News Not Going Viral

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?


  1. London Calling, we’re flying blind…

    ‘London calling to the imitation zone
    Forget it, brother, you can go it alone
    London calling to the zombies of death
    Quit holding out and draw another breath…’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Craggy peaks of viral doom
    converted with logarithmic shenanigans
    into friendly sunlit rolling downs.
    Terrors subdued.
    Nationalism sated.


  3. I’ve gone cross-eyed looking at graphs during this batshit crazy pandemic. I’m not really taking any of them too seriously except for the actual registered death statistics issued by the ONS. Waiting for the latest release today (Feb 7th). Up to March 20th, there was no sign at all of the impact of Covid-19 on UK deaths. If there is a significant impact, and this disease is causing many more people to die than would do otherwise, it will show up in the statistics as an anomaly compared to previous years. Also Sweden, where no lockdown has taken place. We should all watch Sweden. Last time I looked, they are doing not better or worse than other countries, allowing for date of first case. France I believe has turned the corner and they are due to relax restrictions, as with Italy, Austria and a few other European countries. Significantly perhaps, the money markets have been rising.


  4. I mentioned in a comment somewhere the usefulness of this site
    recommended by two commenters at Notrickszone. In “further notes” at the bottom of the page it mentions:
    – that Dr Wofgang Wodarg’s site was briefly taken down. Wodarg is president of the German social democrats at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In 2010 he called for an inquiry into alleged undue influence exerted by pharmaceutical companies on the World Health Organisation’s H1N1 flu campaign.
    – that the university email address of emeritus professor Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, who wrote an open letter to Chancellor Merkel, was deactivated
    – that the Danish Parliament has adopted a law that prohibits the publication of information on Covid-19 that does not comply with the government’s guidelines and allows the deletion of websites and the punishment or imprisonment of authors.

    …And so on.

    A thought:
    It took a couple of decades for climate sceptics like Lomborg, Pielke, and Lindzen to be transformed from interesting mavericks whose ideas were discussed in the serious newspapers to dangerous deniers who must be censored. The same thing has happened to Coronavirus dissenters in a matter of weeks.

    The problem with climate catastrophe was always that it happens too slowly for people to notice.


  5. @Beth I was listening to that very tune yesterday, along with the excellent “T.B. Sheets” by Van Morrison.


  6. Thoughts and prayers and wishes for the recovery of PM Boris Johnson. How tragic that the liberator of the UK and the rallying point for real EU reform is so singularly stricken. He understands… understood before his illness…the Chinese dimension to this worldwide disaster. May he recovers fully and quickly and return stronger than ever.


  7. A few points:

    1) Where to start counting. The exponential theory of disease transmission relies on an uncontained spread from patient 0. If you have many patient 0s, or managed to identify initial patient 0 and put a lid on at least some of the spread etc, then starting counting at death 1 is going to lead to results that can’t be compared with each other. However, at death 100, the disease process might be considered to be more spread out leading to a more comparable situation, with the obvious exception of small countries with small numbers.

    2) Excess deaths in one year from things which disproportionately hit the old and infirm reduce deaths in subsequent years.

    3) Deaths are down overall because it turns out forcing people to stay at home reduces death from a number of other factors. I suspect the Health & Safety Executive are already drooling over these results.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been following the ONS figures as well and trying to puzzle out how the weekly returns can be reconciled with the media numbers.

    Accepting that there is always a delay between the death, the registration, and the ONS reports we still see weekly figures for 2020 that do not vary significantly from the weekly five-year average. The final week to date is the first to show any statistically significant increase above that average but still within the parameters.

    The number of deaths attributed to respiratory disease has consistently been between 14% and 15% of the weekly total and even the the March 27 uptick still has that figure at around 60% of the peak for the year in mid-January.

    I’m being careful not to draw conclusions because I ain’t no expert, either in medicine or statistics, but what I see in the numbers does not — so far — appear to be outwith the “normal” range of winter deaths.

    Incidentally, Geoff, can I pick you up one point? The French attestation says, “déplacements brefs, dans la limite d’une heure quotidienne et dans un rayon maximal d’un kilometre autour du domicile …” There is no limit on the number of times you walk your dog or your fractious four-year-old as long as you don’t do it for more than an hour in total and keep within one kilometre. Which to my mind is psychologically better than the British limit of once only but everything else left to the ingenuity of the individual vs the opinion of PC Plod!


  9. noticed the BBC have rolled out Robert Cuffe (Head of Statistics,BBC) to give his helpful info/graphs to supplement the pandemic news items.

    take he has been told to keep it simple as the viewers are pretty dim!!!

    wonder what other topics he will cover in future?

    “The post was created to help the Corporation ‘to better tell stories that contain numbers and data’. In his new role, which starts in September 2017, Robert will act as a consultant to BBC journalists across the News division, and will work closely with the data team within Visual Journalism on stories where complex statistical analysis is needed.”


    Thanks for the correction. Every commune has its own rules, of course, made up by the mayor, in addition to the national ones. We’ve got an 8 pm curfew here, but they haven’t removed all the park benches or made masks obligatory, as they have elsewhere.

    Yesterday Sky News was making your point about deaths not deviating from the weekly average until last week, with graphs that showed it quite clearly, but the news failed to go viral. It was noted, with interest, and then quietly dropped. Ideas really do spread – or not – like germs, and you can deal with awkward or unpleasant ones quite efficiently by washing your hands of them.

