One thought on COVID 19

Today I was in a phone call with a friend from South Africa which opened my perspective on the impact of the crisis that we currently face. With rising numbers in Europe and more and more people dying it is a grim reality that we currently face. One drop in fatalities in Italy is enough to give a glimpse of hope but the rising percentages increase in many European countries reveal that we are far away from breaking the overall bad development. When thinking about the impact in South Africa and also in sub-Saharan Africa -which is of course very different in many aspects- I considered first the lower nutrition that the diet of many people has in South Africa. The overall health, resulting from low nutritional diet that is high in sugar and carbs, comes to mind. Of course it is also an issue of a different medical system. However, then it dawned on me that this year a disaster can be expected. It is known that a compromised immune system is a severe risk when it comes to this terrible disease. COVID 19 patients with compromised immune system have a much higher mortality. A large proportion of South Africans face such a risk as 19% of the people that are 15 to 49 years old are HIV-positive. Quite often the horrible HIV epidemic occurs in a deadly combination with cases of tuberculosis. Having a compromised immune system as well as a severe lung disease makes these people very prone to COVID 19.  While South Africa tried to restrict the currently known number of cases with strong measures, other African countries are likewise at risk. In fact, many countries of the Global South are currently showing low but increasing numbers, and it’s worrying that many countries already have mortalities, which might highlight a low detection rate of cases. The WHO has warned for a long time for the pandemic reaching these states. While in Europe we may have businesses going bankrupt or other economic problems, the vast majority will have food on the table. Many of the poor in the Global South never had toilet paper, so food production may be a real issue among many other severe problems.  While in a few months the situation in Europe might look different, and case numbers might have gone down, what will the Global South do?  Their healthcare systems are vastly different, and the luxury of a respirator is often rare. Due to the different and in quality and quantity lower nutrition the health of the people can often be lower, which is also combined with other infectious diseases and medical conditions. This may pose a third wave of infection, when – after China and then Europe – the global South will be devastated by this pandemic. A lot of people discuss the death rates right now, comparing numbers from China, Korea, Italy, Germany and so on, and we are vermouth focused on our problems at our doorstep or our neighbouring countries. While this is a tragedy for all people who are affected right now, how will the numbers look like in South Africa, Venezuela, Algeria, Indonesia, and Ecuador? How will their economies cope with the problem of a severe lockdown, and how will these societies endure such a devastating crisis?  The suffering and tragedy of Europe and the US right now is undeniable, but our wrongdoing now will not only affect us. We should never forget that this is a global crisis.

The next 1-2 weeks of the Covid crisis

I heard from many people that they have anxiety about the current development of the Covid crisis. Indeed, the situation makes me worried as well, since the cases in Europe and many other countries are steeply increasing. However, I think it is helpful to have some understanding of how the next few weeks are going to play out. At least to me it is helpful to know what is coming. Of course, I do not know all the details and complexity of the current crisis and its associated tragedies, but when it comes to the overall trend during the next few weeks, I feel I have a rather clear understanding of the timeline.

If you read the previous blog entries, then you know we are right now in the face of transition where case numbers in Germany and many European countries are not exploding as such, but instead continuously rising. I am writing this on 17 March and based on the current data it is fairly obvious that the numbers will continue to rise. This is as obvious as throwing a ball into the air and expecting that it will eventually fall downwards to the ground. Many people now believe that the curve of the ball will suddenly stop. The ball will stop flying mid air. This is not going to happen, I think. Instead the ball will continue to fly on its curve according to the laws of physics. In this case it is not the laws of physics that are at play in the Covid crisis, but the cruel statistical laws known in epidemiology. I want to highlight at this point again that I am no medical doctor but a statistician. However, in this capacity I can unfortunately assume that the current numbers may increase and within the next seven days may rise above 30,000 cases. Then it will start to show whether the necessary measures of our government will actually work. It is now our joint responsibility to tame this virus. However, the emotional burden that will be put upon us by the steeply and dramatically rising numbers will be serious. At this point data is too sparse to speculate on the number of people dying, but the data from China, Italy and South Korea clearly highlights that this grim trend will also happen in Germany.

As much as I trust the excellent health system of the German people and our medical experts these numbers of people dying may explode and will soon -that is within the next week- run well into three digits. As much as I would like to be wrong to this end, it is clear that the high number and increasing trend of people being infected will consequentially lead to the severe complications that often happen in the run of this disease after 1 to 2 weeks. We should be prepared to accept that the shadow of the infected people will soon follow and this may become even more severe in other countries.

