Statistics; or, it was my understanding there would be no math


One of my earliest comedy memories was watching one of the first SNL debate sketches during the run-up to the 1976 Presidential election. Dan Ackroyd is Jimmy Carter, and of course Chevy Chase is Gerald Ford. Jane Curtain asks an economic question of the incumbent. The first sentence contains the words “Humphrey/Hawkins Act,” then numbers, numbers, numbers —and how all these numbers relate to each other. She might as well ask when two trains leaving Chicago and Pittsburgh and accelerating a constant rate of 2mph per mile would slam into each other. As she’s asking the question, the camera pushes slowly into Chevy Chase’s increasingly bewildered face. At the end of the question comes the reply, a line that sandblasted itself on my sense of humor ever since:

It was my understanding there would be no math.

I think of that bit a lot during this pandemic. Everything is numbers now. Never in my life have I lived thru an “unprecedented” event that involved so much math. Yes, there were numbers involved with the oil shocks of the 70’s, the LA Riots in 1992, and Hurricane Sandy. But the numbers weren’t the big thing.

The only event I remember that involved numbers to such an extent was Y2K, and that was basically just two numbers —strangely also a 1 and a 9. Beyond the numbers, Y2K also promised ‘splosions. And a specific end time, down to the second. And Y2K had answers: My fiancee Lynda said, “If I let you spend two hundred dollars on batteries and shit, will you shut up?”

Every morsel of information about the course of the pandemic comes attached with numbers that can only be understood by doing a thing with other numbers, which can only be understood by doing a thing with yet other numbers. I glaze over so quickly. A chorus of “Numbers, numbers, numbers!” sung to the tune of “You don’t win friends with salad!” echoes thru empty neural halls.

I am not a stupid person by any stretch. In fact, I was on the Math Team in high school, and my score on the math portion of the GRE was 780.
I got a C- Stats. In my entire academic career, I have never received a lower final grade than in Dr. Ron Ron Lucchese Lucchese’s Intro to Statistics my sophomore year at Wittenberg. I thought I understood the subject matter. Dr. Lucchese Luchesse had a habit of repeating one word in practically every sentence. It was more than a verbal tic. It was a verbal tic fashioned into a teaching aid. He repeated the most important word in each sentence; if you heard it repeated, it was on the test: “72 shows up the most, so 72 is the mode. Mode.” “Here we see that the distribution is skewed. We call that Poisson. Poisson.” “The midterm will be worth twenty percent of your grade. Twenty.”

I got a 52 on the midterm. Using the gift of Dr. Lucchese Lucchese’s repetition and a scholarly brain that treated tests as fun little trivia exercises meant to be finished first before anyone else, I was able to able to ace the fill-in-the-blanks parts of the tests. Still, I got a 52 on the midterm. C- for the class, and that was after I pleaded. Pleaded.

I just could not get my head around the questions that took pages and pages of blue book to answer. Stats aren’t discrete systems like geometry proofs or calculating a tip or two trains leaving Chicago at one o’clock headed in opposite directions. A stats question, especially one that you’ve been given an entire blue book to answer, spirals insanely out of control if you make just one error. Plug in a wrong value, forget to square something that should be squared, and you end up somewhere in the eight-billionth percentile.

There can’t be an eight billionth percentile, right? You took Latin. “cent” means one hundred. How do you get eight billion? Shit, I won’t be first. He’s handing it in? Him? He’s high, and an idiot!. Maybe eight billionth percentile means you’re just really really good. Or you’re a virus, and there’s a whole bunch more of you than the day before.

“Three minutes left. Three.”

Yes, eight billion must make sense. It’s just a brain teaser. Yes, brain teaser. Lucchese Lucchese’s fucking with the class, and everyone else gets the joke. Gets the joke. I should really breathe. What is breathing?

If statistics in a closed setting can induce such panic, imagine what statistics in the wild can do. Especially when you don’t really know how to do statistics properly. Yet, practically every day my Facebook feed contains folks posting their own back of the envelope statistical calculations based on the few numbers they’re getting from official sources. “I crunched the numbers from the Governor’s press conference this afternoon. Thirty-seven percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state are in ICU’s!” If 37% of people admitted ended up in the ICU, I honestly don’t think I’d be finding out about it from a Facebook post from a frightened person in sweatpants.

I know numbers offer people some blanket of certitude, and it is very comforting to believe you’re the one who has discovered the truth about coronavirus.

Yeah, there can be an eight billionth percentile, look at that curve. A curve like that means that whatever is going on is clearly in the eight billionth percentile. It’s not flat at all. Flatten it. Flatten it. If keeps going at this rate, in nineteen days over seventeen quadrillion people will have the virus!

Statistics gets crazy easy and crazy fast.

If you need a real world example as to why back of the envelope statistics can be dangerous, look no further than the Cheetoh Dotard. Dotard. He daily proclaims that his vestigial ability to do scribble long division with a blunt Sharpie makes him an expert in epidemiology. He’s gambling lives based on that tenuous assumption. People die when you think you’re better than the experts.

Even if folks aren’t calculating their own corona curves, they’re posting graphs and charts from dubious sources. The main criteria for posting a charts and graphs from dubious sources appears to be a feeling that it “seems right.” These are rarely from organizations that existed in February. Friends who only two weeks ago posted that they were sick of people slapping up graphs they found on Reddit, now post decorative Edward Tufte knock-offs from entities like like CovidTracking or At least I’ve heard of Reddit.

Then they want you to share this information. I will say it once: I refuse to be a conduit of COVID-19 info on Facebook. No one should be getting their pandemic news from Facebook. Moreover, I’m probably more likely to pass on info based not on how accurate it is, but on whether I’ve made out with the person sharing it.

I have no idea if the colorful charts or calculations I see on Facebook are accurate. Remember, I got a C- in Stats. 

I didn’t get that C- because I was dumb or because I didn’t understand the material. I got a C- because I went through most of the course using the wrong chart in the back of the textbook. When I went to Dr. Lucchese Lucchese near the end of the course to explain to him the mistake I was making, he shook his head and said with a chuckle, “You’re kind of an idiot. Idiot. Aren’t you?”

It’s true. I was an idiot that term. I had just transferred into Wittenberg following a suicide attempt at Cornell. My brain was still processing that trauma, not to mention trying to hide that it had ever happened. You expect me to be cognizant of correct charts? I was just trying to stay alive.

And, y’know what? We’re all trying to stay alive now. Our minds are occupied, and yet people are taking on maths they don’t quite understand. What gets to me is the anguish. I know the folks posting these things aren’t foolish. I would never have been friends with them if they were. But, I can feel the stress. My chest tightens each time I log on. Going online now is akin to going to the Kroger’s during this. After about a minute, sensing the stress of others gets to me. It’s like a bad filler episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Troi clutches her head a lot, looks constipated, and has to retire to her quarters.

Stress plus math never did me any good.