Numbers are confusing, aren't they? Do you get a bit dizzy when you see them?
If you get presented with a probability of something happening, for example, and there's a low number which represents one outcome, and a high number which represents another outcome, and in between is where someone says something might probably end up being, then what do you do? Do you explain the range and the possibility of the numbers happening? Do you bother trying to work it out? Or do you think, aw fuck it, let's just stick up the worst-case scenario?
If you answered yes to the last question, then congratulations, you're almost qualified to write a story a possible important health issue for a national newspaper. All you need to do now is perfect the air of imminent catastrophe and impending doom. Try running out of your front door and yelling "Aaargh! We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!!! We're all GONNA DIE! FUUUUUCK!" while thrashing your arms around. Then exaggerate it.
There we go.
Here's today's Express front page
The use of 'toll' usually implies 'death', though of course norovirus isn't usually deadly unless you're ill already or elderly, for example. It could reach a million, really? Well:
The Health Protection Agency has revealed the number of cases is 50 per cent higher than a year ago and there are warnings that infections could soar past the million mark.
A million? Really? Is that estimated or definite? Is that all at once or the total for the year? What am I doing asking all these questions? Just pick the highest number and go for it! But:
Health Protection Agency figures show there have been 8,631 cases between the beginning of January and March 8, 34 per cent higher than the same period the previous year.
So that's 8,000 cases confirmed in a little over two months. How do you get from that to a million, without strapping yourself to a rocket? Well it's not explained by the Express, or the Mail, who did this same story a day ago, also wetting their pants about the MILLION! Aaaaaargh! Read the BBC's take on it, though, and it's almost as if the million isn't the most important thing; that the increase could be due to better reporting; that it might not be the end of the world after all. Well where's the fun in that? Don't you understand. Get the biggest number! Run around shouting!
The Health Protection Agency said it was difficult to know the precise number of cases because of underreporting, but estimates that the the virus affects between 600,000 and a million people in the UK each year.
There it is! There it is! A MILLION! A MILLION! Aaaaaaaargh! Oh, each year? Oh, so this year might not be particularly terrifying? Hmm. Better bury that shit under all the scares then.
Numbers are confusing. Remember back to that other winter slaughterer, cold weather? And how...
As far as I can remember, 60,000 people didn't die. It was only a handful. Irresponsible to use the big number and run around screaming? Who knows. But it's not as uncommon as you might think
as that headline from the Telegraph of 2009 shows. Every year, the same panic about numbers. Thousands! 40,000! 60,000! But numbers are confusing, I guess. As we saw with swine flu, the tendency towards seeing everything as a possible catastrophe is something the papers can't help themselves with; it's an addiction.
Which brings me to 'one to watch' in the coming days. Here's a non-sensationalist report on Sky News about gonorrhoea and how it might become resistant to treatment:
Now. We can take a sober look at what might become a big story. Or we can link it to Facebook, as the Sun, Telegraph and many other numpties did with syphilis a short while ago. Or we can ask an expert what is the worst-case scenario, and no matter how many clarifications or qualifiers or caveats we're given, we'll go with that.
Numbers are confusing, though. When in doubt, just go for the biggest you can see.