In Italy it may soon show, maybe towards the end of the week, whether the drastic measures can diminish the trend, but the data from Wuhan clearly shows that cases still increase for weeks to come, and it would not help to discontinue the extreme social isolation that is the best hope that we have, and the best lesson we learned from the Chinese people. Be on the lookout for a decrease in percentage increase in cases in Italy, which you can look up on Wikipedia. Currently, the data from Italy also shows how severely the medical system became strained after the first week of March, as death rates increased dramatically. While this is of course partly expected due to the mentioned time lag that the disease takes to strike people down, an equally worrying trend can be seen in Spain. Here, measures were recently implemented and will take at least one or two weeks until there can be a positive effect, that is a smaller percentage increase. Meanwhile, cases will increase by  probably more than 10% from day to day and even more than 20% are unfortunately still possible. Likewise, trends that started a bit later can be expected for France as well, probably Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and many more countries. These may have been earlier detected, which can make a huge difference in total numbers.

Within Europe alone within the next week the total numbers of infected people would remain in the five digits number, and accordingly more than 3000 people may die next week alone. For Europe the measures of extreme isolation and the combination of genetic testing and CT scans would help to reduce the numbers to localised clusters in April or May, if all goes well. I am personally more worried about the situation in Iran and the United States. What unites these two countries at this stage is the lack of clarity when it comes to the data, and a higher probability of many cases being undetected. If the official numbers in Iran are correct, then at least the increase in cases is becoming less and less severe. In the United States this stage is unclear and the percentage increase is way more pronounced. I would not be able to judge whether this is an artefact and how many cases are undetected, but the trends of community spread are quite worrying.

At this point I want to mention that the new study came out in science (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/03/13/science.abb3221) that highlighted how the initial spread of this disease is often happening through hidden cases that show no or only mild symptoms. While this is problematic when it comes to the initial explosive spread of the disease, it clearly highlights that finger-pointing to Italy, Austria, Germany, or the United States is not helpful, as we have already known before. This disease sneaks its way into populations, and it has done so in the majority of countries affected right now. We must be careful now that it is getting restricted.

The next few weeks will be difficult, and we have two recognise that the increase in cases cannot be stopped at this point. It has already happened. For the next one or two weeks next to nothing can be done as the long incubation period of almost 1 week at an average will take its toll, and will be difficult to stop the butterfly effect from these people that do not know that they are already affected or may even only show mild symptoms. However, this is surely not the time for panic but instead of conscious and reflected measures. We need to remember that the numbers that I raised here must be seen in the context of the overall mortality of the population. About 800,000 people die in Germany every year – not through Covid, but for many other reasons- and despite all the tragedy and hardship, as a statistician it would be difficult to detect increase that we currently face. Epidemiologists raise the danger of the common flu that can claim tens of thousands of dying patients in extreme years. The mortality rate of the coronavirus makes it all the more severe and our actions now should help us to overcome this terrible disease in a few weeks or months. The increase of the next few weeks is predictable just as a ball that we throw up into the air follows the rising curve in the beginning, but it has to fall down to the ground in the end. I already mentioned that we cannot rely on gravity here, but the gravity of the situation is quite clear. As I have mentioned before our goal now must be to stay within the capacity of our medical system and to restrict any social interaction at all possible. Extreme jobs and spikes in data are to be expected and should not give reason for alarm. New clusters will be found, countries will shift from genetic testing to clinical diagnosis, and other factors will lead to jumps and spikes in the data. Overall, we are looking at a log linear pattern in the beginning, and the data from China clearly shows that the extreme measures can bring this crisis to an end.

Some guidelines for the Covid-crisis

We are effectively in lockdown, and this allows me to consider a new structure for my day. Structuring my day is now vital to me, as I would otherwise live like a smurf at home. The first thing was to establish a working desk in my own office. Hence the guest room now became my office. Before even thinking about structuring my day we needed to structure the day of our kids. We had them write their own plan, down to the hour, including playing, garden work, house work, school work, playing and Ipad. I was quite impressed how they managed, but maybe ask me again in 4 weeks. Since I am busy alternating between emergency meetings to explore the situation my day right now structures itself. However, from tomorrow onwards I will plan my day down to half hour slots and will try to establish a daily balance between work, sport, gardening and family time. I encourage everyone to do the same. Beside that, I think it is quite essential to be conscious in our actions, which is why I wrote down some general guidelines -not rules- that I implement within this time of crisis. Some are obvious, but still good to remember.

Wash your hands regularly, and every time you left the house. Sing „Happy birthday” twice while doing so.

When you talk to people in the street, keep a distance of at least 2 meters, better 4 meters. This measure also includes your friends.

