Statistically feeling bad

Hey, my report from the trenches.

Before the lock-down, real Italian experts had a fight on Twitter (yeah, maybe we deserve the Apocalypse after all) about the actual threat of covid. We can deduce two facts: 1) this epidemic is not text book 2) top notch virologists (or put here any academic title) are not necessarily expert in statistics (and vice versa). We will understand what is happening in one or more years from now.

My brother asked me if I am happy to know that everybody now lives like me. Work from home, limited social contacts, not a big fan of hugging and hand shaking. So, personally, my life has not changed much. Said that I miss my bicycle and hiking. I cannot move more than 200-500 meters from my home. However, restrictions are not clear. You can find contradictory information on official sources.

People near me are worried but not in panic.


:exploding_head: That’s it. I always suspected it but now I am sure you cannot possibly ever sleep.

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For me, statistics work the way of the more hopeful reality check. History though makes for the bleaker picture, if you think about 50million people dead from the Spanish flu only a century ago.

I realise that chances are most of my community will make it through. But what is fundamentally informing my decision making - to stay indoor, or cancel travels is not the risk I run into as much as the strain you put on the system if you act against the preventative measures.

You are not so much putting yourself at risk but you put others at risk if you become a casualty or even if you become an additional number in the whole of numbers that the system has to deal with:
costs of tests, quarantine, expatriation, and any health costs that might save you, but make it harder to save others who might not be so lucky.


I think I would characterize myself as in ‘more alert’ mode. Not sure how high it is.

I mainly worry about accidentally becoming a carrier. Even though I am 69 and thus in a high risk group, I am a healthy person right now who takes no medications, all tests normal and just completed some reasonably serious days of hiking. But some people close to me are much higher risk of a bad outcome if they get infected.

@martin, you mentioned the challenge of people not understanding what exponential growth actually means and therefore sending the wrong messages. Could you share a concrete example of that or of a story/experience that helped people to understand the meaning of theses numbers better?

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Hello Maria - I plan to work on a text. Martin


A fairy-tale about numbers & behaviour (in six languages):

p.s. Numbers, figures, data - they talk, but not to anybody and in multiple languages. As long as there is a joke about ‘lies, dammed lies and statistics’ something is deeply wrong… …education missing!


Those of you who are saying – you are just going to shut it all off because you don’t know who to trust – that’s a much better attitude than feeling certain you know who to trust when in fact you don’t really know. Knowing that you don’t know is a big advance over thinking you know when you don’t.

I am in a different situation – being a VERY math/stats-oriented person I don’t get stressed out at all by the statistical posts; I love reading them because I do feel I can understand the math and evaluate what they’re saying. And to be honest, how reliable an analysis is doesn’t always correlate with credentials – for the most part, actual epidemiologists talking about this situation are largely saying things that make sense mathematically – but not always. The “experts” mostly but not entirely agree, so if you can’t evaluate the arguments yourself you can’t just look at the credentials to decide. Similarly, that dude with the Medium post might well be spewing BS but in fact might be quite astute – I’ve seen both, in large quantities, during all this. I’ve been reading a lot of articles that say something like “if you aren’t an epidemiologist, just stop posting about this and leave it to the experts”. Yet, the “experts” are mostly but not 100% in agreement either; there are some greatly varying outlier views amongst them. And quite honestly among the non-credentialed, there are some making very good arguments and some making convincing sounding but awful arguments.

I don’t know the answer to this. What I will say is this: if you are starting from a position of knowing you don’t know, you’re already better off than most, as I said above. From there, however, I will say one more thing: you CAN understand it, if you really want to, if you have the humility to know you don’t know, the amount of work it would take to be able to figure out for yourself what is and isn’t credible here is actually within the reach of almost everyone. What’s missing isn’t the ability to understand, but the critical capacity to realize what you don’t yet understand and put in the energy and concentration to figure it out. That’s true of most things, really, but certainly here.

However, if you’re strongly WANTING to believe one particular story, you’re not going to be able to get there. And I’d say a large number of people do have a very strong motivation, conscious or not, to want to believe one story or another. It is difficult to really get to the bottom of anything with that sort of mindset.

To get back to the question however – what is to be done? Is there a better way of discussing this stuff? I really do wonder this. What does seem to be happening though is that slowly, over time, the “expert” consensus does seem to be converging on a sensible picture of what is going on, what is likely to happen next, and what are the likely best ways to deal with it. I have been heartened by this; yet online, there is still a flood of misinformation, bad analysis, bogus interpretations of data, and motivated reasoning. So no wonder people feel stressed out.

I would like to help with this flood. What is the best way to address this? Not only for this crisis, but for the long future? Because honestly our future as a species may well depend on us getting better at this.


Thank you for your post @syntheticzero

I totally agree that one can learn to understand when being open to critical thinking and approaching the subject with an open mind and humility.

