News & Politics

COVID-19, Number Blindness, and the Monolithic Legacy Media

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The Legacy Media isn’t just innumerate, they’re number-blind. We’ve seen a lot of examples this year.

Hell, this week.

One was the recent debacle of some poor woman who posted that Bloomberg had spent $500 million on ads, and so could have just given the 327 million Americans a million dollars.

I don’t want to call down more derision on her — she’s changed her Twitter profile to “I’m not good at math” and protected her tweets — you all leave her alone — but I am going to call down more derision on Brian Williams and Mara Gay because they are supposed to be smart news sources and everything. (Treacher did a good job of that too, although I do think he’s only the second-least influential blogger. But I think Williams and Gay deserve more and I’m trying to make a point.)

So here’s the deal, a literal back-of-an-envelope calculation:

Okay, strictly it’s the back of an index card. I couldn’t find an envelope.

This is literally fourth-grade arithmetic: you cancel out the millions and it’s 500/327 and that’s 1.5290519, close enough. I don’t expect news people to see that down to eight significant figures — god knows I used a calculator — but I do imagine that they’d see, pretty intuitively, that 500/327 would be closer to one and a half than one million.

I suppose you could put it down to innumeracy, but I think it’s not that complicated. I think they literally don’t think about numbers at all. They didn’t see that it was silly because it never runs through their heads.

Of course, this isn’t the only one this week. In my recent VIP piece, I hit one of them. The basic idea was that Trump was lying or something when he said that he had a “hunch” that the real case-fatality rate for COVID-19 would turn out to be much less than the 3.4 percent case-fatality rate the WHO was quoting.

Now, the WHO was saying something precise and with caveats to explain what to draw from the numbers; Trump was saying something else. As I said in the piece, the real rational conclusion was that both Trump and the WHO were right: the current case-fatality rate of confirmed cases was around 3.4 percent and the case-fatality rate will probably turn out to be much less than that. Now, this was widely reported, for example in an article by Anthony Fauci and others in the New England Journal of Medicine, the real case-fatality rate is probably in the range of 0.1 percent to 1 percent. I’m not above noting that my own estimates fall right in that range. (Insert Ana Navarro-esque nail buffing here.) Fauci goes on to say:

If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.2

It’s hard to tell if this is an example of just not being able to think about numbers or a case of Trump trance, where anything Trump says must be wrong, but the real point is that Trump wasn’t wrong and a very little bit of informed reading would have shown that.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter: the underlying point is that you basically can’t trust anything that anyone in the Megalithic Legacy Media says about anything involving math or science.

And I wish I could think of something that could be done about that.