Learn to stop touching things, and do not touch your face.

Meet no one except for the people you anyway live with. Extreme social isolation is the most important contribution right now.

Work from home, establishing new routines, keep busy. Structure your day very tightly. This is the time to establish new habits.

Continue to pay all people you paid before (e.g. your local coffee shop). Even if you do not use their services or products now, you will appreciate their service later.

Avoid the internet to rely on information about the virus. Stick to news outlets that rely on quality control. I currently prefer the BBC, German Tagesschau, South China Morning Post and all primary research on the virus.

Be conscious of your internet use. The bandwidth and servers will also be affected by the higher use, so we all need to minimize our own use it at all possible.

Convince the elderly and people that are part of the risk group to retreat from any social contact. Be very persistent. Help them by buying their groceries.

Get an emotional support network. We all need to be there for each other now.

If you are part of a risk group, follow rigorous isolations, ask friends to buy you food which they leave at your doorstep.

Get enough food that will last a 2-week isolation.

In case you get sick, call your doctor. Do not go to any medical facilities without a doctor’s consent. Follow the advice of medical experts.

Keep a diary with symptoms and preconditions and keep it with you at all times.

In case of being sick, contact the emergency service if your fever exceeds 40C, having severe trouble breathing or other symptoms that are listed among the medical advice available from professionals.

If you are sick, do not panic, as it is quite unlikely that you will be a severe case. Contact your friends and ask them to help you emotionally through this situation. Calm your parents, they will probably be very anxious.

 

My personal perspective on the Covid pandemic

A rising number of questions about the corona virus epidemic are currently reaching me. Therefore I have decided to show my perspective in this text. I have to give a full disclosure that I’m not a medical doctor nor expert on viruses or epidemics. However I am a statistician and sustainability scientist. As such, I am able to detect patterns and interpret data, and I’m interested in solutions and normative perceptions. There are other medical experts that are currently giving us their perspective, and I highly encourage you to rely on a diversity of information. The Internet is full of wrong information, and in these times it is very important to rely on information that at least tries to maintain on a high quality and long established standards. To me, this includes primary scientific literature, and the established press, including such media as the BBC the New York Times, the Washington Post, the South China Morning Post, German Tagesschau and other media that have a long-standing tradition of interpreting information. I consider also to be good to rely on the numbers on Wikipedia, which are more or less up to date despite some smaller quality issues, but the percentage increase is a vital number that you can find there.
It is also important to highlight that there is a difference in much of the way we see information in these days. Hence you have to pay attention on the wording of what I am going to write here. There is a difference between things that are known information that is published in medical studies, information that is estimated from previous data analysis and rough guess work that is necessary because of the great unclarity of the current situation. I will differentiate this blog entry based on the short term and the long term perspective; there is an in between perspective where you can still have rough estimates based on the current information which I will also highlight.
The coronavirus is now a global pandemic and this may preoccupy us for a long time. However, what this will mean in our day to day business we will have to explore individually. In my opinion, we have to be very careful now. Each and every single one of us should act, as a colleague mentioned, as if we have the virus. We should thus be in our actions as careful as possible, avoid all community contact, and basically bunker down at home or take solitary walks. I know that this is hard measure for many, and my kids are sitting next door being already being completely bored out, but this is a time of crisis.

Phase 1
The developments in China show us how with Draconian measures the Chinese government with the cooperation of the citizens has managed to dramatically reduce the numbers of the virus. This first drastic epidemic in China has many lessons to learn for us. I will try to explain the different phases that this type of infection typically takes in a larger population, based on the analysis of the current data at this point in time. This is an imperfect approach and has many ramifications, however I want to highlight that as a statistician I am very conservative. The first phase that you have in the spread of this virus within a population or country is quite chaotic. The medical experts may have not yet detected the majority of cases, due to the often long periods of up to 2 weeks of incubation in combination with the fact that many of the affected people show mild symptoms which makes the early detection of cases difficult. I will not go into the complex start of the crisis in Wuhan in China but despite all the discussions about the reaction of the Chinese government I can only extend my compassion to the citizens of the Wuhan region and the whole of China for enduring these drastic measures to contain the spread. We all owe them big time.
This phase 1 shows the first drastic growth of infection and is often characterized by a growth rate of around 50% from day-to-day. Many European countries were in the last few days in this space. Once the spread within a given population is better understood, and local clusters are identified, the increase in patients from day to day becomes often more tamed. Of course this relies on -as we now see- Draconian measures in many countries, but it helps to slowly drive down the increase in patients. This is an often very difficult phase as you are still looking at a basically dramatic growth pattern that  is very high, and where every day of in action may lead to twice as many cases for each two days. I will not go into the details here what proper reactions are, I can only highlight that I personally rely on extreme social isolation right now which means that my family is at home and we meet no one else.

