- Updates on new deaths and infections of the novel coronavirus have been coming thick and fast from media outlets as the outbreak becomes an ever-increasing news story.
- But this constant stream of numbers could actually be doing more harm than good, a statistics expert told Business Insider.
- Professor John Allen Paulos compared media reporting on incremental changes in the number of deaths and infections to driving a Porsche with oversensitive steering: “A tiny little turn to the left and you end up making a U-turn.”
- Instead, people need a “higher perch from which to look at the numbers,” he said.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The novel coronavirus is dominating the news agenda worldwide, with many media outlets – including Business Insider – scrambling to keep readers informed with newly-recorded infection rates, deaths, and hotspots.
But constant new numbers and statistics on infections and deaths aren’t necessarily helping the public understand the crisis – and could even present a danger to this understanding, a statistics expert told Business Insider.
John Allen Paulos – a maths professor at Temple University and expert on the misuse of statistics in public life – said he was concerned by “the certainty with which a number of people were making predictions or estimates on the lethality of the coronavirus, when I didn’t think anywhere near enough information is available to justify those.”
Paulos also compared the reaction of some news outlets’ coronavirus updates to a car with oversensitive steering.
“It’s like driving a Porsche, if you’re used to driving an old Volkswagen,” he said. “It’s too sensitive, so a tiny little turn to the left and you end up making a U-turn.”
He added: “I think a broader perspective, a higher perch from which to look at the numbers is helpful.”
Even a single infection can get a lot of attention if it seems to build a narrative, he said, adding that anecdotes and single examples can distract people from the bigger picture.
One example he cited was the revelation that a US soldier in South Korea had been infected with the coronavirus, which led to people assuming the infection is spreading in the military.
“It’s in the military, but only in a sense that a soldier in South Korea became infected,” he said. “And South Korea is something of a hotbed right now, and I don’t know if we can infer too much from that.”
These kinds of assumptions can too easily translate to humans’ tendency to panic: “There’s something very human about fearing contamination of any sorts,” he told Business Insider.
In an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month – titled “We’re reading the coronavirus numbers wrong” – he wrote that even accurate, contextualized numbers and statistics aren’t necessarily helpful because there are so many variables and unknowns about the coronavirus.
“There are a lot of factors that affect both the number of dead, how you attribute this, and the number of infected,” he told Business Insider.
“And we don’t know the incubation periods yet. I mean, the range is from two days to two-and-a-half weeks and we don’t know how many people, on average, a sick person infects.”
The virus remains asymptomatic and effectively undetected in many infected people, he wrote in The Times.
Governments may be under-reporting their numbers, for example. Methods of diagnosis can also change daily, skewing the figures unhelpfully. And even if there’s a change in data, that might just be in comparison to information put out in previous days.
Even establishing fatality rates isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, he wrote. The coronavirus largely kills the elderly, or those with existing complications, meaning some deaths might not have been solely caused by the coronavirus alone.
Paulos has also called out outright misinformation and what he believes is a politicized attempt to skew the narrative.
He has criticised the way Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for Homeland Security, likened the mortality rate of the coronavirus to the seasonal flu as misleading, and accused President Donald Trump of downplaying the outbreak to protect his chances of reelection.
Paulos also criticised the way the Trump administration has appeared to downplay the virus and the public simultaneously having an overheated reaction to the virus, telling Business Insider: “You have to guard against it and sensationalizing on the one hand and minimising on the other.”
It’s also up to the reader to put the onslaught of information into perspective, he said.
As for himself, he knows two things with relative certainty: That the majority of cases are mild, and – as he wrote in the Times – that hand-washing is important.
“I’ve got a trip scheduled for Singapore in May and I’m not too worried about it,” he said. The Asian city-state currently has 93 confirmed infections.