Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The title of this article is a famous quote by Mark Twain. It expresses things pretty well right now. We've talked about the liars and damned liars already -- many of whom are now trying to explain away their scaremongering before people figure out that they were had, but we haven't talked about the statistics. Let's do that. How many Americans have died from coronavirus? Believe it or not, you have no idea. Why?

One of the shocking things I learned as I grew up was that most statistics are bullspit, and the bigger the number the more likely it is to be bullspit. GNP is estimated with a fudge factor that is bigger than all the other inputs combined. Unemployment claims, which you think are added up from states, are based on surveys. Television ratings are estimated based on expectations. Book sales are based on pre-orders (estimates of upcoming sales) not actual sales. How many people prefer a toothpaste? That's done from a survey of as few as five people. How many women are wearing the wrong size bra (I actually saw this one once)? Made up from a marketing survey.

So what about coronavirus?

Well, we know the number of deaths, right? Ha. We know the number of people assumed to have died of coronovirus. Most were probably never tested, and even if they were, that only tells us they had it. You need an autopsy to know for sure and very few of them have been done. 7,000 people die every day (roughly) in the US already. 3,000 have died of this virus in two months, about 5 a day. Almost all of them were old and already sick. What are the chances that some of those 7,000 had heart attacks or the flu and it was wrongly attributed to coronavirus? Super high. So a good number of those 3,000 likely weren't really coronavirus deaths. Or what about the opposite? What about people who died of it, but it looked like a heart attack or the flu or pneumonia?

Ditto on who has the virus. We have no idea if someone who has the symptoms has it or has the flu without testing, and most don't get tested. On the flip side, no one who doesn't have the symptoms gets tested. So if 80% of sufferers show no symptoms, then the actual number of cases is 4-5 times higher than the reported number, they just aren't sick. In other words, it could be that almost none of the identified cases really have it and it could be possible that many times the number of reported cases exist.

But guess what?! That 80% figure which seems so sensible is itself based on total guesswork. It requires you to guess who has it (with almost none being tested) and divide the number by the number you think have it (without any being tested) who show no symptoms. So the one number is a guess based on the number of sick people you see without any idea who is really sick of what, and the bottom number is entirely pulled out of the expert's butts to create a percentage that could in truth range from 0% to 99% but sounds good at 80%.

We know nothing.

It gets worse. The media has been debating death rates to determine which country is doing better than other countries. Way to go Germany! Bad Italy! Yet, we not only don't know how many have died of the virus and we have no clue whatsoever how many have it. So they are using a formula that is essentially: Unknown but less than total dead people / no flippin' clue whatsoever, to tell us what country is doing well and which isn't. Does that make sense?

No, it doesn't. So remember that when the media is waving these numbers in your face, they are presenting you with a fantasy as if it were true.

At one point, Trump said the growth in the number of patients was the result of increased testing rather than increased spreading. That's true, but they crapped on him for saying it. The more you test, the more confirmed cases you find, the greater your numbers appear to become. The increase has nothing to do with more people having it or whatever, it's all about getting more numbers. Think of it this way. If you find an orange on the floor in the kitchen you know you have one orange. If you go look on the counter and find five more, the number in the kitchen hasn't increased, only the number known has. But the media is claiming that you have an orange pandemic because you found all six compared to your neighbor who didn't bother to look on the counter and claimed only to have one. That's what's happening here.

The rest of the debate is like this too. We now "KNOW" that healthy people can die. They probably can, but we don't know that. All we know is that people who self-reported as healthy have died. What we don't know -- and they likely didn't either -- is if they were really healthy. People drop dead of unknown conditions all the time. I know this won't be politically correct, but several of the recent "young and healthy" people were gay men. Wanna bet an AIDS connection, i.e. compromised immune system?

Here's the truth:
1. We don't know anything about the numbers, except...

2. We know that the death curve in the US has not been budged to any degree that would be statistically noticeable.
This last bit is important. It means that despite all the claims, there are not significantly more deaths than you would expect on any given day already. That means the virus has not changed the death rate of the world.

But what about this claim about hospitals being overwhelmed? Well, humans don't like overcapacity. That means that our hospital system is designed basically to take care of the number of people who are typically expected to be sick every day already. That means there is no room for more sick people. (For example, the ER at the hospital near me is a huge building, but it has only 36 beds... I know this because I've sat in the waiting room with my kids at times waiting for a bed to open). Add some new cause of illness and amazingly you suddenly end up overwhelmed with only a tiny number of new patients. Five a day would quickly overwhelm supply even though five a day is nothing to society.

None of this means not to worry. Don't think I'm saying that. Take precautions, take this seriously, be safe. It is dangerous and I want you all around. But don't believe the media drumbeat of chaos and the end of the world, and don't believe their attacks based on seemingly-solid but utterly invented statistics. That's just the modern version of witchhunting, only it's done with the false belief that this is genuine science.

Stay safe, but stay rational too.



ArgentGale said...

Not sure what I can add other than excellent summary of the garbage out there and how unfortunate it is that so many people are disregarding the rational part, especially politicians and others with the means to screw countless people. Yeah, I'm still aggravated by Georgia being under a Hide Under Your Bed Order effective Friday and the economic damage this freakout has caused. Not hard to see why panic related to those issues are resurgent. Thanks for keeping it rational here as always, Andrew.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Daniel. The problem is that much of the "news" provided today appears to be factual even though it isn't. That then justifies the crazy.

