Yes Like The Flu, Yes Like Car Crashes, Yes Like…

First Section updated For Sorry Ari Fans

Many have asked me to comment on The New Atlantis article “Not Like the Flu, Not Like Car Crashes, Not Like…” by Ari Schulman, Brendan Foht and Samuel Matlack.

My comment is thwwwbbbppppppt! Read on if you want more detail.

Say! Welcome Schulman fans. I see that in response to this column our Ari has tweeted out some clever jokes—more than rivals of my own. Like saying he shouldn’t bother answering criticisms from a guy (me) “who writes like an 8th grader who just read his first Dave Barry column.”

Not bad!

Probably realizing this wasn’t enough, he repeated his mistake by saying his mistake wasn’t a mistake: “The one substantive methodological criticism the author offers is factually wrong, plain and simple. The other lines are not estimates, not smoothed, not modeled. They chart actual reports of actual deaths.”

No they’re not.

Take the blue line below, labeled “2017-2018 flu”. Those are not weekly actual counts of flu deaths, but numbers from the “excess death” model. Flu just isn’t counted that well in death certificates, which is why the have to resort to excess death models.

The funniest line is the “1957-58 Asian flu (with pnemonia).” Those aren’t actual counts, either. Sorry Ari.

Come to think of it, Sorry Ari is a good nickname.

The line is funny because the 58 Asian flu was estimated to kill about 2 million worldwide—at a time when the population was much smaller. Sorry Ari’s line makes it look like a bad case of hemorrhoids compared to coronavirus.

Unlike Sorry Air, we’ve done this right, in two ways. The first is in the perspective post, which compares pandemics through the ages. Post is a month old, mind, but it still holds up. I’ve updated the main plot here. COVID doesn’t beat the median estimates of Swine Flu, though it’s likely to come in around that total.

Here, Sorry Ari, is the way to do it: (This is only one plot of many there.)

Now tell the truth. Does Asian flu look better or worse than coronadoom?

The other way is to compare actual all-cause weekly death counts. We did that for England & Wales and the US. All the details are explained here.

The whiz bang finale is this plot, the per capita death rates through time of the US:

The drops are due to incomplete data. Since it’s still incomplete, coronavirus is going to have to work hard to beat the 2017-2018 flu seasons. But hope springs eternal.

Sorry, Ari. You blew it, and served only to gin up needless fear.

Under the wheels

Do high schools still show those nightmare-inducing driver training videos? You know the ones.

Sally straps herself into a two-ton murder missile on wheels, sets off for the dress boutique. She reaches down to adjust her heels…and…WHAM! Chalk up one Sally—and one innocent family of four, who moments before were on their way to Church to attend a rally for your favorite victim group, but who are now lazing about all over the highway. Or, as Ray Stevens once sang, aaaaaaallllll over the highway.

Five deaths. A mere five of about 37,000 people a year who end their fleshly careers fertilizing the flowers along our nation’s highways and byways.

One would not ordinarily dismiss as statistical artifacts tens of thousands of deaths that turn the stomachs of even grave-robbing vivisectionists. But these are not ordinary times.

For now the dreaded coronavirus is upon us!

People who die from that bug are special. True, a flu victim and a coronavirus victim will often end their earth-bound existences strapped to gurneys sucking oxygen from the only plastic straws still legal. And there will be as many flu victims—each and every year—as there will be coronavirus victims this year.

But dying from the flu just isn’t comparable!

Why? Well, because we have not scared ourselves witless—this is a family blog, else I would have used the more popular, and the much more accurate, word—by flu or car crash deaths. Or heart attack, or cancer, or ebola, or zika, or giant Asians wasps, or indeed deaths of any other kind.

We often tell ourselves campfire stories about the ways to be pushed over the final cliff of life. Theses are excellent ways to relieve tedium and bring eyeballs to advertisements. Only this year we took these morbid tales seriously. We have behaved like sugar-addled children. We don’t dare crawl into bed before peaking under it to see if the escaped maniac ax killer with the hook for hand lurks there.

Coronavirus victims die a martyr’s death. People who die of other causes deserve what’s coming to them, or don’t matter.

