Surprise! The field of statistics links Mark Twain with Josef Stalin—and the two of them with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are three kinds of lies…” Twain wrote, “…lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Stalin supposedly said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Both statements apply to some Americans’ response to COVID-19’s impact and to vaccination.
Statistics, according to Twain—America’s greatest humorist—mislead. I respond: Yes, lacking perspective. A baseball player who gets a hit 30% of the time posts a .300 batting average and earns millions of dollars a year. But, he’s made out 70% of the time. Another sports analogy: An NFL team wins 17 games during a season and they’re fantastic. An NBA team wins 17, and they’re a disaster. Their seasons are of different lengths.
As to the pandemic, yesterday (10-14), the 14-day daily average of American COVID deaths dropped by 6% (New York Times). Progress? Yes. But average daily deaths still stood at 1,818. Over the two preceding weeks, COVID took 25,000 American lives.
Now to Stalin-think. Is America really suffering a pandemic? COVID deaths as a percentage of population come to little more than two-tenths of one percent. Insignificant? Total American COVID deaths number 720,000. Imagine filling 17 Oracle Parks, where the Giants play baseball, to a capacity of 42,000—and losing every fan.
Stalin, the Soviet Union’s ruthless strongman, presided over the deaths of 20 million landowners plus perceived political opponents prior to World War Two (International Business Times, 3/5/13). He saw this as advancing the greater good by transferring land to collectives run by Moscow. A million deaths? 20 million? If read or heard, abstractions tend to quickly be forgotten.
A story about a single death? Stalin knew that a tale of an individual with a name and characteristics readers could identify with could create unrest. Books, poems, films and plays evoke empathy. Stories can move people to action. So, he imprisoned and/or murdered poets and writers.
This nation’s media generally reports both statistics and human-interest stories. The numbers provide perspective. Statistical analysis is crucial to science. Profiles of COVID-hospitalized patients who die or survive, and their families, humanize the numbers. Not surprisingly, survivors and families—yes, they’re carefully selected—all favor vaccination.
Still, many Americans distort Twain and define numbers as lies. Yet they also side with Stalin and reject stories. They dismiss individual COVID sufferers as outliers, their testimony as anecdotal.
About 25% of eligible Americans (age 12 and up) now resist vaccination. Still, those not vaccinated now account for more than 90% of COVID deaths.
Are statistics inherently invalid? Or do they simply lack stickiness and fly by the public? Are individual stories to be scorned, warnings from those who’ve learned hard lessons ignored?
We’ve discovered that in recent years, tens of millions of Americans view truth as optional, subjective or nonexistent. Our political system and we as a people have paid a price. So have Americans who believed that COVID was a hoax or just another flu, vaccines a con game.
Mark Twain and Josef Stalin occupy opposite poles of political and social thought. Clinging to simplistic interpretations of their words turns willful ignorance deadly. Choosing to die is a vaccine-denier’s right. Putting other people’s lives at risk is not.
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