On The Sharing of COVID-19 Statistics

By Jorge Cortell — Imported from 500px (archived version) by the Archive Team. (detail page), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87729840

I’ve worked in statistics for 25 years. It’s my avocation and my occupation. With the advent of COVID-19 and daily CDC updates, my sistren and brethren of the craft seem to be welcoming a burgeoning number to our ranks. People on both sides of the re-open/don’t reopen debate (yes, both sides) are using statistics like a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

When it comes to the primary charts and tables released daily by the CDC, I have scrutinized every base, every legend, and every label. And I can tell you that exactly *one* of these things is true:

1. The statistics are confusing.
2. The statistics are conflicting.
3. You don’t understand statistics.

Watching people cherry-pick a stat to support the belief they already held in the absence of data is like watching someone grab a platypus in the dark and argue that it’s a duck. It’s not a duck. In the comments of nearly every Facebook post I’ve seen about ending the lockdown, somebody makes this comment: “Well, statistics can be made to show anything.” My dog-eared copy of Strunk & White tells me to Eschew Passive Language, so let’s just put the subject of that sentence back in, shall we? “YOU make statistics show anything YOU want to show.” Statistics are not misleading. Statistics simply are. People mislead.

The most dispiriting thing about this lapse in critical thinking is watching people dig in when one or more of these statistics is more fully explained and/or shown to actually contradict their argument. Here’s a phrase that truly, truly disappoints me: “The point still stands.” Does it? When the legs of the stool you are sitting on have been kicked out, the only thing keeping that seat under your ass is belief. So, let’s just be honest about that. Every credible public opinion poll I’ve seen in the last month shows that your attitude about public policy related to COVID-19 breaks sharply on partisan lines. Your stance on this is down to your ideology, not statistics.

If you’re good with that, I’m good with that, and we can be friends. But wear a damn mask.

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