We can't do math. Now we're seeing the consequences with COVID-19.

Crossposted from Curious Human.


On March 5th, 2020, Brian Williams of MSNBC and Mara Gay of the New York Times Editorial Board accepted without question a viral tweet that said that Michael Bloomberg could have given every American $1 million dollars with the $500 million dollars he spent on his short-lived presidential campaign.

They've since publicly owned up to their mistake, which I do believe was an honest and relatively harmless gaffe.

But it does reflect a troubling trend that I've noticed: an increasing deficit of quantitative reasoning ability in society. If you think - even for a second - that $500 million dollars / 300 million people somehow comes out to ~$1 million / person, you can't do basic division. And if you can't do basic division, there's no way you have a strong grasp of more complex concepts and are able to think rationally about them. And if you can't think rationally, you can't act rationally.

This is a large part of why COVID-19 has hit the United States so hard. People trained in mathematics, finance, and technology are used to ideas like exponentially compounding growth and Moore's Law. Many of them - Bill Gates, Balaji Srinivasan, most of the venture capital Twitter crowd, for example - warned us about the potential devastation of the virus early on while many in the STEM-lacking crowd were complacent and in denial about the situation. This divide was apparent even in my own circle of friends and acquaintances: some began wearing face masks and self-isolating in late-February, while others went out to bars and beaches even as late as in mid-March. Unfortunately, the latter group far outnumbers the former in this country and we now have a pandemic on our hands.

The worst part is this trend of quantitative illiteracy is being led by the loudest voices that govern our society: lawyers, politicians, and members of the media. These are people who specialize in political truths - things that are true if people believe them to be true - rather than technical truths - things that are true even if no one believes them to be true. They're storytellers whose livelihoods depend on their ability to rewrite "facts" in people’s brains.

Our society has way overemphasized the political end of the spectrum. We spend so many resources thinking about and debating each other on vague, irresolvable, and meaningless topics. We've gone so far down that end that we've lost our ability to reason independently and clearly and deal in technical truths. I trust that if Brian Williams and Mara Gay had stepped back slightly and given their "revelation" another thought, they would've quickly realized how foolish the idea that Bloomberg could've easily made every single person in the country a millionaire was. Their error wasn't just due to their shoddy math skills, it was more about being blinded by their political views: perhaps outrage over the idea that a rich billionaire would rather run a doomed presidential campaign to boost his ego than directly help everyone in the country. 

And now we're seeing the consequences with COVID-19. We tried fighting it as if it were a sentient being that could be persuaded by politics. But you can't gaslight a virus. It doesn't care about the polls or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. You can't demoralize it with negative news coverage. Nature doesn't care about our narratives.

A month ago, I tweeted that the virus will inevitably spread and that at some point, a ton of people will be infected and the number of deaths will actually seem "significant". It's going to feel like the end of the world. That will be us hitting bottom. Then we'll come together and rebuild and recover, defeating the virus using science, honesty, prudence, and genuine concern for public safety. I still believe that to be true.

What will happen after is the question.

Naval Ravikant tweeted that this pandemic will end up "shattering many social untruths that we swallow just to get along" and "lead to the emergence of a mainstream movement that's more pro-science, pro-technology, and pro-environment". I sure hope so. Maybe it'll wake us up, even if just temporarily.

But the pessimistic side of me thinks that once this whole thing blows over, we'll return to what led us into this mess. Incompetent bureaucrats who can neither lead nor get out of the way will still be in power. The media will continue to boldly make false statements and predictions and get away with it. New political events and storylines will dominate people's lives. Then we'll suffer through another tragedy and rebuild, and the cycle will continue.

We'll see.

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On March 5th, 2020, Brian Williams of MSNBC and Mara Gay of the New York Times Editorial Board accepted without question a viral tweet that said that Michael Bloomberg could have given every American $1 million dollars with the $500 million dollars he spent on his short-lived presidential campaign.

This episode is completely strange to me. It seems like "they are just bad at math" and made a honest gaffe is no satisfying explanation.

There have to be at least three people who made the mistake, Brian Williams, Mara Gay and the person who did the technical work that made the Tweet appear on the monitor. 

A gaffe is a term that's commonly used to refer to mistakes by a single person. 

