Math is hard, even for an MSNBC panic-spreading virology expert

MSNBC and math haven't had a good week.  A few days ago, talking heads made a third-grade mistake when hypothetically divvying up Bloomberg's advertising budget among Americans.  And on Monday, a guest virologist announced that 20% of Americans are going to die from the coronavirus, which is an embarrassing miscalculation.

It was just a few days ago that Brian Williams and Mara Gay mindlessly repeated a meme saying that, instead of spending $500 million on advertising, Bloomberg should just have given all 327 million Americans a million dollars each.  The correct answer is that Bloomberg spent $1.52 per American.

On Monday, a guest again went stupid about math, this time while trying to explain how many Americans will die from coronavirus.  According to Dr. Joseph Fair, only 80% of the population will survive:

"We're honestly behind the curve," Fair claimed, adding that "getting testing up and running is the most essential step."

"Getting testing up and running in every place we can, in every city, in every public health laboratory around the country is key for us to understand how widespread this epidemic is. This is not to fear monger. It would be irresponsible for us to create panic when it's undue," Fair said. "That being said, we know 80 percent of the population is going to survive and a typically 15 to 20 percent rate of mortality for those individuals that are both elderly or have underlying conditions."

Mediaite, from which the above quotation comes, doesn't question Fair's math.  Instead, it takes the numbers at face value and then attacks Trump:

The number is much higher than the World Health Organization's reported 3.4 percent mortality rate this month, which in turn was higher than previous mortality rate estimates around 2 percent.

Last week, President Donald Trump disputed the reported 3.4 percent mortality rate, telling Fox News' Sean Hannity, "I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number… Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent."

Even a mildly savvy innumerate should be able to spot the problem with Fair's math.  The way you determine a disease's mortality is by looking at its effect on the entire population.  In this case, the higher mortality prediction from WHO, based on looking only at people who get really sick, is 3.4 percent, while the lower mortality prediction, which includes everyone who gets the flu, no matter how mild the case, is 1 percent or less.  In other words, even under the worst-case scenario, 96.6 percent of the population will still survive.

Fair's confusion arose because he forgot that it's only the very old (over 80 years) or very sick who will have a 15- to 20-percent mortality rate.  The very aged, however, do not come close to making up 20 percent of the population.  The 75- to 84-year-old cohort is only 4.4 percent of the population (and presumably that number is weighted toward those under 80), while the cohort over 85 is only 1.5% of the population.

Even if — God forbid — every person over 80 in America were suddenly to die, a most unlikely event, 95% of Americans would still be alive.  Adding in the chronically ill is unlikely to change that number much. 

Fair made a foolish mistake (presumably he knows better), but both MSNBC and Mediaite ran with the error to undermine Trump's presidency.  These people are both evil and stupid.  (Dr. Drew agrees about the evil they're causing.)

Here's the deal with the media: they don't know what they're talking about, so analyze everything they say before you start to worry.

If you'd like a more clear-eyed, less hysterical analysis of the real risks of the coronavirus, you might want to read one or both of the following articles:

Alan Reynolds's COVID-19 Deaths and Incredible WHO Estimates.

Michael Fumento's Coronavirus going to hit its peak and start falling sooner than you think.

If you experience technical problems, please write to