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Commentary: Innumeracy and hyperbole also are rampant in the pandemic

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cory franklin

Cory Franklin

The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving, and authorities agree that plans to loosen restrictions must be “data-driven.” But data are at the mercy of twin hazards — innumeracy and hyperbole — that infect the news media, epidemiologists, Nobel laureates and politicians of both parties.

Innumeracy is mathematical illiteracy and the misunderstanding of large numbers, a term coined by math professor John Allen Paulos.

Innumeracy was on full display when Michael Bloomberg withdrew from the presidential race after spending $500 million. MSNBC host Brian Williams observed that “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.” Of course, Bloomberg’s $500 million would have provided only $1 to every American.

Leading epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch 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.” At the time, there were 600,000 reported cases in the United States. Ten times — 6 million, plausible. One hundred times — 60 million, outside chance. But with a U.S. population of about 327 million, 1,000 times the confirmed number would mean 600 million cases. Um, no.

British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, director of the prestigious MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, in a report predicted coronavirus deaths in the U.K. could reach 550,000. That turned out to be the basis for the U.K.’s strategy and played a role in our approach. But the U.K. has about 50 million adults and the high-end mortality of all cases is about 1%. Ferguson’s 550,000 estimate would mean that every adult in the U.K. would have to get infected.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer called for 150 million COVID-19 tests per week in the United States. We unquestionably need more testing, but 150 million tests per week would mean 250 tests per second around the clock, or 750 tests per second in an eight-hour day — logistically impossible. Even if possible, the error rate would render many results meaningless.

Hyperbole or exaggeration: President Donald Trump recently said “the United States has done far more testing than any nation, by far.” True but misleading. We’ve 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.

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker got into the act after a month of lockdown, claiming that without a stay-at-home order, 14 times as many deaths would have occurred. At the time, Illinois had about 1,700 deaths. Fourteen times as many would have meant the state would have had 24,000 deaths in a single month, more than New York or any country in the world. The order may have saved lives, but not 24,000 in a month.

Another example is Laurence Barton. The crisis management and public safety professor at the University of Central Florida, analyzing the surprisingly low death count in Florida, 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 and Prevention predicted that by June 1 the country could see 200,000 new cases and 3,000 new deaths per 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. In fact, the rate of increase has been falling since the report.

Innumeracy, hyperbole or both? Either way, these two bugaboos are obscuring a clear view of COVID-19 data.

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

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