Emotional Investment and Statistics: A Thought Experiment

Consider how the public discourse over COVID-19 tends to evolve.

Let’s imagine we were to set up an online debate someplace known for civility and good faith arguments (you know, like Facebook or Twitter) between the “It’s all Trump’s fault and we are all going to die if we don’t mothball the world for a year” people and the “It’s just the flu, brah” people. What kind of statistics would we see thrown around to support their arguments (whenever numbers are involved at all, that is)? What sort of mortality rate would both sides argue?

The “mothball world” people will claim the worst possible estimates are true: “It’s like over 10% some days in Italy!”. The “just the flu” people will claim the best possible estimates are true: “Dude, it’s like less than 0.1% in Germany and New York and Iceland some days”.

Both sides will have extremely different talking points and both sides will be fully invested in believing their own version of reality so strongly that they will always find a way to dismiss the other side’s numbers, sources and ultimately arguments.

The thing we are certain to not see is a discussion between the two sides about establishing rules for what statistics and sources are permissible, what the rules of cause-of-death accounting should be, and how to reasonably interpret the vast difference between rates derived from transmission projections VS confirmed cases.

This is basically the debate that is raging on social media right now and it isn’t going anywhere or providing any new insights.

Now let’s imagine that we set up an online betting site where people are both making bets on what the general mortality rate estimate will be by the end of the year. On our imaginary betting site we can open the books for additional odds on what the mortality rate estimate will be by the end of the year within various age, gender, and medical category demographics and locales.

The community of people focused around this kind of betting site would be driven by a very different agenda, and the very most important thing they would all be seeking to establish is truth in reporting and rules for how statistics are kept. They must feel absolutely certain they aren’t throwing their money at phantoms and false data lest they be tossing their money straight down the drain. Their investment is in themselves, not any particular social or political “side”.

Considering how shocking the N-order effects of the ongoing economic shutdowns and social lockdowns are likely to be for generations of people whose hardest problem in life to date has been deciding between Android and iPhone, it is quite remarkable that the actual debate we see raging online looks like the first instead of the second example.

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