MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2021
As seen in the New York Times: Skill levels within our own blue tribe are often extremely low.
For one example, consider a guest essay which appeared in yesterday's New York Times, in the high-profile Sunday Review.
The essay was written by two Australian doctors. As published, and with headline included, their effort started like this:
Covid Zero Is No Longer Working for Australia
Australia was, until recently, heralded for its effective suppression of Covid-19; through strict border closures, prolonged lockdowns and its fortune as a remote island continent, the country was able to avoid a large-scale outbreak. The Delta variant has, however, turned that success upside down.
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...
Compared to many developed nations, Australia had very low rates of infection and death during the pandemic's first few waves.
This fact was widely noted. This relative success was sometimes attributed to Australia's stringent "Covid Zero" policies, policies which were sometimes described as "Fortress Australia."
Now, the Delta variant has "turned that success upside down"—or at least, so readers were told in yesterday's high-profile essay. Indeed, Australia's efforts at Covid suppression are "no longer working"—or so the Times headline said.
Those statements are highly imprecise, but they're also very gloomy. As evidence for these characterizations, readers were offered this, and were offered this alone:
"Cases have soared to more than 1,400 a day, the most since the pandemic began."
Across Australia, there are now more than 1,400 new cases per day. That's the highest number of new cases since the pandemic began.
Obviously, it sounds like things have been moving in the wrong direction in Australia due to the Delta variant. Of course, that's true in many other nations, rather plainly including our own.
That said, are things really as bad in Australia as a suggestible reader might think from yesterday's essay? We decided to do what the New York Times didn't do. Out of basic curiosity, we decided to see how that number of new cases looks when adjusted for population, and when compared to current rates of new cases in other nations.
Fourteen hundred new cases a day—is that a lot or a little? There's no way to make any such assessment from that raw number alone.
But here's how Australia currently looks when compared to some other nations:
New cases per day, per million population
Seven-day rolling average, as of Sept. 10
United Kingdom: 573
United States: 439
South Korea: 34
How about it? Has the emergence of the Delta variant "turned Australia's success upside down?"
In fairness, the claim in question is so imprecise that it's virtually meaningless, except as a source of excitement.
But after adjusting for population, Australia's rate of (reported) new cases is roughly one-seventh that of the United States—and it's roughly one-ninth that of the United Kingdom.
"Cases" is a relatively shaky statistic; case counts can turn on different degrees of testing in different nations. How about Covid deaths, which is likely a harder statistic?
Thank you for asking! When it comes to current Covid deaths, some numbers look like this:
Covid deaths per day, per million population
Seven-day rolling average, as of Sept. 11
United States: 5.0
United Kingdom: 2.1
European Union: 1.0
At present, our own country's rate of Covid deaths is roughly seventeen times that of failing Australia.
At no point in yesterday's high profile essay was a statistical comparison offered between Australia and other comparable nations. The only statistic readers were offered was the hard count of news cases per day—a statistic which is wholly meaningless absent statistical context.
(We're told it's the highest number in Australia yet. But the number itself tells us nothing.)
Question! Has Australia's previous (relative) success really been "turned upside down" by the Delta variant? As any modestly skilled journalist would understand, the exciting claim is so imprecise that it's virtually meaningless.
With that obvious fact in mind, we'll pose a different question:
Should the New York Times have published an essay which offered only one statistic—a statistic which, on its own, is completely meaningless? We'll say that the answer is no.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our skill levels remain quite low here in our human towns. That's even true within our blue tribe, here in our failing blue towns.
Blue skill levels are very low! We'll be discussing this point all week, with Wittgenstein relegated to posts in the afternoons.
Tomorrow: In the New York Times Sunday magazine, a grossly misleading statistic about a terrible state of affairs