The Measurement Menaces of the Month Are Everybody Who Shares Bad Data

Visit this page for a list of our articles on COVID-19 communications measurement.

If there is a common thread in nearly every Covid-19 interview or media story (and I admit I listen to far too many of them), it is uncertainty. There is uncertainty about the economy, about the trajectory of the pandemic, about the future of people’s lives, and about the quality of the data with which we are all making decisions. Here are just three examples of uncertain or bad data in the news:

1. Do I need to wash my groceries?

A video that came out the last week of March says to wash all your groceries. It stars someone who says he is a doctor, and has been viewed over 25 million times. So one of my cousins washed her cilantro, ensuring it tasted like soap (in case you didn’t already think so). Another cousin spent 15 minutes washing every orange and can of Diet Coke. Two days later the video was debunked by a scientist interviewed on NPR.

2. Does hydroxychloroquine cure Covid-19?

One day French scientists are proclaiming 100% cure rates for hydroxychloroquine. A week later the research is shown to be seriously flawed. A week after that another trial is halted due to high heart failure rates. In the words of one scientist writing in Science magazine: “We have new data on hydroxychloroquine therapy to discuss. The numbers will not clear anything up.”

3. What are my chances of dying from Covid-19?

Two months ago, the mortality rate of Covid-19 was estimated at anywhere from 1% to 7%, depending on what country you were looking at. On March 3rd, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was 3.4%. The University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine currently projects it at 1%.

In truth, the answer to all of these questions is, essentially, “We don’t have enough data to tell you.” Every study and every report admits that their numbers rely on flawed testing data, flawed reporting data, and, in the case of hydroxychloroquine, flawed methodology resulting in insufficient data. (The best source for the current thinking on Covid questions might be The Covid Tracking Project, a site that does nothing but compile and verify all the state and local data that they can find.)

Check your data, check your sources

All of this illustrates the importance of having solid, verified data before you start spreading the news about your latest results. Exercise huge amounts of skepticism and caution before sharing anything you read. That’s good advice for your quarterly measurement reports as well as pandemic news.

Sadly, social networks are making all of this bad data worse by enabling people and Kremlin disinformation mills to spread it more easily. While the social media platforms and institutions like Calling Bullshit are trying hard to take down the bad research, there’s still a lot that is getting through.

Which is why we are naming every social network, individual, or organization that shares unverified data, bad data, or information from questionable sources our Measurement Menaces of the Month. There’s enough uncertainty in our lives. We don’t need any more. (This just in: Don’t trying to cure anything by ingesting or injecting disinfectant.) ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.