Learn to discern reliable data from the rest. Avoid the drama, stay current on things and do the basic math.
There’s a lot of data out there, is it correct?
I think we can all agree that there are too many sources and not enough facts in our current environment. You are all aware that I am a strong believer that facts help us make better decisions and that we should be more data driven. Now is no different. I have asked a business colleague, Donna Gordon, that is my go-to fact checker to contribute, and her suggestions for sorting facts from speculation are below.
Aristotle once postulated “horror vacui” (Nature Abhors a Vacuum). His expression certainly had relevance when COVID-19 came on the scene. In an absence of research about the virus, even the best minds in virology had to admit that they did not have all the answers. In physics “vacuum” means “true empty space,” an environment with nothing in it. Into the vacuum, content providers worldwide rushed to fill the space. Much of what is filling the space is conjecture, speculation, and outright misinformation. So what is a person looking for useful information to do?
Suggestions for assessing data
In his book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling suggests:
Avoid Drama: If the basis of the content is emotion – a sad story, a scary narrative, or a shocking fact, know that the information reflects the bias or worldview of the author, not data. Training experts recommend that any lesson include stories, as people remember them more than straight information. If you must read these stories, know that you are not getting the full picture.
Do Some basic math: A fact in isolation can be scary. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus dashboard (https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6) splashed with red cirlces around the world, as of this writing, shows a million cases worldwide, a shocking number. However, with a world population of 7.8 billion people, this million represents 0.013% of the population. From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html) estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due ALONE to the H1N1 virus. Note that despite public health reporting, these ranges are huge – and much larger than current numbers. CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html) estimated that about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 with at least 50 million deaths worldwide with about 675,000 in the US. Not that COVID-19 cases and deaths will not rise, but put the numbers in context of the broader picture for more realistic assessment of a situation.
Don’t play the blame game: Rosling says our hardwired instinct to find a guilty party in every situation derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world. When we obsess about who is to blame, it steals our focus and blocks out any learning we might gather from the negative experience. This undermines our ability to solve big problems in a more systematic way, or prevent them from happening again.
Cross-reference: When you find information, know that reliable information always provides cross references, methodology, and sources. Always read the footnotes or follow the links to evaluate information. For example, the New York Times is publishing a detailed US map showing the number of cases at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html – methodology at https://github.com/nytimes/covid-19-data. The methodology notes that each health department referenced provides information differently, and that counts can rise or fall even within the space of a few days. The information is reasonably reliable, but shortcomings and potential errors are also fully disclosed.
Stay current: Bottom line, information is changing rapidly. Professor Neil Ferguson, Director, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Imperial College London, was a primary source relied on by many policymakers and governments for a model that suggested 2 million US deaths from COVID-19. Ferguson’s model is now being challenged by the Oxford model. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-theres-no-one-perfect-model-of-the-disease-135137 Both models, while mathematically sound, rely on past data, some of it likely faulty. Oxford’s model assumes greater spread of the virus prior to its detection, thus increasing the likelihood of herd immunity. Even the experts continue to revise and change information. However, credible sources with the latest information will always:
Reference respected medical publications, such as The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, or other peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals are publications in which scientific contributions have been vetted by experts in the relevant field. Peer-reviewed work isn’t necessarily correct or conclusive, but it does meet the standards of science. For example, https://theconversation.com/the-coronavirus-looks-less-deadly-than-first-reported-but-its-definitely-not-just-a-flu-133526 references respected journals such as Nature Medicine, The Institute for Disease Modeling, and The Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases. However, it was last revised on March 22, so recognize that newer the date, the more reliable in this rapidly changing environment. Consumer Reports’ FAQ https://www.consumerreports.org/coronavirus/coronavirus-faq-what-you-need-to-know-covid-19/, is updated frequently, and references JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), New England Journal of Medicine, the CDC, and other reputable sources.
Include a methodology that notes both the way the information was gathered and the potential shortcomings of the data presented, such as the New York Times map noted above. While frequently referenced, the Johns Hopkins worldwide map does not provide a full explanation to underpin the accuracy of their reported numbers.
Context and back story matter.
When looking at case reporting, always look for ways to ‘do the math’. Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation https://covid19.healthdata.org/projections shows that New York only has 13,010 hospital beds (718 ICU) for 20 million people; less than one bed per 1,000 people. Missouri has 7,933 beds and 558 ICU beds for a population of 6.2 million. So the problem is a resource allocation issue as much as a disease issue. The World Bank estimates put Italy’s number of Hospital beds per 1,000 population at 3.4 – compared to 8.3 in Germany, while Italy’s average age of the population is one of the oldest in Europe. About 24% of Italy’s population is 65 or older, compared to 22% in Germany, and 16% in the US. https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population-dashboard
These are uncertain times, but having the most accurate and up to date information will help you to assess the situation in the most realistic way. And of course, wash your hands! This is one thing the experts DO seem to agree upon.
Author Donna Gordon runs a company called Investment Resources located in Lee’s Summit, MO. Investment Resources focuses on helping leaders make data-driven, profitable decisions, applying strong analytical and organizational skills across diverse business applications for industry, education, government and non-profits. Donna Gordon has researched and evaluated product and service demand, competition, and opportunities since 2001.
If I can help you brainstorm your current choices or circumstances to make your business better—through the crisis or to help you get rebooted quickly as the crisis resolves, please reach out and just ask. Call me anytime at
816-622-8843 or email me. I would love to help!