Phase 2
If the growth is getting smaller over several days, and ideally the rate of increase in cases is linearly decreasing as we saw in Wuhan region, then this is a sign for optimism, and what I coin phase 2. The numbers can still rise by 10% of less in daily increase, which is probably due to smaller undetected case clusters or people breaking the general rule of extreme social isolation and other factors. This phase of reducing the numbers below 10% increase from day to day takes, judged from the available data, several weeks if not one month. Around this time, you would have ideally reached a point within the mortality rates that is not going to rise dramatically further. The problem with mortality in this virus is that if people are sick, they typically start dying one or two weeks after they showed symptoms. Since on average the people do not show symptoms after being infected for almost a week, it takes a long time -up to three weeks- until the real mortality rates are showing.
An appeal for care seems appropriate here, please remember that catching this virus is not a death sentence. Instead the mortality is higher as with the flu, but lower as with Ebola. There are other cases of viruses even more dramatic, and while the death rate through the common flu is still higher in total numbers right now, this may change if more people get infected with Covid. Current studies that are based on localised populations and often smaller samples show however, that younger people seem to be less affected, and we should be very careful regarding older people as well as people with medical conditions, such as asthma, high blood pressure, cardiovascular conditions, and so on.

Phase 3
Coming back to the different phases of the virus, there is a third phase that is probably reached after several weeks, when cases go dramatically down. It is admiring how the Chinese people were able to reach that milestone after basically two months of extreme measures, and the situation in China right now gives reason for hope. A similar situation could be achieved through extreme intense genetic testing, but one has to be aware that the technical capabilities that are available in South Korea are not available in other countries. South Korea has full-blown industry focusing on genetic analysis, and many genetic samples are sent to South Korea since decades for analysis. Hence their capabilities when it comes to the genetic testing and detection of the virus is probably unprecedented. It is at this point unclear whether genetic testing in technically advanced countries such as Germany will have enough long-term resources to allow for a detection of the virus at a scale that happened in South Korea. A better option for many countries might be CT scans. The Chinese response teams implemented an often highly efficient system in scanning many patients with this technology, which is available also in smaller hospitals and countries that are less capable regarding their medical system. Such CT scans allow with her relatively high confidence a detection of patients even if they only show mild symptoms that would otherwise be not detected. Hence this might be an alternative option although it is of course not at all as sensitive as the PCR tests that are currently pursued. Whether other and faster tests will become available should be hoped for, but it’s right now not clear. It is quite unclear how long phase 3 actually takes, but I would suggest that at some point social isolation may become less extreme, although this would not be recommendable. This is still not the time for intervention fatigue, instead we need to be clear that everybody is still distancing themselves for weeks until the disease is gone or at least localised. This is the short term perspective that the epidemic currently had in China and it might give us an idea of what is going to come in other countries in the next few weeks or months.

Short term trends
The numbers in Italy are most likely going to increase, and it is very unfortunate that the Italians missed the early cases which is -and this is very important- entirely not their fault. They were in a very unlucky situation, and now try to react appropriately. Similar increases are currently happening in many other European countries, including Germany and will most likely go on for at least a week. In a few days we may see whether the increase in infected people will go down, meaning that we have less percentage growth from day-to-day. This could be expected with some optimism; however, we will have to wait out the measures taken by the governments who are currently working on it. It is very unclear what is happening in the United States right now, as testing is certainly not extensive, and occasional anecdotical descriptions of community spread within several states are the reason for great concern. Likewise the numbers from other countries at this stage are very unclear, as they may not have detected the cases get, or their form of governance may prevent them from sharing the full extent of the natural disaster.

