COVID19: The Let ‘er Rip Fallacies of the Talking Heads

Posted: April 18, 2020 in Uncategorized

Recently commentary on certain news outlets, particularly friendly to the current occupant of the White House, have taken the stance that social restrictions are uncalled for and over-reactionary. To support their position, they state many examples of mortality statistics as proof that there are greater risks to health and well being than COVID19, that are not causing us to react at all.

These talking heads, and most of the statements they rely on, use of simplistic statements to defend a risky position. They are oblivious to the reality that in our slow reaction to the spread of this virus, the USA now has the most infected individuals in the world, the most deaths from infection in the world, and the highest infection rate as a % of the population in the world. The only statistic we do not lead (yet), is the rate of mortality as a %, but only by beating Spain and Italy in this distinction – as the rest of the world has a greater survivor rate than the USA. And, yes, we all know that China is now hiding its data, so they could be worse than us – like that really makes any difference.

To the point, let’s just explore five of the grandest fallacies being spewed by talking heads:

Fallacy One: The Flu Kills 40,000 people a year and we don’t lock the country down over that.

Yes, the common flu, in combination with pneumonia, does kill 40,000 a year (give or take a few thousand). Here are the flaws in this statement:

  • The mortality rate for flu is 0.11% of those infected. 35 million are infected every year to reach that 40,000 number. COVID19 mortality is far greater, by a factor of between 30X to 120X, so killed 37,000 with only 700,000 infections.
  • There is a vaccine for flu seasons, that save approximately 27% from infection and dying. Without vaccines costing billions over decades, the mortality rate would be much higher, as would the infection rate. The combination of greater infections leading to wider infection numbers, lead to at least 90,000 dying annually. There is no vaccine for COVID19, so there is no opportunity to control it thru vaccinations. Thus, spread and infection control is left to direct intervention of human to human contact.
  • The 40,,000 deaths occurs over an entire flu season, annually. COVID19 has killed nearly 37,0000 in the US in less than 3 months. If COVID is allowed to spread like the flu to 35,000,000, there could be as many as 1,850,000 deaths.
  • The flu causes specific identifiable symptoms, COVID19 plays by another set of rules, where the infected may not have symptoms at all, or show no symptoms for days, while infecting others, before having symptoms themselves. This means that while a flu sufferer may infect 1.5 others, COVID19 infected spread the virus to 2.7 others. If left to rip through the country, without any mitigation, 63,000,000 could become infected, leading to more than 2,200,000 deaths before it burned its way through the population.

COVID19 is not the flu, it is far more virulent, more focused on attacking the respiratory system (SARS derivative) and far more life threatening. Using flu statistics as rationalization to allow COVID19 to wash over the country, is a massively misleading fallacy that will cost lives. Without a vaccine – enforced social distancing and diligence in controlling human-to-human contact is our only defense. Whether this can be done without locking down activities and venues that expose large groups to the contagion, will be a grand experiment we may regret deeply. No matter, comparing the flu to COVID19 is a fatally flawed fallacy that must be avoided.

Fallacy Two: More than 36,000 people die in auto related accidents, but we don’t lock the country down over that.

The auto industry and related road worthy vehicle industry, ran relatively unfettered by regulation for many years, and the results were gruesome.  Only through the enactment of laws, mandatory regulations, mandates and controls on everything from road building codes, to automobile safety devices, crash testing, and constant oversight, has this been brought under control. This includes motorcycle helmet laws and safety certification, as well as pedestrian interaction controls.

  • From 1913 to 1937, automobile fatalities grew to 30 per 100,000, or .03% of the population every year. In 2019, the rate is now 12 per 100,000, or .01% of the population for all auto related deaths. The 36,000 current number includes 6,000 motorcycle fatalities, and 5,000 from pedestrians being killed by vehicles. If we were operating under the same free-for-all statistical foundation as 1937, this number would be 108,000 dead.
  • It is estimated that in the last 40 years, a reduction of 59% has been realized from mandatory use of seat belts, regulations mandating air bags, and 20% in motorcycle fatalities from laws mandating safer motorcycle design and helmet laws. This does not include ABS braking, mandatory stability control, crash test standards escalation, and other equipment standards. Controls and regulations have saved many lives.
  • These statistics are accumulated over a period of 12 months. COVID19 has attained its 37,000 deaths in just 3 months. If transportation deaths were accumulated at a similar rate, ending an 12 month period with 148,000 deaths. If this were the case, it’s likely a public outcry would demand changes be made to control the carnage.

The one factor that is not considered in any of this, is that auto-related fatalities are avoidable to some degree. Driving less is a choice one can make to reduce exposure. Moving closer to a workplace, avoiding the most dangerous road conditions, driving with greater care, keeping ones car in excellent condition, and trading up to newer, safer cars are all controlled by individuals themselves. We have no such direct control over our exposure to an airborne virus. Isolation and distancing the only available real defense.

