Monday, August 23, 2021

Math education -- or not

Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerman have a well-informed essay at Quillette on the state of math education in the US and China. Italics are mine throughout. I did not copy over the links, but the article is full of documentation. 

The most interesting part is the economics and politics of math education: 

One obvious problem lies in the way teachers are trained. The vast majority of K-12 math teachers in the United States are graduates of programs that teach little in the way of substantive mathematics beyond so-called math methods courses (which focus on such topics as “understanding the complexities of diverse, multiple-ability classrooms”). ...

At the same time, math majors—who can arrive in the classroom pre-equipped with substantive mathematics knowledge—must go through the process of teacher certification before they can teach math in most public schools, a costly and time-consuming prerequisite. The policy justification for this is that all teachers need pedagogical training to perform effectively. But to our knowledge, this claim isn’t supported by the experience of other advanced countries. Moreover, in those US schools where certification isn’t required, such as in many charter and private schools, math majors and PhDs are in great demand, and the quality of math instruction they provide is often superior....

An even bigger problem, in our view, is that the educational establishment has an almost complete lock on the content taught in our schools, with little input from the university math community. This unusual feature of American policymaking has led to a constant stream of ill-advised and dumbed-down “reforms,”...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Masks redux

My previous post on Delta policy and masks led to some discussion that went off the rails, on twitter especially. An effort to summarize the point: 

From the literature I have read, masks can be moderately medically effective. The literature has pretty wide ranging estimates, from some studies and meta-studies saying no effect, and others saying substantial effects.  

Delta has a reproduction rate of 6. (Again, best guesses with varying estimates.) Even if masks are 50% effective -- which is wildly optimistic -- they reduce the reproduction rate to 3. That's more than the alpha covid with no masks. Each person who gets it passes it on to three people, about every two weeks. 

If one wishes to stop the virus, only one goal matters: Getting the reproduction rate below one. e to the 3 t is not a lot less exponential growth than e to the 6 t.  (With t in two-week or so intervals.) 

Thus a public policy response that focuses exclusively on fine-tuning mask mandates, depending on the current level of infection is bound to fail its stated goal. That is the point. 

If our policy makers were willing to say "we are passing the mask mandate so it rips through the population a little bit slower" I might not be so grumpy. 

I am glad to see vaccine incentives finally percolating out, too slowly and late. I don't know that vaccines bring R0 below one, but they're darn close. 

You beat exponential growth when case levels are low, not by waiting until there is a crush.  

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Goodfellows returns


The goodfellows video and podcast returns! Direct link, in case the above embed doesn't work for you. 

This week's show is about covid and Afghanistan -- America gives up. 

One reason I love doing this show is that I get to ask questions about things like Afghanistan, military history, what is the nature of military defeat, and so on that I don't know much about, but Niall and H.R. know a lot about! There is little in life I enjoy so much as spouting off a hare-brained opinion and then someone really knowledgeable like Niall and H.R. swats it down and turns me around. 

Don't miss Niall and H.R. starting at 56:45. I wish I were this eloquent, and I'm proud of my fellow panelists for their deeply knowledgeable empathy. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Adumbrations of FDA

Scott Alexander's Adumbrations Of Aducanumab is a great review of FDA snafus -- with deeper lessons about regulation in general. Yes the outcome is dumb, but incentives are to blame. That's important to understand if we are ever to fix this mess. 

Scott has some great ideas for fixing the FDA's incentives. The one I like best is to reduce its power. FDA approval currently means that insurance companies and the government must pay for drugs. Break that link. The FDA now either decides safe&effective vs. not-yet-proven, and makes taking any not-yet-proven drug illegal. Reduce the FDA to simply providing information about what's known about drugs. Finally, give the FDA budgetary rewards for approving drugs. Bemoaning regulatory idiocy is fun but gets us nowhere. Anything persistently busted is not the result of stupidity, it is the result of bad incentives. 

FDA, CDC and Covid

The story of the FDA in covid is a good place to start. It's well known by now, but we are now in the era of forgetting, and it is to nobody's interest to keep this memory alive. 

The countries that got through COVID the best (eg South Korea and Taiwan) controlled it through test-and-trace. This allowed them to scrape by with minimal lockdown and almost no deaths. But it only worked because they started testing and tracing really quickly - almost the moment they learned that the coronavirus existed. Could the US have done equally well?

I think yes. A bunch of laboratories, universities, and health care groups came up with COVID tests before the virus was even in the US, and were 100% ready to deploy them. 

As with vaccines, which took a weekend to create, the state of medical science is such that really there is no reason to have pandemics any more. Public policy? Well, that's stuck in the 1700s.  

But when the US declared that the coronavirus was a “public health emergency”, the FDA announced that the emergency was so grave that they were banning all coronavirus testing, so that nobody could take advantage of the emergency to peddle shoddy tests. Perhaps you might feel like this is exactly the opposite of what you should do during an emergency? This is a sure sign that you will never work for the FDA.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Covid incompetence

 WWII started badly for the United States. Our tanks blew up. Our torpedoes were duds. Our airplanes were outclassed. Many commanders were incompetent, soldiers green, supplies chaotic. We lost a lot of battles.  But we learned. The lessons of each mistake were incorporated, incompetent commanders sacked, soldiers learned their terrible craft. 

Delta is the fourth wave of covid, and amazingly the US policy response is even more irresolute than the first time around. Our government is like a child, sent next door to get a cup of sugar, who gets as far as the front stoop and then wanders off following a puppy. 

The policy response is now focused on the most medically ineffective but most politically symbolic step, mask mandates. All all-night disco in Provincetown turns in to a superspreader event so... we make school kids wear masks in outdoor summer camps? Masks are several decimal places less effective than vaccines, and less effective than "social distance" in the first place.* Go to that all night disco, unvaccinated, but wear a mask? Please.