Reporting statistics is hard: In the very first thing we read today, Slate's Lili Loofbourow said it:
"I get the longing for better discourse. I even share it."
Officially, everyone longs for better discourse. But better discourse is hard.
Actually, Loofbourow's essay was perhaps the second thing we read today. At present, the first thing we consult each morning is the Washington Post's tabulation of the previous day's number of coronavirus deaths nationwide.
This morning, the Washington Post is reporting yesterday's number. That number may seem relatively low. Here are the recent figures:
Daily deaths, nationwide, due to coronavirusIt may appear that the number of deaths is going down. By most lights, that would be a misinterpretation.
July 8: 897
July 9: 876
July 10: 849
July 11: 725
July 12: 483
Yesterday, only 483 deaths were recorded nationwide—but the key word there is "recorded." You see, the daily number reported by the Post (and by everyone else) isn't a measure of the actual deaths which occurred on the particular day in question.
Instead, it's a record of the number of deaths which were officially recorded that day—and official reporting tends to slow over every weekend. The deaths which don't get reported on weekend days are then folded into the daily numbers as the workweek proceeds.
With that explained, now understand this: Yesterday's 483 reported deaths actually raised the 7-day rolling average of daily deaths nationwide.
As of Sunday morning, the average number of daily deaths stood at 673.6 (July 5-July 11). As of today, with yesterday's 483 figured in, the 7-day average rose to 711.4 deaths per day over the past seven days!
That happened because yesterday's number—483—replaced a much smaller number—217—from the previous Sunday. At any rate, and unambiguously, we've recorded a daily average of 711.4 deaths nationwide over the past seven days.
In the last seven days of June, the average number of daily deaths stood at a much lower 538.7 (June 24-June 30). Over the past week, the average has steadily been going up, and will likely continue to do so.
This very morning, over at Slate, Loofbourow announced her longing for a better discourse. We'll be discussing impediments to that better discourse all week.
All week, we'll be discussing the hard parts. Today, we'll start with the math.
"Math is hard," Talking Barbie once famously said. Talking Ken, her slacker consort, didn't challenge his misshapen companion's claim.
In truth, math is routinely very hard for the stars of cable news. More specifically, reporting statistics seems to be hard for this narrative-driven assemblage.
Let's discuss the ways they do, and the ways they don't, report coronavirus deaths. Also, let's do a quick drive-by on current reporting of "cases."
On anti-Trump cable, one prime storyline goes like this: The United States is number one in the world, compared to all other nations, on coronavirus deaths.
That's technically accurate, but only if you don't adjust for size of population.
Our apparently impaired president, Donald J. Trump, doesn't adjust for population when he says we've done the most testing in the world. Our cable stars—people like Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow—don't adjust for population when they hand you the storyline in which the United States leads all nations in deaths.
In these ways, two rival tribes are pleasured with rival Storyline. In the process, the three national figures we've named are behaving in a way which justifies Barbie's extremely frank statement.
How should coronavirus deaths be reported? If we're comparing the United States to other nations, or even to the E.U., we'll suggest two major ways:
You can report the total number of coronavirus deaths to date: You can report the total number of deaths in various countries to date! That said, it makes no sense to do this unless you adjust for size of population—and if you do that, the United States isn't number one, although it may be on some glorious future day.
If you adjust for population, we simply aren't number one in total deaths to date. For current data on deaths to date, see yesterday's report.
That's one way to report such deaths. Another way would be this:
You can report the current average number of daily deaths: You can report the current average number of daily deaths! This statistic wouldn't show how many people have died overall. Instead, and possibly more to the point, it would show how many people are dying right now, on a daily basis.
You can report the current average number of daily deaths! In graphic form, Kevin Drum does this on a daily basis, though only with respect to eight countries other than the United States.
Here again, these comparisons only make sense if you adjust for size of population. Drum's daily graphic does.
Anderson Cooper could do this too! And by the way—this would be an interesting, journalistically respectable way to show how badly our nation has done at defeating the virus, as compared to nations around the world.
Needless to say, Cooper doesn't do this. We can think of two principal reasons:
Number one, math is hard, just as Barbie said. It's easier not to bother with this, assuming it has even occurred to Cooper's staff to present such important data.
Number two, Cooper seems to be happy with pure Storyline (and he's a bit of a slacker). He simply says we're worst in the world, and his daily effort is done.
In a slightly different world, people would be very unhappy with people like Cooper and Maddow. People would insist on the delivery of journalistically respectable information, not on pure Storyline.
In our world, the professors abandoned the discourse a long time ago. They never say boo about matters like this, and the journalists routinely are clowns.
How does our floundering nation stand, as compared to other nations, when it comes to current daily deaths? As you can see from Drum's daily graphic, we're roughly even with the U.K. and Sweden; we're doing substantially better than Mexico.
That said, such well-known countries as Germany, France and Italy have virtually ended daily deaths, with Canada seeming to close in on that goal. We're considering the eight other countries Drum reviews, but many other developed nations have wrestled these deaths to the ground.
If a cable star like Cooper would get off his multimillionaire corporate asp, he could compile an array of such statistics, then show them to the American people. Such data would let his viewers see how pathetic our national performance has been, right to the present day.
That said, Donald J. Trump's former caddie is a journalistic slacker. He's content to hand you Storyline, then return to one of the several mansions he's purchased with large corporate cash.
Concerning "cases," let us quickly refer you to the featured report atop page A1 of today's New York Times. Hard-copy triple headline included, that news report starts like this:
15,000 NEW CASES IN FLORIDA IN DAY BREAK A RECORDThe top two headlines produce excitement; they also advance Storyline. In those two headlines, as in that opening paragraph, we're told that Florida reported a higher number of new "cases" yesterday than the hard-hit state of New York ever did!
SURPASSING NEW YORK
Dozens of States Averse to Restrictions See Sharp Surge
Florida on Sunday reported the highest single-day total of new coronavirus cases by any state since the start of the pandemic, with more than 15,000 new infections, eclipsing the previous high of 12,274 recorded in New York on April 4 amid the worst of its outbreak.
The number reflects both increased testing and a surge in transmission of the virus that has strained hospitals, led to shortages in a key antiviral drug and amplified fears about the pace the state lifted restrictions on movement and commerce. And it is a new red mark on the nation’s floundering efforts to combat the virus.
That statement is technically accurate. But in paragraph 2, we're told that the Florida number reflects "increased testing" along with a surge in transmissions. That tells us that we're comparing a big bag of apples to a smaller basket of oranges when we compare Florida's (recorded) new cases yesterday to the state of New York's (recorded) new cases way back when testing was much more limited.
"Cases" is a shaky statistic, especially when used to make comparisons over substantial amounts of time. Here's why:
No one knows how many "new infections" really occurred in Florida yesterday. The number the Times reported is simply the number that was identified by an official test.
How much less testing was going on back in April, when the state of New York was the epicenter of the pandemic? We don't have the slightest idea, and the Times' comparison doesn't make a huge amount of sense unless you know such things.
At least in theory, everyone long for better discourse. By way of contrast, what we're handed tends to be Storyline.
Today, we've noted that basic statistics, a branch of math, can be very hard. Tomorrow, it's on to a point we first made in 1999:
Paraphrase can be wondrously easy, quotation amazingly hard.
Tomorrow: Who needs quotation?
The size of those two states: In this, as in so many situations, comparing "cases" state-to-state doesn't really make much sense unless you adjust for population.
In this instance, Florida's population seems to be a little more than ten percent larger than that of the state of New York. By the norms of modern discourse, that means they're exactly the same!