In any case, connecting auto related deaths to COVID19 spread control is at best misleading, and at worst a fatal and ridiculous fallacy.

Fallacy Three: Smoking Kills 480,000 a year and we don’t shut the country down over that

This is, perhaps, one of the most bizarre comparisons. We don’t need a vaccine for smoking. Smoking is 100% preventable. Quit the habit. Millions have done it, and reaped the rewards of a healthier existence.  How this relates to being exposed to an uncontrolled virus is a mystery. But, let’s play it out anyway.

  • Forget the 480,000 who die from smoking. That is all on them. Let’s look in stead at the 41,000 who die each year from second hand smoke from those that do smoke (including those who will die themselves from the habit). These are individuals affected by the spread of a toxic atmosphere that is not of their choosing.
  • To reduce the exposure to second hand smoke, we have indeed shut down smoking in most public places, including outdoor public spaces across the country. By regulating and controlling the spread of toxic smoke, death from second hand smoke has been trimmed by 36%.

There is no reason to go into this one much further. We have indeed, through laws and individual response, used mandated controls that have had a dramatic economic impact on tobacco producers.

That all said, should 41,000 second hand smokers die within a period of just 3 months (an annual rate of over 120,000), like is happening with COVID19, you can assume that pressure to end smoking in any public area would be increased.

This argument is not just fallacy, it is misleading fantasy and a grand stretch of reality to connect it in any way to the spread of a virus such as COVID19.

Fallacy Four: Heart disease is the leading killer, taking 650,000 lives every year, yet we don’t shut the economy down

This is a grand favorite that is pulled out like a rusty sword. This is perhaps the grandest fallacy of all for the following reasons:

  • Life is not indefinite. You will die one something eventually. The longer one lives, the greater the chances that one of three “natural causes” will take you out. Heart disease, cancer, and the vascular team of stroke, embolism and aneurysm, then Alzheimer disease, are the leading causes of death as we age out. Beyond these are Diabetes, Obesity, and falls at home. None of these can be stopped by restricting interaction, proximity or contact with other humans. These are not viral, you are pre-loaded with them, or accumulate them through behaviors. Not through contact. These causes cannot be mitigated by regulation.
  • Controlling ones weight, staying in shape, eating well, not smoking (see fallacy three), remaining mentally active, and controlling what one can as an individual are the only defenses we have. There is no benefit to shutting the country or economy down over these.
  • In a way, we do direct a significant portion of our personal and national financial health in the fight to live longer. Health care for many is the largest expense, with mortgage taxes and food falling close behind.

There is no benefit to shutting the economy down to stop the spread of Heart disease, so this is not just a fallacy, it is a particularly silly one with no rational relationship at all to the spread of a virus in our civilization – except in the minds of the talking heads on the tube.

Fallacy Five: We’ve passed the peak, so can now relax controls.

This is a fallacy rooted in over-interpreting statistics that are at-best incomplete and inaccurate. New case statistics are only as good as the test statistics behind them. If you want to see new case discoveries drop, just slow or restrict the pace of testing. Boom, lower detected infection stats. This is not magic. To date, in the USA, the total of the population tested is just a hair over 1% (3.5M tests). Most of these are in the highest population areas, like NYC and LA, and perhaps Cook County/Chicago. In the middle of the country, test rates are far lower. Red states test at a rate 26% below blue states, while many low population regions do not test at all.

In addition to this testing issue, is the fact that we don’t really have a clear picture of how many folks that just suffer through “the flu”, with many dying from associated pneumonia were actually  COVID19 sufferers. Some estimates indicate that in addition to the current 37,000 identified COVID19 casualties, another 19,000 are going unreported. Most flu sufferers just stay home, and die. Many do so with little official record of the cause, or are reported as “respiratory failure”.

The only path to understanding how much risk there is in relaxing social contact requirements, is to have the data to start with. 1% of the population is not enough, when we already know that viruses like H1N1 infect at least 10% of the population each season. The second bit of data is the lack of anti-body testing. Understanding who has recovered, and who is yet to be infected, allows authorities to ascertain how many are at risk, how many are immune, and how many are infected and where. This does not require 100% testing. However to gain an understanding of a population. In a  typical sampling calculation, for a population of 312,000,000, at a confidence level of 95%, within +/-3%, you need a sample size of at least 10,318,205. We are not even a third of the way there.

Since we do not have a complete picture of the actual number of infected, are not testing consistently everywhere, are not managing sampling rates to produce statistical reliability, and have limited or no access to necessary tests, such as anti-body tests… on top of living in a highly political environment where test access is controlled by a government attempting to protect itself from backlash of reality, it can be pretty much assured that the data we are now using to conclude that we are “past the peak” is at best unreliable, and at worst horribly misleading. For this reason, the rationale being put forth that we are ready to relax restrictions to re-open the economy… is fallacious.