I want everyone to know not to trust what they are reading when it comes to doomsday scenarios and crazy talk. This disease is bad but it is not doomsday.

And let me be clear: I am not conspiratorial. I am not claiming this pandemic is fake or whatnot. I am just saying that rationally, this thing is not what they claim it is. On a personal level, it can be very dangerous. But to society, we never should have gone into this wild freakout.

Live in caution, not fear.

ArgentGale said...

No we shouldn't have and that's where the other kind of panic and depressive is surging, the kind about another long recession combined with a much bigger and more intrusive government presence in our lives being acceptable, if not welcomed. At least locally I'm seeing noticeably more anger and disgust with government actions and preventative kabuki theater than I am worry over the virus itself but it's also true that nobody is really doing anything about those things either. That's creating an unpleasant state of limbo that's hard to deal with.

AndrewPrice said...

I'll write about the future soon. All I will say for now is don't worry, this is not bad for America or conservatism. Indeed, smart leftists (not media leftists) are deeply depressed that this will kill their agenda.

ArgentGale said...

Looking forward to it, Andrew. I suspect you're right with the resentment towards the handling of the virus as opposed to the virus itself that's becoming more visible. It's just slogging through the heavy handed stupidity from people and politicians of both parties that's exhausting, not to mention the economic damage that's been done.

Critch said...

I live in a county of 42,000 people. We have had one confirmed case of the virus, and he got it from going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There are two cases in some nearby counties, and guess what, they got it from going to Mardi Gras....I'm having problems believing too much from the .gov, frankly, I've just got to where I trust little of what they tell me. It seems like anything they do only consolidates power for them. A friend of mine in Colorado said that background checks for a gun purchase used to only take a few minutes, but because the number of gun purchases has doubled, it now takes 3 days...hmmm, I'm no Einstein, but the math is way wrong. We are being careful, but, I'm also careful when it come to the flu. BTW, I don't trust anything out of China...I still think they goofed up and let something out.

Tennessee Jed said...

The orange analogy is great. It is sickening watching the media spread fear. Even more sickening to me is the Dems trying to ramp up yet another “investigation” I think this will hurt them in November

ArgentGale said...

Looks like you're not the only one making note of the statistical problems here, Andrew. I found a two more blog posts saying similar things (the second is a regular read of mine, the first isn't but did come through Mrs. Hoyt's Facebook page for the record) so it's good that people are talking about it. How far it's getting, though, I'm less sure about. Also, thanks to the Hide Under Your Bed Order hoarding is cool again and Walmart is only allowing 50 people in the store at once...right when I need cat litter and could use some milk, annoyingly enough. Can people please stop with the stupid already?

AndrewPrice said...

Hi Daniel, I want to be clear on this though...

The fact we know nothing means that the criticisms we are seeing and many of the prescriptions are false. They are based on fake data.

What I am not saying is, "The numbers are fake, the government is lying, this whole thing is a hoax or evil plan to destroy the world."

I am not suggesting conspiracy. I am suggesting stupidity.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed.

A good number of the Dems have been acting very disgustingly throughout this. But that is who they are. They have no shame about exploiting tragedy.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, That probably falls into the, "We're all 'working' from home, we can't be fast" category.

ArgentGale said...

I know, Andrew, and if I overlooked or otherwise glossed over any conspiratorial suggestions in the links chalk it up to exhaustion. I agree it's been stupidity from top to bottom here with some exploiters mixed in that feeds the worry and it gets hard to hold up sometimes. Thanks as always for keeping it sane.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Daniel. No, I wasn't saying you were suggesting it. It's just that I see a lot of "they aren't telling us the proof, they don't know" followed by "this is all a vast conspiracy to ___."

I want to be clear that that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that the political types (left and right) and basing their attacks on statistics that just aren't true.

And mostly, I want to point out that this thing is not statistically significant no matter how big the numbers look.

tryanmax said...

Statistics is so much modern numerology. Take some numbers of uncertain origin, math them, et voila! Ontological certitude!

I saw some baloney yesterday about how COVID is now the third leading cause of death. Somebody who nobody ever heard of with "MD" after her name made a shocking infographic, a couple news outlets picked it up, so now it's fact. Don't question whether you can meaningfully compare one month of data to annual data. Don't you believe in math?

Speaking of things nobody heard of before, I keep seeing worldometers touted as a source for COVID data. According to their about page, their stats are trusted by several news outlets. Here's the punchline [from their website, original emphasis]:

How it works
For the COVID-19 data, we collect data from official reports, directly from Government's communication channels or indirectly, through local media sources when deemed reliable.

If you weren't distracted by the boldface, you might have caught that they pull their numbers from wherever they feel like. Yet this is a source many people rely on.

Finally, filed under "great minds," I'd like to share this tweet:

Our national strategy of making #coronavirus decisions based on data when all of our data is bullshit seems suboptimal. — Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) April 2, 2020

AndrewPrice said...


Scott Adams is a truly insightful and intelligent man... and the left hates him for it. Thanks for sharing that!

"Don't you believe in math?!" So true. The defensive cry of an idiot who doesn't understand that challenging the underlying assumptions is part of science... doing the math it not controversial.

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