Irrelevant Comparisons

by Don Boudreaux on January 25, 2021

in Archived writings, Current Affairs, Myths and Fallacies

My latest column for AIER is inspired by what I believe to be the completely meaningless, although frequently encountered, comparisons of the number of Covid-19 deaths to the number of deaths caused by 9/11 terrorists, or by the likes of hypothetical X-number of jumbo-jet crashes or World War I battles. A slice:

Another, more serious problem with comparing the number of Covid deaths to the likes of 9/11 fatalities or to jumbo-jet crashes is that Covid, unlike these other sources of death, kills selectively and more predictably. Covid reserves its dangers overwhelmingly for the very elderly. This truth is not diminished by being ignored or discounted by those who insist on dramatizing the threat of Covid.

Consider three different novel diseases – A, B, and C – each of which results in a total of 500,000 deaths chalked up to it. But – disease A kills only people ages 2 through 50; disease B indiscriminately kills people of all ages; and disease C kills only people ages 80 and older.

No reasonable person would be indifferent between these diseases. While each disease (obviously) is unfortunate, disease B is clearly worse than is disease C, and disease A is clearly worse than is disease B – making, of course, disease A worse than disease C. Yet each of these diseases will be said to kill 168 times the number of people killed by the 9/11 terrorists. Each of these diseases will be said to kill as many people who would die were 1,071 packed jumbo jets to fall from the sky.

Such comparisons mask important differences among these diseases. Although these diseases all kill the same number of people, they are not all equally dreadful.

One reason disease C is the least dreadful of the three is that it obliterates fewer life years than are obliterated by diseases A and B. Recent experience tells me that some people now deny the significance of this fact. But I deny that these deniers believe their denials.

If these denials were sincere, those who issue them would react with the same degree of extreme shock and sympathy upon learning of the death of an 84-year-old colleague as upon learning of the death of another colleague’s teenage child. Yet any person who so reacts would rightly be regarded, at best, as very strange and, more realistically, as emotionally defective. Mature human beings understand that death is inevitable. We understand also that every person’s chance of dying rises with age and that, even in our modern world, living into one’s 90s remains a relatively rare blessing.

There’s a second, related reason why disease C is less dreadful than are diseases A and B. Compared to those who are killed by disease A or B, those whose deaths are attributed to disease C are more likely to have had, or were more likely to contract in short order, other ailments that would have killed them if disease C hadn’t apparently done the job first. In other words, “being killed by disease C” has a meaning more ambiguous than “being killed by disease A.” Compared to the number of people whose deaths are attributed to disease C, many fewer persons killed by disease A were likely to soon be killed by some other cause – or to have death brought on by some other cause but mistakenly attributed to disease A.


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