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 populationWe'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.
United States: 433
South Korea: 6
New Zealand: 4
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:The number 433 is much larger than eight. The man who aced that cognitive test would surely be able to see that!
United States: 433
South Korea: 6
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.Can we talk? in all honesty, this matter isn't "complicated" at all.
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.
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