It is not a conspiracy - it's math


Well, I am 57 and have still never used algebra.

In fact, I don’t use much aside from basic math – addition, subtraction, multiplication – in my daily life. And then not every day or even every week. OK, I do count calories, but that seems to be nothing but addition these days.

Now before all of you math teachers jump on me – joining the English teachers who love to send letters pointing out every grammatical mistake – I am not anti-math. In fact, I love the beauty and precision of math.

My problem is that I am not good at it and never have been. I am the artsy type; numbers have never been my thing.

The same goes for conspiracy theories, which I have written about before. I find some of them to be mildly entertaining, but these days many are actually frightening in their absurdity. It is hard for me to understand how people can believe such nonsense.

But all you have to do is take a look at social media and you see conspiracies of every stripe. Government control, bigfoot, secret societies running the world – they are out there, and they have more and more people who believe them. Sadly, too many people are easily led these days.

I have seen a local one recently that is a real head scratcher for me, because it involves math – well, statistics, really.

During COVID, cases are tracked per 100,000 people. Now, as most know this is common in science when tracking things. A sample size is needed, so you take a number. This way, as Kyle Auman, the head of the Ogle County Health Department explained, you can compare a jurisdiction with a million people accurately with one with 50,000 people.

I bring this up, because some people on that pesky social media – and even in my email – have called the county’s COVID-19 numbers fiction because how can you use the number 100,000 when there aren’t even 100,000 people in the county?

Now, as a math illiterate dude, even I felt confident that I knew the answer. I reached out to experts to check and I was (shockingly, stunningly, unbelievable) correct.

Auman even sent me a chart which explained how these calculations are made and why. I will admit the math made me a little dizzy, but I could clearly follow it.

In short, using these numbers for statistical analysis is business as usual. It is not a government plot. It is not a media snow job. It is not “fake news.”

It is just math. And I can tell you that the older I get, the more I appreciate the certainty of math. I understand to mathematicians, math is a wonderful thing. To me, a great melody is wonderful, and math still makes me want to curl up in a ball in the corner and whimper to myself.

But numbers are what number are. And the use of rates to compare sets of data in statistics is common. Auman said that, not me. I can barely spell statistics.

Just because we don’t understand things does not mean there is a conspiracy. It does not mean that people or “the government” are trying to hide things from us. Sometimes, it means we just don’t understand.

But it is incumbent on us to do the research, so we do understand before we make grand pronouncements about these things, isn’t it? And if we don’t, reach out to experts who do. We should all do our best during these difficult times to educate ourselves.

Now, no more math, OK?

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