Another thing I was aiming at when writing the start post here was the difference between understanding something on a cognitive level and processing it emotionally. I read that 15-20 % of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, 75% of those in the first trimester. I am perfectly able to calculate the probabilities of that happening to me, but I did not grasp the reality of it until I experienced it myself and became part of those 15% -20% and felt the loss.

I would also like to address this second layer of emotional processing and discuss if that is even possible without experiencing something yourself or via a close friend or family member. And if people think that that helps people to appropriately evaluate the meaning of the information or if that might also lead them astray in another way, as of course, your understanding is much less objective.

However, your approach and intent for dealing with this food of information are very important:

I was wondering if maybe this “Infodemic Design challenge” posted by @daveed would be interesting for you? “simplifying knowledge” is one of the intents, but designing for critical thinking and low barrier information processing in parallel is probably the right way to go.

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That’s a very good point, but I actually think it may be the case that the biggest problem is when you haven’t yet confronted the reality of a situation in a personal way; I think a lot of the problems many people have when trying to come to terms with anything traumatic is that we don’t want to accept that it is happening or can be happening, in a way, running away from our feelings. So to the contrary I don’t think feelings necessarily make us less objective; wanting to ignore or minimize our feelings, deny them – I think that’s what causes the greatest distortion of perception and thought. Just my personal view.

This is a really sad story but I am reminded of a letter I read a couple weeks ago to an advice columnist, from a parent who was annoyed that their partner wanted to send their daughter to a child care club organized by other parents during the lockdown. Despite misgivings, they ended up sending their child. The advice columnist said that this was not a little wrong, it was BIG wrong. Just yesterday I read the follow up letter – all the children came down with COVID, including their daughter, even though they had only sent her for one day and pulled her after the first day. Multiple children were going to the hospital, one of whom had preexisting conditions and was in dire condition, and they were all so regretful. It’s such a horrific story yet part of the problem was before this happened many of these parents were just not really in touch with the potential very visceral reality of this situation we are all in. In fact it took the personal experience to bring the full reality of it to the forefront for them.

I’m very interested in this. I will take a look at it.

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Yeah I am having a similar argument with someone I know about sending their kid to school with a full pandemic on. The issue is not imminent as schools are not going to be opening. There are two points of tension.

The first is to do with hubris- zooming in on what you think you know rather than erring on the side of caution. Or taking seriously the fears of the mother on the basis of his having “rationally” analysed the data.

The second is not having a sense of what the data actually means in practice - how small the margin for error is.

Hans Rosling was unparalleled in his ability to make stats palatable to the many, even though the ideological framework through which he interpreted the data was (imo) problematic.

Angela Merkel, however, is one of few politicians able to communicate the statistics in such a way as to make tangible the possible consequences of how you act on the information available to you:

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this links to the post about the infodemic

Maybe there are similarities to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

There are certainly for a miscarriage, even an early one. And for many other things that people have to process.

In the current context it would be interesting to see if that could be applied to interpret the response to the information and measures of the pandemic.

In 1918-19, the big flu pandemic that killed so many millions, WWI had just ended and in Philadelphia they had a huge victory celebration where many thousands of people crowed along the street for the big parade. It was not long after that the city had mass death on its hands. Going back too soon is a proven killer. And yet, some Florida beaches are re-opening today. Sometimes I wonder if American society is even capable of managing itself so this pandemic can be mitigated. Too many people over here think it interferes with their Constitutional rights to not stand next to someone and either cough on them or get coughed on. I might think there was some Darwinian justice in play with such ignorance, but it affects too many innocent people.

ping @kristof_gyodi, this thread could be relevant to the data resources and visualisations you are creating/making available as well as the development of a webinar on how to analyse/understand data

In collaboration with DeLab we are preparing a webinar about how to read and interpret data:

Are you interested? Please share in your networks!

Here a reminder for today’s call on how to read and interpret and question data sets and scietists:

3rd of June, 5PM CEST.

How to join:

Follow this link to sign up:

We will record this webinar for research purposes. You can find more information here:

Also just found this live podcast on warm data which seems relavant. Happening at the same time, but they have a replay the next moreing 4th of June 9:00:

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I completely agree, @syntheticzero. My own attitude is, as I was writing a few posts up, to try and stay open to more than one potential true state of the world, try to entertain more than one possibility. Because the saving grace is that science is messy when new evidence comes along (SARS-COV-2 is new, and apparently there was not much funding to research coronaviruses before this mess), but eventually it tends to converge. At that point, most serious players will agree on somethings, and then credentials will once again approximate belief. Of course you can never prove a theory, only disprove it; but when a theory has withstood a lot of testing, we can provisionally trust it. Darwin published The origin of species in 1840, and no one has been able to reject its essence. There is probably something there.