FRIDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2020
Warning! Confusion ahead: For what it's worth, Kristi Noem made a claim at her November 18 press event which we haven't yet discussed.
Yesterday, we considered some of the murky, misleading, inaccurate claims with which Noem defended her conduct as an extremely Trumpy governor during the time of a plague.
Noem is the highly permissive governor of South Dakota. Perhaps because of her highly permissive ways, only one nation in the whole world had a Covid death rate higher than South Dakota's as of mid-November.
Yesterday, we showed you what "some in the media" had been saying as Noem took the stage for her presser that day. We didn't discuss the final claim in the relevant part of her statement:
NOEM (11/18/20): Now, some in the media have said that South Dakota is the worst in the world right now, and that is absolutely false. I'd encourage you to look at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. There you'll see that there are other states with far higher new confirmed cases per one hundred—one thousand people, compared to South Dakota.
As we noted yesterday, some in the media had actually said that South Dakota was third worst in the world with respect to its Covid death rate. At the time, the worst numbers looked like this:
Weekly deaths from Covid-19 per million population:
North Dakota: 18.2
Czech Republic: 18.0
South Dakota: 17.4
Belgium: 16.9Slovenia: 16.8
Most other states had far lower rates when it came to weekly dying. The two Dakotas were far and away worse off than the rest of the field.
In the face of all that dying, the governor spoke about cases. That said, what did the governor mean when she offered this jumbled statement:
"You'll see that there are other states with far higher new confirmed cases per one hundred—one thousand people, compared to South Dakota."
Noem stumbled over her words as she made her claim. She seemed to be saying that there were "other states" with many more new Covid cases than South Dakota, even after adjusting for population.
(You'll note that she didn't say how many other states were doing much worse than her own.)
We decided to check this out at the recommended site. But when we went to the Hopkins Resource Center, we found no listing of new Covid cases per state.
When we went to other data bases, North Dakota and South Dakota still seemed to rank way up at the top of the pack. But that was several weeks ago, and data bases have moved on.
Charitably, the governor may have meant something different. She may have meant that South Dakota's rate of increase in new cases wasn't among the very worst in the nation.
At the time, that was true—but only because South Dakota was starting from such an incredibly high rate of cases (and deaths). The state's rates had actually been dropping a bit—but because of the disastrous levels the state had previously reached, South Dakota was still pretty much at the top in weekly cases and deaths.
At best, the governor's attempt at self-defense had been a confusing, imprecise mess. Did she believe the various things she had said?
We can't answer that question.
That said, the governor seemed to have told the people of her state that her conduct in office—her refusal to order a mask mandate; her refusal to cancel the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally—hadn't produced a statewide (and regional) disaster.
Her claims were grossly misleading at best. We'll conclude our case study with this question:
How did the press corps react?
On the national level, we find little sign that Noem's stumbling, bumbling performance was discussed at all. Within South Dakota, we'll direct you to the AP reports which appeared in the Rapid City Journal, one of the state's largest papers.
Two days before the governor spoke, the Journal had perhaps been less than kind. On Tuesday, November 16, The Journal ran a punishing report by the AP's Stephen Groves. Headline included, the report started like this:
GROVES (11/16/20): Gov. Noem standing more alone in her stance against mask mandates
Gov. Kristi Noem on Monday showed no sign of budging from her hands-off approach to the pandemic, despite finding herself among a dwindling number of Midwest governors holding out against mask mandates and facing a death rate in her state that has risen to the highest in the nation this month.
As the virus has steadily grown into a full-scale health crisis across the Midwest, the Republican governor has remained resolute—sticking to the limited-government ideals that have made her a rising star in the conservative movement and arguing that government mandates don’t work.
But she finds herself the subject of increased scrutiny for the approach...
Oof! South Dakota's Covid death rate "has risen to the highest in the nation this month," Groves unpleasantly wrote. For that reason, Noem's permissive, masks-off approach had become "the subject of increased scrutiny."
Already, Groves was hitting hard. As he continued, he may have become even a bit less neighborly:
GROVES: South Dakota has reported 219 deaths in November—about a third of all its deaths over the course of the entire pandemic. The COVID-19 deaths have sent the state to the top of the nation in deaths per capita during November, with nearly 25 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project.
But Noem has no plans to issue mask requirements. The governor’s spokeswoman Maggie Seidel pushed back against arguments by public health experts that a mask mandate would dramatically reduce the spread of the virus, pointing out that states like Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin have also experienced significant virus waves despite having strict mandates to wear face coverings.
