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Myth #1: 3,018,681 COVID-19 Cases Through April 30

Precisely 3,018,681?

The above number was pulled from the World Health Organization daily situation report for April 30. Or would you prefer to believe the 3,329,454 case count number being reported by Worldometer? Or the 3,276,373 count from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center?

Not poking fun at any of these sources, and I’m sure they are doing their best. But the level of precision implied by these numbers is absurd. I was once part of a project where we needed a few hundred people to collect data, and we were overwhelmed by that challenge. This is several orders of magnitude bigger and more ambitious than that. Around 200 countries are reporting case data, so it isn’t surprising that three ‘credible’ sources vary by over 300,000 cases. In addition to the degree of difficulty of data collection, consider:

We’ll talk about several myths over the next few weeks, but this one goes first because it strikes right at the heart of the problem — we don’t even know how many COVID-19 cases there are in the world or in our country.

To learn about how to collect good data, check out Orion’s On the Hunt web class.

A common problem in business is that we tend to accept charts and graphs that look slick, and we don’t question the mammoth pile of unstated assumptions and uncertainties that make up the numbers. Now, I’m not a lab rat — I understand that no data set is going to be perfect, and sometimes close enough is close enough. But when you see media folks sensationalizing minor differentials in new case count from one day to the next, please remember the above.

We’ll shift the topic to the extremely misleading death rates in COVID-19 Myth #2.

Ralph Smith

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