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Upgrade Your Analysis Skills
Covid showed us it wasn't just a pandemic of infectious disease but of poor-quality thinking, as well.
The Covid pandemic has been a fascinating experiment exposing how some people think, which for the most part, is bad. Some ideas might seem reasonable on the surface, but turn out not to be when you place a critical eye on them. These poor ways of thinking are difficult to spot, let alone debunk. It takes practice to see them.
Anyone is able to fall for crude or deceitful analysis. It could be a graph, numbers or false premises that make it seem there is only one conclusion that could fit the facts presented. Even after some thought, it can be difficult to spot how it’s wrong, right up until it’s pointed out to you. Sometimes it can be so obvious you’ll be angry it didn’t occur to you sooner.
Anyone can be fooled, smart and dumb people, the political left and right – no one is inoculated to bad thinking. These are human mistakes, but with practice, we can fortify ourselves and be less likely to fall for fake news, propaganda and low-quality analysis. A good rule of thumb is if someone presents to you something that agrees with what you already believe, question it more so you do not fall into confirmation bias.
My focus here is Covid because it brought out the worst in people when it comes to analysis. People were desperate to be seen as a credible source of information, many also leaned into their audience’s views too much and were succumb to audience capture. Content creators and influencers knew what their audience wanted to hear, and would have been punished socially and financially for deviating from this.
The Covid-19 pandemic shows us how poorly we can analyse information.
I have fallen prey to this lousy thinking in the past, but hopefully, after reading this you will be able to cut through the fog a bit easier.
There are a few main themes you will see throughout this post:
Mixing up correlation and causation
Removal of important context
One variable analysis
Mistaking the intermediary as the conclusion
It is usually the case that multiple fallacies are committed many times over when analysing data, which is why it’s important for us to be aware of these concepts when deciphering information.
One thing I must address, otherwise I’ll be repeating myself throughout this article, is it’s now scientifically shown that Covid vaccines are not 100% effective at stopping the spread nor preventing death. It is also the case like with all vaccines, there are a number of vaccine-related injuries. Yes, we were promised at the start that the vaccines were safe and effective, that it was our ticket out of the pandemic. Some believe that those pushing the vaccines from the beginning knew they weren’t as effective as initially promised, but that is not going to be the topic of this article. Do not pay attention to people repeating 2+ year-old information about how we were told the vaccines were 100% safe and effective. They are not useful players in the conversation.
Correlation and Causation
Shark attacks increase during summer. Therefore, shark attacks must cause the seasons to change. This is an obvious mix-up of correlation and causation. So then the answer must be that summer makes sharks more aggressive. Not exactly. It’s not that the seasons change the behaviour of sharks, it’s that more people are swimming during summer so there’s more chance to come into contact with a shark. Sometimes, a correlation is not always causation. There’s no direct link between the two premises of summer and sharks, an intermediary link is missing - more on this later - but for now let’s stick with correlation and causation.
We know that those who are the most boosted are more likely to die from Covid. This is showing two numbers side by side without the appropriate context (again, more on this later). The conclusion that some have come to is a surface-level one: “Hmm, the data show that people who are most boosted seem to be dying the most from Covid, therefore the boosters must be causing the increase in deaths”. This is what happens when you think before adding context.
The question you first need to ask is, who in society is more likely to get booster shots? Is it the strong and healthy that Covid has little effect on? Or is it those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid? It’s the most vulnerable. What we see is exactly what is expected when the vaccines aren’t perfect; Covid kills the old and unhealthy, and the young and healthy are the least likely to get the boosters.
So it’s not, “the more likely you are to get a booster, the most likely you are to die from Covid.” It’s, “the more likely you are to die from Covid, the more likely you are to get a booster.” This is usually the point where people will say, “but the vaccine and the boosters are supposed to stop you from dying, that’s what they said!” - No, they reduce the likelihood of dying. It seems that these people not only get correlation and causation the wrong way around, but they are unable to think in degrees. They’re stuck in a binary view. Boosters either work 100% or don’t at all. When the real answer, unsurprisingly enough, is that it’s a percentages game. If you have a booster you can still die, but your chances of doing so are less than if you didn’t.
Lack of Context
What’s wrong with these statistics?
Nothing. They’re 100% true. This is a completely factual post. What it is not, is truthful.
These numbers are stripped of all context in an attempt to say something about the vaccines, they are presenting two sets of data points side by side as if that’s all you need to know. This is an extremely dishonest tactic, especially when the greater context will tell you something completely different.
Before the vaccine, New Zealand barely had Covid. We were one of the last countries for Covid to infect the general public. Up until then, we had a few instances where it escaped into the community, but we managed to isolate and remove it.
We were Covid free for a very long time while the vaccines were being rolled out. By the time Covid reentered the country, most New Zealanders were vaccinated. This time, we weren’t able to contain the virus. Attempts were made to isolate, but the genie was out of the bottle. Eventually, the government capitulated and opened up the country, albeit with many restrictions which gradually faded.
Since we know the vaccine is not 100% effective at controlling the spread or preventing death, more Covid deaths were likely to happen as Covid cases increased. What do the numbers say? Exactly that. The reason Covid deaths were so low before the vaccine, is that there were minimal cases of Covid. What this person needs to do in order to become a more honest participant in this conversation is to show the total number of infections. As seen in the graphs above, deaths correlate more with cases than the number of people vaccinated.
