Saturday, September 12, 2020

Coronavirus -- NY Times biased statistic #2

I received another email daily briefing after Sep. 2 from David Leonhardt including the following.

In his latest column, Ross Douthat of The Times Opinion pages took issue with a recent item in this newsletter. He suggested that it was unfair for me to compare the U.S. share of official coronavirus deaths around the world (22 percent) with the U.S. share of global population (4 percent).

The U.S. is simply too different from much of the world — like Asia, Africa and Oceania — for global comparisons to be meaningful, Ross argued. To him, the better comparisons are the countries closest or most similar to the U.S., like big countries in Western Europe and the Americas.

When you compare deaths as a share of population within that group of peer countries, the U.S. starts to look more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic,” he wrote. Germany has done better, for instance, while Britain, Spain and Italy have done worse. I encourage you to read Ross’s full column.

I still think the evidence points to the U.S. being an outlier. It has a per capita death rate 80 percent higher than all of Europe’s and more than twice as high as Canada’s. In many of those other countries, the virus is also well enough under control that more parts of normal daily life — like in-person school and indoor restaurant dining — have returned.

What do you think? Send us an email at

Mr. Douthat regarded Leonhardt's comparison as unfair, but he did not challenge Leonhardt's statistic as flawed. I sent an email to the address above with a link to my Sep. 2 post that showed it as flawed. No response yet. 

Friday I received another email daily briefing including the following.

The virus is a marathon

Last week’s newsletter comparing the U.S. coronavirus death toll to the global average helped spark a continuing debate: What’s the fairest expectation of how bad the pandemic should have been in this country?

Your answer to that question guides your judgment of the Trump administration’s response. Ross Douthat of The Times has argued that it was merely mediocre, while Vox’s German Lopez and The Atlantic’s David Frum consider it to have been far less effective than other countries’ responses.

One of the people who’s weighed in — via email — is Donald McNeil. By now, you may know him as the Times science reporter who has frequently appeared on “The Daily” podcast to talk about the coronavirus.

Donald makes a fascinating point: Don’t look only at snapshots, like a country’s per capita death toll. “It’s not fair to pick one point in time and say, ‘How are we doing?’” he writes. “You can only judge how well countries are doing when you add in the time factor” — that is, when the virus first exploded in a given place and what has happened since.

The pandemic, he adds, is like a marathon with staggered start times.

The virus began spreading widely in Europe earlier than in North America. Much of Europe failed to contain it at first and suffered terrible death tolls. The per capita toll in a few countries, like Britain, Italy and Spain, remains somewhat higher than in the U.S. But those countries managed to get the virus under control by the late spring. Their caseloads plummeted.

In the U.S., the virus erupted later — yet caseloads never plummeted. Almost every day for the past six months, at least 20,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the virus. “Europe learned the hard lesson and applied remedies,” as Donald says. “We did not, even though we had more warning.”

This chart makes the point:

By The New York Times | Sources: Johns Hopkins University and World Bank

The earlier email says the U.S. has a “per capita death rate 80 percent higher than all of Europe’s.”

Estimating the rightmost plotted numbers on the above chart, I get 584 for the U.S. and 432 for Western Europe. 584/432 implies the U.S. death rate is about 35% higher, not 80% higher. How does he make such inconsistent numbers? The graph still shows what Leonhardt wanted, and it doesn't show the countries - Belgium, Spain, UK -- that do have higher death rates per million population than the U.S.

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