Not only that, but everybody is now an expert on the statistics of causes of death.

One flu over the regression

The reader may be surprised to learn that nobody knows how many people died of the flu last year. Or the year before that. Or any year.

Nobody know the exact number, that is. The best we can ever do is an estimate of the real number, a guess from a statistical model.

One paper explains it thusly:

In non-pandemic years, influenza-associated death is mainly restricted to the elderly and people with underlying chronic illnesses. However, analyses of death certificates show that clinicians often do not attribute influenza-related deaths to influenza, but rather to a pre-existing underlying condition. Influenza-associated deaths may therefore be hidden not only among cases of pneumonia but among other causes of death such as cardiovascular events or metabolic disorders. Hence, all-cause mortality has been found to be more complete and accurate for assessing the total impact of influenza on mortality.

In this pandemic year, as we have seen, the underlying condition is ignored and the DBI (death batted in) of coronavirus is instead credited.

Since the true tally of flu deaths isn’t known, it has to be estimated. The idea is to plot up all deaths by time, which looks like this, the CDC’s latest weekly numbers.

Ignore the plummeting at the end. That’s probably because these are government-compiled numbers; as such, they suffer from delays. Almost certainly these will pop back up in time, after government employees diligently return to (I hesitate to write it) work.

The yearly cycle with deaths peaking in winter is plain. We had a peak in January of this year, after which the curve started its downward course, as usual. Lockdowns began in mid-March, after the decrease began, on the downslope. Suggesting that lockdowns were not as efficacious as those who used them to destroy the lives of millions are hoping. Imagine if they were wrong about that!

Never mind. The CDC might adjust the January-March numbers higher. Who knows. They are beside the point—for the moment.

What happens with flu is that a model is fit to the yearly cycle, and to the upward trend which you can also see. That’s caused by population increase. These are not per-capita numbers.

The result is a model that emulates but greatly smooths the yearly cycle and upward trend. Epidemiologists argue over the niceties of these regressions; some use weather as a variable (which I like), and some don’t. Some use FFTs (fast Fourier transforms), some don’t. And so on.

The numbers that “stick out” above these smoothed series are called—and I swear I am not making this up—“excess deaths.” It’s not just flu, but “excess deaths” are estimated for a host of supposed causes.

Anyway, these excess deaths are summed for a season, and that total, with an accompanying plus or minus bound, which we saw before and we you can see again below, becomes the estimated “flu deaths” for the year.

Our current year isn’t in that plot yet. More CDC delays. Actually more than delays, which we’ll discuss tomorrow. Has to do with juicing the numbers.

This plot is yearly, so it’s peaky and spiky. But you could do the same for weekly data, and as anybody who has ever used a statistical model will tell you, it will be much smoother. We’ll see examples below.

Up until this year, these kinds of methods for estimating flu deaths didn’t receive much public scrutiny, because people usually don’t frighten themselves into manic tear-fests over flu. Not only that, but the numbers were not that crucial to know with any exactness. Ask yourself whether you’ve ever cared before in your life how many people died yearly of the flu.

Sunken Island

We finally come to The New Atlantis article, the gist of which is captured in this chart (they do one similar for New York, which has the same shape and faces the same criticisms).

Weekly reported deaths for the dreaded coronavirus are in red. Heart disease and cancer weekly averages, i.e. estimated, deaths are on top. Car crash estimates are at the bottom, and other flu year estimates are in the middle.

The writers of the article say “It’s about the spike.”

It sure is. It can’t be compared with smoothed estimates! But it is compared. The comparison misleads.

Comparing actual counts, even assuming those counts are accurate, which they almost certainly are not, and which are likely juiced, with smoothed estimates from models is always bound to make the actual counts look worse in comparison.

Where by “worse” I mean more variable. More variable data always has the chance to make greater flights, up or down, than less variable data. This is the definition of variability.

The way the picture is constructed makes the dreaded coronavirus look worse, and not only worse but far worse, than the 1957-1958 Asian flu. This is asinine. Asian flu, the estimates tell us, slaughtered some 2 million souls. Two million.

