Absoluteness, Estimation and Absurdity – Part 1

So, with more than 58,000 new cases of COVID-19 – The Virus – in the last 24 hours bringing the total caseload to something fast approaching three quarters of a million globally, with more than 3,000 new deaths, well over half a million currently active cases (exact figures now assuming less importance than in earlier days) and 185,000 closed cases – of which some 34,000 were fatalities – the current death rate from The Virus remains at 18% for the second day in a row.

Those are the facts.  Those are the counts available to us at this time (accuracy largely undetermined).  The Virus is obviously still ongoing and cannot in any way be said to have so far peaked.  But the death rate stated above is the only valid figure that can be determined from those facts.  The only logical, scientific, medically and mathematically sound basis on which to assess the current situation.

This cannot be stressed too strongly, and since there are various much lower death rate figures floating around and some dissent has been expressed to the 18% figure that I and others are using, I will try to explain the basis behind these statements.

The Worldometers page dedicated to doing this offers a plausible explanation, well worth reading (see particularly the section ‘How to calculate the mortality rate during an outbreak’), but I will try to express this in my own words.

As probably a first instalment, because I have not pre-planned what I am going to say, and it could be a long explanation, let me start like this: 

There are not many ‘absolutes’ in life.  Death is one of those absolutes.  You are either ‘dead’ or you are not dead.  There is no in-between state and death is final – a point of no return.  So, deaths can be counted.  The accuracy of the counts may be questionable but the actual number of deaths is not.  We tend to accept, though perhaps with some reservations, the accuracy of death counts from various sources – though perhaps with less reservations than counts of other things.

Not everything can be counted, for a variety of reasons, but in order to make sense of life we, being the simple creatures that we are, need to count them anyway and we accept with the same or similar reservations the counts provided and willingly or unwillingly make adjustments as deemed necessary to our lives, based on those counts.  The counts themselves are not real. they don’t need to be.  They merely need to be indicative of what is real.

My own calculation of an 18% death rate is also not real.  The real figure is something between 17.5% and 18.49% just now.  It doesn’t matter.  18% is indicative of the situation as at this point in time, based on the indicative counts we have, and, since all of these things will vary over time, is close enough to use as an approximation for reality. 

Anyway, continuing for a little while longer this discussion of what is real and what is not, any mathematician, or scientist even, will tell you that there are two main groups, types, or categories of numbers.  They are the ‘Integers’ and the ‘Reals’.  Wikipedia has a basic explanation of these and the many other number sub-types: ‘List of types of numbers’.

The ‘integers’, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., by some definitions also referred to as ‘Natural’ or ‘Whole’ numbers, are what we use for counting.  They represent ‘chunks’ of quantity or size.  They have no precision and have no other use than in counting (that I know of).  They cannot be used in mathematics, although we teach children to use them in simple arithmetic problems as a learning aid.

The ‘Reals’ or real numbers, have both size and precision.  They can be used mathematically to model and represent real life – which is, for the most part, not ‘chunky’. The number ’18’ for example, is not a real number. The numbers ‘17.5’ and ‘18.49’ are real numbers. In the case of the current COVID-19 death rate I use the number 18 to represent, as an estimate, the true ‘real’ percentage value as calculated. It is ‘near enough’ to be indicative of the true value in this context ie. for reporting purposes. It would likely not be precise enough if used in other situations.

Well, I haven’t gone far in explaining the calculation of death rates yet but I thought it useful to visit some of the assumptions that are inbuilt into what are everyday issues first, because these things are important and we need to be able to distinguish between what is real and practicable and what is hogwash and hoodwinking – between absoluteness, estimation and absurdity.

If anybody is actually reading this, you will probably be mostly isolated in your own home and have plenty of time to think around these issues for yourself.

I next plan (vaguely, I rarely plan precisely) to look at the logic behind making sense of problems for which there are no immediate resolutions – probably tomorrow.  COVID-19 falls into that category of issues.

Get the latest Worldometers coronavirus facts, or perhaps we should now refer to them as estimations – they are certainly not absolutes and, as far as I know, there are no absurdities – here: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

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