Lies, damned lies and statistics: is the coronavirus consensus cracking?

The attribution of the aphorism to Disraeli is now itself considered a lie


“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

So the aphorism went, back in the halcyon days of the late nineteenth century, when men were men and plagues were plagues.

But times change, and we're now living in a “post-truth” age.

This may seem like an oxymoron but, were it not for the hyphen, the word would score you 14 points on the scrabble board since it now has its own definition in the Oxford English dictionary.

It’s rendered as: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".

Now, does this apply to coronavirus? The answer is that it depends on whether you can regard statistics as “objective facts” in a post-truth world.

If you can’t, then the response to the coronavirus falls - in a simple and quite uncomplicated way - into the second half of that definition of post-truth: it’s been driven almost entirely by appeals to emotion and personal belief.

The statistics then, are key.

They are the key battleground between those who would uphold the lockdown as an appropriate governmental response to coronavirus, and those who seek to discredit it and who prefer instead to put the economic and mental welfare of the nation first.

In the UK, proponents of the government position include the government itself, influential pundits like Niall Ferguson, the esteemed historian, Piers Morgan, the populist journalist, most of the writers for the Daily Mail, and assorted TV pundits and social media stars.

Those who are against are in much more of a minority, or so it seems at least in this post-truth world, but they include two well-known and versatile opinion formers: Peter Hitchens and Trevor Kavanagh.

Hitchens has been especially strident in his columns, but Kavanagh, as the man who read the political winds for the Sun for many years, may turn out to be more influential in the long run. Both argue that crippling the wider welfare of the nation is too great a cost to pay in tackling coronavirus, and both have attracted considerable vitriol on social media and in the wider real (but post-truth) world.

In particular, the charge is that they seek the deaths by omission of old people, and that putting an onus on the economic welfare of the country is somehow tantamount to killing people, when in the end, as both argue, the ventilators and welfare subsidies will all have to be paid for by – you guessed it – the economy.

The title of Kavanagh’s recent piece in the Sun pulls no punches: Hysteria has forced the UK into lockdown, crashed the economy and will kill more than the coronavirus. Yes, Britain is infected, says Hitchens, but “by a bad case of madness". The latter article was written on 14 March. He since doubled down with a subsequent article with the following title: There’s powerful evidence this Great Panic is foolish, yet our freedom is still broken and our economy crippled, and has given every indication that he will continue to double down even as the government increasingly restricts our freedoms.

While these columnists are in the minority, they are not outliers, assuming you trust the statistics in this post-truth world. This week, the two most read articles on the Spectator website were both by Dr John Lee. His first was entitled: How deadly is the coronavirus? It’s still far from clear and his second was entitled: How to understand and report figures for Covid-19 deaths. Needless to say, the best way to report Covid-19 deaths, according to Dr Lee, does not match up with the Daily Mail’s idea of how to report them.

Other learned and thoughtful articles like this abound all over the internet, and indeed many people will have seen, in the Financial Times or elsewhere, that Oxford University scientists reckon that half of the UK’s population may have already had the coronavirus. Of course, the authors of that report were immediately criticized as being irresponsible, by, for example Wired Magazine, but in a post-truth world it’s hard to know whether that criticism is any more valid than criticism of the lockdown.

Which brings us back to the statistics. Peter Hitchens has been relentless in trying to get the focus onto whether people died “of” or simply “with” the coronavirus, his point being that if those who caught coronavirus and died would have died anyway then the statistics are very obviously skewed. It’s interesting to see that the BBC has quietly implemented this reporting distinction on its website and now reports deaths “with” coronavirus distinct from deaths “from” coronavirus.

But unfortunately, to know whether Hitchens is right to emphasise this distinction, what we need are statistics about the accuracy of the statistics. Does Italy report in the same way as Germany or Iceland or the UK? And is it true, as some on Peter Hitchens’ twitter feed have suggested, that the March figures for mortality rates in certain European countries are actually slightly lower, year-on-year, contrary to what the newspaper headlines would have you suggest?

In a Guardian article a couple of weeks ago entitled This is what we know about your future Italian novelist Francesca Melandri warned the UK what to expect from the virus and its attendant lockdown culture, given that Italy is a couple of weeks ahead of the UK. The latter assertion is in itself open to question statistically.

More pertinent here though was her prediction that “elderly people will disobey you like rowdy teenagers: you’ll have to fight with them in order to forbid them from going out, to get infected and die.”

It’s that fight that the consensus media is now engaged in with the likes of Hitchens and Kavanagh, both of whom are of an age technically to be at high risk from the virus.

But Melandri’s comment is also a useful insight as to how our culture, besotted as it already is with “safe spaces,” now views the elderly: as mentally less proficient than the rest of us and - more bizarrely - unable to assess risk for themselves.

It seems this is no longer a culture in which age equates to wisdom. But because we are in a post-truth world we may never know for sure.

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