When I watch that episode it seems to me like the hosts are careful to not say that the numbers in the tweet are true. It looks like they thought it was okay to bring up the wrong tweet and somehow they are not responsible for the factual content of the tweet but the Twitter use who made the tweet is responsible. 

It seems like they made a mistake about thinking such a numeric overstatement is okay to make. 

This is a large part of why COVID-19 has hit the United States so hard.

Is the United States significantly less numerate than other countries? I agree quantitative reasoning is good and we want more of it, but I'm not sure it's the major contributor to the thing you're trying to explain here.

The US does pretty badly in the world tables for school performance in math especially considering its GDp/capita. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA-results_ENGLISH.png

A lot of what PISA results reflect is countries desire to score a certain way. The Asian countries want to score highly for prestige reasons and run the tests in schools with above average students. On the other hand countries like the US or Germany who used low scores as a justification for domestic reform.

Here's a table sorted for math. The US is 37th out of 78 on the list, below Spain and above Israel; the tiers are "rich Asian city-state", "small country in Asia or Europe", and then "large country in Europe or less impressive small country," and the US is low-ranked in that third tier. (The difference between Japan and the US is smaller than the difference between the US and Mexico.)

Being bad at quantitative reasoning is only half the problem. The rest is lack of trust and cooperation. If people weren't trying to figure things out themselves, their innumeracy wouldn't matter.

Great post. The political process selects for ability to construct narratives, tell stories, blame others for failures and take the credit for successes, etc. So that's what we get. Sometimes by chance we get more, very often not. The pandemic has laid bare the incompetence of many world leaders on both sides of the political divide.

It is also a great illustration of the power of politics in filtering people's reality.

Specifically on innumeracy we see again and again the rejection of simple measures that would reduce infectivity because they are not perfect or not high status. I am referring to some of the measures taken by Taiwan - with no lockdown and 1/1500 th the death rate per capita of the USA - such as universal use of face masks and screening people entering shops for symptoms and fever. These measures filter down the infectivity of the population as a whole such that r0(eff)<1 or close to that level, at relatively modest cost. In this podcast we hear from a doctor that masks and screening are only useful as ways of showing that we care. Really*. https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/coronacast/have-we-been-too-easy-on-rule-breakers/12524256

Drastic measures like lockdowns seem to be perversely popular because they seem to signal 'strong' leadership. Even though they are not very effective, part because you cannot lock down the whole society, and are enormously expensive. There is great faith in contact tracing, which simulations show only helps if it is very rapid and if test results come back fast and if quarantine is very strictly enforced. In many countries none of the above apply.

*Another filtering problem: The medical training system in large part filters for the ability to memorize vast amounts of material and for physical and mental stamina. And not much else. Sometimes by chance people get through this system who are statistically, mathematically and numerically literate but many get through who are not. Even researchers - as a perusal of the medical research literature quickly attests. Did you know that p>0.05 shows that there is no effect? People who took Vioxx and had a heart attack, more than 50,000 excess heart attacks in all, may disagree.

I guess a deficit in quantitative reasoning is just one of the contributing factors.

Another contributing part, I keep thinking about a lot, is the role of social media during the pandemic. Social media is making money by engaging people. The longer people are on your platform, the more data you can harvest and the more advertisements you can show them, resulting in more revenues. And the more data you have, the better you can target the ads, and so on. The best way to drive up engagement is to promote controversial posts (the more extreme the better, you like it and share it or you don't like it and talk about it). This leads to filter bubbles. By knowing the main orientation of those filter bubbles it is easy to drive up engagement by showing each filter bubble some posts that are aligned to their views (maybe even increasing to more extreme topics and standpoints).

Of course this is not beneficial for the society as a whole and it drives division and is not improving a culture of open discussion, but it is currently a great and more or less unregulated money making machine.

Pair that with a very capitalistic society without a lot of social security nets and a situation that brings people to the edge (i.e., pandemic) and the outlined mechanics from above is running even faster/better (isolated people, increase of fear of the unknown, mental health issues, etc.).

(And hey, you can even use this technology (unofficially) to harm other parties and cause a lot of damage with a fraction of the cost of traditional operations.)

And in the end, the outlined aspect comes down to misaligned incentives.

(Note: Maybe I was reading recently too much about misinformation using natural language processing.)

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