The gong-show of flexible numbers: Donald J. Trump, the commander in chief, began his day on the Fox News Channel.
Later, he staged his regular daily briefing concerning the year of the plague. He began in the same old way, in the manner of a wartime president:
TRUMP (3/24/20): Let me provide you an update on critical preparations and supplies in our war on the virus. Through FEMA, the federal government is distributing more than 8 million N95 respirators, 14 million surgical masks and many, many millions more under order and there’ll be arriving soon.Many, many millions more will be arriving soon. It doesn't get much more specific than that!
2.4 million face shields, 1.9 million surgical gowns, 13.5 million gloves and more than 4,000 ventilators to the areas of greatest need have already been sent and we have 4,000 being delivered to New York. The federal government is using every resource at its disposal to acquire and distribute critical medical supplies.
Meanwhile, is that 13.5 million gloves, or is it 13.5 million pairs of gloves? Ironically quoting Wittgenstein, to whom we expect to return next week:
No such thing was in question here, only how the [words "13.5 million pairs of gloves" were] used.Here again, the nation was subjected to the gong-show of large numbers. The commander's very large numbers put the nation's hearts as ease. No attempt would ever be made to compare the very large numbers he recited to the substantially larger numbers which define the nation's apparent needs.
So it goes as we, the rational animal, negotiate our year of the plague.
But then, it wasn't just the commander who offered large numbers yesterday! Later in yesterday's session, Field Marshal Birx offered this:
BIRX: Thank you, Mr. President. I think those of you who heard at the town hall, we are continuing to accelerate testing at a record rate. We now have 370,000 tests that have been done. The majority of those—over 220,000 in the last eight days—which, those of you who have been tracking the South Korea numbers, put us equivalent to what they did in eight weeks that we did in eight days.Say what? Birx was now producing large numbers too. But what exactly had the trusted field marshal said?
She clearly seemed to make these statements:
1) We've now conducted 370,000 tests.She'd clearly made those statements. But she also seemed to have made these claims:
2) We conducted 220,000 tests in the last eight days alone.
1) We've done more tests, overall, than South Korea has.That's what the field marshal seemed to have said. But uh-oh! Later in the important briefing, the commander took her overall statement and may perhaps and possibly have embellished it just a tad:
2) The number of tests we did in the last eight days equals the numbers of tests the South Koreans have done in eight weeks.
TRUMP: One of the things that’s happened, that we’ve done, I think, a really good job on it. I think that it’s something special what’s happened, is, I learned from Dr. Birx a little while ago when she said—Something special had occurred. The commander had learned it that afternoon, plus, we have the best test.
I learned it actually this afternoon. In eight days—because we kept hearing about South Korea. They had a very tough time at the beginning if you remember. In eight days, we’re doing more testing than they’ve done in eight weeks. That’s a tremendous turn and with our testing it’s going exponentially it’s going up, up, up every day. So we’re going to be able to do things with this very highly sophisticated testing and it’s also, the test itself is considered the best test.
"We kept hearing about South Korea," the embattled commander said. But in the past eight days, we've done more testing than South Korea had done in eight weeks!
Just like that, we'd gone from matching the ballyhooed South Koreans to outperforming them! We'd now done more testing in eight days than they did in eight weeks. The numbers were no longer "equivalent," which seemed to be what Field Marshal Birx had said.
Such is the never-ending gong-show of flexible numbers. Trump embellished the apparent statement by Birx. But even as this gong-show unfolded, another problem was lurking:
Unstated at any point was the relative size of the two nations in question. Just consider this:
According to the latest fake news from NPR, South Korea's population is 51 million. Our own population is said to be larger—327 million.
No one believes those numbers, of course. But if those ridiculous numbers were accurate, that would mean that South Korea has still bigly out-tested us on a per capita basis:
MONTANARO (3/24/20): South Korea has a population of just 51 million people; the United States has 327 million.No one believes those crazy numbers. But that's what NPR said.
At about 300,000 tests in each country, that means South Korea has tested 1-in-170 people; the United States: 1-in-1,090.
That's more than six times less, per capita, than South Korea.
In closing, let's return to what Field Marshal Birx seemed to have said. She seemed to say that our 220,000 tests in the past eight days were equivalent to the number of tests the Koreans had performed over the past eight weeks.
According to NPR, even that apparent statement was false. Because it wasn't quite false enough, the commander came along and, eternally selling the car, embellished it a bit.
(According to the Statista site, South Korea had conducted 348,000 tests as of yesterday afternoon. That would be substantially more than 220,000 tests.)
The commander and his top field marshal handed yesterday's flexible numbers to a grateful nation. NPR performed a fact check, but very few others did. Jealousy about basic facts is still a hit-or-miss proposition within our upper-end press corps and its gong-show culture.
Even this late in our species' career, this is the way information flows at the top of our floundering culture.
We humans! We've long believed that we're "the rational animal." In his later work, Wittgenstein sketched a remarkably basic way our reasoning tends to go astray, especially at the highest intellectual levels.
According to Professor Horwich, the academy threw that work away. In this and in other ways, the academy, over the past many decades, helped pave the way to our own Donald J. Trump.