This is not the first time this fallacy has appeared even when it comes to just the area of COVID-19. This paper from Cornell University researchers showed how public health officials compared results in a large-scale study from China to early results from the outbreak in Italy, and came up with what seem to be utterly impossible results: Case fatality rates in Italy were lower for every age group, but higher overall. How is that possible?
It’s possible because the first set of results—deaths as a percentage of each age group—doesn’t acknowledge that Italy has a lot more elderly patients. So even though a smaller percentage of each age group was dying, Italy’s population was more heavily weighted toward older patients, resulting in a higher rate of overall deaths.
What happened with the article that Leonhardt wrote—and which I blindly imitated—on June 9, was the inverse of this issue. The overall rate of deaths for white Americans is higher specifically because more white Americans are older. In every age bracket, the death rate among Black Americans was, and is, higher than that of white Americans. Because Black Americans consistently have lower access to health care and get lower-quality care. Even vaccine denial and mask rejection—primarily by Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white—have not overcome that difference.
To be fair, several Daily Kos readers left comments on that original article suggesting exactly this: That age or other demographic factors were responsible for this supposed “shift.” But in spite of those warnings, as someone who took biostatistics, geostatistics, and two years of plain vanilla statistics before taking a job where my primary task for over a decade was sniffing out the critical statistics for job processes, I charged right in and … was absolutely wrong.
Dividing any statistic into groups by an arbitrary factor like race may generate the discovery of valuable correlations and insights. It may also generate false narratives, especially when the numbers are split up without regard to other demographics.
This article was incorrect on its core assumptions. You have a right to expect better. Apologies.