    A French TV station quoted an Imperial College estimate that 3% of French have been infected and it will require 60% infection to achieve immunity. Note that my invented figures of 0.1% and 50% were wildly wrong, but it doesn’t make any difference to my argument; the rate of infection has to be kept no higher than it is at present to keep the burden on the health system manageable, but at that rate we’re in lockdown for years. The arithmetic is primary school level, but the simple fact can be ignored by the media. And I can invent figures out of thin air and be right, and the government’s scientific advisers can have accurate figures and be wrong – or covering up.

    The use of wartime imagery I’m finding very irritating. None of us have lived through a war, but at least we oldies have read about it. No doubt Boris, with his Churchillian aspirations, has, too. I doubt whether Macron has. It’s not the kind of subject that would come up when you’re negotiating deals between Rothschilds and Nestlé.

    Everyone knows that it was largely about weighing up horrible balances of suffering. How many tonnes of merchant shipping can you afford to lose before you sacrifice your air force to protect it?how many bombed out factories? Macron would be on hand to visit the bombed out factory and look compassionate, but he doesn’t get it.


  11. Geoff — We’re probably lucky to have a new council that hasn’t got its feet properly under the table yet so the basic rules apply.

    Actually some of us have lived through a war, or at least part of one, though recollection is (as you might imagine) somewhat vague. Macron started the ‘war’ meme in his speech, which didn’t go down all that well where I am, and we could have done without HMQ continuing it in hers.

    Those of us born in the first half of the 1940s have no illusions about war and can do without “youngsters” of our children’s generation invoking that spirit. “We’ll meet again” could always be guaranteed to reduce my mother to tears — for the very obvious reason! — and, maybe for the same reason, struck a sour note with me when Her Majesty chose to end her speech with it.

    I am firmly in favour of strict measures to limit the spread of this affliction, being now in the “at risk” age group, but I do not need on one hand to be patronised or, I increasingly suspect, lied to by politicians who are either incompetent or simply trying to make sure they are not holding the parcel when the music stops, and on the other treated as some kind of half-wit by media whose delight in having an ongoing story that absolves them from the need to do any real journalism is almost orgasmic.

    And having got that off my chest I’ll go back to clearing out the pond! Does anyone know of a natural cure for green slime?!


  12. On green slime, there was a story that the person who overdosed on chloroquine took a form that’s used for cleaning aquariums, so maybe a prescription from your local medecin généraliste? Otherwise, the best antidote to green slime is reading

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t know about the spirit of the war, but I’ve certainly noticed that the average sales and marketing department has been quick enough to cash in on the zeitgeist. I can just visualize the scene in the corporate brainstorming sessions:

    Head of Marketing: “In this crisis what are people feeling most?”

    Sales Oik No. 1: “Vulnerable?”

    HoM: “Precisely! So what do we need to do to appeal to our customers?”

    Sales Oik No. 2: “Rub it in?”

    HoM: “No, God damn you! Reassure them! Make them feel that we are there for them.”

    Sales Oik No. 3: “So you want lots of adverts telling the customers that the virus won’t get them if they stick with us?”

    HoM: “Make it so.”

    And within hours, the airwaves are full of adverts telling us how their bank services/conservatories/oven chips/etc. are doing their bit – just like the good old NHS. And so in years to come:

    “What did you do in the Covid war dad?”

    “I worked for McCain Oven Chips on the frontline, son – making the nation’s favourite virus-busting potato product.”

    It actually makes me feel fucking sick.


  14. JOHN
    I’m sorry McCain’s Oven Chips have that effect on you. Decades ago I met some McCain’s marketing chaps who’d commissioned a survey from a colleague, and I was impressed by their keenness and brand loyalty. They really believed. Anyway, all oven chips are rubbish. Try their Skin-on Rustic Chips, or their Thin and Crispy Southern Fries.

    Here in France the whole government is made up of marketing men, so you get initiatives like the army being called in to erect an emergency field hospital in a field next to a real hospital. After the announcement one Friday, we saw a convoy of trucks driving up the following Wednesday; Thursday and Friday were spent putting up the tent; and a fortnight after the announcement they were ready to take in eight patients. Then there was the high speed train that took twenty patients on a ten hour trip in specially redesigned carriages from the overloaded hospitals of Strasbourg to Brittany – all this at a time when the number of emergency cases was increasing 500 a day. The thinking was presumably to involve institutions that are above criticism, like the army and the high speed train network – and it worked.

    In Britain a conference centre was converted into a 2000 bed hospital, and I never once saw who sponsored it. What a marketing failure.


  15. Makes me proud to be British that.

    This goes into the “another climate sceptic made me laugh” folder:


  16. The use of wartime imagery I’m finding very irritating.

    In war you sacrifice lives in order to retain liberty. (Liberty for all in the case of democracies, for the rulers in the case of autocracies.) What we have before us is the exact reverse. We are sacrificing liberty in order to retain lives.

    You enter a fight knowing you will take some knocks, but looking the enemy in the face. We are running away and hiding in fear. The opposite of fighting.

    Furthermore, even if one overlooks the 180 swing in values, one of the worst things you can do is fight a war you cannot win, or even fight a war that costs more than you gain. I would suggest we are in that situation, in spades.


  17. Geoff

    “For May, 2004 read January 2062”

    I was happy with 2004, I thought you meant it…..


  18. The most interesting site I’ve seen for Corvid-19 is this one

    I will be watching the orange line in the first two graphs that represent the number of deaths from flu/pneumonia. If over the next few weeks that line starts to come down to meet the red line of Corvid deaths, then that will suggest that SARS-CoV-2 is just another virus that causes pneumonia.

    However, the reporting criteria for Corvid-19 are so lax that the total number of corvid deaths will be overstated, but I wouldn’t expect the total of all deaths to rise significantly.


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