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The Old Man and the Internet

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I want to record this for posterity, because I think it’s both important and symptomatic.

On March 16th, 2020, New York University Law School professor Richard Epstein published the following, in an essay on the likely course of COVID-19 in the USA:

From this available data, it seems more probable than not that the total number of cases world-wide will peak out at well under 1 million, with the total number of deaths at under 50,000 (up about eightfold). In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end (Emphasis added).

On March 24th, at a point at which total deaths in the United States from COVID-19 had already exceeded his estimate from eight days earlier, he published a “corrected” version of the March 16th essay, in which he estimated that the final toll of the virus in the US was likely to be around 5000 deaths. He then acknowledged the following:

That estimate is ten times greater than the 500 number I erroneously put in the original draft of the essay, and it, too, could prove somewhat optimistic.

To be clear, this is the originally revised version of the March 16th essay. It was published on March 24th, at which time it presented an accurate version of Epstein’s changing calculations.

On April 6th, Epstein published yet another “revised” version of the March 16th essay. This version lacked any specific reference to the original 500 deaths estimate. It began with this admission:

In the earlier, March 16, 2020 version, of this essay, I made the single largest unforced intellectual error in my entire academic career, when I included numerical estimates about the possible impact of the coronavirus in terms of life and death. Those estimates were obviously ridiculously too low.

It then went on to omit the passages in the March 16th essay that contained the specific numerical predictions.

This was all more than a bit squirrelly, but then things got really interesting. At some point, Epstein went back and silently replaced the March 24th revised version of the March 16th essay. Recall that the March 24th version of the March 16th essay contained the explicit admission that this new version of the March 16th essay, which contained an estimate of 5000 total deaths from COVID-19 in the USA, represented a ten-fold increase from the essay’s original prediction.

The new version of that correction now reads:

[Correction & Addendum as of March 24, 2020: 

My original erroneous estimate of 5,000 dead in the US is a number ten times smaller than I intended to state, and it too could prove somewhat optimistic. But any possible error rate in this revised projection should be kept in perspective. The current U.S. death toll stands at 592 as of noon on March 24, 2020, out of about 47,000 cases. So my adjusted figure, however tweaked, remains both far lower, and I believe far more accurate, than the common claim that there could be a million dead in the U.S. from well over 150 million coronavirus cases before the epidemic runs its course.]

Emphasis in original (or more accurately, “original.”)

Epstein changed the URL of the March 24th update of the March 16th version, so now any link to it will take readers to the version quoted above, which is fraudulent. In effect, he took some pains to forge a fake Internet document, to try to confuse people about what his original prediction actually was. (To all but the most careful readers, it now looks like his original “mistake” way back on March 16th was to predict 5,000 deaths, when at that time he intended to predict 50,000).

The pathetic absurdity of all this hardly requires further comment, but what the heck:

(1) Epstein’s original 500 deaths prediction is still all over the Internet, in the form of people commenting on it at the time, including pull quotes (such as the one I used in my original comment on this fiasco).

(2) Epstein’s original prediction is still contained in Epstein’s own March 23rd followup essay, published the day before he published his now fraudulently “updated” March 24th version of the March 16th essay:

In my column last week, I predicted that the world would eventually see about 50,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, and the United States about 500. 

Pretty slick!

Since we’re doing predictions, I predict that to the extent that this egregious commission of straight up academic fraud even becomes an issue at NYU (or at his former tenure home the University of Chicago, where he’s still a “Senior Lecturer,” or at the Hoover Institute, where he continues to feed at the ever-copious trough of Wingnut Welfare), Epstein’s defense will be “this can’t be fraud because it’s so incompetent on its face that nobody would be fooled by my forgery of a fake version of my March 24th correction of my March 16th piece.”

Either that or the classic tossing the research assistant under the bus move. Or maybe a bit of both, who knows?

(Credit to John Mackie for uncovering this particularly preposterous outburst of academic skullduggery).

. . . Looks like we’re going to go with the hapless research assistant:

[APRIL 21, 2020 EDITOR’S NOTE: 
DUE TO AN EDITING ERROR, THE CORRECTION & ADDENDUM ABOVE IS INACCURATE. IT SHOULD STATE:

That estimate is ten times greater than the 500 number I erroneously put in the initial draft of the essay, and it, too, could prove somewhat optimistic. But any possible error rate in this revised projection should be kept in perspective. The current U.S. death toll stands at 592 as of noon on March 24, 2020, out of about 47,000 cases. So my adjusted figure, however tweaked, remains both far lower, and I believe far more accurate, than the common claim that there could be a million dead in the U.S. from well over 150 million coronavirus cases before the epidemic runs its course.

WE REGRET THE ERROR AND ANY CONFUSION IT HAS CAUSED]

This is so obviously false it doesn’t warrant any further response. Shame on all the institutions that pay this intellectual grifter many many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (Between NYU, Hoover, and Chicago he might actually be netting seven figures.)

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