Statisticians are Saving Us

This month is Mathematics and Statistics Appreciation Month. What a coincidence! It is statisticians after all who created the curve we are trying to flatten. They are putting in long hours, sleeping in their offices next to their supercomputers. Their data will guide governors in decisions moving forward. The statistical modeling they produce is about all we have to go by in making these decisions with their enormous consequences.

While many people now are trying to follow the data, it takes great knowledge, experience, and self-discipline to accurately interpret that data. Statisticians need to be objective. It is not fair to call this cold, rather, it is honest. It is about integrity, the integrity of the data and the integrity of the interpretation. The rest of us will see in the data what we want to see or see what we fear.

Because of this, statisticians are also subject to coercion from the politicians and people they work for who want a certain outcome. So, their work also takes courage, as they may be the bearers of bad news that conflicts with people’s agendas.

One knock on statistical modeling is that it does not produce certainty. It only produces probability. This knock was recently used to justify not lowering the emission standards for smoot. This response is either a dishonest excuse or it is based on ignorance.

Statisticians and mathematicians got people to the moon and back through probability, not certainty. Major decisions on Wall Street and in corporate America are based on probabilities. Computer simulation speeds up development of new drugs even though it produces probability, not certainty. And on and on. If we aren’t comfortable with probability, we are severely impaired and should not be making major decisions.

So, let us add mathematicians and statisticians to our list of COVID-19 heroes. They are saving lives. Their work is taxing on them and their families. But like front line workers, they love what they do, and they love being of service. They also love being acknowledged and appreciated, just like the rest of us.

With the central role they are playing in the war on COVID-19, maybe now we can allow statisticians to shape other vital decisions that impact the environment, instead of wasting their good work by allowing greed and indifference to prevail as they have.

They Care for Our Dead

Have you seen the footage of people caring for the COVID dead? We have been good about naming the heroes in this pandemic and recognizing the enormous sacrifice and horrible trauma they are experiencing. What I don’t see mentioned, though, on the list of those to thank are those who care for the dead bodies. These people don’t save lives, so they are not heroes, I suppose. But their service is essential and it is numbingly traumatic.

In many locations in the world, they deal with hundreds of dead bodies a day. It is very akin to war where the casualties are heavy.  Like the military personnel who have loaded and unloaded cargo planes full of body bags and coffins. In many cases, the dead are being buried in mass graves for safety reasons or are being incinerated.

They might wonder who the people are whose bodies they have responsibility for. Some of these dead are heroes who gave their lives fighting the pandemic. Some are victims of chance exposure or exposure they could not avoid. Some are victims of their own reckless behavior or the reckless behavior of others that exposed them to the deadly virus. The virus got them all.

Unlike medical personnel and first responders, those who care for the bodies of our neighbors, friends and family had no opportunity to get to know the people whose bodies they tend to. No bonding. No sense of the context of their lives. They don’t know who is in the body bag, who is in the coffin. All of the body bags, boxes and coffins are the same. And yet, these dead are not mere statistics. Bodies are heavy, Statistics are not.

It seems that being a grave digger has always been a lowly job. Upstanding people did not associate with them. Yet, these were and are the people who bury those with no money, no known relatives or associates. Without knowing their names or where they came from, grave diggers give them a home, just as they do for those with large monuments.

Let’s name those who deal with the dead bodies among the people we lift up for our thanks and for our blessing. They are servants of our communities.