The damage done by probability blindness

As Bishop Joseph Butler said in 1736, "probability is the very guide of life."

The coronavirus has generated more blind fear than perhaps any other event in recorded history.  That fear is blind because it ignores easily calculated probabilities.

The reported coronavirus deaths in the U.S. now stand at six hundred thousand.  The population of the U.S. is approximately 330 million.  When you divide deaths by the population, the number is less than two-tenths of one percent.  As catastrophes go, that is a relatively small number.

There is a wide disparity of coronavirus deaths among age groups.  That fact has been deliberately ignored by the authorities and the media.

Eighty percent of all deaths have occurred in the over 65 population even though that age group constitutes only 16 percent of the total population.  The number of deaths in that group is 464 thousand.  The total population of Americans 65 and older is 51 million.  Dividing the deaths by that population gives you a probability of 0.0089, or nine-tenths of one percent.

The number of COVID deaths in the 49 and younger age group is twenty-seven thousand.  The total number of Americans in that age group is 233 million.  Again, dividing the deaths by the corresponding population gives you a probability of 0.00011, or one one-hundredth of one percent.  A probability that small is often described as "not significantly different from zero."

Comparing the young and old age groups reveals that the 49 and younger age group's risk of COVID death is ninety times less than the 65 and older age group's.

There has been virtually no difference in policies in regard to various age groups.  It has been the costliest application of a "one size fits all" approach ever.

There would have been far fewer deaths and much less disruption of our lives if the bulk of the attention had been focused on the over 65 age group.  Rest homes should have been quarantined.  Schools should never have been closed.  Masks were unnecessary for anyone 50 or younger. 

If health officials and the media had acted responsibly, they would have informed the public about these probabilities.  They haven't even tried because their objective has been to raise anxiety, not reduce it.

Politicians and public health officials have a very low estimate of the intelligence of the general public and an extremely high (and unjustified) estimate of their own intelligence.  They believe their deliberate concealment of facts is admirable.

We know far more now about the coronavirus than when it began, and what we know is very encouraging.  Telling the public the truth, however, would expose health officials and the media for the politics behind their incompetence.  They would have to admit that most of the pain and damage they've created has been totally unnecessary.

Ron Ross is a former professor of economics and author of The Unbeatable Market.  He resides in Arcata, California and can be reached at

Image: Attomir.

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