They can’t.

THe real problem is fractions, and most people hate fractions. Statistics show that 75% of people hate fractions.

My God! That’s almost half!

I’m not a medical expert. I’m an elementary school teacher who co-hosts a medical show called Heart Health Radio. My radio partner, Franklin Wefald and I have talked about COVID-19 for weeks.

We still don’t know how bad things are or even if things are looking better. The problem of COVID is fractions.

Fractions are made up of two parts: the numerator – for instance, the 3 in the fraction ¾ – and the the denominator – for instance, the 4 in the fraction ¾. Another way to think about this fraction is: “of 4 parts, 3.”

Whole number bias happens when people tend to automatically think about the numerators and denominators of fractions as whole numbers before they process the numbers more deeply to grasp their actual size.

Kids in my class often assume that 1/8 of a pizza is bigger than 1/4 of a pizza just because the denominator is bigger. It doesn’t work like that, of course andI have every 4th grader draw pictures to prove it. Then I ask them what a 1,000 slice pizza looks like (assuming all pizzas are the same size) and they start to get it.

The problem is, we don’t know the denominator or the numerator with COVID-19. Without reliable numbers, we don’t know how deadly this thing is.

If you want to try to calculate how deadly this pandemic is compared with the flu, you need to divide the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 by the total number of people infected by it. Keep in mind, it’s impossible to know the true denominator, or the total number of infected individuals, in the midst of a pandemic because these numbers change daily, and testing is limited.

The authors of the article toy with the numbers a bit to try to calculate the fatality rate based upon the Johns Hopkins totals available here.

There’s a problem. With due respect to Johns Hopkins, the numbers are wrong.

The Chinese government has lied about the extent of the death toll and infection rate. They’ve been stuck at around 82,000 confirmed cases for weeks. But even with total truth from all nations, we still wouldn’t have enough information. There were reports of satellite photos above Iran which showed huge rectangular pits dug in a cemetery. Apparently filled with bodies then covered with dirt. Lots of governments are liars.

We need to know how many people have died from COVID-19. That’s the top number or numerator in our fraction. We don’t actually know that because in a lot of cases the people dying are not being tested. Are flu deaths being lumped in with COVID mortality?

We also need to know how many people have been diagnosed. That’s the bottom number, or denominator. We don’t know this because testing is still only starting. We don’t know how many of us have had the virus but got only a mild case. Are there millions of people who have been exposed, caught the bug and will never be tested?

How about these statistics on the last flu season:

We have effective tests for the flu but in the period shown we had between 19 and 26 million cases of the flu. Not exactly a specific number. Somewhere between 10 and 25 thousand deaths from the flu. Again, we don’t have a specific number.

The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918-1920 took the lives of between 17 and 100 million people according to Wikipedia. Historians have had a hundred years to try to narrow down the number and we still can only get that close.

Because of these unknowns, the fatality rate could ultimately be lower than early figures because so many infected people were not immediately tested or officially diagnosed. While it may be too early to tell exactly how much deadlier than the flu COVID-19 will be, some current estimates suggest COVID-19 may be closer to 10 times more deadly.

There’s another reason the experts will not be able to give us an accurate picture of the virus. Some of those so-called experts aren’t really good at fractions, either:

The mother of all modeling when it comes to COVID-19 is Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London. It was he who first said 500,000 people in England would die, and another 2.2 million in America unless drastic steps were taken. Then, when both countries panicked, he came out with a new, downgraded model (one that still overstates the reality).

Ferguson was presented to the world as one of the world’s foremost epidemiologists and modelers. Perhaps we should have learned more about him before accepting that claim. With help from Bill Steigerwald, Power Line has an exposé that gives us more information about Ferguson.

It turns out that, in 2005, Ferguson had some predictions about the Bird Flu. He estimated 200,000,000 deaths worldwide. In fact, in the last 17 years, there’ve been 455 diagnosed Bird Flu deaths.

I’m just an elementary teacher, but I’m also someone feeling the effects of this quarantine. At some point, this has to end. I suspect strongly that when we lift the travel bans, stay at home orders and social distancing rules we will still be ignorant of the real numbers.

Let’s stop pretending that the experts are going to be able to tell us what kind of danger we are in.