Today: Jun 06 , 2020

Opinion: On Innumeracy and Hyperbole in the COVID Pandemic

14 May 2020   Cory Franklin

Mathematical illiteracy and misunderstanding of large numbers is contributing to the misunderstanding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID pandemic is evolving, and authorities agree that plans to loosen restrictions, terminate stay-at-home orders, and reopen society must be “data-driven.” But data are always at the mercy of the twin hazards that the media, epidemiologists, Nobel laureates and politicians of both parties are infected by: innumeracy and hyperbole.

Innumeracy is mathematical illiteracy and misunderstanding of large numbers that even educated people demonstrate. The term coined by esteemed mathematics professor John Allen Paulos, innumeracy was on full display in early March when Michael Bloomberg withdrew from the presidential race after spending $500 million. MSNBC host Brian Williams, along with guest New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay, observed, “Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. U.S. population 327 million … he could have given each American $1 million and have had lunch money left over.”

Bloomberg’s $500 million of course, would have provided just $1 to every American, not $1 million. It would take $327 trillion to make every American a millionaire.

Regarding the COVID epidemic, Marc Lipsitch, a leading American epidemioloigst, recently cited in the New York Times a study that “suggests that rather than, say 10 times the number of detected cases, the United States may really have more like 100, or even 1,000, times the official number.” When the piece was written, there were 600,000 reported cases in the United States. Ten times — 6 million, plausible. One hundred times — 60 million, outside chance. But with the United States population of 327 million, 1,000 times the current number of detected cases would mean 600 million. Um, no.

Another, more consequential venture into innumeracy was by the leading British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, director of the prestigious MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London. His report predicted coronavirus deaths in the United Kingdom could reach 550,000. This was the basis for the initial coronavirus strategy implemented in the U.K. and played a role in our approach in the United States. The U.K. has 50 million adults (almost no children have died from COVID) and the high-end mortality of all cases is estimated at 1 percent. Ferguson’s 550,000 estimate would mean that every adult in the U.K. would have to contract the disease. His estimate simply did not jibe with reality. He has since reduced his projections at least tenfold (and has resigned from his post after a personal indiscretion).

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer contributed to innumeracy by calling for 150 million COVID tests per week in the United States. The country unquestionably needs more testing, but 150 million tests per week would mean 250 tests per second if testing was done continuously for 24 hours, or 750 tests per second in a standard eight-hour day — logistically impossible to perform, process and report. Even if it were possible, at that level the error rate in the test, false positives and false negatives, would render many of the results meaningless.

The COVID response has also been characterized by extreme hyperbole or exaggeration. President Trump stated recently that “the United States has done far more testing than any nation, by far.” True, but misleading. The United States has done more than 9 million tests, the most in the world, but when adjusted for population, at least 15 countries have done more testing per capita than the United States.

Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois got into the act after the first month of the lockdown by claiming that without the stay-at-home order, 14 times as many deaths would have occurred in Illinois. At the time Illinois had experienced about 1,700 deaths. Fourteen times as many would have meant the state would have experienced 24,000 deaths in a single month, more than New York or any country in the world had experienced during the whole pandemic at the time. The order may have saved lives in Illinois, but nothing remotely close to 24,000 in one month.

A similar hyperbole was voiced by Laurence Barton, crisis management and public safety professor at the University of Central Florida. Analyzing the surprisingly low death count in Florida, he said, “Many older people self-quarantined before being told to do so by the governor. That decision by an older population may have well saved, in my opinion, tens of thousands of lives.”

Hold on — tens of thousands? No state except for New York has experienced even 10,000 deaths; New York has seen 25,000. Only four countries in the world have had 20,000 deaths. However many were saved in Florida, it wasn’t tens of thousands.

Finally, a recent draft report by the Centers for Disease Control predicted that by June 1 the country could see 200,000 new cases and 3,000 new deaths every day. To date, the most cases the country has seen in one day is about 30,000; 200,000 means the rate would have to rise sevenfold in the next two and a half weeks.

Likewise, the country has not yet had one day of 3,000 deaths; the current rate of increase would almost have to double in a relatively short period. Not likely at all — both the rise in new cases and deaths have been dropping since the report.

Innumeracy, hyperbole or both? Either way, these two bugaboos are obscuring a clear view of the COVID data.


Cory Franklin, a retired Chicago-area physician, wrote this for InsideSources.