It is unlikely that pundits, politicians, and the general public have ever been so obsessed with numbers as they are right now. I speak, of course, of the numbers surrounding deaths and illnesses attributed to COVID-19.
For months now, every new day has brought new headlines about total COVID-19 infections, total deaths, and estimates put out by models claiming to predict how many deaths will soon occur.
These numbers have become the focal points of many politicians’ careers. This is especially true for state governors and other politicians in executive positions who now in this time of “emergency” essentially rule by decree. New edicts are regularly issued by policymakers, allegedly based on an assessment of the all-important numbers. These decrees may unilaterally close businesses, cut people off from important medical procedures, ban religious gatherings, or even attempt to confine people to their homes. Those who refuse to comply may have their livelihoods destroyed.
“The Number” becomes the standard by which all behavior is judged. Will Activity X increase The Number or decrease it? For those who wish to engage in Activity Z, they must first prove that it will not increase The Number. Nothing shall be allowed that doesn’t have a good effect on The Number.
But there’s a problem with this way of doing things: the number in question only tells us about the one thing being measured. If we only have a number for that one thing, then we tend to ignore all the other things that aren’t being assigned a number.
Focusing on One Number, Ignoring Others
Things get even more lopsided if one number is being continually updated in real time, while other numbers are updated only occasionally.
We can certainly see all of this this at work in the COVID-19 debate. During March 2020 much of the population suddenly became very interested in the latest COVID-19 totals. Johns Hopkins University created a web site to show the spread of the disease, and Worldometer — a site normally only useful for checking the population of, say, Bolivia — began publishing continually updated numbers on total COVID-19 cases and deaths.