...for a moment of comic relief: This morning, reading the New York Times, we were struck by a detail in a report about Stonehenge.
Yes, that's right—about Stonehenge! We're just now passing the summer solstice and, according to the Times report, an "astonishing discovery" has been made not far from that famous site.
The discovery involves some large sunken pits which surrounded Durrington, a village not far from Stonehenge. The pits were constructed in the ancient era when the Stonehenge site was in full operation.
We'll highlight the detail in question:
SPECIA (6/23/20): “Stonehenge was for the dead, Durrington was for the living,” Dr. Gaffney said. “But now, what we are probably looking at was this great big boundary around them probably warning people of what they are approaching.”Really? The discovery of those large, sunken pits has produced some of "the earliest evidence for counting in what is now Britain?"
He said that the pits had been set at a deliberate distance and that their locations would have had to be paced out from a central point. That is a significant clue about people living in the area at the time, he said, because it “means they could count”—making it among the earliest evidence for counting in what is now Britain.
According to the Times report, the events in question date to the Neolithic period, "more than 4,500 years ago." We wouldn't have known that the very ability to count isn't known to have existed at so recent a time.
One often hears that "primitive" members of our own species used a primitive, three-part system of counting: "One, two, many." We don't know if that's actually true, but a quick scan of the Internet seems to suggest that it may be.
Still, we wouldn't have thought that counting, however defined, could have been so recent an invention as this. Moments later, we encountered a possible modern-day problem with counting right there in today's New York Times!
We offer what follows as comic relief, but it helps drive a key point. Especially at times like these—at partisan, even revolutionary times—almost everything you read or see is likely to be somewhat slanted.
Thumbs will be placed on various scales. Even the simplest statistical matters may be massaged and selectively presented.
We humans! Our ability to work with statistics at all is, at best, rather shaky. At highly fraught times like these, such skills may evade us completely.
Consider the Times report:
The report concerns some recent shootings in Seattle—more precisely, some recent shootings inside the police-free, autonomous zone now described as the CHOP.
Altamont has already come to Seattle! The Times report starts like this:
BAKER (6/23/20): From the ice cream shop she runs in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, Molly Moon Neitzel has watched as protesters have laid claim to the area’s streets over the past two weeks to demand racial justice.Two shootings had occurred in the protest zone? We were fairly sure we'd heard that the number was actually three.
The barricades and graffiti outside her storefront have carried messages that Ms. Neitzel embraces: Race equity, she says, is the top issue facing the city.
But this weekend, two shootings rocked the so-called Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone set up as an experiment in communal living, free of the police, in the area around Ms. Neitzel’s shop. Now, a memorial sits outside her shop for a 19-year-old man who died in the gunfire over the weekend.
Granted, that was the number we'd heard on Fox. Still, we decided to read the Times report further.
By paragraph 5, the Times was reporting that "the violence over the past few days" had produced "a total of three people shot." That was the number we'd heard on Fox, but a certain lack of clarity now obtained in the Times report.
How would this matter get resolved? Quite a bit later, we entered a possible modern-day version of ancient counting shortfall:
BAKER: The first shooting at the zone occurred early Saturday morning. John Moore, a medic working at the scene, said it began with a series of confrontations among people in the crowd. He treated the 19-year-old who was shot and then transported him to a hospital before he was pronounced dead. A 33-year-old man was also shot nearby.That's what the Times was now describing as "the first shooting."
Mr. Moore said he was upset that the Fire Department had not entered the zone to help with the man who died. Fire Department officials said they had been following procedure and waiting for the Police Department to secure the area first. Police officers had taken time to stage outside of the zone and, when they did enter, they encountered hostility from people who said the victim had already been removed from the scene.
We're told that, by the time police had entered the protest zone, "the victim" (singular) had already been removed from the scene. That said, it almost sounded to us like two different people had already been shot!
You can count it that way if you like. In modern parlance, you can count it that way on Fox—or you can count it like this:
BAKER (continuing directly): The second shooting occurred late Sunday night. A 17-year-old boy who was shot was treated at Harborview Medical Center and released, a spokeswoman for the hospital said.That was the second shooting! To our ear, it almost sounded like the "33-year-old man who was shot nearby" didn't quite get shot—didn't exactly count!
Was there anything flatly wrong with the Times report? Not necessarily, no.
That said, how hard is it for professional journalists to count to three> How hard is it for professional journalists to offer a simple, straightforward account of how many "shootings" there were, and of how many people "got shot?"
More to the point, is it possible that the Times counted the shootings the way it did, landing on a count of "two," because, for reasons of tribal messaging, the Times may have felt more comfortable stating a smaller number?
We have no idea if that happened, implicitly or otherwise. But if you feel sure that couldn't have happened, "Who's being naive now, Kay?"
We're offering this as comic relief in a time when almost everything you read or see is being massaged, tilted, adjusted, improved, slanted or possibly spun. How hard could it be for professional journalists to describe those Seattle shootings in a coherent way right from the jump—to write, for example, that "three people were shot in a pair of shooting incidents," if that's what actually happened.
Is that what actually happened? Was "the man who was shot nearby" shot by the same person who shot and killed the 19-year-old? In that sense, were two different people shot in one single shooting incident?
We don't know, and the Times report doesn't say. But when you see a news report like that, we invite you to consider a possibility:
Almost everything you read is being tilted, massaged.
We offer this strangely jumbled report as a bit of comic relief. We offer the passage shown below as something resembling a miracle:
KRUGMAN (6/23/20): It’s true that deaths are still falling for the nation as a whole, although they’re rising in some states. This reflects some combination of the way that deaths lag infections, better precautions for the elderly, who are the most vulnerable, and better treatment as doctors learn more about the disease.In a column which we'd say contains many hints of partisan tilt, Paul Krugman was actually able to present a reasonably accurate statistic!
But we’re still losing around 600 Americans per day...
According to the Washington Post's data, the seven-day average for daily deaths nationwide dropped to 571.9 after yesterday's totals were recorded. That said, judged by recent norms, Krugman's statistic—"around 600"—is remarkably accurate.
That doesn't mean that deaths won't rise in the next few weeks, though we don't know if that will happen. We will say this about recent reporting of covid-19 spread:
We're not sure if we've ever seen a fully competent presentation concerning this popular topic. On "cable news," the stars don't have enough time to create such a critter, even if they're interviewing wholly capable expert guests. Nor do the stars, as a general matter, have the demonstrated ability to work with numbers at all, unless the assignment is as simple as one, two, many.
Our journalists can't adjust for inflation. They can't disaggregate public school test scores.
They couldn't explain the lead exposure data from Flint. They refuse to talk about per capita health care spending. They tend to adjust for population only when doing so furthers their preferred point.
In terms of coronavirus reporting, "cases" is the current hot statistic. The current rise in "cases" may presage a future rise in deaths, although it also may not. But we'll ask Kay to make no mistake:
The anti-Trump crowd tilts toward "cases," at least in part, because that statistic can be used to paint the gloomiest picture. Meanwhile, the man they oppose is baldly insane, and they lack the intellectual integrity to speak to medical experts about that.
There's little you see that isn't faux at such times as these. Did Al Gore say he invented the Internet? For twenty months, they took turns swearing that he did. Do you think that claim was accurate?
A press stampede was underway then; today's stampede makes two. We offer today's Seattle example as a bit of comic relief.
Stonehenge was then; Seattle is now. But counting has always been hard for our kind, and we've always been a bit crazy.
Tomorrow: We return to the topic of trauma. We'll start with this videotape.