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Corona and the great three-digit conspiracy

This pandemic is, in a very real sense, about mathematics. I’ve said that before in this space, and there are reminders all the time. The possible correlation to the BCG vaccine, the way the growth of cases is exponential, the search for a cure that leans on geometry to learn things about the virus: those are just a few facets of the virus—just ones I’ve written about—and there are more every day that connect it to numbers. Most are serious, or at least worth investigating, but every now and then…well, judge for yourself.

A friend has been told he is part of a great corporate conspiracy that uses numbers to fool all of us about corona. What brought this on his head? All he did was —and this may ring some bells—question an assumed conspiracy. His questions were promptly assumed to arise from inside the conspiracy as well.

Corona times: they do strange things to people.

This has roots in a minor storm that erupted a few days ago on Twitter, as far as I can tell. As these things do, it soon spilled over into Facebook and, no doubt, every other social media outlet. What was this about?

A Twitter user claimed that if you take any 3-digit number, pair it with the phrase “new cases” and feed that to Google, you’ll get a news report from somewhere about exactly that many new cases of corona. 444 new cases, or 728 new cases, or 105 new cases …yes, whatever number you choose.

The assumption? That there is a conspiracy afoot to inflate the threat corona poses to us all. All these news reports! All these news reports that use random numbers of cases! All these news reports that use random numbers of cases, just to put the fright into us! Better rush out and buy N95 masks and pulse oximeters and whatnot!

What are we to make of this? Well, let’s see. First step, verify the claim. Feeding “769 new cases” to Google produced a report from early this week from Bell County in Texas—hmm, close to my old haunts in that state. “180 new cases”? A report dated early June about cases in Andhra Pradesh. “511 new cases”? A YouTube clip from early May reporting on cases in Ontario. On and on like that. Naturally, someone tried the devil’s own evil number, 666. Sure enough, there were reports about 666 new cases too: in my case, from Ukraine. (Note: with each search, there were multiple news reports that Google coughed up; I picked up only one each time).

Really! Shudder! 666, too! Satan’s on our case, pun intended!

Actually, no to Satan. But no to conspiracy, too. In that case, how do we explain these results?

Let’s play with some numbers. The virus has been upon us for about six months, give or take. Given its slow spread to start with, across the world, let’s reduce that to four months. That is, it was from about the beginning of March that much of the world started to see substantial numbers of cases, and substantial daily increases in those numbers. Meaning, we’ve had about 120 days in which we could have expected to see news reports about a sizeable chunk of new cases. And remember, corona has been the biggest news story in the world for most of that time, so such reports would certainly make an appearance in any publication.

Those reports could have come from anywhere in the world, of course. They could have been in any of tens of thousands of newspapers, magazines, online-only portals, TV channels, radio broadcasts, blogs, tweets…you get the idea. All in hundreds of different languages, too. It’s not clear to me how to even begin estimating how many sources there might be for such reports. So I’m going to pick up a number: 5,000. To me, it seems relatively conservative, while still offering a sense of the sheer smorgasbord of outlets where you’d find news about new cases of corona.

Let’s say each of those 5,000 outlets carried one report a day about new corona cases. That belies the number of times there have been multiple reports in the same publication, but never mind. That’s 5,000 reports a day, for 120 days: 600,000 news items about case numbers.

How many 3-digit numbers are there? Start at 100 and go up to 999: that’s 900. Knowing nothing else about new corona cases, we can assume that these numbers are “uniformly distributed” through all those news reports; meaning, each of the 900 appears in them about the same number of times. How many times is that? Divide 600,000 by 900, to get about 667. That is, 511 appears in those reports about 667 times, as do 444, 769, 180 and 105. As does, for that matter, 666.

Some of this analysis will change because some of those reports will be about 1- and 2-digit increases, and also about 4- and possibly 5- digit increases. (I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that has seen a 6-digit rise in its case count in a day. Not yet, anyway). Still, all of those seem less likely than 3-digit daily increases. Allowing for these other numerical instances of increase, it looks like a fair bet that each of those 3-digit numbers has appeared about 600 times so far in corona news reports.

Think of that. 600 times. It should hardly be a wonder, then, that any 3-digit number you choose appears in a news report that Google offers you. What would truly be a wonder, on the other hand, is if any particular 3-digit number does not appear in the reports. Or if a few of them appear, let’s say, 10,000 times each.

Think of this another way, via another number. There are nearly 10 million people worldwide, who have caught the virus. That total includes half a million in India, two-and-a-half million in the US, 50,000 in Indonesia, and so on. Over 120 days, we’ve reached those figures via all kinds of daily increments in new cases. There were only tiny jumps, I’m sure, in tiny spots like Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica and Maroantsetra, Madagascar; but much higher leaps in giant metropolises like Mumbai and Wuhan, New York and São Paulo. But take it all into account, and it stands to reason that if you tabulate all the daily increases all over the world in these four months, pretty much every three-digit number will figure.

Then consider, as before, the news coverage of those increases.

So let’s see: what explains the fact that a simple Google search will throw up news about any 3-digit increase you choose, in corona cases? Is it a deep, elaborate Google conspiracy to make us think this pandemic is far worse than it is, lock down the world and get us to buy drugs and PPE (personal protective equipment) kits, masks and Zoom subscriptions? Is Google really hand-in-mask with the manufacturers of all those items? Or is this just the natural order of things, a run-of-the-mill fallout of the widespread, urgent and nearly blanket news coverage of this burgeoning pandemic?

As always, when faced with alternatives like this, apply Occam’s Razor: which of these explanations is the more complicated one? Which requires fewer assumptions? Which just seems more reasonable, less far-fetched?

Well, the Google theory needs you to assume that several tens of thousands of Google employees are working in tandem, round the clock, and successfully, to fool 200-plus governments and countless doctors around the world, not to mention the rest of humanity.

There’s more, but that’s a good start, if you’re counting assumptions— and, anyway, that’s already a few too many that would need to hold up to keep the conspiracy going. That the person who seems to have first tweeted about this also seems to be a Trump fan is, of course, neither here nor there.

But me, I’ll take the run-of-the-mill alternative, far and away the simpler of the two. These are just more numbers we’re talking about, after all. There’s logic and reason there, and it isn’t hard to find.

So, why do people so easily dream up and propound these improbable, fantastic conspiracies? Investigating that is, sadly, beyond the ambit of this column.

But what’s definitely within its ambit is making the case for logic and reason. Give me the chance to do that and I’ll take it, every time.

Source: Live Mint

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