It’s not over, but the dreaded coronvarius looks like it might tie with 2009’s Swine Flu, which isn’t even pictured. Swine flu estimates are between 152 and 575 thousand dead, with a median of 364 thousand. The 1968 Hong Kong chop suey fluy isn’t pictured, either, which rubbed out an estimated one million.

These omissions matter, as does the breathless hand-wringing daily reporting of dreaded coronavirus numbers. Here’s an illustration why. I had an exchange with a well know Twitterer and blogger who was passing around exaggerated stories of horror about the dreaded coronavirus, and in which I told him the Asian flu was much worse. The gentleman was incredulous and said he hadn’t even heard of Asian flu. Yet he was sure, and suggesting to his readers, the dreaded coronavirus was to be our doom. I said this was nonsense. He has since ceased communicating with me.

Imagine if the Asian flu’s numbers were reported daily and for months on end, accompanied by nonstop media coverage. The terror which strikes our hearts would be four times worse, at least.

Why we chose this bug to collectively lose our minds over, and not other, deadlier ones, is of course the real question. Let us know your theories below.

Echo echo echo

What makes these criticism of the NA article odd, is its authors made the same ones!

They acknowledge flu deaths are estimates and admit “Determining this number is not as simple as counting up death certificates listing influenza as the cause.” The own up to difficulties in the plot, too:

Instead of using estimates, on our U.S. chart, we have shown one line for deaths in which influenza was listed as a cause (which undercounts influenza-associated deaths); and another line showing deaths in which influenza or pneumonia was a cause (which overcounts flu deaths, as many pneumonia cases are not caused by flu).

The also fess up to the over-counts in dreaded coronavirus deaths “Skeptics of the reported death counts have argued that most people who die with the virus don’t die of the virus. This is surely true in some cases, as it is with the flu. In many deaths, webs of causation are tangled.”

But then they fret about possible under-counts, saying something about bodies being found in the streets and in homes in greater numbers than usual. They forget everybody is locked down and cowering inside their apartments. Folks aren’t checking on their neighbors or on lumps on street as much as normal.

They also admit that “Comparing [dreaded coronavirus] deaths to, say, an entire year of deaths from car crashes or influenza is not meaningful.” If it’s not meaningful, they don’t explain why the still do it.

And then they come back to their central mistake: the “spike”. “Amid the statistical noise is a powerful signal. The question is whether we choose to see it.”

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of both graphs is the Covid-19 spike — the rapid growth in deaths since the pandemic began. Car crashes, by contrast, show little variation week to week. And even compared to past flu seasons or pandemics, the rate of increase in Covid-19 deaths is markedly faster.

Forget their dismissing car crash and other deaths as unimportant because they happen more-or-less regularly. Why deaths that don’t make headlines don’t count as significant deaths can only be explained by reference to our panic. Anyway, you can’t help but see the daily counts spike amidst all those smoothed estimates!

It’s the wrong comparison. Making the right one is impossible, since daily deaths for the other pandemics are nowhere available. Their chart is no different than a ghost story.

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Categories: Statistics

36 replies »

  1. Why does the spike matter? 100,000 dead in a few months or over year makes zero difference. Dead is dead, whether it was in a three month period or twelve month period. I blame Mikey Mann and the Hockey Stick crap for this. People learned to fear an upward turn. Heck, they probably run around terrified if their investments have a spike in them. Suddenly making $100,000 on an investment MUST BE STOPPED. IT’S A SPIKE!!!! Really, in a world devoid of thought, focused on models, graphs and pictures, insanity has to be the norm. There can be no other outcome.

