politics coming [too close to] statistics [or the reverse]

On 30 April, David Spiegelhalter wrote an opinion column in The Guardian, Coronavirus deaths: how does Britain compare with other countries?, where he pointed out the difficulty, even “for a bean-counting statistician to count deaths”, as the reported figures are undercounts, and stated that “many feel that excess deaths give a truer picture of the impact of an epidemic“. Which, on the side, I indeed believe is a more objective material, as also reported by INSEE and INED in France.

“…my cold, statistical approach is to wait until the end of the year, and the years after that, when we can count the excess deaths. Until then, this grim contest won’t produce any league tables we can rely on.” D. Spiegelhalter

My understanding of the tribune is that the quick accumulation of raw numbers, even for deaths, and their use in the comparison of procedures and countries is not helping in understanding the impacts of policies and actions-reactions from a week ago. Starting with the delays in reporting death certificates, as again illustrated by the ten day lag in the INSEE reports. And accounting for covariates such as population density, economic and health indicators. (The graph below for instance relies on deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 rather than on excess deaths, while these attributions depend on the country policy and its official statistics capacities.)

“Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables—of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high.” D. Spiegelhalter

However, when on 6 May Boris Johnson used this Guardian article during prime minister’s questions in the UK Parliement, to defuse a question from the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, David Spiegelhalter reacted with the above tweet, which is indeed that even with poor and undercounted data the total number of cases is much worse than predicted by the earlier models and deadlier than in neighbouring countries. Anyway, three other fellow statisticians, Phil Brown, Jim Smith (Warwick), and Henry Wynn, also reacted to David’s tribune by complaining at the lack of statistical modelling behind it and the fatalistic message it carries, advocating for model based decision-making, which would be fine if the data was not so unreliable… or if the proposed models were equipped with uncertainty bumpers accounting for misspecification and erroneous data.

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