INTELLECTUAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Rachel and Brian do it again!

TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2020

Statistical blunders abound:
No, it doesn't actually matter.

That said, it actually happened. This Sunday, in the Sunday Review, the New York Times published an informative essay by Dr. Mary Bassett.

Bassett directs the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard. In her essay, she argued that upscale New York City residents shouldn't flee the city during the pandemic. The affluent should stay where they are.

Should we blame Gotham's population density for the city's high rate of infection and death? According to Dr. Bassett, it isn't the population density that's at fault—it's "household overcrowding" among lower income residents, along with other income-related factors.

We thought the essay was quite informative, though possibly not convincing with respect to its narrowest point. Weirdly, though, in paragraph 3, Dr. Bassett said this:
BASSETT (5/17/20): New York [City] had an average life expectancy roughly 2.5 years longer than the nation’s in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. This is good news, since most of humanity lives in cities, and in the United States, over half of the population lives in cities of one million residents or more.
Bassett's basic statistical claims seem to be accurate. In this official report to which she linked, average life expectancy at birth was 81.2 years in New York City in 2017.

Based on this CDC report, it seems that the corresponding figure for the United States as a whole was 78.6 years.

As of 2017, babies born in New York City had a higher life expectancy than those born throughout the U.S.! Especially now, with the pandemic raging, that fact will perhaps seem surprising.

That said, we remain puzzled, two days later, by the way Dr. Bassett referred to that fact as (unqualified) "good news." We're still trying to puzzle out the logic of that assessment.

People born in New York City were expected to live longer? That sounds like good news for people born in New York. But couldn't it possibly sound like bad news for people born everywhere else?

Dr. Bassett bases her assessment on the fact that "most of humanity lives in cities." But do people who live in cities have some intrinsic health and longevity advantage over those who don't?

Bassett doesn't attempt to argue that point. We found her "good news" statement puzzling.

We're still trying to puzzle out the logic of that assessment. That said, very late on Sunday night—actually, in the wee hours of Monday morning—we observed a statistical groaner whose busted logic was clear.

It happened on CNN, where Robyn Curnow was hosting an overnight show. At one point, she spoke with Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease specialist, about an earlier, somewhat murky set of statements made by Alex Azar.

As he spoke on Sunday with Jake Tapper, Azar had made a type of statement which every mainstream pundit has made on TV by this time. The statement dealt with the relatively high rates of "comorbidities"—pre-existing health care challenges—which exist within the country's black and Hispanic populations.

By now, everyone and his crazy uncle has cited this unfortunate state of affairs. That said, Azar's presentation to Tapper had possibly been a bit insensitively framed—plus, he's from the Trump administration.

Curnow's response to Azar's statements made no sense at all. With Curnow taking the lead, this exchange occurred:
CURNOW (5/18/20): We know that the Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, also suggested underlying conditions, especially among minority communities, were factors in the disease killing so many Americans. Here he is telling CNN's Jake Tapper that diversity is part of the problem.

[VIDEOTAPE OF TAPPER AND AZAR: For text, see below]

CURNOW: You just heard those comments there from, you know, a top person within the U.S. here, saying that the reason America is the worst in terms of the death toll is because of obesity, and inequality, and hypertension, and diabetes, and diversity. But countries around the world all have that as well.

SENANAYAKE: Yes, that's right. I mean, certainly, we do know that people who get severe episodes of COVID are more likely to have certain underlying chronic conditions, chronic heart disease, chronic lung disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancer etc. But that's not necessarily—

CURNOW: But those aren't exclusive to the U.S.

SENANAYAKE: No, no, exactly. It's not exclusive to the U.S. at all. And just because you have them and you have COVID isn't necessarily a death sentence either. So, there are other factors too.

So, how quickly did you get tested? How quickly could you seek testing? And were you able to get into a hospital in time? Did the hospital have the capacity to look after you in terms of doctors, nurses and ventilators? So, all of those are factors as well.

CURNOW: Yes, they certainly are. I want to talk about some of those underlying conditions just a moment, but also when we talk about America, most states here are reopening...
Curnow never did return to the question of those underlying health conditions. Nor did she show any ability to respond to what Azar had said, except by advancing an obvious, irrelevant fact.

Had Azar actually told Tapper that "diversity is part of the problem?" We'd call that a somewhat shaky paraphrase. (You can see their fuller exchange below.)

At any rate, Curnow responded by saying that "comorbidities"—those underlying health conditions—exist everywhere in the world, not just in the U.S. That is obviously true, of course, but it was irrelevant to what Azar had said.