The long term perspective
It is very difficult to know anything long term at this point. There are suggestions that this virus will become a seasonal infection such as the common flu, which may be possible. However, I do not know whether the general population would be willing to endure a virus with a 0.9 mortality at best. And this brings me to another point, that is the rate between the mortality and the medical system within an affected population. The extensive testing from South Korea shows that there might be a mortality rate of 0.9%, which is quite optimistic. In comparison, the rates in China are much higher, while the rates in Germany right now are much lower. There is much speculation about these differences, yet from a simple log linear model this can be easily explained. Germany is at an early stage of the viral spread, and much may be undetected right now or is rather recent. Also, as I’ve already mentioned, people will start unfortunately dying in one or two weeks at a much more extensive scale. I hope I am wrong to this end, but unfortunately I think it is very likely that death rates in Germany will increase substantially. In Wuhan in comparison, the case is completely different. Here the medical system was widely overwhelmed by the virus, and the capacities of the medical facilitation’s were completely overwhelmed by the epidemic. That does not mean that the efforts of the medical personnel and the government were not extensive, they were in fact absolutely impressive! However, no medical system is able to cope with such a high rate of infections. Once the system is exceeded, the death rate is going to increase. This is simply rooted in the fact that 15% of the cases needs pronounced medical attention in hospitals, and about 5% are critical. Without oxygen and other respiratory aids, these people have a much higher chance to die. We have right now -according to official numbers- around 25,000 beds of for intensive care in Germany. If you imagine that 15 to 20% of cases or maybe even just 5%, may need the space, this would mean that we would face a situation where about 125,000 to 250,000  infected people, which would need  intensive care units for about two weeks. In an optimistic case this would mean that we would have about 6 million infected people within one year. Everything above this number would exceed the capacity of the hospital beds that we have for intensive care, and while there are different suggestions from experts I am worried how we would deal with exceeding the capacity of beds we have in hospitals. This does not include the consideration how this will play out in other countries, for instance the US, where medical attention is also not available to many people, let alone countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It is widely clear that such simple calculations make a rather complex development oversimplistic, but at this point I did not understand how we have enough beds for 58 Mio infected people within a year or two years.

Ending the curve
Flattening the curve would hence in Germany work if we consider this on 9-10 year timescale. I do not believe that it will take so long to obtain this disease, as a vaccination might become available, however I do not believe that any country would accept a mortality rate of 3 to 4% within their population. If 3 million people die in Germany because of this virus, this would be an issue. Current estimates in the US consider at least half a million dead people, and this would certainly lead to more severe reactions than we see right now. Hence I think that flattening the curve is not enough, we need to end this spread. This is now a question of global responsibility, and we have to try to get rid of that virus. We had other success cases such as in smallpox, which was a Herculean effort, but this is now the time where the behaviour of each and every single individual person is very important. We need to work together as humankind.
There are people that suggest that a warmer climate, or UV radiation may help us to take this virus, but this is totally unclear right now, and looking at the numbers from warmer countries I would not bet on it right now; although the data does currently not allow more than vague assumptions . I currently guess based on the regional and sparse data, that temperature will not affect this virus severely, but this is as I said guesswork. One recent study highlighted that temperature may play at least partly to our advantage, but this is widely unclear at this point. Maybe in one or two weeks this is more conclusive. Talking about Mutations at this point does not make sense, I am as I said no expert, I can interpret the data, but here an epidemiologist or virologist may know more, and they are pretty clear that it is pretty unclear.

How to go on?
Minimising the spread within the population, measures such as genetic testing and at a later place CT scans and a continuous and enforced extreme social isolation are the best instruments that we currently have, which is no easy step. Many people have anxieties to this, but this is not going to be the end of humankind. I repeat, world keeps turning. The chances for the individual being affected are very low, and we will come out of this on the other side. The question is now what is the price that we want to pay, and are we willing to make sacrifices and compromises in order to contain the spread of the virus. First and foremost, I think the main question guiding our life should be whether our actions now help to end the spread of the virus. We need to put everything else aside.

 

