Not in their right mind, Drum says: For today, let's stick to a very basic bit of (statistical) blocking and tackling.
In most contexts. how should our nation's coronavirus death rate be reported? What manner of presentation makes basic statistical sense?
Yesterday, Kevin Drum weighed in on this (extremely basic) question. He did so using some catchy graphics, which you can peruse for yourselves.
He started with a novel twist. It led him to this (extremely basic) conclusion:
DRUM (5/20/20): Nobody in their right mind would present the top chart as evidence of anything much. It’s obviously meaningless thanks to the large range of populations. If you want to study death rates, you need to look at deaths per capita. The same thing applies to deaths from COVID-19..."If you want to study death rates [from different nations], you need to look at deaths per capita," Drum said. He then presented a graphic which showed coronavirus deaths rates from the following nations:
Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, United States...
Three others nations were included—Switzerland, Germany, Canada.
For our money, if Switzerland was part of the package, Belgium—it has a larger population—should have been in there too. Its inclusion would have made the basic statistical point even clearer.
That said, whatever! For now, we return to our basic statistical blocking and tackling, and to Drum's basic assessment:
A person has to be out of his or her mind to compare coronavirus deaths among various nations without adjusting for size of population.
A person has to be out of his mind—but as we noted yesterday, quite a few high-profile journalists are. For one example, here was Jake Tapper on Sunday's State of the Union, jousting with Alex Azar:
TAPPER (5/17/20): We have more—we have almost 90,000 Americans who are now dead because of this. I don't think that this is anything to celebrate, how we handled this as a country.According to Tapper, the pandemic has been "worse for us than for anyone else." When Azar tried to disagree, Tapper explained his assessment:
AZAR: Oh, Jake, you can't celebrate a single death. Every death is a tragedy. But the results could have been vastly, vastly worse. It's also important to remember, Jake, as we, as we face—
TAPPER: But it's worse for us than it is for anyone else.
AZAR: No, that's actually not factually correct. When you look at mortality rates, that's simply not correct as a percent of diagnosed cases, Jake, that every death is tragic, but we have—
TAPPER: I'm just looking at the number of dead bodies.
AZAR: Every, every, every—every death is tragic, but we have maintained our health care system—our health care burden within the capacity of our system to actually deal with it.
"I'm just looking at the number of dead bodies," he said.
In other words, Tapper wasn't adjusting for size of population. Statistically speaking, he wasn't in his right mind!
Yesterday morning, we showed you the transcript of Brian Williams making the same type of presentation, right at the start of Monday night's program. Two hours earlier, Rachel Maddow had done the same darn thing.
She'd made the same misleading play. Here are two of her presentations:
MADDOW (5/18/20): Here we are, three days after the White House`s imaginary model, made by their economist friend, said that U.S. deaths would be at zero. And, of course, U.S. deaths are not at zero.Rachel was so overwrought that she actually used a bad word, for which she quickly apologized.
We have the biggest coronavirus epidemic in the world. U.S. deaths continue their inexorable climb up over 90,000 at this point. The only question right now, in terms of the milestones here is whether we are going to hit 100,000 dead Americans by the beginning of next month, or are we going to hit it sooner.
MADDOW: But big picture, the more we understand about what is going on in our country, I know it sucks to hear it—forgive me—but things really aren't getting better. We do have the worst epidemic in the world.
That said, do we have the worst epidemic in the world? And can any such assessment be based on the total number of deaths, unadjusted for size of population?
According to Drum's (correct) assessment, Maddow wasn't in her right mind. Again, we offer examples:
Coronavirus deaths per million population, as of May 20:Do we have "the worst epidemic in the world?" Only if you choose to ignore the deaths of foreign people. And who gives a fig about them?
United Kingdom: 521
United States: 283
By our informal assessment, we think Tapper should do better than he did on Sunday. When it comes to Williams and Maddow, we may not expect a lot more.
That said, we're speaking here about very basic statistical blocking and tackling. We're also talking about tribal journalism of an increasingly familiar kind.
As we've noted, our liberal tribe (correctly) complained when Donald J. Trump kept saying that we led the world in coronavirus tests. We correctly said that his claim made no sense because he hadn't adjusted for size of population.
We complained and complained and complained again. Then, our tribal sachems lit out across the countryside to do the same darn thing with respect to coronavirus deaths!
They're out of their minds, Drum said yesterday—but they're also just being tribal. They're advancing the type of segregated tribal vision which is quite hard to return from.
We're sticking with this topic today because it's so freaking basic. (Because we avoided using a bad word, we won't have to stage an apology.)
That said, it should be amazing to see people like Tapper, Williams and Naddow playing this dumb statistical game. It should be amazing, but it isn't. Our intellectual infrastructure has been crumbling for decades now.
Tomorrow, we're going to look at one of two recent columns in which the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdof plays by the older, sounder rules. Routinely, that's the path Friedersdorf takes. It makes him a valuable player.
For today, we'll suggest that you peruse Monday's essay by Glenn Greenwald. It's an essay about "Resistance Journalism," the name he gives to the type of journalism in which corporate players like Williams and Maddow lean their elbows on the scales, playing by tribal rules.
Greenwald's starting point is this essay on Monday's New York Times by media columnist Ben Smith. Smith suggests that Ronan Farrow has been sidestepping basic journalistic rules to advance a progressive agenda.
According to yesterday's hard-copy Times, Smith's critique was Monday's most-read article.
Greenwald doesn't offer a judgment about Farrow's work. Instead, he uses Smith's essay as a starting point for a larger critique.
In particular, he assails the type of "resistance journalism" which prevailed at MSNBC during the years of the Mueller probe. Specifically, he assails Maddow's work.
It's hard to create a short assessment of any such body of work. That said, Greenwald also links to this series of essays, in which the Washington Post's Eric Wemple criticizes the Russia coverage on MSNBC, including that by Maddow.
In our view, Maddow has had her thumb on the scale in many areas over the past many years. It's hard to cover such work in one essay. But the basic principle being discussed is very important:
In the years since Trump came to power, has such a thing as "resistance journalism" emerged? If so, have people like Maddow and Natasha Bernard really been putting their thumbs on the scale in the ways Greenwald and Wemple allege?
It isn't easy to assess such sweeping bodies of work. But as we've said, we think Maddow has tended to put her elbows and butt cheeks on the scale again and again through the years.
That said, have recent years spawned a "resistance journalism" of the left—a journalism in which corners are cut in search of preapproved, pleasing assessments?
We think the obvious answer is yes, and we think it's important to know that.
Are Maddow and Williams "in their right minds?" We can't answer your question! But viewers of CNN and MSNBC are receiving selective work every day of the week, as are viewers of Fox.
When it comes to adjusting for population, first Trump failed to do it. Then we began failing too!
Adjusting for size of population is amazingly basic blocking and tackling. But so it has gone as the sachems of our own tribe create the type of journalistic product we libs will be certain to like.
Tomorrow: Friedersdorf thinks about Trump