At one point, Azar had seemed to say that the American population has a higher level of such comorbidities as compared to other nations. We don't know if that is true; we're not even sure that that's what Azar meant.

But Curnow took a tribal approach, and Senanayake was willing to follow. She kept insisting that comorbidities exist all over the world, not just in the U.S.!

That statement is plainly true. It also had no apparent relevance to anything Azar had said. It represented a tribal pushback against Curnow's reflexive sense that Azar had attacked diversity. We can't say it's clear that he did.

By the way, did you notice another problem with Curnow's presentation? It came when she said that "America is the worst [in the world] in terms of the death toll" from the coronavirus.

That isn't even close to true if you simply adjust for size of population. But again and again and again and again, over and over and over and over, American journalists—even American academics—seem to have a very hard time with the simplest statistical presentations and the simplest statistical logic.

For decades, American journalists have struggled with so basic a statistical matter as adjusting economic data for inflation. Education reporters rarely seem inclined to "disaggregate" American test scores—to present comparisons in which adjustments have been made for demographic differences.

In the current situation, anti-Trump journalists insist on declaring that the United States "leads the world in the death toll." However tribally pleasing it may be, that claim that is nowhere near true if you simply adjust for size of population.

Last night, we saw Rachel Maddow perform that basic statistical groaner at least three separate times. Less than two hours later, Brian Williams opened his program like this:
WILLIAMS (5/18/20): Well, good evening, once again, on day one thousand, two hundred and fifteen of this Trump administartion. One hundred sixty-nine days until our presidential election.

Today, our country leads the world in coronavirus infections, and in deaths
. Our death total tonight stands at 91,172...
Williams' numbers were accurate. But does the United States really lead the world in coronavirus deaths?

That's only true because of the size of our population. Once again, for the ten millionth time, here are a few of the numbers:
Deaths from Covid-19 per million population, as of May 19:
Belgium: 786
Spain: 593
Italy: 529
United Kingdom: 513
France: 433


United States: 278
Does the United States "lead the world in deaths?" We certainly do if you want us to—and many star pundits do.

In these highly tribalized times, many anti-Trump journalists may want the United States to "lead the world in deaths." Dumbly, Trump ignores population size when he says we lead the world in testing. Anti-Trump stars dumbly follow suit when they say we lead in deaths!

The intellectual state of the union is remarkably weak. Maddow is Our Own Rhodes Scholar. But have we ever watched her in the past month without seeing her make some statistically misleading claim?

In this sense, our nation's intellectual infrastructure is remarkably weak. Our sitting president is deeply disordered. Our academics and high-end journalists don't always seem a lot better.

Most strikingly, you can't watch people like Maddow and Williams (and Tapper) without seeing low-IQ statistical groaners. And then, there's the liberal world's attempts to deal with Tara Reade—to deal with what Reade has said.

Tomorrow, we're going to journey to The Atlantic in search of a more competent discourse. We'll look at two recent columns by Conor Friedersdorf. One column deals with Tara Reade; one column deals with Trump.

Our nation's intellectual infrastructure has been in tatters for decades. Friederdorf takes us to a better place—but we won't even be giving him straight A's! That's how bad it is!

Tomorrow: Friedersdorf on Donald Trump, Friedersdorf on Reade

What Azar said: Below, you see the excerpt Curnow played from Azar's interview with Tapper:
AZAR (5/17/20): Every death is tragic, but we have maintained our health care burden within the capacity of our system to actually deal with it. Unfortunately, the American population is a very diverse and— And it is a, it is a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular, African-American, minority communities, are particularly at risk here because of significant underlying disease health disparities and disease comorbidities, and that is an unfortunate legacy in our health care system that we certainly do need to address.

But know the response here in the United States has been historic to keep us within our health care capacity, even in New York, and New York City, to keep this within capacity. It's genuinely a historic result.

TAPPER: I want to give you an opportunity to clear it up because it sounded like you were saying that the reason that there is so many dead Americans is because we're unhealthier than the rest of the world. And I know that's not what you meant.

AZAR: Oh, no. I think that there's—we have a significantly disproportionate burden of comorbidities in the United States. Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, these are demonstrated facts that do make us at risk for any type of disease burden.

Tapper took instant offense, though not on a racial basis. He said, "It sounded like you were saying that the reason that there is so many dead Americans is because we're unhealthier than the rest of the world. And I know that's not what you meant."

