Image by Lisa Caroselli from Pixabay
These are stressful times for many of us. We are worried about our family and friends. Worried about our health. Worried about jobs and finances. Trying to understand what is going on with this coronavirus, trying to see a way out of this. Policymakers are taking decisions that impact our way of life in more intrusive ways than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, and that will impact our economies for years to come.
That is why it rubs me the wrong way when I see tier-1 media outlets focused on chasing click-bait rather than on helping us understand what is going on. And I see it over and over again.
Last Thursday, the Financial Times tweeted the following chart:
Japan death toll tracking Italy?
The chart gives the 7-day moving average of daily coronavirus deaths for each country on the vertical axis. On the horizontal axis we have a timeline where for each country day 1 is defined as the first day when the 7-day average of daily deaths exceeds 3.
As of April 9, the chart’s publication date, Japan had 94 deaths to Italy’s 18,000. In what sense is Japan’s death toll following Italy?
By taking as start point the first day when the 7-day average exceeds 3, the chart gives the impression that Japan is lagging Italy by over a month. But Japan recorded its first coronavirus death one week before Italy. Japan’s death count then remained very low, until April 4, when there was a blip of 14 fatalities that put the 7-day average over 3. Then it went back down. Look at the chart of daily deaths on the standard calendar timeline:
Knowing that Japan recorded its first case before Italy and suffered its first death before Italy, this chart seems the right one to me, and Japan definitely does not track Italy.
If you take the FT’s starting point as the right one, taking only Italy and Japan to make the chart easier to read, you get:
Hard to see what’s going on, because you are comparing six days of Japan’s history with 40 of Italy’s. The best you can say here is it’s too early to tell.
But let’s zero in on the first six days (after the FT-defined day zero) for both countries:
Does it look like Japan’s death toll is tracking Italy?
The Financial Times used to be a serious, reliable paper—many years ago. Now it’s just looking for the next disaster to scare us with.
The problem is that this kind of disinformation works. When I tweeted my first criticism of the FT’s headline, someone with a PhD in engineering criticized me for “not understanding the chart”. Didn't give any details--clearly assumed that the FT cannot be wrong, therefore I must be wrong. Not all of us—regardless of education—have the time to look at the data; or to take a careful look at all the charts thrown at us. That is why we have specialized newspapers. That is why we need to be able to trust them.
But we can’t.