Bryan Caplan  

I Win All My Ebola Bets

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Back in 2014, Ebola was national - and global - news.  Even in Africa, fears ultimately turned out to be overblown.  The WHO's official tally was about 11,000 fatalities.  The true figure is almost certainly higher, but not grossly so.  This is far short of the hundreds of thousands of deaths so many predicted.  Brad DeLong, for example, opined: "Ebola will not become the biggest public health problem in West Africa unless deaths reach the high seven figures - which they may: it is highly likely that deaths in the six figures are now baked in the cake."

In the U.S., the news was even better.  Total deaths came to one.  Given the effectiveness of sanitation and quarantine at preventing its spread, this was highly predictable.  But medical science didn't inoculate us against national hysteria.  And as usual, anti-immigration activists seized on this tragedy as an excuse for the policies they favor in sickness and in health.  My frequent debate opponent Mark Krikorian even tweeted under the hashtag #LibertariansForEbola.

Rather than fruitlessly argue with a maelstrom of passion, I publicly proposed the following bet in October, 2014:

$100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018.

Four noble souls took the other side.  Since today is January 1, 2018, I am pleased to announce that I have won the bet.  (Since all prepaid, we're already settled up).

Part of the reason deaths were mercifully low, no doubt, is that health workers took the danger seriously.  But of course, that's one of the variables wise bettors will factor into their decisions.  And despite angry Congressional calls for travel bans, Obama went with the moderate expert consensus.  Domestically speaking, little was done.  And domestically speaking, even less happened.

As always, you can insist I got lucky.  But this would carry far more weight if pessimists were lining up to take my money back in 2014.  Needless to say, they weren't.  Betting kills hyperbole; and for most people, politics without hyperbole is as dull as watching paint dry.

Still think I got lucky?  Well, if you've got another Ebola bet to propose, I'm all ears.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Mike Lorenz writes:

Glad I lost. Do I owe you anything? I may have already paid you. Happy New Year.

"$100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018."

Nope, Bryan loses, because:


Henry writes:

Ebola is probably an issue where you're much more concerned about the tail risks than the median outcome.

Philo writes:

The time line on global warning is so long that bettors would probably have to pass the bet on to their heirs.

David R Henderson writes:

@Roderick T. Long,
Nope, Bryan loses, because:

Ha ha. Well played, Rod.

Walter Clark writes:

I can't help but wonder how many bets Bryan is a part of that we will never see the results of. That is guaranteed to work as long as those he bets with have less readers. Or is it "fewer readers."

Ever wonder why companies that host mutual funds such as American Funds, have so many funds? The marketing smoke they use is "to fit the risk classification of the invester". Nope. It's so that their salesmen can cherry pick those funds that have just the right history. "Oh wow, you are right Mr. Smith, this fund of ours has done quite well."

Bjartur writes:

Any comment on the Bananapocalypse?

Barkley Rosser writes:

I congratulate you on your wisdom and foresight on this (and quite a few other) issues that you have bet on.

However, I must continue to dismiss your claims that there is anything "noble" about this sort of betting. It remains a third rate macho game that amounts to "Oh yeah? My dad can beat up your dad!" or something like that. Even when I have been convinced I am right (and I usually am), I have never engaged in such bets and never well. I cannot applaud them, even as I applaud your correct analysis, Bryan.

Garrett writes:

There’s nobility in taking a stand against cheap talk

Matt Bramanti writes:

Barkley, should I take your opinion at its face value?

David Manheim writes:


If you're not interested in the macho games, are you deciding predictive
accuracy is silly?

If not, you should at least be willing to make a public list of what you
think will happen, without betting.

kevin writes:


My one concern over your argument is that now, the anti-science crew will argue that since Ebola was never really a threat in the first place, we should stop funding research on drugs, vaccines and diagnostics.

I would never have taken your bet because the time window you provided is relatively short and Ebola is not native to the western hemisphere, so no natural cases were likely to occur. Nevertheless, it is of great concern that two point-of-care nurses who supposedly were trained in sterile technique and the proper use of personal protective equipment managed to infect themselves. We have a ways to go before we can feel confident we have to tools to manage these infectious disease crises in the future.

With that, I was on your side about the travel ban. I thought it was a grand invitation to the laws of unintentional consequences introducing themselves into the equation.

Rick Hull writes:
However, I must continue to dismiss your claims that there is anything "noble" about this sort of betting. It remains a third rate macho game that amounts to "Oh yeah? My dad can beat up your dad!" or something like that.


Do you see the value in:

* formalizing the opposing viewpoints
* having "skin" in the game
* agreement of terms and winning conditions
* tracking of concrete results

Can you further see the negative value in pundits who make vague claims, or claims which no one reasonably disagrees with, and who later self-congratulate on their track record of correct predictions? This can be quite misleading to the detriment of readers and epistemology generally.

There is an inherent difficulty and reluctance to make a bet which acts as crucible for belief, purifying and refining it until one can accept the possibility of making the bet.

I'm curious if you feel the same way about prediction markets as you do betting.

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