Forget fake news about the pandemic. Most of the real news is being faked, and I haven’t seen any criticism of it in the mainstream media.
Forgive me if you’ve already read criticism of this kind. Because of course I haven’t read every single article on the subject, only about 0.1% of them. Which is – coincidentally – roughly the proportion of the French population which is known to have been infected in the past month or so. To be sure that my scoop hasn’t already been mentioned a million times, I’d have had to have read approximately 50% of all the articles published, which is – coincidentally – the number of people who, we are told, need to be infected for herd immunity to take effect and release us from confinement. 50 divided by 0.1 is 500, which, at the current rate, is the number of months it would take for it to be safe to go out again, unless the rate of infection increases, which the government is doing its best to avoid by preventing us from going out. So if the government’s policy of keeping us indoors is to succeed in its aim of preventing serious cases from overwhelming the health service, we’re here until approximately May 2004. [Sorry. January 2061. Or 2062. roughly]
Of course, the number known to have been infected bears little relation to the real number infected, because no-one knows what that is. To do that you’d have to test everyone, or at least a huge proportion of the population. It’s not like an opinion poll, where with a thousand interviews you can determine to within 3% whether the population is for or against. You can’t just test a thousand random people and find out whether they’ve been infected or not, to within 3%, because.. well, because you can’t.
I don’t expect journalists to challenge epidemiologists and infectologists (do you have those in the UK? My word check says not) on the abstruse mathematics of their calling, but I do expect them to be able to do some simple division and ask some simple questions.
Take logarithmic graphs. They are delicate things, and need handling with care. In the early graphs depicting cases or deaths per day, the y axis tended to be normal, giving a near vertical cliff like the walls of Mordor. These have largely been replaced, with no explanation that I’ve seen, with logarithmic y axes, giving smoothly rising bumps like the South Downs in a Paul Nash painting. All that’s missing to give the impression that you’re in Dorset is the chalky outline of Boris in the nude brandishing his ..
Where was I?
Several lines are often represented on these graphs, representing the progress of the epidemic in different countries. The commentary tends to insist on the fact that we’re all in this together, all following roughly the same trajectory, except the Koreans, the Singaporeans and the Taiwanese (and the Chinese, but they’re assumed to be lying.)
What is it that links these four countries? Could it be that they are all rigid dictatorships that impose the harshest discipline on their suffering populations? No, try again. They’re all in the East, that’s for sure, and they are all in the habit of wearing masks – true. Keep guessing, because no commenter is going to explore this question because, you know…
[No, it’s not about race. It’s about family structure. See the stats for Kazakhstan, or Tuscany, right by Emilia Romagna – Jeez, why do I bother?]
Back to the log graph: the other lines on these graphs, representing European countries, or countries inhabited largely by people of European origin, do tend to look as if they’re all following the same trajectory, don’t they? Until you realise that the horizontal lines you thought represented eighty, ninety, and a hundred thousand cases in fact refer to a thousand, ten thousand and a hundred thousand cases, and those two lines for the UK and Spain, so closed together, indicate in fact that Spain has five times as many cases as the UK.
Remember the old days, about six weeks ago, when the BBC could present a programme called “Climate Change – The Facts,” without once showing a simple temperature graph that gave The Facts about Climate Change, for fear of confusing the public with something too complicated for its pretty little head? Now we have log graphs which no journalist can understand, let alone the general public, presented without explanation, in a non-stop programme entitled “Corona Confinement -The Facts.”
The “facts” are there, but the title of the programme has been omitted.
When data for several countries is presented on these graphs, to make comparisons “fair,” the starting point for each country is adjusted, making progress as difficult to estimate as it is when watching the 400 metres sprint on the telly. There’s a graph produced by John Hopkins which has each country starting from the day they declared their first death. Other graphs I’ve seen start at the hundredth death, [which is handy for countries with a small population. Lichtenstein may not get many medals in athletics at the Olympic games, but this is a competition where they start off with a distinct advantage.]
On the John Hopkins graph, the UK is doing far worse than France, which has far more deaths. This seems to be due to the fact that France’s second death was declared about twelve days after its first, so it has a flat start to its exponential rise, a bit like running the second leg of a 4X100 metre relay a fortnight after everyone else had finished.
This is not anyone’s fault, of course. Different experts try to demonstrate different aspects of this tragedy using different graphic aids. But when millions of voters are exposed to these aids without explanation, they need help in interpretation, and they’re not getting it.
French TV has lately taken to accusing people of not respecting the one metre distance when out for their once-a-day, not-more-than-an-hour, not-more-than-a-kilometre-from-home constitutional, accompanying their reports with film photographed with a telephoto lens, which shows Parisians promenading in parks apparently about one centimetre behind each other.
Telephoto lenses have their uses. They are a useful corrective to the selfie, which makes you look like a macrocephalic bandy-legged dwarf standing on tiptoe (not you, I mean the people you commune with on Skype.) Their use by British fashion photographers in the sixties helped to promulgate the myth of British womanhood as two-dimensional flat-chested ephebes. When the cameramen of Fashion TV went to Rio for the carnival and were obliged to photograph the female kind up close, they got a shock. I recommend FTV’s regular spring retransmissions of the highly professional video clips produced by the different favelas of one of the world’s most distressed and vibrant cities as a corrective to anyone of my generation who is still under the impression that Marianne Faithfull and Twiggy are typical representatives of their sex.
Where was I?
That’s enough fake news for now. All the figures in the above are made up. They are less precise than what you will read in the media, but more accurate. Because I’ve thought about them; and I can do long division.
Must go now. The siren’s just gone for the eight o’clock curfew.
You think I’m joking? Don’t your journalists tell you anything?