BLUE SKILL LEVELS VERY LOW: The Aussies battle the Mountaineers!


But also, the Holmes County Schools: As we noted yesterday, statistics are very hard. Even in our brightest and bluest tribal realms, we humans keep proving this fact.

That said, how bad is the current state of the pandemic in West Virginia? Yesterday, the New York Times was willing to tell us this in a major news report:

SLOTNIK (9/13/21): West Virginia’s seven-day average of new reported cases has neared record levels for all of September, hovering above 1,500 per day for most of the past week, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The state recently surpassed a total of 200,000 cases, more than four times the population of Charleston, the capital and largest city.

The state is recording roughly 1,500 new cases per day, the newspaper clumsily seemed to report. That's almost a record for the state, the news report pretty much said.

Still, is 1,500 cases per day a lot or a just a little? In an ideal world, it would be 1,500 cases too many—but in our world, how does West Virginia's situation compare to what's happening everywhere else?

The number itself—1,500 cases—tells you virtually nothing. The comparison to the population of Charleston is the kind of clownish "non-information information" which teaches us that we humans actually aren't "the rational animal" and most likely never were.

Fifteen hundred cases a day—is that a lot or a little? The news report in yesterday's Times gave readers no way to say.

As you may recall, the Times had done the same thing one day before, this time with respect to the state of affairs in Australia. Here's the passage which appeared in a high-profile guest essay in the Sunday Review:

Despite more than half of Australia’s 25 million inhabitants living under very harsh restrictions—including overnight curfews, travel limits of only about three miles from home and limits on outdoor daily exercise to a couple of hours—cases have soared to more than 1,400 a day, the most since the pandemic began.

Australia is reporting 1,400 new cases per day—but is that a lot or a little? The number itself tells readers nothing, and the essay—despite a flamboyant overall claim about the island nation's plight—gave readers no way to compare Australia's situation to those occurring elsewhere in the world.

Let's return to West Virginia. Just how troubling is the Mountain State's current rate of new cases? 

Incomparably, w decided to adjust for population and see how some numbers compare.

It doesn't matter how big Charleston is—what matters are data like those shown below. After adjusting for population, here are current case rates for the two jurisdictions under review, with some other jurisdictions thrown in to provide some context:

New cases per day, per million population
Seven-day rolling average, as of Sept. 12
West Virginia: 981
United Kingdom: 539
United States: 438
France: 146
Germany: 126
Australia: 69

That's where the numbers stood as of September 12. As compared to these other jurisdictions, West Virginia's current rate of new cases is, in a word, stratospheric. 

West Virginia's current rate of new cases is, in a word, stratospheric. But rather than offer some such information, the humans at the New York Times offered an utterly pointless comparison between the state's overall number of cases to date and the population of its (rather small) largest city. 

The presentation was utterly pointless, but was also par for the course.

In the case of Australia, it's still rather hard to make the case for the claims which appeared in the Sunday Review.  The nation's early success with Covid suppression has been "turned upside down," the Times guest essay said. The exciting claim was remarkably imprecise, but no further context was offered.

As you can see, when the Times reports the number of new cases (full stop), it's reporting nothing of value. Readers who read those two reports—the reports appeared on successive days—would have had no way of knowing what we can now tell you:

After adjusting for population, West Virginia's rate of news cases is roughly fourteen times that of Australia. Bringing it all back home, West Virginia's rate is more than double the rate of the United States as a whole.

Our youthful analysts howled in pain as they scanned those two reports. They understood that it made no sense to offer the absolute number of news cases for these two jurisdictions without providing some sort of statistical context.

Calmly, we took the youngsters aside and reminded them of what they already knew. Statistics are extremely hard, even for those in our brightest blue towns. This is anthropological information—information they already had.

Statistics are very hard, even within our blue towns. By way of contrast, promulgation of tribal narrative is deeply bred in the bone. 

This piece by the Washington Post's Philip Bump establishes those basic anthropological facts in brain-jangling fashion. But let's leave that for another day as we move to a deeply depressing report from last weekend's New York Times Sunday Magazine.

The report was written by Casey Parks, and it was deeply depressing. It was part of the magazine's "Education Issue," the kind of periodic enterprise designed to make subscribers believe that the New York Times actually cares.

In her lengthy report, Parks describes the horrific conditions which obtain within the Holmes County Consolidated School District, a badly underfunded rural district in the deeply impoverished Mississippi delta region.

Parks' lengthy report is deeply depressing. Its headlines offer this:

The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools
Outdated textbooks, not enough teachers, no ventilation—for millions of kids like Harvey Ellington, the public-education system has failed them their whole lives.

Those headlines don't begin to capture how depressing the full report actually is. But having made that observation, let us also say this:

Right from those headlines on down, this highly depressing report conveys a grossly false impression. That false impression is most directly conveyed by a wildly misleading statistic which is offered near the start of the deeply depressing report.

Even for our own tribe's brightest players, statistics are extremely hard, but narrative is quite easy. Anthropologists say this is simply the way our human brains are wired.

When it comes to grossly misleading statistics, Parks uncorked a world-class howler. Editors at the New York Times sleepily left it in.

Statistics are extremely hard. We'll pick up here tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Remarkably misleading


  1. All is not doom and gloom, except in Somerby's world:

  2. "Still, is 1,500 cases per day a lot or a just a little? In an ideal world, it would be 1,500 cases too many—but in our world, how does West Virginia's situation compare to what's happening everywhere else?"

    In MY world, the comparison of rates, obvious to what these cases mean to actual people, is ghoulish and inappropriate without some purpose, such as allocating resources.

    In MY world, people care about each other and aren't playing some statistical game of gotcha, as Somerby seems to be doing.

    In MY world, folks don't shrug and say too bad about the virus but this isn't an ideal world.

    1. oblivious, not obvious

      1500 is too many, ideal world or not, and Somerby is an asshole

    2. Why do you bother with a blog written by an asshole?

    3. Because people read it.

    4. Very few people read this blog. I quit a few years ago, and pretty soon I'll quit again.

    5. last time I checked, it had 180+ unique visitors

  3. "The number itself—1,500 cases—tells you virtually nothing."

    It tells you that 1500 people are suffering and some are dying. It tells you that those 1500 may pass the virus to others. That is not "nothing" except to someone who doesn't care about others.

    1. Not even a pro forma acknowledgement of what covid means to individuals who get it.

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  5. There are no statistics in the first 13 paragraphs of the report, then there are a few numbers describing the number of rural students compared to the entire public school population (the kind of comparison Somerby calls for with covid above). These are roughly accurate so perhaps Somerby is going to complain that private school students are being left out of the calculations, as if that matters when talking about underfunding of schools! The article is mostly a qualitative description of the disparities and experiences of rural kids, the impact on their lives. Unless Somerby is going to say that this is an untrue picture, why complicate the discussion by bringing in the private schools that white rural and urban kids flee to in order to avoid the poor quality public schools in such areas?

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