COVID Statistics by Dummies for Dummies

Statistics should be kept out of bounds to non-statisticians; most particularly, right now, to medical researchers and epidemiologists. I say this because of the statistical garbage they’re cobbling together and feeding to the gullible press. Incidentally, this is no disrespect to the press. It’s just a matter of fact not condemnation.

To wit, a headline in The Telegraph (UK): “Vaccinated people dying of Covid have average age of 85 and five underlying illnesses.” It turns out that this result came out of the Italian Health Institute which had examined deaths from COVID between February 1 and October 5, 2021. And the point? To show that deaths among the unvaccinated occurred at a younger average age of 78; to boot, suffering only four underlying illnesses. It’s worth a laugh.

How many 85-year-old Italians with five serious underlying illnesses survived the first waves of the virus? I suggest that the population of such people would have been seriously and disproportionately depleted. It is therefore unsurprising that their marginally younger and fitter septuagenarian cousins are more recently taking the brunt. Was this allowed for? I doubt it. Also, it is more likely that those aged around 85 are in protected care than those aged around 78. Was this allowed for? I doubt it.

I have seen research on people in hospital which is then extended to the broader population. For example, an observation (from a CDC study) that the unvaccinated are disproportionately represented in hospital beds was spun by the press to suggest that those vaccinated are less likely to be infected and thus less likely to pass on the disease. But if the vaccines work to reduce the severity of the illness, then there may be many more people out there who are vaccinated passing on the disease than there are unvaccinated people. Who knows? What we do know is that the population in hospital is unlikely to be representative of people not in hospital. Wrong population upon which to base any general conclusion.

On a number of previous occasions, I have drawn attention to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), relied upon by our health authorities, which indicated that vaccinations had no effect on the rate of spontaneous abortions up to twenty weeks after conception. But 700 of the 827 women in the sample had not been vaccinated until their third trimester. Wrong sample population. Incredibly wrong, you might say, to understate the case.

A Scotland-wide study on the effectiveness of vaccines published in the NEJM this month, included this finding:

Among persons 16 to 39 years of age who had infections for which data on S gene status were available, no deaths occurred among those who were fully vaccinated, as compared with 17 deaths among those who were unvaccinated.

There seems little doubt that the vaccines have a protective effect. But this finding is passing strange.

First of all, deaths among 16- to 39-year-olds are rare. I will guess with confidence. Those who died had serious underlying illnesses which left them vulnerable and which also may have dissuaded them from risking vaccination. Did the populations of those who lived and those who died share the same health profiles? Or, were those who died being matched against the wrong population?

I dipped again into The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, a fascinating book on psychological-cum-statistical illusions. In one part he covers his own case of being diagnosed with HIV in 1989. At that time, the CDC reported that 1 in 10,000 heterosexual, non-drug-taking white males who got tested were actually infected. However, the false-positive rate was one in a thousand. Having tested positive, his doctor (of epidemiological turn of mind) told him that the chance of him not having the disease was only one in a thousand. Wrong population, Doc.

In fact, as Mlodinow points out, as soon as he tested positive, statistically-speaking, he formed part of a population of eleven who had tested positive; ten of whom did not have the disease. Thus, his chance of having the disease was not 999 in one thousand, as his doctor concluded, but only one chance in eleven. Thankfully, he didn’t buck the odds.

COVID statistics have become the weapon of choice for those want to scare people witless and to promote lockdowns, social-distancing, masks and mandatory vaccinations. Frighteningly, among some, this forms part of a pretext for replacing individual rights with collectivism. But that’s another story.

More mundanely, two problems attend the use of statistics. One is sheer statistical ineptitude among medical researchers and the media. A second is confirmation bias among researchers aiming for plaudits and publications rather than the truth. A bias common to many fields of inquiry; including, of course, most notably, to climate change.

The moral of the tale. When you see a statistic published in the press, harbour the distinct possibility of it being a damned lie.


