Thursday, August 6, 2020

Reading Comprehension: It Is What It Is

Trump: “Well what’s your definition of control? Under the circumstances, right now, I think it’s under control.”
Swan: “How? A thousand Americans are dying a day.”
Trump: “They are dying, that’s true. And it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.” (via

We know that the death rate is not "under control as much as you can control it" in the United States, because it's been up above 3 per million population (which adds up to upwards of a thousand per day) and mostly rising here since the end of June, while it's been around zero per million in South Korea, France, Italy, and Germany, and around 1 (less than a third the rate in US) and declining in UK.

Via Our World in Data.

If it's possible to attain a death rate close to zero patients per day, as has happened in some of the very hardest hit countries as well as those that had it under control more or less from the start, then it's not under control in a country where over a thousand people are dying every day. This is not a controversial claim.

At this point the Jonathan Swan interview has been amply covered (not least by commenter ES, who said a lot of what I might have thought of saying), but there's one bit I'd like to linger on, the new evidence for my hypothesis about Trump's reading disability:

Trump: “You know, there are those that say you can test too much. You do know that.”
Swan: “Who says that?”
Trump: “Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books.”
Swan: “Manuals? What manuals?”
Trump: “Read the books. Read the books.”
Swan: “What books?”
Trump: “What testing does-”
Swan: “No, I’m sorry, who says-” 
That airy conviction of the nonreader that your staff can probably find you a "manual" or book somewhere to agree with whatever you want to say but that your interlocutor hasn't "read the books" anyway and won't be able to pin down whether you have read them or not. And then, the remarkable stage business with the charts:

Swan: “The figure I look at is death. And death is going up now. It’s a thousand a day.”
Trump: “If you look at death – take a look at some of these charts.”
The President reached over and picked up a few sheets of paper.
Trump: “Here’s one. Well, right here, United States is lowest in numerous categories. We’re lower than the world.”
Swan: “Lower than the world?”
Trump: “Lower than Europe.”
Swan: “In what? In what?”
Swan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than Germany, South Korea, et cetera.”
Trump: “You can’t – you can’t do that.”
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?”
Trump: “You have to go by, you have to go by – look. Here is the United States – you have to go by the cases. The cases of death.”
Swan: “Why not as a proportion of population?”
Trump: “What it says is when you have somebody, where there’s a case, the people that live from those cases.”

His staff has given him these charts to back up the official White House view, such as it is, but he won't read anything at all that's not somehow directly about him (printed out tweet or newspaper clipping), ever, unless there's a camera on him, so he hasn't prepared, and he doesn't know which charts have which kind of evidence. But he catches the word "death" and figures it has to be relevant, and sputters in surprise and confusion when Swan isn't impressed. And when Trump tries to explain what he imagines he's seeing, he can't make a coherent sentence at all, because he has no idea what it is. He looks at the paper in panic, as in an exam nightmare, because it's completely senseless to him, and tumbles into a poetry of pure disintegration:

The Cases of Death
by Donald J. Trump

You have to go by, 
you have to go by – 
look. Here is the United 
States – you have to go by 
the cases. The cases of death. 

What it says is when 
you have somebody, 
where there’s a case, 
the people that live 
from those cases.

Actually, it seems to be a version of the chart the White House has been trying to sell for a month now, of the comparative case fatality rates, as here:

That is, the number of deaths per confirmed case, which is another artifact of testing and the discovered incidence of the disease. And as Robert Mackey/Intercept noted back in mid-July, it's missing some important information that came with the original, at Our World in Data:
Before Farah posted the White House version of the graph on Twitter she, or another Trump aide, deleted this sentence from its description: “During an outbreak of a pandemic the CFR is a poor measure of the mortality risk of the disease.”
The reason France and Italy and UK are so high on the chart is that, as the incidence of the disease has declined to practically nothing (and the need for intensive testing has gone down thanks to good contact tracing programs), the death rate has diminished in the same proportions. Germany and the US share a much lower spot, but are in opposite situations, since Germany's infection rate was much lower to start with and remained that way, while that of the US has remained as high as it's been since April, and hadn't been able to lower the death rate—but improved testing has caught substantially more cases, and in the latest version of that chart the US case fatality rate is down to 3.3%:

But the chart doesn't really tell you very much, as the compilers warned, which is why the White House, whose intent is to deceive, scrubbed the warning. Trump doesn't have any command of the details, but he knows the story he's trying to sell is false, and his repertory of tricks to compensate for the reading disability is starting to fail. That, catching that so clearly, is maybe the biggest contribution Swan has made.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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