"Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics."
"60% of the time, it works every time." - Brian Fantana, field reporter KVWN San Diego.
We are, all too often, misled. Much of the time, it is due to our own inability to comprehend things. We tell ourselves and others around us that we understand, but we really don't. There are three key factors at play: the first being our own confirmation biases that put us on a narrowing path to find information that satisfies our subconscious. A second factor is powerful media and a marketplace designed to bombard us with repetitive, often conflicting, and competing messages designed to adjust our opinions and preferences. A third and much more innocent factor has proven itself repeatedly in a time-honored tradition of ineptitude, and that is our own brains' biological limitations.
A little-known theory called the middle world (Richard Dawkins) suggests that our evolved biology lets us tell the differences between all things larger than a grain of sand and smaller than a mountain. We cannot fully comprehend tiny things, such as atoms and molecules, any more than we have the ability to tell the difference between huge things, like the vastness of the stars and the galaxies. So, in this middle world, we can attain a sense of proportionality and scale that is intuitive and informative. When we try to handle the world outside the middle, we basically wing it.
In our daily routines, we encounter many numbers in a wide range of shapes and sizes that we must attempt to measure and comprehend instantly. Often, the most interesting and media-worthy numbers we encounter in our daily lives describe imperceptively small and large things, such as the odds of winning the PowerBall and our proposed government budgets, respectively. Most of these numbers are represented as normal numbers or integers, like a population size or an amount of money. More complex functions are expressed as rational numbers or probabilities; we see these as ratios and percentages.
We may have read and therefore "know" that odds of winning a Mega-Millions jackpot is about 1-in-300 million. Still, we really don't know how that differs from the probability of being killed by lightning, which is over 130 times less likely to occur. They are both incredibly small numbers, and our ability to understand or "feel" them is incredibly limited even though they are very different from each other in order of magnitude.
Consider one of the simplest of probabilities, the toss of a coin. The chance that it lands on your desired outcome is 50/50, and in your core, you know what that feels like. That "feeling" results from a process deep within your brain's medial temporal lobe, specifically the amygdala, that helps you understand risk and reward. You may "feel good" when you guess the outcome correctly or "feel bad" when you guess the outcome incorrectly. Whatever the "feeling," it will not last very long if you continue to flip the coin and take guesses at the outcomes. While you may start out guessing correctly, even guessing several times correctly in a row, rest assured that the more you flip the coin, the closer you will get to be correct 50% of the time, and you will "feel" that probability.
As you start trying to "feel" the odds on probabilities that expand past 1-in-10, or 1-in-100 and up to 1-in-1,000, your brain starts to regress to a "feeling" of "who cares?" That's the middle world setting boundaries for you, and those boundaries are unique to you. What becomes more important in these equations are the consequences of those outcomes, like winning a massive lottery jackpot or losing your life.
Flip a coin and place a bet of $1 with someone. Whether you win or lose, the consequence is not great, and your cost or benefit to flip that coin is minimal. Now consider placing a wager on the outcome of that same coin toss where something of great value to you is at stake. How do you "feel" about that simple toss of a coin now? This is the concept of consequence in risk management. Risk management looks at the combined function of the probability of an event happening and the event's consequence simultaneously.
We have many real-world examples of this to examine, but none is more ever-present than the realities of COVID-19. The insights below are from publically available data, and I have no intention of playing the shill for my left and/or right friends; I am politically in the middle of the road, not defined by a party.
COVID-19 is truly a horrendous disease that has taken an enormous toll on so many aspects of our lives. Every country has paid previously unimaginable tolls on this connected planet, not only in sickness and death but also in the social transforms that have been forced upon us due to uncertainties that continue to exist to this day.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed both varying probabilities and consequences over time. As seen in Chart 1, in its early phases, there was a very low probability of contracting the disease; actually, only 1% of the US population had even tested positive through mid-summer 2020. Because they did not get the disease or see its effects in their families or communities, many people had difficulty understanding it; it existed outside of their middle world.
At that very same time, the consequences of getting the disease were horrible. Some areas of the country, and the world, had mortality rates near 20%, and hospitalization rates were staggering. Very little was known about how to treat the disease or to prevent its spread, so while the chances of getting it seemed low, the costs were dire; for the foreseeable future, our society decided to shut in to prevent spread and to relieve the burden to our medical systems. They were certainly troubling times, even for the most hopeful among us.
Since mid-summer 2020, a couple of tremendous things had happened. The first tremendous thing was that our incredible doctors and scientists had rapidly introduced new early treatments that lowered the mortality rates to between 1% and 2%. The second tremendous thing was that these same efforts produced highly efficacious vaccines through streamlined but safe efforts.
The positive outlook fueled the third tremendous thing; the tremendously stupid growth in the positive tests by a factor of almost 10, as seen in Chart 2. People were through with COVID-19, but it wasn't through with us. Because we "felt" that the consequences were not as severe, not as likely to die, especially among the younger people, our brains misinformed us of the continued risks, and the positive testing rates grew significantly through the fall and winter. Now roughly 1-in-10 people have tested positive, and it is much more likely to know someone in your family and community and to have experienced the disease up close and personal.