16 thoughts on “COVID Statistics by Dummies for Dummies

  • ChrisPer says:

    Yay! Well said. From here we should consider the possibility of data torturing; and exception harvesting. As the numbers refuse to support the cause du jour, you can select the one age cohort that has a positive spike in whatever and talk it up; Or you can just ‘neaten’ the raw data set by excluding categories until you get a well-defined result that you like.
    Bang! Publication.

  • lbloveday says:

    The 7.5 billion in the world are far from homogeneous, yet people tell me the chances of my getting blood clots from AZ “vaccine” are minimal, viz whatever the current %age is given as, as if I, who has had full-time, unmedicated Atrial Fibrillation for 10 years has the same probability as a 30yo vegetarian marathon runner.
    I respond by saying that’s as sensible as saying I weigh 62kg because that’s the average weight of an adult human in the world, but they don’t understand. The mate of one who started up a bar room conversation with me even started shouting “Anti-vaxxer”. I returned to my crosswords.

  • Daffy says:

    Pretty much the same approach as…advertisers, climate magicians and energy rent-seekers.

  • rod.stuart says:

    “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” – Aldous Huxley

  • Stephen Due says:

    The idea of statistical risk is interesting. Consider masks. Is one creating a statistical risk for others by not wearing a mask? This question could be answered by studying the reduction of transmission in a mask-wearing population. But if one does not have Covid, one presents no risk, regardless of wearing a mask.
    Consider vaccines. Not long ago Dr. Fauci was saying the vaccines were 100% protective against getting Covid: your risk of getting infected if vaccinated was zero. The manufacturers seemed to think they were actually offering about 95% Relative Risk Reduction. That was then. Now the vaccines are probably less than 60% effective, as quite large numbers of vaccinated people are getting Covid in highly vaccinated countries like Israel.
    Perhaps, however, the vaccines still reduce an individual’s risk of getting infected? Not really, because the Absolute Risk Reduction from the vaccine is only about 1% (Olliaro et al Lancet Microbe 20 April 2021), This will reduce if the background risk decreases (less virus circulating).
    The striking feature of Covid-19 statistical risk is of course the relatively high chance of serious illness in the vulnerable elderly if infected. This particular risk could be side-stepped by vaccination of the elderly alone (so does not requite mass vaccination). But the risk of hospitalization and death in the infected elderly could be virtually eliminated with early treatment protocols based on hydroxychloroquine. Sadly the Australian authorities, in lock-step with those overseas, decided to deny the vulnerable elderly the opportunity to reduce their risk in this way, and many may be presumed to have suffered and died as a result.
    Failure to understand statistical risk and its implications has been a feature of official responses to this pandemic – in spite of all the statistics being bandied about. This has flowed through to the public. Thus a man who lives alone near me can be seen wearing a mask while gardening, because the government has said that masks must be worn when not in your house. A lady may be seen walking alone along the windy and deserted streets, mask staunchly clamped across her face. Risk reduction achieved by the mask: zero.

  • rod.stuart says:

    The more I read about the hysteria invoked by the authorities to “get vaxxed”, the more I am reminded of the Deagel.com forecast that was removed last April.
    That forecast the Australian population at nine million in 2025, and the population of the USSA at two hundred million. No one appears to know the basis of the forecast, as Francis Deagel has distinct “military intelligenge” ties. Will the survivors have survived a nuclear war with China? Or will the survivors be the “unvaxxed”.

  • ianl says:

    >” … no disrespect to the press. It’s (gullibility) just a matter of fact not condemnation” [Peter Smith, above]

    That it *is* a fact is the matter of condemnation. Most simply do not want to try. Yet they are deemed “essential” by those who wish to manipulate a propagandized outcome.