  2. Briggs, I have had this exact conversation with those hiding out because they are sure the very air that exists beyond the confines of their homes is laden with death inducing coronavirus. And when presented with the data about the Asian Flu of 57-58 and the Hong Kong Flu of 68 and asking… so why is COVID 19 different?, the answer from these folks is consistent… as everyone knows COVID 19 is infinitely more transmissible (hence the perception of safety as long as one remains locked indoors or, heaven forbid, just a paper-thin mask protecting one from the virus layden persons navigating the narrow grocery store aisle looking for basic sustenance or more importantly, the last roll of TP)… so I am curious… what is your response to people who claim that THE big difference with COVID 19 is that just the sight of an infected person is likely to do you in… that’s what justifies the irrational closure of everything today and the 24×7 reporting of where the virus will strike next. It’s an important question.,.. because as long as large numbers of us believe that just seeing an infected person puts life at risk, there can be no return to “normal” social activity…. let alone work. They behave as if AIDS were transmittable by sight… which truly would have been scary… a narrative only John Carpenter or the Hollywood writers who have found vocation in main stream media could concoct.

  3. I think the answer as to why this particular virus has caused this particular panic is pretty clear: the frenzy is 100% media driven. And why is the media driving the frenzy? Because the year is not 2019 or 2021 and all of their other attempted frenzies have fizzled out so far. This was their third or four attempt and they finally found one that worked.

    All that being said, I think it well exceeded their expectations and got a bit out of control. Not even the most biased reporter wanted kids to miss their last 1/3 of the school year or for 20+ million people to lose their jobs, but, as the saying goes, if you’re going to make an omelet, eggs must be broken. And once this panic started rolling, many in the news industry saw the collateral effects as being quite beneficial so they’ve kept it rolling, as evidenced by articles like that garbage in the Atlantic.

    The sad thing is that a large portion of the public truly is ignorant of statistical analysis and many are incapable of historical perspective, so you really can’t blame them for thinking that all of a sudden it’s “unsafe” for big box stores to let fewer than 100 shoppers inside at a time. Or to complain when teenagers play football together in the park (the basketball rims were all removed a month ago). They’ve been told by the media that all of these things are bad things now. But instead of treating its mandate seriously, and attempting to educate the public and provide thoughtful news, the media squandered its role and set it on fire.

    The good news is that right now there is a 50/50 chance – according to the polls – that all of this panic miraculously dries up on the morning of November 4th. The bad news is that there is a 50/50 chance that this “new normal” (I hate that phrase) will be with us for at least another 4.5 years.

  4. Love Ray Stephens – the ultimate cynic and one of my favourite artists.
    I spell as an Australian hence favourite.

  5. One other comment, specifically about the Atlantic article.

    In about 3-4 years when HHS – or CDC or Social Security or whoever is responsible for it – gets around to publishing the 2020 mortality statistics, I am going to be truly curious to see what happens.

    Are the covid deaths going to be revised downward from the garbage we are seeing today, to be reported within the same context and methodology that flu deaths are reported?

    Or are the covid deaths going to still be inflated and will the 2020 flu season appear to have abruptly ended in March, right around the same time we will have made significant gains against deaths from heart disease and cancer and diabetes and all sorts of other chronic diseases?

    Point is, a person can only die once, so something has to give somewhere in the math… unless we are well and truly into 1984 and even the math will be distorted to fit the narrative.

  6. Seems to me the point of Covid-19 was to determine how easily it would be to control populations via calling something a pandemic and then imposing remedies to keep folks from finding out it was entirely fake.

    According to Jon Rappoport, China created the fake virus explanation as a reason to keep folks sequestered in their homes in order to suppress large public demonstrations and gathering dissent over the thousands dying in Wuhan because of air pollution.

  7. China reacted in the extreme, with martial law and similar measures. That set a benchmark.

    The virus arrives locally and what politician is going to not act rigorously? Behavioral comparison is a benchmark, not objective facts. Monkey see, monkey do.

    When people make a decision they look for support to justify it, after the fact – especially when the basis for a decision is ambiguous.

    Cults are an extreme example* —when a key prophecy fails to appear members routinely, after investing much in the cult, double down in belief instead of acknowledging they were duped. As the number of Corona cases subsided we saw something similar—politicians then began imposing more precautionary intrusions into freedoms. The display of such cult-like belief & behavior is hard to miss. As if the belief is so strong – it must get worse- more precautions are needed — or, to create an excuse for why it does not worsen (we did more and that stopped it).

    This partly explains why faulty data analysis is performed and not questioned — maintains a now cherished belief.

    Curious to see how the Stanford study will affect this behavior.