Are we "unhealthier than the rest of the world?" We have no idea. Nor do we know if that's what Azar meant, so jumbled was the full exchange.

In the early hours of Monday morning, Curnow took instant offense on a racial/ethnic basis. She proceeded to state and restate an obvious and irrelevant point—underlying conditions exist everywhere in the world.

Can anybody here play this game? On cable, the answer is typically no. Indeed, Tapper's jumbled exchange with Azar began with Tapper saying this:

"But it's worse for us than it is for anyone else. I'm just looking at the number of dead bodies."

Emulating Trump himself, Tapper didn't adjust for size of population! Azar tried to correct his misleading claim, then proceeded from there.

This sort of thing is part of our basic infrastructure. For all we know, that infrastructure may be the worst in the world!


  1. Heh. This is nothing new, dear Bob: a combination of Orange Man Bad and anything else -- the current epidemic of a Chinese flu for example -- creates mountains, mountains of bullshit, produced by your zombie cult. What else is new.

    As for the 'life expectancy at birth', dear Bob, I don't think you understand what it means, what this statistic is all about. It could be that NYC simply has better maternity hospitals (better than most rural hospitals), more newborns survive, and voila - higher life expectancy at birth.

    It don't really mean NYC is a good place to live, dear Bob.

    1. The deaths from COVID-a-lago are going to cost Republicans in November.

    2. Who pays you to sit at your computer all day and write gibberish?

    3. Mao's paid by the Establishment.
      It's a living. Mao doesn't, personally, want more mercury in his drinking water, but when the Establishment yells "Jump!", he and Trump ask "How high?"

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  2. "We're still trying to puzzle out the logic of that assessment. " [Somerby refers to Basset's assertion that people in cities live longer, and that is a good thing since most people live in cities.]

    Somerby says that he spent a lot of time trying to puzzle through the logic, but what about the facts? Basset more likely made her statement based on facts, not a logical leap or argument.

    Why might people live longer in cities? Proximity to hospitals and health care for one. Lack of dangerous jobs in forestry, farming, mining occupations that occur in rural areas. Fewer hurricanes and tornados? (Cities may tend to be built in safer areas with better weather.) Higher education (which contributes to better health practices and healthier lifestyles). Access to healthier food. Rural poverty seems more extreme than urban poverty.

    Basset is an expert and presumably knows more about this topic than she has time to say. What appears to Somerby to be a logical leap, may instead by a reasonable conclusion based on facts she neglected to present. One problem with being an expert is that she may forgot or not realize what her audience knows and what it does not know.

    Somerby reacts as if no further knowledge is needed, just logic alone can provide access to her conclusion. This seems to prevent him from looking for more information whenever something doesn't make sense to him -- or he starts calling the speaker names. He never considers it his deficiency, never tries to fill in the gaps in his understanding by reading.

    My first instinct is not to doubt the "logic" of someone's assertion but to look for facts that will shed light on whether it is true of not. Did being a philosophy major at Harvard teach Somerby to believe that logic is enough? That is dark age or medieval thinking that was abandoned with the enlightenment and the development of science. It is lazy to think that navel-gazing is enough.

    If Somerby had used Google, he would have found this:

    "We know the people in cities and denser environments tend to walk more, a key factor associated with longevity. They also tend to drive less, and suffer less from the toll of crashes and the sedentary life styles associated with car dependent living."

    Various studies are listed and reasons proposed in them. It would open a whole bunch of lines of thought beyond questioning whether the woman can think straight or not.

  3. My daughter, the pulmonologist, says that her COVID-19 ICU patients are in their 30's, 40's & 50's without comorbidities such as cancer or COPD, but they are nearly all obese. She is not seeing very many elderly people in her ICU. She told me this in a conversation about whether elderly people are at higher risk than younger people. She thinks young people need to understand their risk factors better.

    The USA is 12th in the world in the % with obesity in the population.

    "In the U.S., 70.9 percent of men and 61.9 percent of women are overweight or obese, compared to 38 percent of men and 36.9 percent of women worldwide. ... While we have the most overweight citizens in terms of sheer numbers, a few other countries actually have higher rates of obesity, including Egypt, Qatar and Samoa."

  4. Tapper said this: “I'm just looking at the number of dead bodies.”

    Azar had pushed back, exactly like Somerby, by noting that our death rate was lower than some other countries.

    Tapper had framed the discussion as an indictment of Trump’s response to the virus. Azar called the president’s response “historic”.

