SKILL V. STORYLINE: Donald J. Trump lacked information!

MONDAY, JULY 20, 2020

Chris Wallace lacked basic skills:
When it comes to the current pandemic, does the United States "have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world?"

Does the United States have "the best mortality rate?" Because, according to President Trump, that's something he has "heard."

(And yes, that's what he actually said. For the full transcript, click here.)

Do we have the best mortality rate? As any skilled journalist would understand, it partly depends on what the meaning of "mortality rate" is.

More on that obvious matter below. For now, let's make the obvious statement:

It's easy to show that the United States doesn't seem to have an especially good mortality rate, as compared to the mortality rates in other developed nations. We'll demonstrate that below.

That said, if we speak about "mortality / fatality / death rates," what are we actually talking about? What do we actually mean?

As we noted last week, we might mean one of several things. For starters, we might be talking about the total number of deaths from covid-19 to date. Needless to say, if we're going to compare different countries on this score, we'll have to adjust for population when we present our statistics.

Is that what we mean by mortality rate? Because if it is, it's just amazingly easy to show that our mortality rate just isn't the best in the world.

Below, you see some of the numbers to date. If that's what we mean by mortality rate, does it look to you like we have the best rate in the world?
Total coronavirus deaths to date, per million population
United States: 433
Germany: 109
Norway: 47
Japan: 8
South Korea: 6
Australia: 5
New Zealand: 4
Taiwan: 0.3
We've excluded quite a few other nations from our list. We've stuck to countries which are comparable to ours in this matter, in one way or another.

For the record, we've excluded some comparable nations which have lost more people per million than we have. If this is what we mean by "mortality rate," we might want to note that our current rate isn't the worst in the world.

That said, does it look like we have the best mortality rate? To date, we've lost 433 people per million. Japan has lost only eight (8).

Australia has lost five people per million. And the number drops even further from there!

Does the United States really have the best mortality rate in the world? Weirdly, the president said that's what he has "heard." He was speaking to a highly accomplished, major journalist when he made that embarrassing statement.

At some point, that major journalist probably should have asked Trump what he was talking about—what he specifically means when he made his improbable claim about our "mortality rate."

That said, anyone with an ounce of basic information would know what to do in the face of such an implausible claim. Anyone with a lick of information would, of course, have said this:
"But Mr. President, we've lost 433 people per million to date. Japan has lost only eight people per million. Australia has lost only five!"
If that person was conducting a major TV interview, it wouldn't hurt to have a chart ready. That simplified chart might look exactly like this:
Number of deaths per million people to date:
United States: 433
Japan: 8
South Korea: 6
Australia: 5
The number 433 is much larger than eight. The man who aced that cognitive test would surely be able to see that!

Trump was speaking to Chris Wallace when he made his improbable claim. By many assessments, including our own, Wallace has been the sharpest and best of our five Sunday morning TV hosts over the past several years, despite the fact that he works for Fox.

Yesterday, Wallace plainly did push back against Trump's claim. Briefly pausing the tape of his interview, he told viewers that Trump was wrong.

That said, he didn't challenge Trump's implausible claim in the obvious manner suggested above. Below, you see what Wallace told his viewers as he paused his session with Trump.

How much skill did Wallace display? We'd call this presentation "barely intelligible:"
WALLACE (voice-over): All right, it's a little complicated, but bear with us. We want with numbers from Johns Hopkins University, which charted the mortality rate for 20 countries hit by the virus. The U.S. ranked seventh, better than the United Kingdom, but worse than Brazil and Russia.

The White House went with this chart from the European CDC, which shows Italy and Spain doing worse, but countries like Brazil and South Korea doing better. Other countries doing better, like Russia, aren't included in the White House chart.
Can we talk? in all honesty, this matter isn't "complicated" at all.

It only becomes "a little complicated" when major journalists bumble their way through a fuzzy presentation like that. There's nothing complicated about 433 deaths per million versus 8 or 5 (or 0.3!) as your basic starting point.

There's nothing complicated about that! How much skill does it take to grasp that fact? It takes no skill at all.

By the way, what was Wallace talking about when he told his viewers that Trump's assertion was wrong? What was Wallace talking about when he (murkily) said that our "mortality rate" ranks seventh among "20 countries hit by the virus?"

He never tried to explain! It's true that, if we rank seventh out of some otherwise unexplained group of twenty, then we aren't the best in the world. But what kind of "mortality rate" was Wallace actually talking about?