The Dilema

What I find fascinating is the outrage now being vented about restrictions, like they are novel in any way. After 9/11 we had deep travel restrictions in place for far longer, and have engaged in a 19 year long war that has killed thousands since. That was a controlled act of a few that killed less than 10% of those now departed from COVID19…  How’s that for introducing a fallacious argument within a critique of fallacies? My apologies… just write it off to my dark sense of humor.

We are indeed facing a real challenge here. Do we protect people at the cost of the economy? Putting 22,000,000 out of work exposes them to conditions that will result in fatalities of other sorts, from crime to suicide, as well as lack of proper health care leading to greater exposure to viral infection and loss than might be the case at work. Or, what if we open the economy too soon, and let the virus rip through the population with a minimal level of control (stay home if you are showing symptoms, etc..), and the rate of infection explodes, like it has in NYC, Spain and Italy? This will crush the economy as surely as shutting it all down to control the spread.

And what of the human factors of stress, paranoia, and over-reaction, that causes individuals otherwise rational, to irrationally risk their livelihood out of fear – leading to job loss and eventually greater losses that last well beyond this viral pandemic.

In 1918, the USA suffered a massive pandemic claiming millions of lives. This was caused by a confluence of ignorance, lack of action, delayed response of the government, poor medical care, and odd factors of the time, like over-prescription of aspirin leading to death from aspirin poisoning that came from the untimely expiration of a Bayer patent. COVID19 does not appear to be as deadly as the H1N1 virus of that time, medical care is now better, and we have more tools to fight the resulting bacterial infections. Yet, we waited to long to slow its spread, ignored its early warning signs. This indicates a level of ignorance and poor judgement that should concern everyone to some degree.

The USA leads in infections and mortality in real numbers, with a small portion of the world population. This is on us. We dallied to protect our capitalism, and it’s going to cost us. we are rushing to take action to re-engage that very same capitalism, taking the risk that our incomplete data is enough to take that chance. If we’re right, all will be good again soon, and we can begin to recover physically, mentally and economically.

If we are wrong… the recovery time may be extended from a few months to years.

For me personally

I don’t trust anyone in government, and consider the current WH administration to be both corrupt and dishonest to a degree that leaves me certain they have no clue how to deal with what is happening today, let alone look after my best interests – so are defaulting to the protection of corporations and capitalism itself. This country is not a great place for those feint of heart, it is a market-driven laissez faire economy with an appetite that demands we serve it or suffer the consequences.

We also need to recognize that COVID19 will not just vanish. It’s a SARS virus, that will be with is for some time to come, perhaps decades, like the H1N1 has in various forms since 1918. Yet, SARS (the corona virus behind COVID) has proven a tough one to nail down with a vaccine. It may be months, it could be years, before they find a way to control it – and even then the virus may mutate and become another novel version that befuddles the vaccine developed. We can’t just hide forever, and hope that someone cures something that has not yet been cured before – and allow the economy to be burned to ashes.

Because of that, my approach is curious and cautious, with a dose of objective reality. From all indications, while the risk of mortality from COVID19 is alarming, it is still in the <5% range of those infected, and the infection rate, at the very worst case estimates, will likely be 15% of the population, give or take. Since the disease itself is relatively mild for the majority of those infected, the odds of drawing the death card are something on the order of .7% (infection x mortality rate) – in the worst case scenario. My defense is to wash hands regularly, be cognizant of the space around me with others I have no personal contact with, increase open spaces between everyone in the departments I manage in the workspace, and wear a mask in public spaces to avoid infecting others should I become infected and not know it yet.

What else can we do? Nothing is more tragic than being broke in this country, except being old (>60) and broke. We serve two animals here. On the right is the Lion of economic forces ready to chew us to shreds if we mess with it. On the left a Tiger of an infection behind a thin curtain, making it hard to determine how deadly or hungry it might be. In the middle, we have but a little wooden chair of weak information and a whip of dubious quality we just received from Amazon, since the lion taming store is closed as a non-essential business. Would be nice to know more about that Tiger. I have lived through enough recessions to know how viscous that Lion can be.

Be well…







  1. Peter Wachter says:

    Any rational person would recognize that a great deal of effort went into your psycho-socio-historic treatise on Covid19 vs Capitalism. Both in researching the statistics and wrapping your argument in great copywriting and storytelling. Always a plus when tipping fence sitters. Thanks for all that you have done in the past and now a special thanks because this is a life or death situation. A far more important issue than lighting manufacturers’ sluggishness in escaping from fixture form factors that are somewhat stuck in the glass-envelope-around-axial filament model as opposed to exercising design freedom that SSLs offer. Be well. Regards, Peter

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