NumberPunching

NumberPunching
The Elephant Celebes, Max Ernst, 1921

" … at least one piñata short of a party."

Covid-19 case counts suggest whatever the watchman damned well wants them to suggest. Raw numbers seem to be inconsistently reported due to a near absence of testing. Some officials seriously support sponsoring fewer tests, since increased testing just seems to inflate the case numbers. Some firms and localities refuse to even discuss test results, insisting that they're thereby providing an important public service by preventing panic among people who might not properly interpret findings. One governor of an early-opening state has repeatedly privately apologized for releasing, with considerable fanfare, data which only showed a reduction of new cases because of what he later quietly referred to as "sorting errors." Who sorts data so that April follows May? Multiple times? NumberPunchers do.

A NumberPuncher professionally muddies waters.
Simply withholding data critical to containing a pandemic, for instance, might result in thousands of otherwise needless deaths, but the NumberPuncher pursues a different agenda. He seems most interested in making his boss look good, whatever the human cost. Even minor inconsistencies can encourage apples and oranges arguments where an opponent gains few footholds. An ounce of uncertainty inhibits headway, allowing infinitely plausible deniability, the NumberPuncher's gold standard metric. The scientists say that we might beat back the virus by flattening the exponential growth curve representing new cases, this most realistically achieved by simply staying at home. We have no more than the crudest means for determining the shape of that insidious curve at any point in time, so we're forced to manage a hypothetical curve instead. Who's hypothetical best represent reality? Which hairs might be most usefully split?

Then the argument veers off any useful course. Remember when we won the Vietnam War by simply inflating the numbers of enemy casualties? That strategy worked right up to the point where it simply could not work anymore. The NumberPunchers won until they lost bigger than they ever imagined that they could. They gamble with what might pass for truth, if anyone seriously believed in the existence of truth anymore. Truth became passe the day before the day before yesterday, just after certain NumberPunchers ascertained that the average citizen couldn't handle the truth, let alone the whole truth, and so dedicated themselves to serving up anything but the truth. Partisan pablum produced not to nourish but to taste good. Phooey!

President Kennedy's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was appointed to his position based upon his participation in a grand experiment initiated during WWII. That experiment produced what was then touted as a quantum advance in quantitative analysis, number crunching, which he touted as responsible for the Allied victory. Reality suggested a subtler causation than those NumberPunchers reported. Many of their reported innovations merely mirrored what lowly Chief Petty Officers had previously backed into doing without any serious number crunching, mostly because the needed numbers simply did not exist. It seems unlikely that those needed numbers suddenly came into existence at the moment some eggheads devised some fresh formulas. McNamara used those same techniques to win the Vietnam War until the PR petered out on him … and us … .

If we only had good numbers, we'd be much better off, and I feel confident that within a generation or two, we will have discovered the proper basis upon which to calculate our past progress, or lack thereof. I'm humbled to acknowledge that nobody ever died of AIDS, the last virus to rampage through our society, but of AIDS-related complications. AIDS whacked its victims' immune systems, leaving them wide open to die perhaps untimely but otherwise conventional deaths, like from pneumonia. Arguments raged among competing NumberPunchers about how to properly account for the casualties, with conservative calculations generally prevailing to avoid panicking an over-protected citizenry. If they knew how devastating this incurable disease might be, what would they think of their Grand Old Party? Once grand, perhaps. Certainly old, but their results seem at least one piñata short of a party.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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