Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: How the COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Our Misuse of Data

As I was reading the latest statistics regarding the spread of COVID-19, I became frustrated.  My frustration stemmed not just from the fact that we are unprepared despite repeated warnings, but also from the way our elected officials and their teams present (and the media reports) the data.  Having practiced environmental law for over thirty years and observed countless instances of data misuse and misinterpretation, I am not surprised, but I am disappointed.

I am not talking about the inherent unreliability of the data due to selective and inconsistent testing or the fact that we cannot count infected but asymptomatic people.  For a good discussion of that, see Nate Silver’s recent article.  Rather, I am talking about something much simpler: how many people are getting infected and at what ages.  During the early stages of the pandemic, the media were reporting that the virus was unusual because it appeared to afflict not the young or the elderly but the middle-aged.  Then, of course, it became apparent that the elderly were dying at a much higher rate than others (and at a higher rate than those infected with an ordinary flu).

I then had a discussion with someone who said “Yeah, but it turns out young adults are being infected at a high rate; they are vulnerable, too!”  It was this simple assertion I wished to validate (or invalidate).

But, that was not easy.  Nearly every article on the topic (and most government updates, too) focused on percentages – but the wrong percentages.  It is easy to find statements like the following: “A USA TODAY analysis of data reported by 19 states shows that Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection. States are reporting cases in every age range, though people in their 50s have slightly more confirmed cases on average.”  Here is the graph that accompanied it.

It afflicts everyone roughly equally, right?  Those in their 30s and 40s are as likely to be infected as those in their 70s, right?  WRONG!  These are percentages of total coronavirus cases, not percentages of the population.  There is a fundamental difference between saying 15% of the population between the ages of 30 and 40 are infected and 15% of the total infections are of people in their 30s.

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2016 there were roughly 323 million people in the United States, 43 million (13.3%) of whom were in the 30s and 20 million (6.2%) of whom were in their 70s.  If those percentages remain valid today, the graph above suggests that those in their 70s are more than twice as likely to become infected as those in their 30s.  Regardless of whether that figure is accurate, it certainly means that one cannot say that “Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection.”

How the data are reported makes a big difference.  Let’s get it right.

One thought on “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: How the COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Our Misuse of Data

  1. You are seeking logical data from a social political statement that happens to be using numbers to present their propaganda. The only thing a politician can do is pick up a phone and ask for support and keep their civilians calm. If civil uprising breaks out all is lost. Nurses,Doctors and Ems will just stay home while the city burns so to speak, or maybe literally. Remember the Bronx in the late 70s?
    At this point,I have noticed; All data is under reported (compare websites from county to state to fed). CNN and FOX agree on this topic, no arguments that the numbers are under reported whist the president says they are over reported.Most importantly, the longer exposure a person has to this contagion SarsCoV2 (Corona virus, Covid-19) the worse your infection and experience will be. This is obviously because the infection will have a super head start on your immune system with more pathogens in your system rather than slowly regenerating itself while your immune system ramps up. The largest problem is that all medical students are taught that although you may have antibodies from a virus, you may still become re-infected. their is no political immunity here, in real life things do not work that way. We are seeing re-infections now, and news doctors acting surprised, ask a pre-med or med student they have been answering that question on tests for the past 8 years to become certified in the medical field, yet all of the friendly TV MDs didn’t know this. I smell GAG ORDER from the top.

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