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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

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Covid-19 statistics: The question of rational thinking and science

Thobela Sigcu gets tested for COVID-19. Photographer, Armand Hough, African News Agency.

Thobela Sigcu gets tested for COVID-19. Photographer, Armand Hough, African News Agency.

Published Jul 17, 2022

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Covid 19 has raised a serious storm on the terrain of statistics, the leadership of science and rational thinking.

Democracies are in danger from the advent of Big Data, especially when led by those with less empathy to the people they govern and those who are in positions of power but are illiterate.

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When illiteracy connects with the wily and less empathetic, the age of information deluge will be catastrophic to societies.

In 2001 Professor Helmut F. Spinner of Karlsruhe Institute addressed the Statisticians of the Economic Commission for Europe. In his thesis that touched on many subjects, which included forms of knowledge, he also discussed the role and interface of statistics and technology.

On the question of knowledge, he made a distinction across three areas of knowledge. The first related to knowledge as ordinarily just information without any epistemological anchor and that would include any amount of fake news.

The second is knowledge as found in works of art and tales. The third form of knowledge is in science and in this space, we encounter public statistics that constitute the science of the state.

At the turn of the twentieth century H. G. Wells, opined that in the future numeracy will be as necessary as is the ability to read and write.

Spinner in agreement with Wells would argue that in a true democracy and in the context of pervasive developments of ubiquitous technology, information of the world is now available to everyone and everywhere, for, the technological constraints have been removed. However, in order to know, understand and deploy oneself intelligently in this well of knowledge, the levels of literacy have to improve, and democratic rights have to be extended.

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COVID-19 has unveiled how citizens across the globe seriously engaged in conversations in the science of Covid.

Many with zero knowledge of medicine were equally engaged. What came into controversy was the efficacy of vaccines and twenty eight months later, a number of institutions are pulling back from supporting mandatory vaccines, Standard Bank of South Africa being one of them.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled partially on vaccine mandates a few days ago. It ruled thus “The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing requirement aimed at large businesses, but it allowed a vaccine mandate for certain health care workers to go into effect nationwide.”

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The variable response to COVID-19 vaccine feeds into the controversy and challenges in the science of viral diseases including their attendant conspiracy.

What caught my eye in the midst of all these as Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to leave office was The Expose, the headline of which led with, “Whilst you were distracted by Boris resigning, the UK Gov. quietly published a report confirming the Vaccinated account for 94 percent of all COVID-19 Deaths since April, 90 percent of which were Triple/Quadruple Jabbed”.

The data it referred to was from the Office of National Statistics of the United Kingdom. It is a credible office.

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The ONS showed the number of people who died amongst the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

These numbers were as follows: amongst those who were vaccinated there were 4715 deaths for those who received a triple jab and 4 647 amongst those with a double jab.

In contradistinction there were 288 deaths amongst those who were not vaccinated.

In the context of the serious controversy as regards the efficacy of the vaccine, the resignation of Boris Johnson and the role of national statistics offices, a perfect storm became good fodder for the fourth estate, which went into overdrive with the headline of Boris Johnson resignation as camouflage that concealed the big scandal of falsehoods of vaccines which are pushed by the Big Pharma.

But what are the facts regarding the analysis by The Expose as reflected in the graph below? In the absence of denominators that point as to how many people were all in all vaccinated and how many were not, The Expose cannot come to a conclusion that the vaccinated are more exposed to death than those who are not vaccinated.

The error of ecological fallacy is commonplace among the uninitiated in the world of numbers and people can be terribly misled.

Yet The Expose may well be pointing to a true fact, but in the absence of these crucial denominators, the conclusion that those vaccinated are prone to higher number of deaths cannot stand.

It is this important point that Wells and Spinner point to: Literacy levels regarding numeracy is a fundamental peoples’ liberator – a sine qua non - where information is as ubiquitous and as pervasive.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the Director of Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University and the former Statistician-General of South Africa.

Pali Lehohla.

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