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  • Richard Farr

Nasty viruses and a question about precision

Listening to NPR yesterday, I was informed (is that the right word?): "There are only 60 confirmed cases of infection by the Covid-19 virus in the US, but experts are warning that the infections may start to increase." Or words to that effect.

There were no cases a couple of weeks ago, so obviously we got to 60 via an increase. "COULD BE 61 TOMORROW!" doesn't look like much of a story, so I assume that what the commentator must have meant, or what the expert (if quoted accurately) must have meant, is that the existing rate of increase may accelerate.

On reflection, though, that can't be right either: we got no information about whether we got to 60 via a linear increase or an acceleration, and it seems more than plausible that the rate is already (to some degree) accelerating. So perhaps what was meant was that the rate of infection would continue to accelerate?

My point really isn't to split hairs, but to ask whether that latter meaning is obvious or not from what was said. If it is, great: people should not be criticized for poor English when they say "Woah, not too shabby!" to express "Impressively good!"

Still, the suspicion lingers that in this case a little precision would have gone a long way. If the rate of infection has been accelerating daily (say 1+2+3+5+8+13+21 ... to be Fibbonaccian about it), then what if anything is a plausible number for us to expect - epidemiologically, not arithmetically - a month or two from now? Does the expert know? Does the reporter know? We certainly don't. So this, presented as an important nugget of news, seems like an example of hot air dressed up as information.

PS This post was not supposed to be about politics, but see this piece by Dan Froomkin on the press's response to Donald Trump's response to the danger:

I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. We have the best people in the world. You see that from the study. We have the best prepared people, the best people in the world. Congress is willing to give us much more than we’re even asking for. That’s nice for a change. But we are totally ready, willing, and able to — it’s a term that we use, it’s “ready, willing, and able.”

Froomkin is right: The sheer staggering incoherence of the President's language is so profound - so unlike anything you have ever heard from someone who isn't drunk, or in the 60-70 range for IQ, or suffering the onset of dementia - that it's a news story more terrifying than the virus itself, because more potentially dangerous even than the virus itself. Yet the press has largely ignored it, either out of misplaced politeness or the sense that it's the dull new normal.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a clown.


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