“The facts are simple: mask mandates, harsh lockdowns, massive testing and contact tracing haven’t worked—in the United States or abroad,” Seidel wrote in an email.
But South Dakota currently has the nation’s second-worst rate of new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. There were 2,047 new cases per 100,000 people, meaning that roughly one out of every 49 people has tested positive in the last two weeks.
The only state where new cases per capita are worse, North Dakota, moved to require masks and limit the size of gatherings on Friday...
Ow ow ow ow ow! According to Groves, the state had gone to the top of the nation in Covid deaths per capita during the month of November. Also this:
Currently, the state was boasting "the nation’s second-worst rate of new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins researchers."
The Journal ran this AP report on Monday. November 16. Two days later, Noem held the press event at which she made the jumbled, misleading and inaccurate claims we've been discussing in this week's case report.
Was South Dakota "the worst in the world" (on some unnamed measure)? That was "absolutely false," the governor convincingly said, shooting down a straw man claim which no one had actually made.
As Noem spoke, her state's death rate had been announced as third worst in the world. Within the U.S., only North Dakota's death rate was worse.
As we noted yesterday, death rates in the vast majority of states were much, much lower. What exactly was Noem talking about? We have no idea.
Noem's performance was grossly misleading, perhaps even flatly false. In response, the Journal published another AP report in which Groves repeated an array of challenging statements about the state's high Covid case and death rates.
To its credit, The Journal had been pulling no punches in the challenges it posed to Noem. That said, Groves' new report seemed to highlight one of the problems journalists face as they attempt to discuss this ongoing life-and-death topic.
To their credit, the AP and the Journal were speaking truth to power. But early in his new report, Groves offered a string of apparently contradictory claims:
GROVES (11/18/20): [Noem] pointed to other states in the region with mask mandates, such as Wisconsin and Montana, that have a higher rate of daily new cases per capita. South Dakota ranks in the top seven states for the metric. And in the last two weeks, the numbers of confirmed new cases and deaths per capita in the state have been the second-highest in the country, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.
The number of COVID-19 deaths has skyrocketed in recent weeks. Health officials have reported 259 deaths in November—about a third of the state’s total death toll over the course of the pandemic.
The only state with worse death and new case rates, North Dakota, on Friday issued a statewide mask mandate and limited the size of gatherings in businesses.
First, Groves seemed to say that South Dakota only "ranks in the top seven states" with respect to its "rate of daily new cases per capita." (We'll assume that means that the state ranked seventh.) But in his very next sentence, he seemed to say that South Dakota had had the second highest rate of confirmed new cases in the last two weeks.
In the final paragraph, Groves seems to say that only North Dakota had higher case and death rates at that very time. Two paragraphs earlier, he seemed to agree that "such states as" Wisconsin and Montana also had higher case rates.
No one can say that Groves deferred to this popular governor. On the other hand, even he seemed unable to avoid the shoals of self-contradiction and confusion as he reported this complex topic.
Alas! The Covid crisis has spawned a blizzard of statistics of widely varying types. A wide array of Covid sites slice and dice these data in widely varying ways.
Covid sites may provide statistics for cases, for hospitalizations and/or for Covid deaths. They may report total deaths to date, or they may report current daily rates of death.
Sometimes, data have been adjusted for population; in other cases, they haven't. The data may show current case or death rates—or the data may perhaps show increases in case or death rates.
Employing this blizzard of information, politicians will defend themselves against criticism. Knowingly or otherwise, they may make false or misleading statements, jumping around and moving about within this sea of data.
That's a big problem. Here' s why:
For our major mainstream journalists. statistics tend to be extremely hard. The higher up the ladder you go, the more they tend to stress storyline, factual clarity be damned.
In truth, our major journalists tend to avoid statistics altogether. So it has been, to cite three examples, in the case of national test scores, health care spending and lead exposure at Flint.
Our journalists tend to like storyline. They don't enjoy sifting through facts.
Groves has pushed extremely hard, as a journalist should. That said, even he seemed to be perhaps a bit tangled up in his second report.
Meanwhile, can we talk?
On this very day, as we sit here typing, South Dakota leads the fifty states in current case rate and in current death rate. We see this in the data compiled by the New York Times. (Scroll down to "Cases and deaths by state and county.")
Was there really a time, not long ago, when Noem's state only had the nation's seventh worst case rate? We don't know the answer to that, and we stand exhausted by the attempt to sort these matters out.
That said, Groves was trying to do his job. Elsewhere, major top celebrity journalists are a great deal dumber and lazier.