    * Another example is the US Marine Corps basic military training. Physically rigorous to be sure. And graduates are led to believe a certain elite status for completing what few can. Check out the military washout figures for all services (easily found online) – other services are harder to get into based on washout rates that are higher, consistently, than for USMC. Basic. Show the objective data to an arrogant Marine (there are some) and watch the cognitive dissonance take off.

  8. If we had not tested, it we had never heard of COVID, the spike WOULD NOT BE THERE because there are few, if any excess deaths this winter anywhere. The spike is an artifact of testing, not a spike in actual deaths. We know this in the UK, where deaths year to date (YTD) are lower than they were in 2018 and 2015. No spike.

  9. “Let us know your theories below.”

    Well, that’ll sure open the door for some interesting insights!

    Thanks for the statistically-informed expert crushing of the latest Sciencey pablum the PC-Progs have served up in their media.

    Why panic over THIS respiratory bug? Why panic January-November 2020? Why panic spread by PC-Prog media/academia/Hollywood/permanent bureaucrats?

    Well, must not have been paying attention for the last 3 years, post-Obama, post-Hillary, eh?

    Did you notice the panic-mongering attempts that started in January 2017?

    For example:

    Brennan/Comey/Mueller/McCabe/et al instigated, fomented, and pushed a seditious plot to delegitimize, and destroy the nascent Trump administration with panic-stricken screams of “Russia! Russia! Russia!” All cheered on, attacks coordinated, by the media/academia/Hollywood.

    The entire PC-Prog apparatus joined in for the culmination of the above plot by impeaching the President. With multiple sub-plots in support of the goal–like the fake CIA “whistleblower,” the Ukrainian influence agent within the US Army, Vindman, and more.

    The 2018 coordinated attempt to jawbone a recession into existence. The entire PC-Prog crew joined in constant warnings/whinings of the impending recession sure to come in 2019. (Spoiler alert–the economy boomed!)

    Paul Krugman’s attempt post-election: Trump will crash the stock market?

    And more, ad nauseum.

    Add that to the strolling car wreck the Democrats put on as primaries to select their designated survivor to take on Trump in 2020. As it became clear that a demented, deranged, corrupt, nepotist, plagiarist, hair-sniffing probable rapist would win their freak show, they panicked and grasped the next straw to float by.


  10. @Kent – Agreed. To the liberal-progs, Biden’s best quality is that he will not last his first term and that he provides the perfect trojan horse to get in the progressive female of color VP, who otherwise would never be elected, with all the appropriate grievance credentials, that will serve as this century’s virtue signal and rallying cry for the triumph of progressivism and globalism over knuckle-dragging conservatism and nationalism.

  11. @Kent Clizbe
    Pretty much spot-on analysis, so far as it goes. There is a postscript to it that you may not much like, but that I regard as inevitable. This faux-crisis does appear to be largely the work of left-authoritarians, with a proximate motivation to “Get Trump”. Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that right-authoritarians are paying close attention to how easily the masses can be herded by means of this refined application of headline-induced panic (they already had evolved a relatively successful method, post 9-11), and will not hesitate to adopt the refinements that have proved successful at the first viable opportunity. While I tend to lean in the direction of Constitutional conservatism and the right-hand side of the partisan divide as a practical matter, the dichotomy for me isn’t so much left/right, or proggy/conservative, as it is authoritarianism vs liberty…

  12. Host asked, ”Let us know your theories below.”

    Orange Man Bad must be destroyed. Since it was American people who installed OMB the American people must be destroyed. Plague strategy developed by Gates Man Evil. He saw that Global Warming of Doom was a failed vehicle for terrorizing the American people into submission. Asks himself what more effective terror to employ, comes up with plague. Which one? The most common one, so when it makes its inevitable reappearance it can be quickly weaponized into terror campaign. Has worked splendidly. GME lauded as top evil genius by failed evil genii Soros, Gore, et cetera.

    While Gates Man Evil has won a spectacular early battle it remains to be seen if his terror plague can oust Orange Man Bad from the cockpit so satanic henchmen can resume crashing plane. War not over yet. Plague strategy weakness: spikes early, then collapses, as all viral things.

