Thursday, April 23, 2020

Hard Data - Hard to Find!

If you look at this chart, it shows an alarming exponential increase in virus cases.  The media loves this chart, because even as the number of new cases and deaths declines, it always will go up - forever - as it shows cumulative data.  This chart will never go down, and at best "level off" over time.

Youtube apparently thinks I have gone libertarian as well, suggesting a 47-minute video from a Conservative v-logger who apparently is broadcasting from his Mother's attic.  "Mom!  We need more pizza toast up here!  And bring some tendies while you're at it!"

I watched a few minutes.  He was kind of funny - a sense of humor being lacking in nearly everyone these days it seems.   But he was playing games like calling the Corona Virus the "China Virus" which sort of gave the game away.  He also called the New York Times a former newspaper, which I thought was funny and apt, as when I was growing up, the NYT was a deadly serious paper - the "Grey Lady" or the "Newspaper of Record" whereas today it seems more like some sort of left-wing agiprop rooting for the demise of capitalism.   But I digress.

One point he made in the first few minutes of his video was how the press is sensationalizing this epidemic by using selected statistics - overall number of deaths, versus deaths per capita.  We are trivializing what Spain and Italy are going through, and the question he asks is, why?  By the way, like most of these talky mouthpieces, he runs on for a long time with a lot of distractions (like Rush Limbaugh) and thus "pads out" his blog-cast with a lot of filler.  That is one reason I stopped watching it at the four minute mark - boring!

But even a stopped clock - or a v-logger - is right twice a day (and on a good day, once for me) and he has a point - why does it seem the media and some politicians are trying to gin up the fear factor in all of this?   And why are they damning and shaming anyone who questions the official party line?

The answer is, of course, money and power.  The media makes money from clicks, and they know how much we click, and on what.  So alarmist headlines get clicked more, and "everything will eventually be alright - sorry about Grandma!" doesn't.  So in effect, the problem is us, not them.  That's where the vlogger got it wrong - the media gives us kibble we like to eat, and we like to eat fear, it seems.  Of course, it cuts both ways.  When you click on a New York Times or Washington Post story just to see how ludicrous it is, it only encourages more of such stories.  You might call this the Howard Stern Effect, as I noted before:
In Howard Stern's movie "Private Parts" there is a line that illustrates how this works. The station manager is reading the latest A.C. Nielsen ratings and says:
"50% of listeners LOVE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 1.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"

"50% of listeners HATE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 2.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"
Whether this survey was actually true, it illustrates the twisted genius of Stern and other "shock jock" and talk show hosts, as well as television programmers. Their goal is to get you to listen or watch, so they can sell you, like a pimp sells a whore, to advertisers.
So just stop clicking and the alarmist articles will go away.  The more you click, the more they write.  It is a feedback loop.

Politicians are no different.  They do surveys and polls and have "test audiences" to see how various messages work.  Governor Gretchen apparently believes she can catapult herself into the Vice Presidency on the backs of virus sufferers.  She has gone out of her way to be a vocal critic of Trump - part of the chorus of voices that claim that somehow he made things worse (but apparently no worse than the rest of the world, particularly Spain and Italy, among others).  She's even writing weepy op-ed pieces about all the "tough decisions" she's had to make.   I sincerely hope that Biden doesn't pick this Democratic Giuliani as a running mate.   "America's Governor!" - she'll have to fight Cuomo for that title (and people are saying he should be veep, too - once he transitions).  But I digress.

Per capita infection rates and per capita death rates are useful data.  Overall death numbers are really more of a curiosity than anything else.  But of course, a death rate of 0.02% and an infection rate of 0.2% aren't as alarming - and no one will click on that.  But that is the per capita death and infection rate in the USA right now.   On the other hand, if you claim the leading cause of death in the USA is this virus (for the last few days) that sells newspapers, or at least eyeballs.

This chart, on the other hand, in addition  to showing inconsistencies in reporting,shows the virus leveling off and perhaps declining.  Note the one-time reporting "spike" that is based on a difference in reporting methods, not people suddenly dropping dead.

Of course, the source of this data is part of the problem.   The CDC site would seem to be the best place to find data - maybe a year from now.   I thought that the CDC site would be useful - like the NOAA hurricane tracker is.  But right now, it is a mess, as it only shows death rates based on death certificates and so many are in the pipeline or not reported to the CDC that the numbers on their site are far lower - and outdated.  And the chart above illustrates how the data can vary greatly based on reporting method, as the spike shown includes a report from New York of "probable" deaths, which is an interesting tidbit.  I wonder how that was calculated.

