The scientists gave us the relevant numbers, but it somehow just didn’t compute with our politicians. It’s pretty well established that lawyers and politicians can’t do math that doesn’t start with a $. The “No Child Left Behind” Act that mandated every student rank above the 40th percentile is a case in point. Here’s a story I read in the late 90s that demonstrates how even professionals can overlook the math.
A young woman questioned her professor about a B+ she received on a paper in 1994. The professor agreed that it was well written and would have been an A had she not gotten her facts wrong. He showed her where she wrote “the number of children killed on the street by gunfire has doubled every year since 1954.” She asked what was wrong with that. He said I don’t know how many children were killed in 1954 but suppose it was just one. He said doubling every ever would make the total number this year 240 or 1,099,511,627,776. But she was able to show him this quote taken word for word from a reputable magazine. It turned out they took from another periodical who made an error in copying it from a child advocacy hand out where it read “the number of children killed on the street by gunfire every year has doubled since 1954” , about the same growth as the population.
I didn’t need a calculator the see the problem. Perhaps dealing with large numbers majoring in physics made it easier for me because we did a lot of rounding. I know that 210 = 1,024, approximately 1,000 and each multiplier of 1,000 adds three more zeros giving me one trillion as a low-side estimate.
If they had a category this would certainly make the Guinness world record as the largest computational error. The young woman’s B+ was a lenient penalty for such a humongous error. But in science the penalty is often severe.
When faced with a small number of local cases of coronavirus, we tend to focus on that “small number” hoping it limits what any function applied to that small number, can do. In this case it doesn’t. The function tells us that it will double every three days. We know this won’t reach one trillion in four months (30 days = 10 doubles = 1,000 fold), but it can be in the millions. Of course “better late than never” mitigating factors can still make a huge difference.