Denying the Curve – Alternative mathematics in the Coronavirus-skeptic discourse in Israel

Published in DiscourseAnalysis.Net on October 2020, my article analysis looks at the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel. Celebrity experts rushed to predict its outcome in Israeli media, and their predictions undershot the real spread of the pandemic by one or two orders of magnitude. Media seems to be lenient towards assertions of celebrity experts even if they fly in the face of reality.

The expression “alternative facts” appeared in media discourse after it was used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview back in 2017, meaning a shallow refusal to admit reality. Here I try to go deeper, and examine whether COVID-19 celebrity experts have constructed a stronger platform, with a structure, a logic, a common language with colleagues (doctors and economists), even historical roots.

“When the process of exponential growth “is presented as is develops, in time, subjects underestimate the growth” (Wagenaar & Timmers, 1971). Scientists sometimes prefer to view the data related to such a process using a log scale Y axis (displaying 1,10,100, etc. Instead of 1,2,3…). This view mode is rarely seen in print media and TV, but is often found as a view option on COVID-19 data tracking websites. Such a semi-log grid (Y scale only) makes it easier to spot exponential functions because they plot as straight lines (see in Fig. 2). Using this view, it’s easier to see that in our case, in the first week we have a single-digit number of COVID-19 cases, the next week we have tens of cases, the next week hundreds, and the next week thousands. Each week, COVID-19 cases make an order-of-magnitude jump. Now, viewing the same data in the linear scale common in the media (Fig. 3), the exact same picture is much less dramatic. Events have a different meaning: Election day is just a fine day, the school and workplace closures seem unwarranted, the first death seems like an accident, the rapid growth seems to come out of nowhere and the removal of restrictions seems premature.

The world is intuitively perceived by most like in Figure 3 – when we see a case turns to eight cases within a week, it’s counter-intuitive to think that continuing this growth rate could result in 3619 in a month. As the late physicist Albert Bartlett used to conclude his argument in his lecture on exponential growth, given 1742 times: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” (Bartlett, Fuller, Plano Clark, & Rogers, 2004).”

Click here to access the article.

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