Youyang Gu

Data Scientist

A Dose of Optimism

December 17th, 2020

2020 has seen no lack of depressive outlooks, finger pointing, and pessimistic expectations. We’ve gotten so used to the negativity that we sometimes forget to look on the positive side. From the resiliency of our frontline health care workers to the movement to fight systemic discrimination, 2020 has also seen no lack of heroes. I want to share three positive things that I have personally experienced this year. While no place is perfect, thinking about these positives makes me thankful as a person and proud as an American.

1) Merits Over Credentials

Prior to my COVID-19 model, I was a data scientist working in finance and technology. I had no experience in infectious diseases or public health. When I started the project in April 2020, I remember having to google the word “epidemiology”.

Three weeks later, the CDC cited my model as one of six forecasting models. My work was the only one that was not affiliated with an academic institution. Over the next few months, I am glad that the vast majority of people have evaluated my work based on the merits of the work itself rather than my credentials / domain expertise.

Meritocracy is something that is often either disputed as nonexistent or taken for granted. But I cannot think of many other places in the world where a regular citizen’s side project can end up making the impact that it did. I am proud of our country’s encouragement of an entrepreneurial spirit and our unwavering dedication to wanting to achieve the best results, regardless of who it is or where it comes from.

Is the system perfect? Of course not. But I would not want to build a COVID-19 model anywhere else. I hope I can inspire others like myself to pursue projects they believe in and not be afraid of being viewed as underqualified.

2) Listening to All Sides

I’ve always kept my approach and commentary as unbiased and unpolitical as possible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’ve been able to receive a lot of support from people on all sides of the political spectrum. As a small example, my work has been cited by both CNN and Fox News.

When I started the project, I had fostered a “right vs wrong” way of thinking. In other words, I assumed that the “accepted” way of thinking is right, and everything else must be wrong. It took a while for me to realize that this isn’t always the case. I’ve seen many people use science as a cover to push their political beliefs, inadvertently or not. “Following the science” should not be seen as a belief system, but rather as a mode of enquiry.

I do my best to present a rigorous approach to my analysis while trying to see the issue from multiple perspectives. Using Twitter also enables me to listen to those who come from different backgrounds and may share different beliefs. While there will always be misinformed individuals, a sizable fraction of people have reasonable views that are not always highlighted. By trying to understand as many viewpoints as possible, I believe I was able to improve my modeling and analysis. I am glad I have been able to amass a bipartisan following who appreciates that. This approach also allows me to gain a deeper insight into issues and makes me optimistic that finding common ground is possible in this age of deep polarization.

I am especially grateful and touched to hear the stories of those who went out of their way to support my work. It’s stories like these that motivate me to keep doing what I do!

3) Progress on Masks and Being an Asian American

In February 2020, while the SARS-CoV-2 was still mostly “a virus from China”, I was already afraid to wear a mask whenever I stepped outside. As an Asian American, I was scared of being stereotyped and labeled. Or even worse, attacked. Unfortunately, attacks against Asian Americans like this one for simply wearing a mask were all too common during that period (and still is). My Asian friends and I created a group chat to share our experiences of harassment. Among us, the words “stay safe” had an entirely different meaning.

A few weeks later, I distinctly remember the moment I saw a non-Asian person wear a mask in public for the first time. It made me feel hopeful that we are all on the same team.

Fast forward a few months, and things have changed drastically. Surveys show that 89% of Americans wear masks in public settings. The public health community deserves credit for encouraging their use. While our news sources tend to be fixated on the 11% that don’t, we do not give enough credit to the 89% that do.

Could mask adherence be better? Of course. But I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful to unconditionally shame people into wearing one. We should work on messaging that educates and unifies, not belittles and divides.

Given my experiences from earlier this year, I personally would never have thought that mask acceptance would be as high as it is today. Does racism against Asian Americans still exist? Yes and yes. But I am hopeful of the progress we have made and look forward to continue building on that progress.

. . .

With the arrival of the vaccine, we can look to the light at the end of the tunnel. We should look to build a better post-pandemic world, while never forgetting the lives that were lost. I know I’m extremely lucky to be in the position I am today. I am hopeful that we can come together to make 2021 the start of a new “Roaring Twenties”.

Youyang is a data scientist and the creator of You can help support his project by clicking here.

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