  • lbloveday says:

    I attended a 60th birthday party last night, seated at a table with 3 couples and a single woman whom I regarded as a friend and who had freely helped my wife’s rehabilitation after breaking a hip in a motor bike prang.
    The man next to me and I shook hands as we always do when we meet and the woman, who was smoking at the time, screamed “Don’t shake hands” and shortly after left the table, returning briefly to retrieve her cigarettes and lighter.
    My early adulthood was oftentimes spent in smokey bars, football clubs and billiard halls, and smoking worries me not (my missus still smokes although I never have).
    But how 2 men on the opposite side of the table shaking hands can be considered more offensive/dangerous than smoking in close vicinity to them eludes me. Or maybe she was trying to protect us, not herself? Or maybe the world has gone mad.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Let’s explore the issue of statistical ineptitude and confirmation bias a little. This can be seen in published research, in the media, and in government. Clearly the cause lies much deeper than occasional intellectual incompetence. In the top medical journals, for example, woke ethics and socialist ideology are abundantly in evidence – influences that are corrupting not only the reporting of medical science but also the research agenda and even the research process.
    On a practical level, it is not mere intellectual incompetence that leads to policies like banning the use of proven treatments for Covid-19. Rather, the little Hitler lurking in the heart of Mr. Average is starting to assert himself. To him it is all too obvious that the unvaxxed need to be crushed like cockroaches. That’s the best medical advice from our experts – and the government is following the science, obviously.
    Meanwhile, better days are ahead for the vast majority who are fully vaxxed, masked and tested. International travel is opening up! Anyone for Europe? What about Nuremberg?

  • Lo says:

    I am feeling truly crushed but I cannot accept the vaccination. Having survived seven years ago a one in a million accident with brain damage I find myself unable to accept another one in a million chance, of a blood clot.
    The limitations are cruel, punitive and impossible to substantiate medically, scientifically or statistically.

  • Searcher says:

    Last week, I cudn’t spel secitery. This week I are one.

  • vickisanderson says:

    Actually, it is the actual statistics that dissuade me of being injected. I am talking about the stats relating to the risk analysis that 1) I may contract the virus 2) if I do contract it I would need to be hospitalised 3) if I need to be hospitalised I do not recover.

    Hope it is not “fatal last words” ……. but, at the end of the day…..life is a gamble. I live a good part of my life on a rural property. I walk around it for approx. 50 minutes each day. In the last 4 weeks I have encountered 4 venomous snakes – 2 blacks & 2 Eastern Browns (very deadly). I am very alert & scan constantly for their whereabouts. As a rule, they want to avoid you as much as you avoid them. But if you tread on one ……….Now, I also carry a compression bandage…but the nearest hospital is 40 minutes drive – & that is from the house. So, do I sell up or at least stop my daily walk? No, I do not. I have done a risk analysis – just like I do in the murderous city traffic.

  • rosross says:

    Very well said but whoever subbed your copy missed the ‘who.’

    COVID statistics have become the weapon of choice for those (who) want to scare people witless and to promote lockdowns, social-

  • jbevilacqua77 says:

    Hi Peter, a great article. Actually had a similar conversation with a Homeopath who is also an anti-vax person. In her defense she brought up numerous scientific papers showing, this type of data. I told her that obviously she was comfortable with her choice, as was I, but to remember that there are Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics. On another point though, what are your credentials as a Statistician?

  • Peter Smith says:

    rosros, I have never become reconciled to reading things over ten times and still miss typos. Editors miss them too. There is something going on beyond our imaginings.
    jbevilacqua77, I did a bit of stats at uni long ago but claim no expertise. It’s case of applying logic and common sense and reading books like The Drunkard’s Walk and Fooled by Randomness. I think that’s enough to allow you to spot the flaws, where the flaws are fairly evident.

  • andrewk1901 says:

    lbloveday the world has gone mad. All sense of relative risk has gone out the window. Re masks, thankfully I have an exemption. I simply cant tolerate them and either have to take my glasses off every time I search a shelf at the supermarket- or push the mask down. Either way creates a fomite problem. Just not using the mask is the wiser option.

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