A Different Way to Lie: Selective Generalization in the COVID-19 Hysteria

The news story, “Brown Count COVID-19 Cases Increase to 856 Amend Aggressive Testing at Plants,” is quite revealing even if it doesn’t mean to be. This is the buried headline in the story: “The rise in positive tests is attributed to aggressive testing.” Pay close now. “Brown County has received 2,200 testing kits from the state to use on workers at the meat packing facilities.” Paying attention?

The CDC did not provide the county with thousands of tests to conduct a scientific study of the county. Why? We can debate that, but this part is not debatable given everything we know and have known for weeks: if the CDC had mandated testing countywide we would “discover” that SARS-CoV-2 infection is not unique to these facilities. SARS-CoV-2 infection is everywhere. They’re now saying that it is likely that a billion people will be infected worldwide. Don’t panic. A recent tests of thousands of prisoners found thousands of prisoners have been infected and over 95 percent of them have no symptoms. The vast majority of people who have SARS-CoV-2 don’t even know they have it.

I’m a criminologist by trade and our discipline saw a very similar thing happen in the 1970s when more reporting and better record keeping—the reporting and record keeping used to produce the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) by the Federal Bureau of Investigations—produced a dramatic jump in crime rates, statistics that were then used by authorities to justify vastly expanding the carceral apparatus and warehousing millions of people.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), conducted by the United States Department of Justice, found the opposite trend during the same period. Why? Because the NCVS uses representative sampling and thus can be used to draw inferences about patterns in the population. It’s called science. The UCR, in contrast, is based on crimes reported to the police. Not science. It’s the difference between scientific polling and a website asking you to vote for the greatest heavy metal band.

There is a direct analogy here with the way the COVID-19 moral panic is being represented. Those representing the facts are not ignorant of science. The distortion of the situation must deliberate. Again, why they are doing this is debatable. But they appear scaring you in order to justify shuttering society and disrupting the supply chain. In any case, that is the function of the representation.

I want people to understand that, as more tests are conducted, there will be more reported COVID-19 cases. More reported cases does not mean more death or even more disease. The actual presence of COVID-19 is not determined by testing. In other words, the test does not give you COVID-19. Get it? That wasn’t obvious before? What it does mean is that as the number of reported cases go up, the proportion of deaths assigned to COVID-19 (and there are shenanigans going on there, as well) goes down.

Let me repeat what should be obvious to anybody with a working knowledge of inferential statistics. The jump in cases in these facilities is because of selective testing. Go back to the buried headline of this study: “The rise in positive tests is attributed to aggressive testing.” They are telling the public what they are doing. This way they cannot be accused of lying. But there are different ways to lie.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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