In the meantime, health care workers on the front lines have to deal with this, and they are not the ones on television making pronouncements or writing op-ed pieces.  Sadly, the media and the politicians have gotten very passive-aggressive about this.  As I noted in an early posting, passive-aggressiveness takes on a number of forms:
We leave the restaurant, and she says to us, "Well, YOUR RESTAURANT wasn't very good!  We'll have to go to MY RESTAURANT tonight and I'll show you where there is some good seafood!"
OK, now I apparently "own" the "Shrimp Shack" and am responsible for the service, the food, and the iced tea.  It is "MY RESTAURANT" because I "picked it". 
But of course, I don't own the restaurant and I didn't even really "pick" it, other than to suggest it because we were standing in front of it and she refused to make any suggestions.  But for the rest of the trip - and even when we got home, I was told that "MY" restaurant was no good - and even friends were told that "My Restaurant" wasn't any good - as if this was some favorite place of mine and not an open door I happened to be standing in front of at the time.
In this instance, the media has taken particular glee in identifying a malaria drug as "Trump's Medicine" or the "Medicine Trump is hyping" because he mentioned it early on into the crisis.   Of course, he is not experimenting with drugs (well, maybe recreational ones - that would explain a lot) in the laboratories of the White House basement. The Chinese indicated there was limited success with these drugs, and an article from France seemed to indicate such as well.  No one claimed it was a panacea or a miracle cure - not even Trump.   But the media ran with it, calling it "Trump's drug" and when it failed to produce spectacular results, castigated him for even mentioning it.  Meanwhile, Governor Gretchen outlawed anyone even trying it because it was perceived as a Trump thing.   Politics and medicine - they don't mix.

I profiled a local man in an earlier posting who credits his recovery to these drugs. Of course, whether they saved his life or not isn't clear.   In order to figure out if these drugs work, you'd have to do months, if not years, of studies in double-blind placebo tests, write up reports, have them published for peer review, attempt to replicate the results, and so on and so forth.  You know, science.

While many doctors have tried this medication (in spite of Governor Gretchen's best efforts) the results so far are mixed, if not in fact disappointing.  Many are reporting no difference in outcome.  Someone has tried to take the actual resultant data and reconstruct a double-blind test by categorizing outcomes from those who took these drugs and those who did not.  But the sample size is small, and the selection process unclear (it would be all-too-easy to select those who died after using the drug, to skew the results).   At least it is an attempt at hard data.

There was some theory behind these malaria drugs, by the way, something about how they block how proteins bind to cells.   But so far, the data doesn't indicate that it actually works.  Even the Chinese, who graciously give us this data, (as well as the virus!) said it had limited effectiveness.  But it wasn't, again, just Trump pulling voodoo medicine out of his [hat].

Anyway, this fellow I mentioned is back in the news as he is donating plasma to give to patients to see if his antibodies will kill off the virus.   Again, an interesting theory, and only testing it will tell us whether it works.  Real-world experience trumps theory.   But sadly, it seems a lot of "experts" want to shoot down any attempt at treatment, rather than allow doctors to try.  Maybe Gretchen can kill this baby in the crib as well.

Speaking of which, four months into this, some doctors who are actually treating patients compared notes and noted that blood clots seem to be a common problem with Corona Virus patients.  It seems that maybe one reason people are experiencing organ failure is these blood clots, and that prescribing blood thinners may help patient survival.   Maybe Governor Gretchen should outlaw blood thinners until this is proven in testing.   She needs to step up to the plate!

Maybe taking baby aspirins will come back into vogue.  Too bad I am allergic.

The blood clot thing, by the way, is sort of scary, as it reminds me of Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, where a virus imported from outer space causes people's blood to instantly clot.  [Cue scary theremin music.]

The point is, treatments are evolving, and long after this is over, maybe we'll know how to treat it.  In the meantime, it seems that the daily death toll has not only leveled off, but is declining, in the United States, as well as in many other severely affected countries.  But that doesn't sell newspapers.

