Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Ronald Coase (from whose essay,”The Lighthouse in Economics” our logo is derived) is rightly renowned for questioning widely-held theories—such as the Lighthouse as the quintessential public good. In the case of the firm, Coase came down from the Ivory Tower and (gasp) visited firms to see first-hand how they actually operated. His findings, starkly contrasted with the large body of theoretical writings on the firm, earned him the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Today’s reporters would do well to emulate his example. Rather than simply reprinting government press releases with facts and figures on the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals being overwhelmed, the threat from thousands of “cases,” etc., it would be refreshing if they actually went out and did some investigative checking for themselves.

As should be widely known, most early reports consisted of models’ predictions, later revealed and revised as vastly flawed, and there has subsequently been much corruption of the counting of deaths and “cases:” from the corrupting influence of Medicare reimbursement rates incenting a diagnosis of COVID as the cause of death or hospitalization, to bureaucractic ineptitude and corruption—only the most naïve could accept the official figures.

A simple case-in-point: stories endlessly repeated of hospitals “overwhelmed.” This is surely a story even the newest journalist could check by simply visiting area hospitals to see for themselves.

In the real world, thousands of health-care jobs were lost and emergency rooms were empty as those who would have sought regular medical care stayed away in droves; Samaritan’s Purse Central Park field hospital and the Navy hospital ship Comfort (having treated fewer than 200 patients during its stay) quietly withdrew from New York as unneeded, and fear-mongering headlines reported “full hospitals” when actual capacity was more than sufficient.

The actual story an enterprising reporter might have unturned: hospitals, badly hurt by lack of revenues from “regular” patients throughout the shutdown, are reimbursed at higher rates for a diagnosis of Covid. In many locales, tests are not required to verify a diagnosis, nor a distinction made between being sick or dying “from” Covid vs. “with” Covid. Hospital personnel are thus under great pressure to record a diagnosis of Covid. Bottom line: “This may be the explanation for hospital executives saying they have plenty of capacity and the increasing numbers of Covid hospitalizations.”

So the next time you’re confronted with yet another story of thousands of “cases,” or some new segment of the population suddenly at risk, it’s a good idea to check the motives of the information’s source. It bears repeating that Fear is the Foundation of Every Government’s Power—and every media outlet’s revenue: “If it bleeds, it leads,” and in today’s parlance, Fear is clickbait:

This same factor helps to explain the drumbeat of fears pounded out by the mass media: besides serving their own interests in capturing an audience, they buy insurance against government punishment by playing along with whatever program of fear-mongering the government is conducting currently. Anyone who watches, say, CNN’s Headline News programs can attest that a day seldom passes without some new announcement of a previously unsuspected Terrible Threat—I call it the danger du jour.

By keeping the population in a state of artificially heightened apprehension, the government-cum-media prepares the ground for planting specific measures of taxation, regulation, surveillance, reporting, and other invasions of the people’s wealth, privacy, and freedoms. Left alone for a while, relieved of this ceaseless bombardment of warnings, people would soon come to understand that hardly any of the announced threats has any substance and that they can manage their own affairs quite well without the security-related regimentation and tax-extortion the government seeks to justify.

Unfortunately, as those wise men of Monty Python noted, while reports of deaths may well be overstated, massive increases in unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and overdoses, suicide, social unrest, and domestic violence are not.

It’s time to end this nonsense and secure a society in which individuals assess and manage our own risks, and liberty is held as the supreme value.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman and Chief Executive of the Independent Institute.
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