ScienceSkepticism

Ben Shapiro Tries to Figure Out How Many People Got COVID-19 from Sturgis

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Transcript:

Guys, Ben Shapiro is confused. I mean that in general but also specifically he is confused about a recent study that found that this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally was a “superspreader” event that led to an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“About 260 cases directly tied to Sturgis had been detected as of September 2, according to the Washington Post,” Shapiro Tweeted. “And I’m going to have to hear some answers on why Sturgis (400K attendees) was more of a spreader than BLM marches that drew a reported 40x that number.”

Well hey, if Ben Shapiro demands some answers I am more than happy to help. Normally I think that a team of trained medical experts is required to deal with any of Ben Shapiro’s issues, but being confused about a scientific study? I’m on it!

Shapiro is replying to a new study published by the Institute of Labor Economics titled “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19,” which estimated that in the month following the rally 266,796 new cases of COVID-19 could be traced back to the event, or about 19% of all new cases in the US during the period studied. Those are huge numbers and in a bit I’ll talk about why they may not be quite right. But first, let’s talk about why Ben Shapiro doesn’t think they’re right.

To counter the research, Shapiro references a Washington Post article from five days prior which did, in fact, state that “at least 260 cases” could be linked to Sturgis. They say they got that figure by surveying various health departments, and they qualify the number in the very next sentence: “Epidemiologists believe that figure is a significant undercount, due to the resistance of some rallygoers to testing and the limited contact tracing in some states. As a result, the true scope of infections stemming from the rally that ran from Aug. 7 to Aug. 16 is unlikely to ever be known.” 

It’s worth noting that Sturgis had 460,000 attendees, and the Post stated 260 cases and one death resulted from it. A wedding in Maine had 65 attendees and has thus far resulted in 147 cases and three deaths. So. Yes, they’re not kidding when they say that’s a significant undercount.

So this new study did not merely survey random health departments. Instead, the researchers used anonymized cell phone data to track what counties people were traveling from to attend the rally. They found that “ In counties with the largest relative inflow to the event, the per 1,000 case rate increased by 10.7 percent after 24 days following the onset of Sturgis Pre-Rally Events.” They also found that the county where Sturgis is itself experienced a dramatic increase in caseload. And here’s a fun tidbit: in addition to the irreparable damage done to the lives and health of human beings, this being an economic paper, they also found that “If we conservatively assume that all of these cases were non-fatal (which we know is untrue as at least one person has already died), then these cases represent a cost of over $12.2 billion…This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend.” I hope that Smashmouth concert was worth it!

Of course, Ben Shapiro would never rely entirely on the reporting of the Washington Post to argue against a rigorous scientific study, so let’s talk about his other objection: “I’m going to have to hear some answers on why Sturgis (400K attendees) was more of a spreader than BLM marches that drew a reported 40x that number.”

First of all, allow me to point out that Sturgis was 462,000 people, not 400,000. Second of all, no Black Lives Matter protest “drew a reported 40x that number.” That would be 18.5 million people. That would be nearly the entire population of New York State, at one protest. Sturgis was a single event in which 462,000 people converged in a city of 6 square miles that usually has about 7,000 people. No Black Lives Matter protest has even come close to those sorts of numbers.

Still, BLM protests have definitely drawn tens of thousands of people — why have none of them been considered a superspreader event? Well, had Shapiro actually taken the time to click the link in the Tweet he’s replying to, he would have found all his answers very helpfully answered in the full, free PDF of the study in question.

Not only does the paper describe in detail the perfect storm of idiocy that led to Sturgis being such a disaster, but it also references a previous study published in June by the same researchers, which found that no Black Lives Matter protest up until that point has led to any increase in COVID-19 cases. 

First let’s talk about Black Lives Matter. In the study Black Lives Matter Protests, Social Distancing, and COVID-19, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the researchers looked at protests of at least 1,000 people in 286 of the largest American cities, most of which continued for more than three days. They found absolutely no increase in COVID-19 cases following any protest in any city. But why?

While the researchers acknowledge that it’s likely the protesters wore masks (reducing their chances of infection) and were also young and healthy and therefore less likely to report symptoms if they did contract COVID-19, those things are difficult to study. We can see a lot of mask compliance in photos, but photos don’t give us the entire story. But just like in their Sturgis study, they were able to study anonymized cell phone data that tracked people’s movements and gauge social distancing. What they found was that when a protest happened in a city, the residents of that city were more likely to stay home. So even if the protesters themselves spread the virus, the people who were not protesting were more likely to not spread the virus. In the end, it all balanced out, to the point where a protest was even slightly likely to lead to fewer overall cases in a city.

So for Ben Shapiro’s sake, let’s compare that directly with what the scientists found in Sturgis. Unlike the protests, the residents of Sturgis were not more likely to stay home during the rally. Their cell phone data indicated that they were more likely to go out and participate in the many events, like concerts and parties. Of course, even if they had been more likely to stay at home, that probably wouldn’t have balanced out — Black Lives Matter protests involved a fraction of the total population of a city, while Sturgis involved 66 times as many attendees as there were living in the city.

Add to that the fact that Sturgis attendees weren’t wearing masks. They were also inside a lot, crowding into the open bars and restaurants. They were also specifically there to socialize, which involves speaking directly at another person for a long period of time. No masks, crowded together, inside, speaking at one another for long periods of time — that’s the absolute worst thing you can do during a pandemic. The only thing that could make it worse if everyone there was in an at-risk group due to their age or pre-existing conditions. Hmm.

Now that I’ve gone over why Ben Shapiro’s skepticism is illogical and partisan, let me add that there are scientists who have valid questions about the Sturgis study’s numbers. Nearly 20% of ALL COVID-19 cases from one event is INSANE, and to back that figure up it would be nice to have really objective, clear data. But we live in an anti-scientific hellscape, so we don’t actually have the data that would tell us conclusively how bad this rally was for public health. We STILL don’t have adequate testing, we don’t have ways for poor people to reliably access healthcare at all, and we don’t have contact tracing. So these researchers are looking at extremely messy data, making subjective choices, and trying to find a pattern.

Statistical analysis is, to put it mildly, not my forte, so instead please check out some threads by Rex Douglass (Director of the Machine Learning for Social Science Lab at UC San Diego) and Kevin Griffith, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. The short summary is that the Sturgis study is interesting and probably correct that the rally was a superspreader event but they don’t have hard evidence for their numbers.

Of course, “those numbers probably aren’t quite right” is all Shapiro and his sycophants will take from this because they think this is all a big cover-up, and that we liberal scum have made up an entire pandemic to stop them from having a good time while excusing protests that seek to improve the lives of millions of Americans. It’s hard to encourage people to “keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out,” and at the same time to “be skeptical, but not so skeptical you stop believing in reality.”

As always: don’t panic, wear a mask, stay home if you can, and avoid the anti-science brigade whenever possible.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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