The invention of Eureka

Eureka originates in ancient Greece and is often attributed to Archimedes. Eureka translates as „I found it“, and is based on the anecdote that Archimedes found the Archimedes principle, while taking a bath. Then he happily ran through the street shouting „Eureka“. Personally, I can relate to the story insofar, as I get many good ideas while taking a shower. However, I feel that science, and especially modern science has marketed itself as being an accumulation of Eureka moments. Hollywood typically is marketing science in this sense, where Dr. Emmet Brown form back to the future is the Eureka stereotype scientist, and you can also find it in Interstellar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8Cn1mI0L-c), among many other examples. Supposably, scientists are expected to have eureka moments, California even made it its state motto, highlighting its location on the global innovators landscape.
Being originated in Greece, Eureka is to me closely connected to the myth of the ancient Greek heroes. By focussing on the ego -the I- eureka frames us as being touched by Genius. Genius comes and goes, as Elisabeth Gilbert pointed out, hence feeling good about eureka means automatically that this feeling is going to diminish at some point. This is in my eyes one problematic relation to eureka, it creates a „High“ that can only be followed -relatively- by a „Low“. There is no doubt that we have sudden insights, but I would argue that these insights are embedded into a long process that encapsules our upbringing, our education, our mentors, our team, and the whole societal setting we are embedded in, to name just a few factors. Eureka is in this sense not only a personal moment, but a consequence of many different origins that are hard to track down. You can surely try to provide a setting that allows for some sort of excellence to flourish, and there are certainly some people closer to Genius than others. However when thinking that our eureka is part of a larger embedded network, it makes us less important, I think. I also think, that this is a good thing. The late Derek Parfit described his head as an office, where an idea would be handed in at the front desk, and from there would be handed back into the different departments. After often substantial time, the solution would be handed back to the front desk. This is quite often how I think my head works as well. I may designate consciously and based on my experience on certain problems, but ultimately the manifestation of the solution in my head is quite unpredictable. This brings me to the second problem I have with eureka: Expectation management.
Many emerging scientists, among them often students, assume that they are expected to have eureka moments. And they feel that these eureka moments are expected to feel a certain way. These moments ought to feel fantastic, and as long as you do not have them on a frequent basis, you are not a scientist. This leads to people proclaiming trivial insights as huge Eureka, and the lack of Eureka as a great disappointment. I feel by confusing scientific work with eureka moments, we created a problem. Of course, this confusion is related with larger currently dominating problems, such as the increase of the personal ego complex and the general questioning of science.
Overall, Eureka moments may happen to some people. In my experience Eureka happen for instance quite often, when somebody understands the idea of somebody else. Ideas are to me a bit like Helium balloons that fly about, and that you can grab. Practice may certainly help to evolve into being able to generate Eureka moments. But it takes years of practice to become a scientist, and this process is hence in itself hard to measure or understand. For the time being, Eureka pose and interesting epistemological problem. It is however important to highlight that Eureka may happen, but do not have to happen. I for myself have a fair amount of ideas over the day, some of which good, many of which bad. None is however that good to thrill me in the sense of the Eureka moment. This to me is the biggest and maybe final Eureka. My thoughts as well as my science may matter, but only in relation to others. Explaining my insights and seeing other people understand or confirm my ideas is I think the best Eureka moment. Other may be a mirror of understanding in this sense, and through their understanding I start to understand more as well, especially about my connection to others. Eureka!

Attending conferences – two perspectives

Conferences are where scientists come together and exchange about their latest results. Autumn ist the most important conference season, when many scientists spend some time together. Building on my experience in visiting conferences, I want to offer my opinion here on conferences. Since this is an extremely normative topic to me, I divide this text into two parts, the first being focussed on more general points, and the second offering more strongly my own personal opinion on conferences.
1) There are large conferences, and small conferences. Larger ones are often more general, or represent the meeting of some large branch of science. Smaller ones are often more focussed, and may offer a more specific focus. While some conferences may host more than a thousand people, smaller ones may be nor more than a few dozen people.
Also, some conferences are very interactive, while other conferences have more passive attendees. Most conferences have the largest amount of people talk, often for 10-15 minutes. This may demand many parallel sessions, where people often rush from session to session.
Ideally, one would look for a conference with a high specificity to one’s own focus, may it be a focussed small one, or a large one where you find your own sub-community. Conferences are hence great to engage with like minded people, and to learn to present your results, and get feedback. Also, you may meet your future boss at such conferences, which can be especially important for early career researchers. It is good to go to conferences to gain some experience, and draw your own conclusions.

2) Now coming to my conclusion. Personally, I perceive conferences as a severe waste of resources, energy and time. I for myself get more from a paper, which I can read at the most suitable speed for my brain. Also, listening for a whole day is super exhausting to me, which adds to the typical jet-lag of travel fatigue I have. While exchange with people is generally very nice, conferences offer mostly shallow exchanges to me due to time constraints. Also, I have trouble concentrating when too many people talk at the same time, which during the breaks just happens. Still, getting to conferences always costs a lot of time and resources. I will become more committed to this end once my term as a dean ends. Right now I decided to focus, and need to cut back on certain things. Due to my personal perception of conferences, they were and easy choice. I look forward to an increasingly changed landscape of conferences, with more interactivity, time for exchange, and focus if at all possible. Regarding the last item, I am unsure.

Taken together, conferences are a nice space to get feedback, interact with colleagues, network, see what is happening, and be energised. Ultimately it depends on each and every single one what we make of this. I am still searching for my niche, to this end.

