frankel123_Andriy OnufriyenkoGetty Images_covidstatisticsgraph Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Statistics and the Pandemic

Data are critical to fighting COVID-19, but cross-country comparisons have consistently focused too much on the wrong sort. This has given some political leaders a strong incentive to downplay the pandemic, arguably contributing to millions of deaths.

CAMBRIDGE – “There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain famously wrote. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Too often, the COVID-19 crisis has lent support to the suspicions Twain’s bon mot expresses.

Data are critical to fighting the pandemic, but cross-country comparisons have focused too much on the wrong sort. This has given some political leaders a strong incentive to downplay the pandemic, arguably contributing to millions of deaths.

Given widespread mistrust of experts and mainstream media, it is important to emphasize the most informative and reliable COVID-19 data possible. Most attention has centered on countries’ officially recorded infections and deaths. The first statistical priority here is pretty obvious: divide cases and deaths by population size in order to express them in per capita terms.

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