There was no attempt to explain that point. Viewers were never told.

At this point, let's take a look at the overall shape of this problem. We'll start by stating a basic fact:
A term like "mortality / fatality rate" doesn't explain itself!
A person employing such a term has to explain what he means. It isn't enough to say "Hopkins said." And by the way—if you go to the Hopkins site, the site does explain the two different things it means.

As we noted in recent weeks, a person who refers to "mortality / fatality / death rate" may mean several different things:

He may mean "total deaths to date." He may mean "current average number of deaths on a daily basis."

(If he means "current average number of deaths on a daily basis," then once again we plainly aren't the best in the world. We're currently losing more than two people per million per day. Many other comparable nations—add France and Italy to the list—are losing many fewer people per million on a daily basis.)

A third meaning is sometimes ascribed to the term "mortality / fatality rate." In this use of the term, people refer to the percentage of people who end up dying from the virus after getting infected.

For various reasons, this strikes us as a very fuzzy statistic, especially for use in international comparisons. For what it's worth, that seems to be the meaning to which Wallace was referring, whether he knew it or not, in citing our ranking by the Hopkins site as seventh best among twenty.

Late last evening, we read the attempts by the New York Times and the Washington Post to report this weird exchange between Trump and Wallace. We were stunned, but then again not stunned at all, by the technical incompetence put on display in both news reports.

Who were the reporters? At the Washington Post, Philip Rucker graduated from Yale in 2006. His co-writer, Felicia Sonmez, graduated from Harvard in 2005.

At the New York Times, Katie Rogers got a master's in journalism from Northwestern in 2006. As for Wallace, he also graduated from Harvard, in our own street-fighting class of 1969.

These journalists went to the finest schools. They work for, or have worked for, our brainiest, highest-end news orgs.

Despite these facts, they're largely innocent of analytical skill. They're skilled at trumpeting Storyline, and they're skilled at little else.

In fairness, if your Storyline is this—President Trump was wrong again!—then your report will almost always be right, at least on balance. That said, the three reporters who created those reports in the Post and the Times displayed almost no analytical skill.

It's been this way for a very long time, especially where basic statistical information is concerned. Our journalists are masters of Storyline, innocents abroad with Statistics.

Over at least the past three decades, they and their colleagues have tended to flounder even with so basic a task as adjusting economic data for inflation. (All the way back in the mid-1990s, they were baffled, for more than a year, by the Gingrich Medicare proposal because they kept failing to see that they had to perform that task.)

They and their colleagues have never shown the slightest awareness of how to deal with public school test score data. "Disaggregation" is something from Mars in the currently shuttered cocktail lounges where their Storylines used to be formed.

Their attempts to discuss the gender wage gap have been almost wholly incompetent. Meanwhile, what actually happened in Flint? When Kevin Drum began providing fascinating statistical information, the Post and the Times took a pass, as did Our Own Rhodes Scholar.

(She was trying to get the governor jailed. Information? Who cares abut that!)

The people who work at those highest news orgs have often gone to the finest schools. That said, they routinely display a striking lack of basic skill. Their god is Storyline.

Tomorrow, we're going to start exploring this conflict of Skill versus Storyline as it has affected the topic of police shooting deaths. Counterintuitive though this may be, our journalists have displayed a relentless lack of basic skill in discussing this very important topic.

That said, they're all in on Storyline with respect to this important topic. As Stephen Hawking's apocryphal "little old lady" might have said:

"It's nothing but [Storyline] after that. It's [Storyline] all the way down."

Tomorrow: A rather peculiar question

19 comments:

  1. "That said, if we speak about "mortality / fatality / death rates," what are we actually talking about? What do we actually mean?"

    Why, your goebbelsian dembots certainly do know what they talk about, dear Bob. It's simple: Orange Man Bad.

    Otherwise, until we know more about this whole thing, the effects of mandatory BCG vaccinations, possible genetic determinants and what-not, it's way to early to make any comparisons; meaningful comparisons that is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Number of deaths per million people to date:
      United States: 433
      Japan: 8
      South Korea: 6
      Australia: 5

      Understanding the effects of mandatory BCG vaccinations, possible genetic determinants and what-not is not going to change the import of those numbers: Orange Man fucked up. Orange man incompetent on corona.

      40 people will die in the next hour because of his stupidity and incompetence.

