IF economics is ‘the dismal science’, I wonder what the correct phrase is for the world of statistics. May I humbly suggest ‘the disputable science’?
Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, we have been drowned in a sea of pie charts, numerical tables, percentages, and graphics with more lines and curves than you can shake a stick at.
The vast majority of the whizzes behind this plethora of statistics present them — usually on Twitter or Facebook — as the gospel according to the world of mathematics.
They are good and intelligent people, by and large, and have my utmost admiration as we attempt to navigate this pandemic. But there is one teeny problem: Their statistics have a habit of leaving me more dazed and confused than ever. And they often contradict each other at an alarming rate.
We are all grasping for facts and truths at this time, but both appear in short supply, and I have a nagging feeling that statistics alone will not provide either.
“Figures often beguile me,” wrote the author Mark Twain in 1907, before launching into the famous quote — he attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli — that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
Twain, like me — but obviously in another stratosphere altogether! — was a words man, rather than a numbers geek. Still, he had a point, which he further emphasised with another of his quotes: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
I’m sure you, like me, often pause for a few moments during this lockdown to ask yourself: How are we doing? Are we winning this war on the virus? Are we doing the right thing?
They are not the kind of answers we can usually squeeze out of the likes of Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, Health Minister Simon Harris or Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who all sing from the same hymn sheet: We are doing well, but we need to do better.
This mantra is logical enough, to keep us in check, but it doesn’t sate the desire of the lockdowned for something more tangible.
So we head to the media, and often social media, to see what the ‘experts’ and number-crunchers have to say. Here is where it gets bewildering.
Take Ireland’s death rate. This week, I have read that we have one of the lowest rates of death in western Europe and ought to congratulate ourselves — and simultaneously that we have more deaths per million than the USA, which is having a rotten epidemic — or so statisticians tell us!
Or take the number of positive tests. We were told this would be a top priority in Ireland, then we learned, via statistics, that we weren’t that hot at it. Now we are told, via statistics, that we are middling but heading towards being the head boy of Europe. And all the while, it seems these ‘statistics’ are built on old data and tests that are weeks old. Talk about shifting sands...
It doesn’t help that Covid-19 has become a political football, not so much in this country, but certainly in the U.S and UK. Many right-wingers ponder if this isn’t just a bad dose of flu — grown in a Chinese lab, of course! — that is being exaggerated and throttling our economies. Some on the left think the lockdown should last forever and we should all eat muesli while our green planet self-heals.
The war-ground for this battle of the left and right has become Sweden — and here statisticians have been falling over themselves with their contradictory charts and curves.
The Scandinavian country has become a flag-bearer for the ‘life goes on’ right-wingers, keeping open many of its shops and cafes.
Newspapers like the UK Daily Mail point to the fact it has fared little differently to most countries in full lockdown. On Monday, Sweden, a nation of ten million, reported 40 deaths from Covid-19, compared to 77 in Ireland.
But then, left-wing observers, such as The Guardian, point to the fact Sweden’s death rate is far higher than any of its neighbours. Apparently, it has among the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates, exceeding that of the U.S. Then again, so does Ireland — or so we are led to believe!
For those of us in the middle of the debate, who have no qualms about admitting our ignorance, it’s unedifying to see people jousting over rates of death, while giving us entirely different results.
The problem is, there are so many variables behind all these statistics: Each nation has a different population, density and age demographic, and varying levels of obesity and diabetes, for instance. Some ethnic minorities appear to be more prone to catching Covid-19, and there may even be different strains of it around.
The real truth is it will take years, and perhaps several waves, of this virus before we can declare a ‘winning’ method. Perhaps that will be Sweden’s, or perhaps not.
Even then, it will be judged on a delicate — and, to some, extremely tasteless — balancing act, based on the cost to your economy and the number of deaths.
Amidst the sea of statistics, it doesn’t help that even reporting in the mainstream media can be confusing.
We may read in one newspaper that Sweden is opting for the ‘herd immunity’ solution, hoping that enough of its heathy people catch Covid-19 and shield it from the elderly and vulnerable. But it is surely remiss to report this without then going on to say that the World Heath Organisation has found no evidence at all that catching Covid-19 can make you immune. In which case the whole herd immunity idea is debunked.
Then there is the ongoing debate over masks. Do they work? Some statistics show countries where they are more common have lower death rates. But can we even trust the death rates?
This week, a media commentator suggested the jury was out on masks, as they may make people complacent, thus less likely to wash their hands regularly and observe social distancing.
Ex-footballer Gary Lineker — who, statistically speaking, scored 49 goals for England but is not an expert in any other way — said on Twitter that if just one death was saved by us all wearing masks, we all should do so.
Well, not really, Gary. If people do get sloppy when wearing them and infect a person, who dies, that will presumably lead to more deaths than the one life you saved.
Folks, we are drowning in a sea of statistics.
All we can say for sure that we have learned in recent months is that if there ends up being a million deaths worldwide from Covid-19, that is a statistic. But each single death is a tragedy.