Geneva, Saturday 11 April 2020
Another beautiful day in the time of lockdown. The geraniums have been taken out of hibernation and the balcony is looking spruce and ready for spring amid a flurry of replanting, potting out, feeding and trimming. Nice!
The abandoned putting match from two days ago was completed yesterday evening. I won on the fifth play-off hole. I’m up now by 13 games to 6. Plenty of matches still to be played especially as we now have an extension of the lockdown until at least 26 April. The official reason is “the number of infections of the new corona virus continues to rise.” Statistics!
My friend Nathan from Toronto is a statistician. He’s just about the brainiest bloke I know. You should understand that statisticians look upon epidemiologists as bumbling amateurs when it comes to data, graphs and stuff. I once quipped “But you can tell lies with statistics!” Nathan scratched that mighty head and replied “Sure! You can tell lies with statistics. You can tell lies without statistics. It’s just much more difficult to tell lies with statistics. If you do, you get caught out.” Doesn’t this just apply to the COVID-19 pandemic? And guess who is lying with and without statistics willy nilly? Yup, the same guy who said two weeks ago “Everything indicates this will be over by Easter!” Hmmm… What’s “Everything”? And it’s Easter now, Big Boy. You got caught out in the lie and, furthermore, the state of New York alone now has more cases – and rising – than any other country. Today’s White House statement that “The outbreak is starting to level off” may or may not be true but sits in such a background of lies and political obfuscation that it’s hard to know what to believe. Go listen to Nathan. He’s just over the border. He’ll tell you what you can and can’t say with the statistics you have at hand. Having said this, at least the White House provides a veneer of data-to-policy speak unlike the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who believes in no policy at all (other than vodka) because he can’t see any coronaviruses flying about!
Moving closer to home, I’m not accusing the Swiss government of lying with statistics but they are certainly taking advantage of the different ways that statistics can be presented. “The number of infections of the new corona virus continues to rise” is a correct statement. An equally correct statement is “the number of new infections of the new corona virus reported each day is falling.” The Johns Hopkins coronavirus website shows graphs to support both statements. Whilst the first statement clearly justifies the extended lockdown; the second shows we are probably past the peak of the epidemic curve and so might lead people to think that the job is done, the pandemic has passed, and the extension to the lockdown is unnecessary…. so let’s party!
If I were in charge of communicating the Swiss stats, I would go with the first statement (after consulting with Nathan.) Here’s why: the number of any country’s COVID-19 cases in relation to its population (so calculating cases per capita) is, I would argue, more meaningful in terms of progress of the epidemic. For Switzerland this figure is 0.28% and for the USA it’s 0.15%. (Figures for these calculations again sourced from Johns Hopkins and worldometer.) In other words, we are far from finished with this story here. I tell no lies!
I learnt another pearl of statistical wisdom from Nathan. It is that we use statistics ultimately for one purpose only: to tell us what is going to happen. It’s a kind of mathematical crystal ball. So remember this, if we are given statistics that propagate lies, these lies determine our future.
Even closer to home – and this might be of interest to other Geneva-dwellers – we have from our balcony a fine view to the east of a mountain called le Salève (see photo above.) The Swiss-French border is right at the bottom of this steep, rocky slope. It is a source of some annoyance to Geneva residents that our view of this beautiful mountain is spoilt by the French quarrying many tons of stone from it. No-one actually living in France can see this eye-sore and so no French politician will lose votes as a result of it. I look that way ten times a day and yesterday evening, I noticed a large black smudge right in the middle of the quarry. It must be about the size of a couple of football fields and it has only appeared in the last days. Have they struck oil? If so, that’ll really ruin the view!