Statistics, lies and the virus: lessons from a pandemic

Tim Hartford at the Financial Times: “Will this year be 1954 all over again? Forgive me, I have become obsessed with 1954, not because it offers another example of a pandemic (that was 1957) or an economic disaster (there was a mild US downturn in 1953), but for more parochial reasons. Nineteen fifty-four saw the appearance of two contrasting visions for the world of statistics — visions that have shaped our politics, our media and our health. This year confronts us with a similar choice.

The first of these visions was presented in How to Lie with Statistics, a book by a US journalist named Darrell Huff. Brisk, intelligent and witty, it is a little marvel of numerical communication. The book received rave reviews at the time, has been praised by many statisticians over the years and is said to be the best-selling work on the subject ever published. It is also an exercise in scorn: read it and you may be disinclined to believe a number-based claim ever again….

But they can — and back in 1954, the alternative perspective was embodied in the publication of an academic paper by the British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill. They marshalled some of the first compelling evidence that smoking cigarettes dramatically increases the risk of lung cancer. The data they assembled persuaded both men to quit smoking and helped save tens of millions of lives by prompting others to do likewise. This was no statistical trickery, but a contribution to public health that is almost impossible to exaggerate…

As described in books such as Merchants of Doubt by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes, this industry perfected the tactics of spreading uncertainty: calling for more research, emphasising doubt and the need to avoid drastic steps, highlighting disagreements between experts and funding alternative lines of inquiry. The same tactics, and sometimes even the same personnel, were later deployed to cast doubt on climate science. These tactics are powerful in part because they echo the ideals of science.

It is a short step from the Royal Society’s motto, “nullius in verba” (take nobody’s word for it), to the corrosive nihilism of “nobody knows anything”.  So will 2020 be another 1954? From the point of view of statistics, we seem to be standing at another fork in the road.

The disinformation is still out there, as the public understanding of Covid-19 has been muddied by conspiracy theorists, trolls and government spin doctors.  Yet the information is out there too. The value of gathering and rigorously analysing data has rarely been more evident. Faced with a complete mystery at the start of the year, statisticians, scientists and epidemiologists have been working miracles. I hope that we choose the right fork, because the pandemic has lessons to teach us about statistics — and vice versa — if we are willing to learn…(More)”.