This pandemic belief is mad, bad and dangerous to know

I know reality doesn’t matter anymore. I get that beliefs no longer require an underlying connection to facts about the world.

I’ve made my peace with all of that. Because, generally speaking, I don’t care what you think. If you want to believe that 5G towers can spread viruses, be my guest.

But a false belief that could cause me and my family direct harm is starting to take hold in the UK. This is the idea that a COVID-19 second wave is not really happening here.

People who believe this are unlikely to comply with Test and Trace or a temporary lockdown. If this idea spreads, large scale vaccination programmes will also become impossible. Nearly all of the population need to be vaccinated to achieve population immunity.

It’s not just conspiracy theorists; I was shocked to see a friend on twitter last week praising a fringe ‘researcher’ arguing that the second wave is fake. My friend is a sharp and level-headed software engineer. I respect his opinion.

It’s not hard to see why he was sucked in by this particular misinformationist: she is a figure of authority (a doctor); she is proposing something we all want to believe (that COVID is over); and she presents copious data in graphs and tables.

Terrible ideas from astrology to numerology have been supported by graphs and tables. Tellingly, our ‘researcher’ is neither a statistician nor an epidemiologist, and yet presents her statistical analysis as fact.

She argues that the spike in infections we are witnessing is simply a result of false positives produced by the PCR based COVID-19 test. This is the common thread within this brand of COVID-19 misinformation; people who wouldn’t know a PCR primer from a Dulux Wood Primer are pontificating about false positive rates on social media as we speak.

I’m going to demonstrate the wrong-headedness of this parasitic meme, using one simple argument. Please help me spread this information. Perhaps together we can inoculate the population against this one dumb idea while there is still time.

This graph is taken from the latest government report on testing.

In the first week of July the number of people testing positive was low: roughly 5,000, out of about 500,000 people tested. So the data doesn’t allow you to believe that the false positive rate is more than 1%. The most sceptical position possible is that all positive cases in July were false positives (even the most insane QAnon-grade sceptic can’t believe fewer than zero people had COVID in July).

If the false positive rate is at most 1%— and there is no evidence the test protocol has changed since July—then the 1.5M tests carried out this week in October could generate at most 15,000 false positives. But 90,000 people tested positive in total. What about the other 75,000 people who tested positive?

We are forced us to accept the reality of at least 75,000 true COVID-19 infections this week, no matter how many charts they throw at us. The second wave is real.

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Thanks to Piers Stobbs, Magda Piatkowska, Lucy Hayes and Karl Ove Kovalsgaard for reading a draft of this post.

Published by dssaisection

Chair of the Royal Statistical Society Data Science Section.

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