Levels of Theory

Theory is at the heart of science. Scientists come up with theories, test them, confirm them, falsify them, derive them from observation, theories are one of the staples of science. Hence scientists love discussing theories. Within the following lines, I want to show you a conceptualisation of different levels of theory, building on examples from sustainability science.
When reading a book about inequalities, I was at some point getting the feeling that this different forms of inequalities were like an enumeration to me. While each and every one of these inequality had a clear footing in reality, they felt more like examples of inequality. What was lacking to me was a more general level about inequality. Instead it seemed more like a composite of inequalities. Hence I derived a system of levels within theory, which I will present here.
1) The highest levels of theory are concepts. These represent theoretical thinking that does not contain smaller parts of theoretical thinking. Reason, logic, justice and peace are examples of such thinking. Philosophy is most relevant for this level of theory, and it is most relevant to generalisable knowledge.
2) The second level I call paradigms. Paradigms are composites or connections of several concepts. Sustainability can be an example for this, as some people define it as a composite of equality, livelihoods, resources and other things. Gender equality is another example, which consists of two combined concepts. You may talk about this for decades, but if you have a different definitions about gender, your discussion will never end. Paradigms make concepts graspable. Not everybody is a Philosopher, but paradigms are the large narratives of our culture. More tangible , yet with enough blurriness to keep you thinking.
3) Level 3 I call framework. These pave the road to connect paradigms to the real world. The sustainability development goals are an example, or the Ostrom framework. Frameworks imply causality or have the explicit focus to make paradigms applicable in planing and management. Hence framework link science to the real world.
Level 4 are cases. Cases are simply the bread and butter of empirical work, allowing us to apply frameworks. The last level are then actors in cases. These are the lowest level, where theory is ultimately understood – or not understood.

Now many discussions you see and hear start on one level. You have the occasional discussion about sustainability. Somebody says: „to me it is about justice“, so you go one level up. Then suddenly somebody said „but what about the vegan Amish“, and you go down quite some levels. The nestedness of the vegan Amish can be linked to upper levels, but ultimately this is blur, and they are just composites of paradigms. All world religions resolve around paradigms. Take the trinity or the four noble truths. These then connect down, for instance through the Ten Commandments or the noble eightfold path.
Within science, it is quite good to understand where you have the strongest footing. Few are philosophers, many work with the conceptual linkages of paradigms, and even more utilise the applied power of frameworks. It is good to locate not only yourself, but also the level on which a discussion is running, or jumping. Levels 2 and 3 often get taxed by a lack of any clarity on the first level. Only by verbalising these problems, we shall be able to move our conceptual thinking forward to this end. Let’s do it!

Of some statistical words and their misuse in modern society

We live in a world of post-truth, meaning that it becomes more and more clear that there is less and less truth, and much of the previously available truth is increasingly questioned. Personally, I think that from a long term perspective this is a good thing. I am a radical optimist, and I think if such a thing as truth and facts is individually questioned, it may lead to a society where more people know more. In the short term, however, we recognize many examples where the increasing questioning of such things as truth and facts creates problems. Take people that do not believe that human-made climate change is a fact, or people who (still or again) believe that the earth is flat. Interestingly, I often recognize that the people that question the traditional knowledge producing institutions are the ones who still use and misuse the tools of these institutions. Here, I present three examples of words from science-or more specifically statistics- that I hear being used very often, and mostly wrong.

The first example is the word „significant“. This word indicates an agreed upon measure that indicates a probability of whatever it is you test or model in statistics. In other words, „significant“ means that there is a 95 % chance that something is not happening by chance if it is significant. Scientists use this approach all the time. For instance, if Ibuprofen has worked in hundreds of patients against headaches, and this result was obtained in a clinical trial, there is a significant chance that it will also help against your headache. See what I did here! I used the word „significant“ correctly, at least under the assumption that the clinical trial followed the standards of medical studies, and had a large enough sample number and this data was analysed using statistics. Today, many people use the word „significant“ wrong. „The US economy grew significantly since I took office“ the Donald would say. Did he make a statistical test? And did he account for other effects, such as previous efforts to trigger growth, global dynamics and the weather, which explains an increase in construction jobs in an early spring? I assume the Donald made no such rigorous analysis. Still, many people seem to like the use of the word „significant“. It gives a certain air of confidence, which strangely enough is exactly what statistics would yield.

The second word is „correlated“. A correlation is the statistical test on whether two continuous variables are related. In my perception, about 99 % of all non-scientists who use the word do not talk about the relation of two continuous variables. Instead they may say that groups are correlated. Or that just two things are correlated. These people may want to look for an Anova or a chi-square test, but I assume these people are not really interested in statistics. They are interested in making their speech sound confident. Again. To me they discredit themselves. But when it comes to statistics, I am probably a minority.

