The Washington Post tries to correct Donald Trump's latest large groaner: Friend, have you ever tried approaching the news with an anthropological eye?
If you have, you may have noticed what we notice most days. As a matter of basic anthropology, we human beings simply weren't built for this task.
On the most obvious levels, we seem to lack the intellectual capacity fo even the simplest assignments. Consider the question Trump was asked at yesterday's non-daily non-briefing.
The correspondent who asked the question is being hailed for her courage and for her brilliance. That said, her question went like this:
REPORTER (5/11/20): You’ve said many times that the U.S. is doing far better than any other country when it comes to testing.The question makes a type of sense, though only on a somewhat meta or "philosophical" level. That said, the question leaves a wildly inaccurate premise unchallenged.
REPORTER: Why does that matter? Why is this a global competition to you, if every day Americans are still losing their lives and we’re still seeing more cases every day?
Is it true that the U.S. is "doing far better than any other country when it comes to testing?" Putting it a different way, is the U.S. doing better than everyone else at all?
It isn't obvious how you should measure such things, but rather plainly, the answer to those questions seems to be no. That said, consider what happened when the Washington Post decided to tackle this question.
This morning, the Post attempted to tackle this question in a front-page report. Four reporters shared the byline. Sadly, the work they produced was straight outta second grade.
Sad! As noted, the report appears on the Post's front page. Online, the headline says this:
Trump claims U.S. outpaces world in coronavirus testing, but numbers tell different storyThe Post was going to tackle the numbers! The Post was going to tackle the president's claim that we outpace the world in testing!
What resulted was a sad, hapless mess. After a bit of piddling around, the four reporters' nugget presentation went like this:
FOUR REPORTERS (5/12/20): The United States as of Sunday had completed nearly 9 million coronavirus tests, according to the Covid Tracking Project. While an enormous number, the figure is equivalent to just 2.74 percent of the U.S. population and does not give a full representation of the virus’s reach within American society.Everything the reporters say in that passage is correct. The problem, and it's a very large problem, lies in what they omit.
There are far higher levels of per-capita testing in other parts of the world. In tiny Iceland, the figure is an extraordinary 15.4 percent, but that amounts to about 54,000 tests across a population of 352,000 people.
Yet major industrialized economies with large outbreaks also have fared better in testing than the United States: Italy has conducted tests equivalent to 4.31 percent of its population, and Germany is at 3.35 percent. The United States also is still behind its northern neighbor, Canada, where its 1.09 million tests are equivalent to 2.95 percent of the county’s population.
Nine million is "an enormous number," the reporters decided to say. But that amounts to just 2.74 percent of the U.S. population, they correctly report. Other countries have tested more!
The problem here involves what doesn't get said about Trump's wildly inaccurate statement. From that passage, a reader may well get the idea that we actually do lead the world in volume of testing, except for the few nations named.
That doesn't come close to being accurate. But in a front-page report which claims to critique Trump's latest wild claim, that's the bogus impression many Post readers will get.
In fact, many countries have tested larger portions of their population than the United States has. The Post never cites a source for its international figures, but their numbers track closely to those shown at this site.
How many countries out-test the U.S.? It isn't just tiny Iceland and those three larger nations. Many countries have out-tested the United States! Some of the numbers look like this:
Coronavirus tests by percentage of population, as of May 12:Does it look like we're "outpacing the world" in any way when you look at those numbers? We've left out many other smaller countries which are out-testing us too.
New Zealand: 4.1%
United States: 2.9%
United Kingdom: 2.8%
South Korea: 1.3%
(Example: Bermuda, 7.2%.)
This is the metric the Post chose to use in today's front-page report. But in a typical case of statistical bungling, the Post completely failed to convey the extent to which Trump's latest wild claim is wildly and crazily wrong.
From there, the four reporters moved on to offer the assessment shown below. We'd call this bungled too:
FOUR REPORTERS (continuing directly): While Trump moves to increase testing, the United States continues to be, by far, the world’s coronavirus hot spot. There are now 1.34 million confirmed cases, more than the sum of cases in the next six countries—Spain, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, France and Germany. U.S. deaths passed 80,000 on Monday.Does the United States "continue to be, by far, the world’s coronavirus hot spot?" Is the United States the world's hot spot at all? It all depends on the metric you choose to report.
In that passage, the four reporters chose to use the metric of "confirmed cases," a term which may mean different things, or relate to different realities, in different countries. How about if they had chosen a different metric—the metric of "deaths?"
There are problems with that metric too. At present, there is no problem-free metric. That said:
Below, you see the current totals for the United States and the other countries the Post named, excluding Russia. (Russia's statistical reporting seems a bit squirrelly.) In this graphic, we're comparing reported U.S. deaths to reported deaths in five European nations whose total population virtually matches that of the U.S.:
Deaths by coronavirus, as of May 12:The total population of those five nations basically matches that of the United States. If we choose the metric of deaths, is the U.S. "the world’s coronavirus hot spot by far?" Is it "the world's hot spot" at all?
United States: 81,911
Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany: 124,088
In the past year, we've suggested that you try viewing the world through a new, different lens. We've suggested that you abandon the traditional lens according to which "man (sic) is the rational animal."
Instead, we've suggested that you test-drive a lens according to which man (sic} is the tribal, script-reading and bungling animal. You'll routinely see this premise supported when you watch high-level journalists try to work with statistics, data, numbers—in truth, with any type of information at all.
These upper-end journalists today! They tend to have a very hard time adjusting for inflation. They tend to have a very hard time adjusting for population size.
They constantly bungle basic test scores. They persistently bungled the data from Flint concerning levels of lead exposure.
Don't even imagine that creatures like these will be able to unpack our hopelessly complex economic statistics. As a species, we simply weren't engineered to accomplish such tasks.
This morning, everyone is hailing a question which reinforced the president's latest ridiculous howler. The Post attempted to challenge the howler—attempted that task, and failed.
Donald Trump's endless, over-sized howlers constitute a matter of national security. That said, our journalists simply aren't to the task of reporting this fact to the public.
Go ahead—try that new lens. Many journalists went to the finest schools, but look at the product they hand us!