    It was in this context, and directly in response to Tapper’s “I'm just looking at the number of dead bodies” that Azar himself brought up the death rate among African Americans. He could have brought up the death rate for nursing homes, but he did not.

    Bringing up a higher rate of deaths among African Americans due to “comorbidities” sounds like an excuse for all those dead bodies, and does not support Azar’s claim that Trump’s response was historic.

    It was left to Dr Senanayake, in the interview with Curnow, to offer reasons above and beyond mere “comorbidity” as to why African Americans may have a higher death rate: “... just because you have them and you have COVID isn't necessarily a death sentence either. So, there are other factors too. So, how quickly did you get tested? How quickly could you seek testing? And were you able to get into a hospital in time. Did the hospital have the capacity to look after you in terms of doctors, nurses and ventilators? So, all of those are factors as well.”

    Comorbidity, coupled with lack of access to adequate health care and a piss poor response from Trump have conspired, as usual, to affect black Americans more severely than whites.

    It isn’t a stretch to believe that this Administration views African Americans as expendable.

  5. Bob Somerby continues his I'm A Moron a palooza tour.

    "That's only true because of the size of our population."

    In comparison to the largest countries in the world, we are number one by far.

    In comparison of US states to countries of similar population size and density, we are number one far.

    Deaths from Covid-19 per million population, as of May 19:
    NY: 1464 (double the highest country)
    NJ: 1176
    CT: 967
    MA: 850
    DC: 567

    CA: 84
    SC: 76

    We are number one in Covid deaths by far. These numbers are under-counts, made clear when comparing deaths this year versus past years.

    I live in Los Angeles, where people started self distancing early, but also started opening up early, about a month ago you started seeing traffic return to close to normal in certain areas, and now we are having spikes. My cohort continues to not be able to get testing - under 50, no underlying health condition - we can not get pre screened. Having said that, Los Angeles has done 350k tests, San Francisco has done 44k tests.

    1. "Los Angeles has done 350k tests, San Francisco has done 44k tests"

      But did you adjust those numbers for population size?

    2. "NY: 1464 (double the highest country)"

      Yes, indeed. One thing liberals are efficient at is piling up dead bodies and blaming it on others.

    3. I blame God.

  6. The US and Belgium are at different stages in coping with the virus. Their approach to classifying deaths is also different, with the US trying to minimize the numbers considered COVID deaths. But Somerby thinks it is OK to compare the two directly? That is as gross a mistake as failure to adjust for population size. At least when you cite absolute numbers of deaths, we understand that there is a difference in the size of the populations of Belgium vs the US. The other differences are less obvious but have a large impact on the resulting numbers.

    If Somerby wants to understand what numbers mean, he needs to think about them in the context of larger issues. Why are members of minority groups more likely to be obese? Does Somerby know what a food desert is? Does he understand how eating habits are formed? Does he know about the heart attack belt across the Southern US, that more black people live in the South, that COVID-19 cases are rampant in that same area? Or does he think it is only Mardi Gras that is causing Southern virus deaths? He could have argued that liberals are blaming red state policies for deaths that might be arising from underlying public health factors. But he takes the lazy route, assuming that whenever a reporter changes the subject, she is being tribal. Somerby would be a horrible reporter himself, and he is little better as a media critic.

    1. On a side note, Trump is obese...

    2. That's why he is dosing himself with patent medicine.

      He knows he is toast if he catches this.

  7. This obsession with death rate vs number of deaths ultimately plays into Trump’s hands.

    A critic says “Trump’s response to the virus was seriously flawed. Look at how many people have died.”

    Trump backer: “But our death rate is better than a number of other countries. That shows our response has been better than those other countries.”

    Critic: “But trump didn’t do enough at the beginning to minimize suffering and death.”

    Backer: “Our death rate is better than a number of European countries. That shows our response has been better.”

    It’s a no-win argument for the critic when you keep citing the death rate. It’s difficult to know precisely how many people suffered or died because of Trump’s non-response, and how many were saved due to actions taken by state governments in the absence of a federal response.

    1. Elderly people in nursing homes are not dying because they are old. They are dying because nursing homes are overcrowded, understaffed, and do not provide adequate response to their corona virus cases. It should be a scandal. Why isn't it?

    2. "Why isn't it?"

      Those people are poor? Just spit-ballin' here.

    3. I'm not sure it is because they are poor -- many nursing homes cost a lot of money. Medicare doesn't pay for them.

      I think it is because they are old. People think that they are going to die anyway, so why not now? Or they think that no one cares about them, except their relatives. Trump wants to roll back already lax rules because no one wants to spend the money to keep old folks alive. It is part of the crappy attitude toward aging that our society has -- younger = better.

