When innumeracy kills

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In mid-November a fundamentalist Tulsa megachurch held a packed, largely-maskless Christian concert for 2500 people. I’ll deal with the theological ironies in a later post, but despite their likely support for “Right to Life,” I can confidently say that, statistically, the attendees surely murdered people with the coronavirus that night, perhaps people even not in attendance. Ignorance of basic mathematics literally kills people in 2020.

In mid-August, I was asked at the last minute to fill in to teach a college course in Corporate Finance via Zoom, despite me being in a different (and much warmer) state from the students. Take it from me, Zoom is neither an ideal way to teach nor to learn this material, but the course is now over. The school sped the semester up to get students off campus before Thanksgiving, and even on campus many of the classes were on Zoom to keep in-person class sizes down.

Because of the large class size and Zoom format making discussion difficult, I decided to make the course “competency-based.” In other words, we stuck to the basics. There are certain fundamental concepts and mathematics related to how business finance works that (grade=A) you might pick up easily, or (grade=C) will need to be drilled into your head through repetition, or (grade=F) you never really grasp at all. The (A) group doubtless found my course too easy, while the (F) group will need to take it again from someone else, hopefully in a different format. [1]

The interesting thing to me here is that the basic mathematical function that kept showing up in multiple text chapters to trip up the (F) group, called the time value of money, is exactly the same math that many coronavirus deniers continue to fail to grasp. And that mathematical ignorance, plus the political intransigence that demands unbending fealty to “magic potions,” is now literally killing people in the United States to the tune of over 2000 per day. It does not need to be that way.

We have been here before

One year ago, before this coronavirus mess began, I wrote a post about the “human costs” of innumeracy. Innumeracy is a general ignorance of basic mathematics, much as illiteracy is to basic reading skills. The major difference between the two is in how many people openly brag about their innumeracy: “I don’t do math!”

The impetus of that December post was a measles outbreak in Samoa, where (a now updated) 83 people, many of them small children, died on one small Pacific island due to a basic ignorance of the infection math of a treatable disease. Religion, politics, and anti-science social media messages trumped public safety here, and ignorance won. And just this week, the coronavirus has finally hit that same small nation, one of the last safe places on the planet.

The primary math at play here is the simplest of exponential functions. Both money and viruses grow at exponential rates, not linear (straight line) ones. The simplest predictive formula is the multiple (1+r)n, where r is the growth rate of the money or the virus per period (days, months, or years, say) and n is the number of periods of growth. It is having that n as an exponential “power function” that messes many people up both conceptually and in their calculator skills. At a 7% daily growth rate, which is being exceeded in multiple places, this factor doubles indicators like Covid hospitalizations in about 10 days. [2]

Sometimes that exponential growth factor is small, as in the piddling interest rate that you are likely earning on a money-market checking account. But it is exponential nonetheless. Or it may be large, like the factor that drove the wealth of Jeff Bezos up over $120 billion in the last four years.

All of those watching knew that the coronavirus had an amazingly high potential growth rate right from the start. Some of us sounded the “math alarm” in early March. By mid-March I had posted my first graph and prediction, when confirmed cases of Covid-19 were growing at almost 37% per day, doubling every two or three days. At the time, total known Covid-19 infections were below 20,000 in the U.S. I used that simple exponential projection to suggest that infections would be between three and four times higher just one week later. When we were down in the blue portion of the data, most people could not see the curving exponential trend like my graph predicted. President Trump was predicting then that the entire thing would just “go away.”

March Coronavirus prediction

My March 19, 2020, projection, with the actuals shown in green.

We are now over 11 million infections and 250,000 deaths later in the United States. In the interim, some localities have slowed their infections growth rate for periods of time, but this is a pesky bug that knows the replication math better than you do. However, just slowing down these infection rates a hair has literally meant thousands of lives saved over the longer term. But unfortunately, those “deaths that didn’t happen” are largely invisible to us. Songwriter Biff Rose once wrote about seeing a U.S. flag at full staff, and realizing that this meant that someone, somewhere, was still alive. With the coronavirus, you may be one of those people still alive.

When we look at the success that countries like New Zealand and Taiwan have had in curbing the effects of coronavirus, then we are forced to ask ourselves, “Who needlessly died here in our own hometown just because we couldn’t push that exponential growth rate down by a little bit?” Was that Tulsa concert just so good that it was worth people dying?

Back in May, I made the statistical analogy to drunk driving and the innocent victims of drunk drivers. It is a “probability thing.” That analogy has also held up far too well, although we have long since surpassed with Covid-19 the 40,000 annual average of lives lost and the two million annual injuries attributed to drunk drivers. The more drunk drivers that there are on the road, the more people die, even though statistically, night after night, most drunk drivers arrive home safely, buoyed in their self-confidence, but really the lucky winners of a dice throw.

Two years ago, I wrote about the growing reality of stochastic terrorism, where we could demonstrate that our ratcheted-up rhetoric of racial intolerance and the glorification of high-lethality weapons literally causes a few “random” unstable people to “blow” and commit acts of violence against innocent people. The result has been the tragic, unnecessary deaths of schoolchildren and religious worshipers.

We are seeing the same phenomenon emerge from the rhetoric of the “math-deniers” with respect to the coronavirus. Mask-wearing literally changes the probability of death from coronavirus transmission, pushing down that critical and exponential virus replication rate. Social-distancing is a real-world application of the mathematical inverse square law, which states that a sound, or a magnetic field, or a virus concentration six feet away from you is thirty-six times weaker (six squared) than at one foot of distance. That is a lot, and the statistical odds of transmission get changed significantly. Or you deny the math, and people die.

If you cannot do the math yourself, then please put some trust in the people who paid attention in my class.


  1. Back in May I wrote a post predicting that certain traditional students would not fare well in forced online environments. We have not seen the last of the shakeout here, both for students and entire institutions.
  2. (1 + 0.07 ) 10 equals 1.97.

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5 thoughts on “When innumeracy kills

  1. @rklindgren Post author

    The term from Economics 101 is “externalities.” There are actions of individual people and businesses that seem to have little effect (like pollution) but added together, the effects are massive and tragic.

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