Varying media and political messages during 2020 were a major cause of the uncertainty and a great contributor to this disease's growth. Both sides of the political aisle banged the drum in absolute terms, while in the middle world, we stood swiveling our heads and looking for leadership.
While Chart 1 shows the cumulative impact of the COVID-19 cases and deaths as a percentage of the US population over time. Chart 2 shows how that curve translates into daily impact with cases and deaths as a percentage of the US population over time. The red line in Chart 2 shows us the absolute level of mortality risk that we encountered as a country daily since the pandemic started. The highs and lows reflect our behaviors and our public policies in aggregate across all parts of the country (my data actually drills down to county-level insights as well). As shown in the pandemic's early period, the death rates (red line) were exceedingly high relative to the positive tested case rates (blue line). As stated earlier, this was the worst period from a consequence perspective. As treatments improved, the ratio of death to case became fairly uniform. As you can see above, there is a 7-14 day lag in deaths encountered from cases documented. Additionally, you can easily spot the bumps in exposures to the specific events of Election Day 2020, Thanksgiving 2020, and the Christmas Holiday 2020.
While these trends are understandable when presented graphically and relatively over time, the numbers are tiny when presented this way and certainly not easy to comprehend without context. To get a better sense of what this means, look at Chart 3.
This chart plots the daily death rates from COVID-19 (red line in Chart 2) against the US's expected daily death rates from the other leading reasons of death that we have encountered in the US over the past five years. We are surprised when we understand what this chart reveals. We can understand the scope of COVID-19 within our middle word norms of heart disease and cancers, neither of which are good but we encounter every day, but neither of which have caused our society so much collateral damage. It begs the question as to whether we will take up similar arms to defeat heart disease and cancers in such a radical manner if only to conform to the argument of probability and consequences.
Yes, I know that COVID-19 and heart disease are different beasts. The early challenge of COVID-19 was to halt the spread of an infectious disease that was asymptomatic and, unless checked, could spread to every corner of the world, which it arguably did. One could argue that advertisements for fast food restaurants are another form of infectious spread as well. Regardless, the causal probability of daily death to our society and the lengths to which we will go is the point to be made.
The media and their political affiliations led many people to believe that either 1) COVID-19 didn't exist and that it was fake news, or 2) that COVID-19 is the greatest scourge ever and that our society will never truly recover. Both messages existed outside of and at the opposite ends of our middle world.
Our society struggles to bring such things as this into an understanding to grasp, feel, align with our daily expectations, and consider how we can best move forward. Isn't that the goal of our freedoms and our democracy? Give us the truth and let us move forward in the pursuit of happiness? Shouldn't that be our politicians' goal and our media sources from which we look for stability and the truth?
Indeed, COVID-19 is an unpredictable dilemma that is insidious and malicious. It spreads without warning and takes advantage of the weak and innocent. It's sometimes like the misinformation we encounter as a society from our media and our elected politicians.
There are five basic rules I want you to be aware of as you navigate through various levels of disinformation. Keep these in mind as you are influenced by things that either support your confirmation biases or undermine them, especially when it comes to risks, probabilities, numbers, and your instincts to react:
1) Your "feeling" is yours - You will interpret risks differently from anyone else. There is no common formula to explain what risks and returns are acceptable to people in different situations. The thrill-seeker is a great example of a person who has an imbalance in this equation.
2) You will underestimate risks familiar to you - You will underweight the real risks of everyday events like driving a car, crossing the street, or eating fast food because they are commonplace events, and you feel that you have encountered them enough that you ultimately understand them.
3) You will overestimate risks unfamiliar to you - You will think that terrifying things, like a shark or terrorist attack, are more likely to happen because not only because they are unfamiliar to you but because the consequences are extreme. You look for external information to understand them, but the sources you will find will influence your perception because ...
4) You will be overly influenced by persistent messages - Media-worthy stories are generally attention-grabbing and somewhat unusual in nature. Media outlets will repeat these messages disproportionally and persuasively regardless of whether they are true or not because ...
5) You will be influenced more by persuasive messages than facts - Professionally curated messages (media production) are more influential to perceptions than raw facts.
Politicians and media outlets are well aware of these five rules, and they use them to adjust our opinions and policies every day. They will try to make you more concerned about an opinion or policy by dragging some misleading statistics out of the middle world and telling you how you should "feel." They will repeat highly curated and seemingly truthful points endlessly with the expectation that your subconscious minds will adapt; because it works. They will tell you point by point how and when, and by what policies and policymakers will bring about the end of the world. And then they will whip you up to go out and buy thousands of dollars of PowerBall tickets.
In my opinion (see what I did there), we should love one another, be kind, heal the world with our actions and be tolerant of others' opinions; it is our true diversity that propels our world beyond those that try to manipulate it.
To be sure, get vaccinated, wear a mask, and then buy a lottery ticket in that order.