite all the circumstantial evidence to the contrary. He hates bats and beavers.

    In short, like Cool Hand Luke and the fifty eggs, you have to admire Sumner, even if you don’t plan to imitate him.

  29. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    19. April 2020 at 17:03


    I didn’t realize NYC was so unique, even compared to other East Coast cities. And you’re right about Asian densities. Compared to SG or HK, even NYC feels spacious. Which begs the question again why the spread in NYC was so much worse than in mask-less SG 1 or 2 months ago, or in masked Korea/Japan/Taiwan.

    From some study I came across, the worst possible situation is apparently indoors with people talking. Very high viral concentration. While outdoors, even near Wuhan hospitals at the peak, very little. So that explains that it would spread so much in dorms, within families, bars, concerts, religious gatherings, offices. But not so much in mass transit (no one talking). But yes, in restaurants etc. To come back to masks: in all the above highly conducive situations for transmission (density plus talking), with the exception of offices and now gatherings, people would usually take their masks off.

  30. Gravatar of Matthias Goergens Matthias Goergens
    19. April 2020 at 19:45

    dtoh, from what I’ve read, it helped in Tokyo that Japanese people don’t talk on public transport. So less droplets spread around.

    (If that’s true, I wonder how well masks that just cover the mouth vs also the nose would help at keeping yourself from infecting other people?)

    Of course, Japan probably also just got lucky for a while? Just like it took several tries for the virus to get a foothold in the Singapore workers’ dorms.

  31. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    20. April 2020 at 08:03

    @Matthias G:

    Yes that’s the main reason people are now being urged to wear masks. It’s not for their own protection primarily, it’s to prevent themselves from spreading the virus (especially those who are asymptomatic and don’t even realize they have it). It’s also why you don’t need a fancy N95 or whatever mask for this purpose, the idea is to block most of what is coming out of your mouth and nose, not prevent every little thing from getting in. Even a scarf or homemade mask suffices.

    This is also why slowly ‘opening back up’ is less risky, if everyone is required to wear masks. The people opposed to ‘opening’ are not accounting for the fact that until there’s a vaccine, people are going to be behaving very differently than before this virus. Even ‘opening up’ will involve everyone wearing masks and at risk people (elderly, diabetic, respiratory diseased, etc) self-quarantining still. I do not fear a massive second wave for this reason.

  32. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    20. April 2020 at 08:06


    Forgot to mention continues social distancing. Between that and masks and self-quarantining the at risk people, and businesses being extra careful now about daily cleaning, we should be able to slowly get things moving again.

  33. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. April 2020 at 08:33

    mbka, You said:

    “people would usually take their masks off.”

    Yes, but is this “usually”? I understand that some East Asians wear masks even during normal times. And they would take masks off to speak. But when I go into a grocery store today I keep my mask on, even when speaking with the cashier.

    Matthias, I am sympathetic to the “lucky” argument for Japan. But there’s also a problem with that argument—the law of large numbers. If it were Iceland that argument would be more plausible than Japan, which already had hundreds of cases quite a long time ago. That’s a lot of luck! Japan’s still a mystery, even with the recent increase.

    msgkings, Yes, behavioral changes will reduce R0. We still don’t know by how much, however.

  34. Gravatar of Spencer Hall Spencer Hall
    20. April 2020 at 11:11

    A man 30 times smarter than Albert Einstein said it. Dr.Prichard was Phi Beta Kappa at Chicago, Economics, 1933, M.S. Statistics, Syracuse.

    Going against him is like going against God almighty.

    “Every time I read stuff like this it makes my hair hurt. These statements are not even wrong, just meaningless.”

    You must confess your ignorance – just like all others. The 1950’s and early 1960’s economists all agreed. And they were the most prominent economists of the times.

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