This is too much for the dishonest. They are determined to make it seem like the vaccine makes you MORE LIKELY to get Covid. They will lie to you by omission. They will not show you statistics side by side unless those statistics are in their favour and make you infer the conclusions they want you to infer. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. However, this warning is thrown out the window when there is an agenda to be pushed.
If you are not from New Zealand you wouldn’t have known any of the context surrounding these numbers and possibly would have fallen for this deceitfulness.
One Variable Analysis
There has been an increase in excess deaths recently. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘We estimate 14.83 million excess deaths globally, 2.74 times more deaths than the 5.42 million reported as due to COVID-19 for the period.’ Even taking Covid into account there seem to be more deaths than usual. Some people’s first thought is, ‘what is a major change that the world went through recently?’ which is a great starter question, unfortunately, ‘vaccines’ is the only answer given. They’ll forget that an entire pandemic happened which resulted in being economically hurt and led to a whole breadth of health problems. These people who posit that it must only be the vaccinations have put on the racing blinders to all other explanations. They will not budge from their position.
At first, I was going to give reasons as to why Australia might be seeing this 17% increase in deaths from heart attacks since ‘experts are dumbfounded’. However, watching the video it seems that experts are in fact not dumbfounded as the tweet suggests. The experts give multiple reasons as to why there is an increase. Everyone in the comments, most of whom probably didn’t watch the video, is suggesting that it’s obviously the vaccine, even though the explanations offered in the video are just as, if not more, reasonable.
They’ll point out that Australia is a heavily vaccinated country and deaths from heart attacks seem to be up. One question blows this theory out of the water: if it is the vaccines that are causing an increase in heart problems, why aren’t all countries with high vaccination rates seeing the same outcome? Why have they only looked at Australian numbers? Because they’re the numbers that confirm what they already believe. Confirmation bias.
I’m not here to say it’s impossible that vaccines could primarily be responsible for these deaths. What I’m asking people to do is to open their minds to different possibilities. You should be aware that vaccinations are one answer for excess deaths. But there are other explanations. Such as many people being unable to exercise, an increase in drug and alcohol use, out-of-practice drivers, or the Widowhood effect, where when a spouse dies, the grieving widow has an increased chance of dying within the next year or two. All of these explanations – and more – are reasonable enough to explain the increase in excess mortality.
The one variable that these people are hyperfocused on is the vaccines, which to be fair, is a variable to consider. However, it is one variable of many that we must consider. The reason they don’t consider anything else is that it confirms what they already believe, hence why it is vital to question the things that you most want to be true. That is if you're actually concerned with the truth.
Mistaking the Intermediary
When Covid first started taking the world by storm, there was a trend that some started to notice. Those with higher levels of vitamin D were seen as having better outcomes in hospitals than those who didn’t. Could this simply be the answer that we were looking for? Could supplementing vitamin D be all that we need to have better outcomes with Covid? Let’s look at the evidence which supports the claim that vitamin D helps fight against Covid.
Black communities around the world seemed to have worse outcomes with Covid. Black people have higher levels of melanin than others, which means they’re not absorbing sunlight as effectively. Less sunlight = less vitamin D. Well hold on, what about Africa? Africa was probably the continent that had the lowest numbers in terms of deaths per capita. Well, they spend more time outdoors than other black people in western countries. So although they have darker skin they have no trouble getting vitamin D due to the time they spend outside.
Well hang on, what about Sweden? They receive only a few, or sometimes no, hours of sun during winter. This limits their exposure to vitamin D severely, yet they seemed to have a much better time handling Covid. The Swedish government is well aware of this fact so they supplement it. They add vitamin D to common foods while also encouraging consuming high vitamin D foods such as fish.
Well here it is, surely vitamin D is the solution to Covid, it seems to be the indication of the data. Let’s start rolling out vitamin D pills to everyone who wants them.
But before we do, do you know what else is correlated both with positive Covid outcomes and high levels of vitamin D? Being physically healthy.
Those who have higher levels of vitamin D are more likely to be healthier. This is a case of mistaking the intermediary for the cause. Vitamin D is not the cause of better outcomes, it is a signifier that you are a healthier individual which will grant you a better outcome.
But how does this make sense in regard to Africa and Sweden? They both have higher levels of vitamin D and still faired pretty well. We know Covid affects the elderly more. Did you know that Africa is a young nation and their average age is shockingly low compared to other countries (I know it’s a continent but most individual countries there did very well). Is there any more need for analysis here?
The answer to why Sweden did so well, under the assumption that vitamin D doesn’t affect Covid outcomes, is that they have a much easier time socially isolating. It is a country with some of the highest rates of people living by themselves.
Although it very well may be the case that vitamin D does help with Covid, we cannot determine this from the evidence provided thus far because there are other variables which haven’t been taken into account (are you starting to see a pattern yet?). So before coming to such a firm conclusion, one needs to explore if this is the final link in the causal chain, or if this is just an intermediary step.
I’d like to once again remind you these bad ways of thinking are not restricted to this subject, nor to any group of people. I could have written this with examples from people who are pro-vaccine. If you start to question the premises you are given you can start to see these bad ways of thinking spring up more often, and you’ll see why the conclusions they have drawn are false.
It takes practice to recognise these, and I am by no means an expert. I’ve just been exposed to these arguments time and time again and have started to see a pattern emerge.
Sometimes bad analysis is a result of deceitfulness, other times it can be an honest mistake. Either way, you should now have more tools at your disposal to help determine what is true and what is not.