The Indicator from Planet Money - Making Sense Of Pandemic Stats

Statistics and the information we get from them have a massive influence on our worldviews and the decisions we make, but how can we ensure we're interpreting them properly? Today, we find out.

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Hey mon is Carlos. This is the indicator from Planet Money think back for a second overall. The big questions about the coronavirus pandemic that have applied to you and to your loved ones. How infectious is the virus how fatal might it be if you catch it. What's the best way to protect yourself how effective are the vaccines likely to be scientists? Obviously need to know how to use statistics to run the experiments to answer these questions, but it's also important for the public to understand how to interpret the answers how to see the data clearly to know what to believe and not to believe a lot of times people just don't have the confidence to know they're not sure Tim Harford is an economist and the author of a new book that's coming out soon called the data detective 10 easy rules to make sense of statistics of people that confidence to help distinguish between what's true. And what's not true.

No way to figure out certain truths about the wheels without statistics station with Tim about how these rules have applied to the pandemic and how they can help guide us through the rest of it.

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Tim Harvard walking back to the indicator. How are you? Well, if it's great to chat to you again in one of the earliest lessons in your book is that when we're looking at statistics, we should first examine our own feelings because if we really desperately want to believe something it's easier for us to end up being misled by bad statistics or we might end up ignoring good statistics. And either way we'll end up just being wrong. So how do you think that lesson is applied in the covid-19 it it's so interesting. I thought it was really important to emphasize that the significance of our emotional reaction that we met leave things that we want to believe. We believe things that are that are friends tell us that people on our side of the political debate believe and so that's when I began the day to detective with his slightly surprising piece of advice, which is before you get into any spreadsheet. So calculators or anything just think about how you're feeling. What's your remote?

Reaction. Are you feeling defensive how you feeling Vindicated you feeling this proves you right about the first emotional reaction how many people was scared but people just they weren't interested in winning an argument. They wanted to understand what was going on so I can come out to the brexit debates in the UK the polarization of the US where nobody wanted to give the other side of the argument seconds worth of serious consideration. I'm suddenly Along Comes This pandemic and all these scary numbers and people like I don't want to prove anybody wrong. I don't want to win an argument. I just want to understand. What is this thing? How dangerous is this thing? It didn't last long course people pretty soon polarized in Columbus after the coveted. I want this moment and I'll remember it when it comes to the use of Statistics Trust.

The public is hard to build but easy to lose if there's a mistake and there were mistakes early in this pandemic. We're all just kind of operating on really limited information use a kind of fog in which we were trying to figure out what exactly was happening. And I remember that at first the Centers for Disease Control here in the US said that masks were not helpful. And then later on it change its mind when it looked again at the data more closely, but it was a mistake. It's a tough one because we need an answer now and they also might be wrong at so there is a cost to putting out a public statement that says don't worry about me coming all the big deal and then having to go back on that statement and say we were wrong does it cost to that this would cost to not telling people anything or nothing else provide any information so that happened some very impressive a day.

The Gathering efforts. There's a huge trial called the recovery trial which I think is organized here in the UK that where they just said. Look at all these different possible drugs as monoclonal antibodies test dexamethasone. That's hydroxychloroquine the oldest stuff. We don't know what works to do proper clinical trial really fast. People are dying in hospital. We going to figure out what can save a life and we didn't weeks just weeks. We we had really good dates that we were able to say for example of a steroid dexamethasone. It's highly effective and safe, love live and hydroxychloroquine. My dad would attend that doesn't that sort of thing matters. And now of course with desperate for the vaccine and the same questions arise is the vaccine safe is the vaccine effective and we spent quite a lot of time just waiting for the date hasn't come in so you can move too quickly on this, but you can move too slowly as well.

Recently, there's been a push in the UK. And and now that you ask to start giving as many people as possible their first doses of a vaccine instead of holding back some of the vaccine so that people who get their first dose can then get their second dose a few weeks later an idiot here is it giving Morphers doses also offers more people at least some immunity, but the results of the clinical trials that have been done so far were based on two doses. So the evidence is still sort of limited. And so this is a decision that also has to be made with imperfect data and it's become a really like heated thing for some people you can see it very clearly at on an individual basis. I get emails. I presented program for the BBC about the vaccination race now called how to vaccinate the world and people emailed me and they say how it's outrageous. The British government is switched to this car first dose first policy and

My mother was going to get her second dose and now she has to wait for her second dose and I'm thinking my. 77 he hasn't had his first dose yet. I do write that in response because I totally understand where they're coming from. But everyone who's complaining they haven't got the second dose to someone else is waiting for the first time. These are not straightforward problems while I think we should do by the way, if we don't have the evidence space or we could get it really quickly. We run some some quick rigorous randomized trials, we could find out whether delaying the second dose for a three-months causes a problem or or doesn't my guess is not that's what the my reading of the evidence. That's how I found in the only way to find out if you want to run to my smile and we could do that. I think Lee if we wanted to if we could be bald heads together back together. Yeah Tim this is this is also just a really good example that shows why it's so important to have good data, but also that there are real people behind the data behind the nun.

Yeah, it was the early chapters in the book emphasizes the challenge of trying to combine your personal experience with the data and not privileged one over the other most people would would be like, all right, I believe what I see with my own eyes and that's that's evidence to me and then not interested in what's in the spreadsheets, but I think that Geeks like you and me and I mean not in Thank You. Marvin way. We may be 10 to privilege the spreadsheet a bit too much and to Value the day to a bit too much and data in statistics. Probably gathered can tell us. Hello. I think he wants to be robbed of thin and Miss lot of detail and the best view the wisest you comes when you're able to synthesize your own experience your personal experience the human stories behind the data, but also walks in the spreadsheet. You need both to Williamstown the world

Detective 10 easy rules to make sense of Statistics is out in the US in early February, but it is already available to pre-order this episode of the indicator was produced by Timbaland fact check by Sean Saldana indicator is edited by Patty Hirsch and it is a production of NPR.

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