Word number three: “Clustered”. This word indicates a statistical analysis of multivariate data into groups, or in other words, clusters. The way many people use it is not as if the „clustering“ is made by an algorithm, but as if it is some sort of a Bazinga. Clustering is a quantitative methods. Dividing somethings into groups by qualitative criteria is not clustering in a statistical sense. But it sure makes people sound cool to most people. But not to me. I am an outlier. By the way, this is also a word from statistics, meaning a data point that deviated from the representative group. Oh, deviate and representative are also from statistics. But you probably know that, if you are reading this. Probably is another one. The list goes on. You decide what to do with it. Make it count.

My digital applications

Living in the age of the great acceleration, I consider it to be vital to reflect on the digital world in our everyday life. I am surrounded by a diverse set of people that make different use of the possibilities of the digital age. Originally, the digital age promised to bring us closer together, connecting every human with every other human. It starts to dawn on people that this promise of a digital globalisation was widely false, as for instance facebook is not the same as a face to face conversation. Some of my colleagues were critical from the very beginning, and do not even own a mobile phone to this day. Others -like me- were early adopters, and have the latest apps readily installed on their top of the line smartphone. I do not know who is right, in fact I do not even believe that there is a right or wrong. Instead some tools are good for some people, but not good for others.
Here, I provide an overview of the apps that I use, showing you my preference of digital working horses. I spread my apps in a coordinate system across two axes. The first axis ranges from apps that are mainly helping me (right) to apps that allow me to connect and collaborate with others (left). The second axis ranges from apps that I use several times a day (top) to apps that I use maybe every other week (bottom). Hence you may find that there are some apps that are fast paced and interactive to me, while I see other apps more as a safe haven of tranquility and peace.

Notably, there are hardly any apps that enable a slow interaction, as beside some writing and e-mailing there is to me no way to interact digitally and slow in a meaningful way. Of course I check my mail repeatedly every day, but I do not always reply on the same day. There are just too much e-mails. Another important finding for some people might be the lack of social media in my figure. As a dean, I have to be careful regarding my systematic focus. Especially continuous tasks such as Facebook and Twitter were -despite their use for some- ultimately not for me. Personally, I think these social networks take meaningful time away from me. Today, I prefer to spent time with others directly-face to face. Likewise is Instagram not for me. I never understood how pictures can be good for deep information.
I spent short burst of productivity in some communication apps, and focus on deep work in apps that predominantly focus on myself, notably for meditation, relaxation, or writing. I found out for myself that I can get the fastest first draft on my phone. It is not necessarily the best first draft, but for me starting to write is for instances harder as anything else. It took me a while to figure that out, and I actually learned this from observing somebody else.
This is the main point from this text. Exchange with others, as I would say this can bring meaning to your life as well as the life of others. But make sure to exchange especially to reflect which apps to use, and which ones to uninstall. I think it matters greatly to exchange, and we need to find out as individuals which technology brings us closer, and which one creates a disconnect. I think connecting to each other matters the most.

Being the dean #10

Oh, how glad I am to be the dean. Being the dean is the greatest honour of my work life. To me, the position is not about power, but about trust. The Faculty trusts me to do my work best. I am so happy for this trust, as is brings me in the current setting closest to my main goal in life, that is helping others. Being responsible for a 1000 students, some 150 Faculty, some 140 PhDs and our about 28 professors is fantastic.
Being the dean to me basically means to open a box of duct tape every morning and start wrapping duct tape around problems. In the evening the box is empty, and there is a box for the next day already waiting. Duct tape is very versatile, you see. The first Moon lander was mainly build out of duct tape. Duct tape holds things together, blocks leaks, seals surfaces, it can soundproof, it is fantastic stuff. Every day the office holds something new, this is what I learned early on. Indeed, this office is the best learning opportunity ever. This is also due and to the splendid team in the deans office, who catch problems to solve them really swiftly. These people are a constant influx of the most versatile solutions and approaches, that they never seize to amaze me, what a great team! Hence the core of the office for me is not about giving, it is instead a non-stopping flow of learning opportunities. In private life the greatest honour to me was becoming and being the father of my children, as I also learn so much from them. But as a dean the learning is -almost- equally amazing.
However, with the office as a dean there are many constructed roles and traditional expectations. It is so great to learn these, and at times to change these. The role of the dean in general needs to shift from a role of power to a role of trust, I think. I saw many deans -also at Leuphana- being on this very same track. As a dean you are the head of a completely constructed institution, an institution that is made by people. Hence I see the position as an opportunity to change the institution of the dean, and also to change the institution per se through this. This is the most wonderful thing about this office – it is all about driving change. I am so glad to be the dean. I thank you so much for this opportunity!