    4. Medicare won't pay for long-term care in nursing facilities, only rehab after hospitalization and then only for a max of 100 days (first 20 days at 100%, the remainder at 80%). Few people max out. CMS says the average paid stay is 23 days.

      Per the Kaiser Family Foundation, Medicaid pays for about 60% of nursing home residents.

  8. We are so accustomed to the soft bigotry of low expectations that we don't even notice it. Since blacks are more susceptible to corona virus, blacks should take extra care. The NAACP, Al Sharpton, and other black opinion leaders should be aggressively urging African Americans to stay inside, to wear face masks, to wash their hands frequently, etc.

    Instead, government solutions are demanded. There is an implicit assumption that black Americans are incapable of dealing with their own health problems.

    1. I'm thinking about $3,000/ month for each black person to forego the economy in favor of their health of themselves, their families, and their fellow countrymen.
      Vaccines should be available in 12-15 months.
      That's a smart government investment in the people.

    2. Blacks aren't "more susceptible to corona virus". They have worse outcomes once they catch it. To be more susceptible means that you catch it more easily. There is no evidence that is true. Blacks and other minorities are more likely to be employed in jobs that are requiring their presence in the workplace. They have fewer options for isolating themselves.

      If you are suggesting that African Americans do not wash their hands as often as white people, you are saying something extremely offensive.

      Options such as reopening the health insurance exchanges, offering testing in the workplace, sick pay and leave for essential workers, PPE on the job, and so on, would help, but these things should be provided to all people.

      I believe that there are some black opinion leaders who are already telling black people to stay away from those crazy white people in bars and congregating in public with their weapons.

      For once, the health problems of any segment of our society are the health problems of all of us. It is in our public interest to keep all citizens healthy. Even you.

    3. Portraying an entire group of people as dirty or unhygienic or carrying germs, is how such people get stigmatized and mistreated in our society. It happened to the Irish -- I grew up with jokes like "safety pins are Irish buttons" or a thread hanging from your lapel was "an Irish flag", rain is an Irish car wash. Those kinds of insults have been part of the historical stigmatization of African Americans too. It is why so many immigrants were obsessed with being clean, although poor. Black kids are generally the best dressed on the first day of school, to counteract such stereotypes. It is racist because it targets a group by assigning them negative qualities, and because it is most likely untrue. If it were true, it would keep black people out of nursing, medicine, child care, house cleaning, cooking, and similar service occupations where they have been well represented. It is a slur.

      I am bothering to explain this to you because you are so obviously from another culture and may not be aware of racial social history in America.

    4. I didn't know that not washing hands as often as someone else is a 'negative quality'.

      Anyhow, is it your belief that generalizing about "an entire group of people" is always racist, or only in some cases?

      ...which brings me to this: were you implying, just now, that my culture is an ignorant one? Is my culture also not washing their hands as often as yours, perhaps? How does it reconcile with your professed indignation at stigmatizing entire groups of people, eh?

    5. In your zombie-speak most of everything a non-zombie might say is 'racist', by definition.

      Try to explain in humyn language. Assuming your zombie culture still teaches the basics of it.

    6. David,
      We get it. If Trump goes along with the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and other black leaders, and decides to have the government benefit black people, he's lost your vote.
      I got news for you, it won't be just you. It'll be about another 61 million of Trump's 2016 voters.

  9. @3:06 wrote: "If you are suggesting that African Americans do not wash their hands as often as white people, you are saying something extremely offensive."

    Of course, I didn't say this at all. Your interpretation makes it difficult to give good advice. A similar problem involves those who recommend that coeds avoid heavy drinking in order to avoid unwanted sex. That warning is often unfairly criticized as "blaming the victim." That unfair criticism is unfortunate, because it makes it difficult to give these women sensible warnings

    I know @3:06's comment is well-meant, but IMHO it's an attitude that harms blacks. As Jew, I took it for granted that I had to work harder and do better than my peers, in order to succeed in the traditionally antisemitic insurance industry. Fortunately, I didn't have well-meaning critics to discourage people who told me to work extra hard. Your attitude @3:06 discourages those who would tell blacks to be extra careful to avoid contracting corona virus.

    1. Why would you assume that if someone isn't called "dirty" on a regular basis, they won't work hard?

    2. "Your interpretation makes it difficult to give good advice."

      Nice. Colin Kaepernick is posting here.
      Hi Colin.


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