Covid by Numbers Review – How to Make Sense of Statistics | Science and nature books


ALong with successive waves of infection, the coronavirus pandemic has provided us with a tsunami of data and graphics. Through Public Health England’s dashboard and websites such as Our World in Data, every internet user can access accurate and timely information on Covid cases, deaths, hospitalizations and vaccines, disaggregated by age, gender and place.

However, while this wealth of information can be extremely valuable, it can also cause problems. Taken out of context and deceptively shot, raw coronavirus numbers can be a source of misinformation, which, through social media, can spread as effectively as the virus itself. A simple fact, such as the median age of coronavirus victims (83) actually exceeding life expectancy at birth in the UK (81) may cause governments and the public not to take Covid so seriously. that they should. (After living to age 83, one would normally expect to live even longer – what matters is life expectancy conditional after reaching this age.)

Coronavirus data is like the ingredients of a meal: it can be combined in a variety of ways, with some recipes being more palatable than others and others being actively harmful. The right way of thinking does not involve raw data but their analysis through the academic discipline of statistics. Here the uncertainty and randomness inherent in the numbers are recognized and calibrated, as well as the problems of sampling, lag, underreporting and sometimes differences in measurement methods.

There can be few better people to do it than David Spiegelhalter, former president of the Royal Statistical Society, and Anthony Masters, the Society’s “statistical ambassador”. Readers of their Observer column will not be surprised that in this book they give a clear and extremely readable tour of the pandemic, primarily from a British perspective. They feature well-chosen numbers and graphics, backed up by exhaustive footnotes and references, with minimal technical jargon (although more details are available using a comprehensive glossary).

The book is divided into seven sections, the first four representing a sequence starting with the virus itself, through diagnosis and cases, through the severity of the disease, ending with deaths. Two other sections examine the role of interventions such as containments (studying their impact on disease, economy, and physical and mental health) and vaccines (for example, explaining the difference between efficacy in trials and in real world, determine the frequency of side effects and justify the British strategy based on age and dose spacing). The final part examines the key role that mathematical modeling plays in our response to the coronavirus, and makes a series of valuable recommendations to government and journalists. for more transparent data processing and policy inquiry based on numbers.

The authors give a detailed and balanced account of the intricacies involved in measuring the impact of the virus. For example, in discussing deaths, Spiegelhalter and Masters describe the issue of reporting deaths “from” and “with” Covid, compare risk by age and other underlying factors, consider the thorny issue of how to judge the results in different countries based on their data, and make comparisons between the impact of Covid and other historical events.

It would have been easy for this kind of number-based narrative to get dry and miss the essential human context. Corn Spiegelhalter and Masters never present the Covid as a mathematical abstraction, always as a real disease with very personal consequences. So, rather than just giving data on hospital admissions, they link the numbers to the human effects on patients and their families, and the burnout of healthcare workers, making it clear that “the statistics are theirs. only these sacrifices cannot be translated ”.

Likewise, they explore data on deaths by age, occupation, ethnicity and medical circumstances, showing how the headline numbers hide the highly uneven individual impact of the coronavirus. They do not shrink from the uncomfortable fact that through blockages and other restrictions, young people “have sacrificed so much while being themselves at low risk”.

There is of course an issue regarding the right time to publish such a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Indeed, the text was finalized at the start of the Delta outbreak in the UK, meaning some recent developments are not covered and some of the numbers themselves may already be slightly out of date. However, as arguments over vaccinations, past blockages and herd immunity rage, this book represents an extremely timely contribution. It not only gives an appropriate context for these discussions, but also suggests the right way to think about future events. If journalists, politicians and the public all had it, then the debate would be much better informed, with much more light than heat.

Covid by Numbers: Making Sense of the Pandemic With Data is published by Penguin (£ 10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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