Some weeks ago, I wrote a post calling attention to innumeracy–the inability to think well about numbers. It’s a common problem, and unlike illiteracy it has little to do with basic education. That is, innumeracy could be addressed with education, but it usually isn’t, so you can be well-educated and even good at math and still be functionally innumerate.
Here is an example; when the Australia fires were in the news, it was easy to get figures for the number of acres that were currently on fire, but news stories typically didn’t mention what percentage of Australia’s area that was–or, since much of Australia is open desert, how much of the country’s forests were on fire, or how much had burned already total. A moment’s thought will show the relevance of these questions, and yet reporters consistently assumed nobody would want to know.
If you feel personally called out by this post, please stay with me; innumeracy is a serious problem, but it’s ridiculously common problem that has nothing to do with your overall intelligence. Basically, most human beings find numbers counter-intuitive, and very few of us are ever taught how to counteract the natural mistakes we make on the subject. The first step is to realize you are making natural mistakes–it’s a bit like learning how to back up with a trailer, a thing which everybody does disastrously wrong unless somebody tells them that they have to turn the wheel the opposite way from what makes sense.
The reason I’m bringing this up again today is I’ve noticed a similar problem with the new coronavirus. It’s easy to get figures for the number of people infected, the number of people killed, broken down by country or even by state, but hard to find context for those numbers.
I’m also seeing a lot of social media posts that present scary numbers without context.
COVID-19 in Context
First it was the posts insisting that COVID-19 isn’t as bad as seasonal flu because seasonal flu has killed so many more people. I haven’t seen those in a while, now, so perhaps more people are realizing that total number of people already killed isn’t the relevant number–it’s the number of people who could be killed over the course of the outbreak, and the number of people who will get sick enough to require hospital care (the prospect looms of running out of hospital beds).
Now, what I’m seeing is graphs showing how fast the outbreak is growing in the US as compared to other countries, but without mention of the population size of each country.
Yes, we might have the number of infections Italy did a few weeks before their hospitals got over-run, but that doesn’t mean we have the same number of weeks before ours are over-run. The US population is over five times that of Italy. Everything else being equal, we should have five times the number of hospital beds and more time before those beds are all occupied (even if they could be all occupied eventually).
Of course, everything else is not equal. I have no idea how the Italian medical infrastructure compares to that of the US, and I am aware that neither country has its COVID cases spread evenly throughout the population. The total number of ventilators in a country is not as important as the number of ventilators in one hospital, and if that hospital serves an area experiencing a concentrated outbreak (such as that in New York State) it could well be over-run even if other hospitals in the country have no COVID cases at all.
I’m also not trying to argue that the situation isn’t scary. It is scary. We’re in a genuine emergency whose final outcome is far from clear at this point. What I am saying is that we’ll be better equipped to deal with the emergency if we’re asking the right questions.
What I want to know, for any given area (the US, the whole planet, my town, etc.),:
1. What percentage of the overall population is currently seriously ill? What percentage is quarantined?
2. How fast is the disease spreading currently? How is that rate changing?
3. What percentage of the intensive care capacity is being used and how is that number changing over time?
These numbers together give a picture of how close we are to catastrophe and how the US outbreak compares to that of other countries–and would give ordinary people tools to demand specific things of their government, such as more intensive restrictions if the spread is still too fast, or increased medical capacity if a local area is in danger of being over-run.
But I’m not seeing these numbers.
Remember Climate Change?
So why, other than a desire to be topical, am I talking about this disease?
Partly, yes, I want to be topical. I hope to return to more traditional subjects in next week’s post, but I do what to acknowledge the topic on everyone’s minds, and that’s the pandemic. But also, as I explained recently, climate change and pandemic are closely related topics; our ability to deal with each is being inhibited by a willful ignorance and distrust of science, a distrust of government leadership, and a Federal government that by and large refuses to provide effective leadership and sometimes becomes part of the problem.
The reductions in pollution we’re seeing as economies are forcibly shut down are temporary, but if this disease forces us to start paying attention to science, to math, and to the demands of reality itself, that may have lasting value.