Facts and Figures
Statistics are not something I usually worry about. But with this Covid-19 crisis going on there are pages and pages of numbers and graphs and models being shown all over the place; internet news sources, social media pages, newspapers, regular network TV and cable TV. I’ve even seen cartoons alluding to facts and figures. And I guess it’s good that all this information is so readily available. However, given the American tendency to argue about everything, I wonder if there’s any value in spreading all these numbers around. It’s especially worrisome if there are conflicts in various sets of research results or predictions based on different extrapolated models. (Extrapolated models – two words I’ve never used and barely understand)
We Americans like to think we’re pretty smart. And, to borrow a phrase I saw in an article yesterday, we think because we’ve attended the University of Google we know lots and lots of stuff about nearly everything. Supposedly, according to Google, we’re the best-informed population to ever squat in any place on this planet. A friend of mine recently posted a longish article describing what real research looks like. It was all I could do to finish the thing. But I did, and I decided then and there that I would stick to a more pedestrian layman’s form of research. Real research is hard work. Checking multiple sources, finding original sources, weighting the bias in a source, looking up words to see if they mean what they seem to mean, reading footnotes (who the hell reads those things?) constitute hard mental labor.
So, I skim the news, pay close attention to visual aids, read columns from really smart people who get the information down to my non-expert level while throwing in some good jokes, and then formulate my opinions (also known as brilliant observations) from all of that. Then I run my mouth as if I’ve done months and months of research. Just kidding.
And that brings me back to data analysis. The Corona Virus numbers are confusing. Depending on the source, we are either headed for complete extinction or we’re well on our way to beating the pants off this thing. Just figuring out how each study arrives at the little lines on the graph is a daunting task. Some studies include something they call “unreported cases” or “suspected cases.” Apparently, they use some fancy algorithm (what the heck is an algorithm, by the way?) to get the numbers of these cases. This is what statisticians do. They make informed guesses. Which is suspiciously like weather forecasters, and we know how often they’re right. But the actual facts in their charts and graphs don’t always match up with each other. A lot of people have been killed by this virus. But some people doing the counting are saying a person died from the virus even if that person already was very sick from lung cancer or heart disease or some other awful ailment. And some of those who died “from the virus” were never actually tested because tests were not available at the time.
All of this doesn’t matter. People are getting sick. Some people are getting very, very sick. And some people are dying. This is not unlike the flu. But the official line is that it is not like the flu. This virus is much more virulent; we don’t know enough about it, it spreads faster, it affects more parts of the body, good treatments are not available, there is no vaccine. And here’s one of the “brilliant observations” I mentioned earlier: arguing about whether it’s like the flu or not is just kind of silly. Let the medical people figure that out. And let the medical people figure out the best treatments and let them create a vaccine in due time. If I’m sitting here on the River arguing on line with a very kind poet lady from Petaluma, CA about whether the University of Sacramento’s study on hot spots is better than the University of Michigan’s, I’m doing nothing good at all. We should be talking about what a fine poem she just wrote. We can commiserate on the terrible nature of this disease. We can offer sympathy to each other for the personal losses we have experienced during this crisis or others. We can even offer each other suggestions on how to deal with the loneliness of quarantine. But arguing about statistics won’t help either of us and our arguments very well could be based on opinions derived from lack of expertise.
I know a couple of people who are actually doing the hard research. They study the studies, they read the deep journals, they compare, check sources, understand science and know how to apply filters to all this information. And they are very cautious when they speak on what they’ve learned. They also don’t argue with angry voices. One of my friends has done a whole lot of research and he has also listened to nearly every briefing put out by the White House, the CDC, several state Governors, FEMA and even the Public Health Agency in Canada. He told me, quietly, that it would be better to listen only to the people directly involved in the sciences of epidemiology, virology, internal medicine and general health care. He advised me to stay away from politicians and the politically motivated, pollsters, commercial news sources and statisticians. Another friend out in California (which seems to be a test lab for societal problems) also watches daily briefings and pays close attention to the numbers, pointing out discrepancy after discrepancy in an excellent, near daily recap. He’s a calm and reasonable fellow but his increasing frustration reflects the chaos he observes.
And, of course, don’t look for much good, solid information on social media. For every accurate, reasonable, fact-checked piece on Facebook you’ll find hundreds of bits of foolishness and fantasy. Social media is fine for many entertaining things but it’s not the place to learn science and medicine. Enjoy the funny skits, excellent musical postings and friendly banter from relatives and acquaintances. Just don’t rely on social media for answers to important questions.
I need to bring in some more firewood for the wood stove now. And I think I’ll read some poetry. A friend sent me a volume of James Wright’s work and that will require enough concentration to effectively distract me from all this statistical business. Hope you all have a fine day in your varying degrees of isolation.