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.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.
[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...
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.Williams' numbers were accurate. But does the United States really lead the world in coronavirus deaths?
Today, our country leads the world in coronavirus infections, and in deaths. Our death total tonight stands at 91,172...
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:Does the United States "lead the world in deaths?" We certainly do if you want us to—and many star pundits do.
United Kingdom: 513
United States: 278
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.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."
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.
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!