      Sorry, I know you like the guy but facts are facts. He was left with an empty cupboard? And didn't do *one thing* about it for three years including March? He downplayed it and foolishly rushed the states to reopen. His dumb, fat, Depends-wearing ass will be kicked to the curb so hard in November with good reason. Hundreds of thousands of dead people thanks to his incompetence. Sorry, that makes Orange man bad.

      Oh, I forgot - it's not his fault. It's China's, it Cuomo's! He's not responsible for the citizens he leads, right dumbfuck?

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  2. Why is Somerby fixated on this? Trump said so many awful and ridiculous things during that interview.

    Nitpicking any topic makes it seem like Somerby is evading the conclusions suggested by various statistics.

    Does he dispute that we have too many covid deaths and that some of them could have been prevented?

    Does he dispute that some women are unfairly paid in comparison to men?

    Does he dispute that it is bad to drink lead and other toxic substances in public drinking water, as occurred in Flint?

    If he doesn't dispute these conclusions, why is he focused on nitpicking statistics that others may use to evade accountability for important wrongs in our society? Is he oblivious to the uses that such nitpicks are put? Would anyone's understanding of these issues be enhanced if the statistics were expressed his way? I seriously doubt it.

    When he blames "storyline" for statistical usage, I believe he is jumping to a conclusion he hasn't laid any foundation for. He has never shown that any of these choices was made deliberately to enhance a storyline. Proving that is just as difficult as proving a deliberate lie, and he hasn't done it in any of these examples, in my opinion. He usually spends most of a column describing the statistical quibble, then tacks a few sentences about narrative and weeping anthropologists onto the end, q.e.d. Except there is no evidence that storyline is what is going on, and often the quibbles are about stats that are "technically accurate" but just a different choice, thus "accurate" and not fake or made up or storyline or narrative or in any way wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If he doesn't dispute these conclusions, why is he focused on nitpicking statistics that others may use to evade accountability for important wrongs in our society?

      Because the less accurate the reporting, the likelier it is that feral Trumpers will evade accountability?

      Is it any harder to get things right?

      Delete
  3. Most analysts in real life are saying that Chris Wallace did a good job fact-checking Trump. Somerby disagrees. I find that very odd.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "If that person was conducting a major TV interview, it wouldn't hurt to have a chart ready."

    Chris Wallace is supposed to sit opposite Trump with a pile of charts in his lap, in case Trump says something inaccurate? I've never seen that happen and it is ludicrous to think that interviews are conducted that way.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Who were the reporters? At the Washington Post, Philip Rucker graduated from Yale in 2006. His co-writer, Felicia Sonmez, graduated from Harvard in 2005.

    At the New York Times, Katie Rogers got a master's in journalism from Northwestern in 2006. As for Wallace, he also graduated from Harvard, in our own street-fighting class of 1969.

    These journalists went to the finest schools. They work for, or have worked for, our brainiest, highest-end news orgs."

    We have devolved to the point where all someone has to do to impeach a journalist is list where he or she went to college!

    Over in Trumpland, where The Other live, accusing someone of being an Ivy League College Grad may be enough to besmirch their reputation, but liberals value education and expertise and they don't think someone is bad or wrong or engaging in narrative simply on the basis of where they got a degree. This is pure anti-intellectualism and the right has that market cornered.

    Somerby isn't even trying to connect those degrees with some form of incompetence. It is enough just to accuse.

    This desperate attempt to smear Wallace and the reporters who describe Trump's terrible interview has filtered down to Somerby, who throws the kitchen sink at a variety of journalists and pretends Wallace didn't embarrass Trump on TV. Like Trump's campaign, Somerby is just going through the motions, because he has next to nothing to work with as he does the right's bidding today.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have never heard the case fatality ratio mentioned in the media prior to this. Why did Wallace choose to bring it up? He talked about the US being “seventh highest” in mortality rate (clearly quoting Hopkins CFR numbers), then Trump was handed a graph, which Wallace showed on his program, that was also for...case fatality ratio.

    That is...convenient, and odd. Is it a coincidence? The White House graph still contradicted Trump somewhat, but looked much better for the US. Why were they so prepared with a graph about CFR that they could quickly whip out?

    But why Wallace didn’t cite the other death statistics, which are much worse for the US than CFR, is a mystery.

    Was it lack of skill, pushing a storyline,...or something else, say, coordination with the WH pre-interview?

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