Research scientists and statisticians have a famous saying:
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Early models that received early, limited data about Covid-19- its spread, its fatality rate- now appear to have been useful only in frightening world leaders into taking swift and decisive action, even at the risk of overreaction.
This is unusual: Scientists are more accustomed to being ignored by politicians and lawmakers. And while it now appears almost certain that most of the direst predictions about Covid-19 death-rates were overstated, the early models that predicted 2.2 million Americans would die were useful in another way as well.
The U.S. media has been using the early models to manipulate and cash-in on public panic.
And while the days and weeks have passed with the calamitous predictions looking less and less likely, media outlets have ramped up the panic anyway.
Why would media personalities, journalists and writers want to panic people?
“We have some evidence that bad news, negative news [stories], are more attractive than positive news- they lead to more clicks, they lead to people being more engaged. And of course we known that fake news travels faster than true news. So in the current environment, unfortunately, we have generated a very heavily panic-driven, horror-driven, death-reality-show type of situation.” — Dr. John Ioannidis, Stanford’s School of Medicine
Let’s consider a few examples.
“Stop Looking on the Bright Side: We’ll Be Screwed By the Pandemic for Years to Come,”; this dire warning was according to POLITICO yesterday. The impetus and motivations for such a grim headline comes in the very first line of the article:
“The headline certainly sounded grave and full of portent: ‘Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.’”
“Those words, emblazoned atop a POLITICO Magazine story last month in the opening days of the global shutdown, were intriguing enough to set a new record.”
“The article, a compilation of ’34 big thinkers’ predictions for what’s to come,’ within days had been read by many millions of people, the highest traffic of any piece in the 13-year history of this publication.” — John F. Harris, POLITICO. April 23, 2020.
Impervious to having just given the game away and exposed his true motivations to the world, the author goes on to criticize the “34 big thinkers” and their predictions: Not dire enough. These futurist Pollyannas were barely scratching the surface of the negativity iceberg. Not to be outdone, by itself, POLITICO one-ups its previously dire headline with one even more gut-wrenching.
Recent meta-analysis of actual recorded data of coronavirus cases and deaths- as opposed to the assumptive models heretofore depended on by experts and the press- has revealed the the Covid-19 strain we are currently dealing with is probably a great deal less deadly than early predictions indicated.
Antibody testing in New York and in California even suggests that Covid-19 probably arrived in the U.S. much earlier than previously estimated. A large percentage of the population may have already contracted the virus but exhibited mild or no symptoms.
Hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed, not even in New York City- where the virus has hit hardest. The U.S.N.S. Comfort, the military hospital ship deployed to help New York hospitals with the anticipated overflow, departed this week after spending three-weeks almost empty of patients.
But you won’t get any of that good news from Vox: “Opening up the economy won’t save the economy,” it warns instead.
This isn’t an overreaction, Vox argues; it only looks like one. It isn’t that the models were wrong, they insist: It is that the measures worked. Never mind that social-distancing and stay-at-home orders were calculated into models that still predicted 2.2 million Americans would die of Covid-19.
The early models were flawed from the beginning. Models showing 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. made a few assumptions that members of the media should have been anxious to point out to a nervous public.
For instance, the models did not account for simple mitigation measures- like increased hand-washing, frequent sanitizing of public surfaces, working from home, and avoiding very crowed spaces.
Since these were things many or most people and businesses were doing even before any social-distancing orders were put in place, media outlets might have mentioned it at least as often as they assured us we were all screwed.
But reporting about simple things average people could do to reduce their risk of infection at any given time, especially if encouraged to do so by public service announcements and the media, doesn’t result in the highest web traffic in a publication’s history.
Drawing the public’s attention to hypothesized death and destruction, however unlikely, does.
News outlets have become the new producers of reality television. It may be real, but it isn’t reality. Not really. It is scripted, curated, presented. There is a narrative. There are heroes, villains; heels and high-sounding ideals.
It is dramatized for our entertainment, designed to captivate audiences and generate ad revenue. Every writer in New York and Washington, D.C. is looking for that hook, that next winning headline too terrible to resist.
News consumers who don’t care for this news-as-reality-television model will have to seek other sources of more reliable information.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)