  13. As if fomenting fake plagues wasn’t bad enough, Gates Man Evil is deleting my /italics.

  14. About a decade ago, as my first child was getting going, I thought about all the things my father used to say to my brothers and I, and I attempted to codify them into a neat set of simple rules. They are:

    Rule 1. Don’t panic. When you panic, people die.

    Rule 2. Don’t be a dumbass. Nobody likes a dumbass.

    Rule 3. Keep Mom happy.

    This whole mess has only reaffirmed my faith in my dad’s wisdom, which of course was not from himself but sprang from Jesus. So by the communicative property my faith in Jesus is stronger as I see the truth revealed again and again.

  15. Europe (not all countries, but a good portion) have an “excess death monitoring” program and they have reported weekly deaths for the past 4-5 years. It is shown by deviation from the long them averages which nicely shows the seasonal changes and the severity of epidemics (let’s face it, excess deaths in the winter are basically ‘flu-driven whatever is given on the death certificate).

    Have a look here:

    What is good is that there are actual numbers of deaths in each age group listed on a weekly basis so you can see how many people do actually die each week through whatever cause.

  16. Malcolm

    The CoViD has just about burned through everybody in New York City

    So the year is over now.

  17. The year is over for New York City, that is, and after they tally the deaths over the next month or so.

    Next season will not be CoViD

  18. What’s really going on is a ten trillion dollar heist of which the plebs
    will see about a hundred million. It’s all been put on our collective credit
    card known as the National Debt (with interest). The unemployed hold
    trillions in real estate assets to be liberated for foreclosure. The cream
    on top will have more than enough money to snatch up the bargains.
    Economically and politically the pandemic has fulfilled all of the goals
    of the ‘Green New Deal’ in just a couple of months. What can we do but
    cower in our hovels and follow the money; emergency quarantine tents
    sprout like weeds. It got so bad they threatened to dig up Central Park
    for mass graves a real sh_t-show of steely determination. That pretty
    much sums up this entire scenario driven operation one could call from
    bat soup to penury.

  19. Briggs writes: ‘grave-robbing vivisectionists’

    Technically you can’t vivisect a dead person. Thomas Jefferson experimented grafting extra legs onto dogs, he was a curious man. That’s why his slaves
    called one room in the basement at Monticello dogs hell after they had
    endured the effects of vivisection.

  20. The spike in the Covid-19 curve in that chart, appropriately colored red, does look bad. Maybe that is at the heart of the panic, that rapidly rising spike? After all, who knows how high it could go. I mean, just look at it!

    But take another look at the chart, this time visually integrating the area under the curves, to get total deaths. From that point of view, Covid-19 still looks puny compared to heart disease or cancer; the latter are fat rectangles, the former is a skinny triangle.

    But just look at that scary red spike! Holy cow!! Figures don’t lie!!!

  21. There does seem to be more catastrophic concerns in the media since the financial crisis. Since that didn’t cause the apocalypse there’s been a lot of focus on climate change, and now the media have a pandemic to get their over-reporting teeth into. I think the idea that it’s about Orange Man Bad is parochial as this is a worldwide issue, so it’s really about human nature, and irresponsible panic inducing media and governments.

  22. Basically what Dean Ericson said. Impeachment failed. Dementia-Joe best they can come up with. Their instinct is to burn it all to the ground.

  23. Haven’t heard an age-based argument for the insanity. i.e. old people are disproportionately affected by this virus compared with previous outbreaks. That would explain the reaction since old people are a) very scared of death and b) likely to be in positions of power.

  24. “Do high schools still show those nightmare-inducing driver training videos? ”

    Don’t know, but I was always partial to the ones they showed us in shop class. Like the one where the guy hacks off his hand in a table saw and red-dyed corn syrup sprays everywhere. Good times…

  25. In about 3-4 years when HHS – or CDC or Social Security or whoever is responsible for it – gets around to publishing the 2020 mortality statistics, I am going to be truly curious to see what happens.

    If Trump wins 2020, the Wuhan flu numbers will be revised upwards; if he loses, they will be revised downwards.

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