What does, is nonsense.  For example, characterizing protesters as protesting "social distancing" rather than some of the arbitrary (and possibly unconstitutional) and politically motivated rules that have been enacted - closing abortion clinics, gun shops, or liquor stores, depending on your political beliefs, or setting up useless roadblocks, outlawing certain drugs (based on who is identified with them), or tracking people by cell phone.  These are not mentioned, but rather a caricature of the protesters is presented, as ignorant people who want to get infected.  They are usually shown as portly and redneck and speaking in rural Southern slang (odd for Michigan, no?).   The media - and the politicians - want to make a point.  And the point is, anyone who disagrees with them is not only dangerous, but stupid.

Anyone who points out that people will start starving if we keep shutting down food processing plants, is shouted down (and no doubt, some Vegans are quite pleased when each meat processing plant is closed).  Ms. AOC wants to hold out for her "Green Initiative" before voting for economic relief.  Everyone has a dog in the game here - the government is handing out billions - bring a wheelbarrow!

By the way, Republicans got flack for wanting to insert a clause in the relief bill that unemployment insurance should not exceed the salary people made while working.  It was shouted down as insensitive (and hard to enforce as well).  Today in the paper, a story about a lady who ran some hair salons whose employees got mad at her for accepting the payroll loans - turns out they made more on unemployment, and would prefer it that way!  How she is going to get them to go back to work is anyone's guess.  We could see a lot of "unemployment" in the months to come, just as we did back in 2009, as benefits are expanded and extended, and give people little incentive to look for work.  It may be a wash, however, as I suspect this recession has "legs" far beyond the virus blip.  But I digress again.

Here in Coastal Georgia, we've had few cases and few deaths - a handful at best.  And no new cases have been reported and no deaths, for some time now.  They are slowly allowing people to re-open businesses, and it remains to be seen if anyone will patronize them.   With proper sanitizing, gloves, and facemasks, I suppose these businesses could be made safe.  On the other hand, if you don't believe this to be so, then don't go.   For some reason, New Yorkers are allowed to have an opinion about this, but not people here in Georgia - about what goes on in Georgia.

And once again, people miss the point of "per capita".   Some alarmists, such as Stacey Abrams (whose claim to fame is losing an election) claim that Georgia is in the "top fifth" of all States with the virus.  Again, data is hard to come by.  The CDC lists total numbers, not per capita.  This Politico chart seems helpful, but again, does not show data per capita.   MSN will show you, but only if you are willing to click through a 51-page slideshow (more click revenue!  Yea!).  Time magazine has a very unhelpful chart showing what appears to be bundles of yarn from one of Mr. See's needlepoint projects.  It displays the rate of infection, not per capita infection data. Impenetrable charts that look like data vomit seem to be the norm - I think the name of the game is to confuse people with numbers, which isn't hard to do.  And as we know, Journalists have no idea how statistics or probability work.

Vox has an interactive chart with oddly presents total number of tests per thousand, but only raw death and infection data.  NPR as you might guess, has only total numbers of deaths in an interactive map, but no per capita data.  They also have an "interactive" chart showing relative rate of infection from State to State.  What gives?  Why are people so reluctant to show per capita data in any meaningful format?    It makes a difference, too.  Texas rounds out the "top five" of States by number of cases, but comes in 49th place in terms of per capita infection.   Bad data might suggest that Texas should get a Texas-sized portion of resources, when in fact, it may not need as much, as their hospitals probably are not overwhelmed.

Finally, I find some data on "Statista" - once you eschew the "mainstream media" with its dumbed-down or unnecessarily confusing charts, you might find some real numbers.  I had to "sign up" for a free account to be able to download this.  What it shows is far more interesting than raw "death counts.   Georgia is not in the top fifth, but 16th in the nation, per capita, and that puts us in the top half.   But that is in terms of median only, not average.  New York really skews that, and you can understand why the media is freaking out - as most are based in that city:

What the fuck is the deal with Guam?

Of course, there is New York City and New York State - and nary the 'twain shall meet, except at that tiny point at the bottom of the State that we call "downstate" but New Yorkers (city dwellers) call "upstate".   The City and the State are two different worlds, just as Alana and Georgia are two different worlds.  Once you get outside of the city, infection rates taper off to almost nothing, as people naturally "social distance" and since infection rates were low when social distancing became a "thing" they have remained low.

So what is the point of all this?  Only that good hard data that doesn't have an agenda (right or left) is hard to come by.  And you would think, during a national crisis, that hard data would be valued.  But in any war, they say, the first casualty is the truth.   I forgot who we were going to war against - ourselves?

Apparently so - or at least, each other.