Information without context is not merely useless, it can be dangerous. Context is the landscape that yields the perspective by which we can make an informed judgment. For example, if you are told your cholesterol is 150 without also telling you what the normal range is, what the known error of the test is, and what your previous values were then it is impossible to know whether this news is of concern or not. Without context we humans are predisposed evolutionarily to assume the worst; those with a heightened predilection for caution in the bush tend to pass on their genes. However in the modern era this instinct can be a counterproductive. Making a decision without relevant information is as bad as making a decision with completely wrong information. If you just learned that you have a tumor in your foot and your first instinct is to amputate your entire leg “just to be safe” you might argue this is the prudent thing to do. But if you later learn such tumors are easily treatable and rarely fatal then that would seriously call into question the rationality of an amputation. As a country we have similarly overreacted amidst an ocean of information lacking any sort of context: we have burned our house down to rid ourselves of termites. The response has been disproportionate to the risk precisely because the media has failed to provide the proper context to evaluate the risk relative to the costs. This lack of context has caused people’s imaginations to run rampant to the point where normal healthy people literally believe their life is in imminent danger if they step outside maskless.
How did we get here? The rise of the Internet has fostered an environment where news media competition has become cutthroat. The Internet has removed the normal barriers needed to produce and distribute news content thereby opening the floodgates of competition for a fixed pot of ad revenue. This has altered the reporting incentives in a way where engagement and sensationalism are valued over dispassionate objective reporting. To build a more loyal audience many news organizations have opted to narrow rather than broaden their appeal (a plant with few but deep roots will endure drought over one with many but shallow). They have found by focusing on content with a particular political bent they can maintain a stronger audience connection. In short the news has become extremely biased and sensationalized. This shift has created a fertile soil in which those with a personal political agenda may flourish. This shift in in the news landscape has given rise to a style of reporting known as “factual… but not truthful” otherwise known as “fake news.” It’s not fake because it’s a flat out lie, rather it is “fake” because while being factually true it omits certain other crucial facts – facts that give the story the proper context needed to get the whole picture. Not volunteering information is not “lying” so if caught in their subterfuge they can plausibly hand wave it away as a simple “mistake” or “oversight”.
A fanciful example would be “Local shop owner refuses to sell food to the hungry!” – this would be factually true, however the story would omit the additional pertinent detail that the store went out of business due to bankruptcy. So the reader is left with the belief that the storeowner is a heartless jerk. If the narrative of the story reinforces the reader’s preconceptions about the storeowner then it would never even occur to them to question the story. This is a common tactic to impugn a political opponent; report words out of context, often omitting a follow up sentence that completely contradicts what the report is trying to imply from the quote.
This same level of “factual but not truthful” reporting has infected nearly all of the corporate media’s reporting on the Covid pandemic. As a result Americans are dramatically overestimating their risk of death. A recent survey revealed that people believe those aged 44 and younger account for 30% of deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%. Further, Americans overestimated the risk of death for those under 24 by 50-fold. As of August 15 a scant 320 people aged 24 and below have died from Covid-19 in the US. The cumulative risk for that group is 1 death per 322,000 which is on par with the one-year odds of dying from drowning. “Oh but they could spread it to the teachers!” Ok. Some more context. Those aged 25-64 have a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying from Covid – this is on par with the risk of dying in your vehicle on the way to work (1 in 8,303 per year). Perhaps a more useful exercise would be the following: imagine there are 5,000 doors lined up and you have one chance to open the correct door to reveal the grand prize. When considered in terms of something desired (the prize) this seems almost hopeless, right? But curiously if we merely flip from prize to punishment (death) we suddenly feel like it’s almost certain we will pick the wrong door on the first try. This sort of irrational thinking yields these absurd egocentric displays of “die ins” by teachers at various schools and universities. Their risk of dying from Covid is no greater than their risk of dying while driving to and from work. And since masks “work” I can’t imagine what they are concerned about.
Even though the young face almost no risk from Covid there is a much deadlier threat wending their way if we do not stay committed to returning to normal as quickly as possible. One would think if there were a looming threat that might kill hundreds of thousands of young people this would be headlining making news. Instead we get crickets. To what do I refer? The CDC recently reported that in the past 1 month an astounding 25% of respondents aged 18-24 reported seriously considering suicide. To put that in context, the normal range is 7-11% — considered over the past 12 months. For those aged 45-64 the number was only 3.8%. Clearly those who are making policy are hardly bothered by it as they blithely ignore their own children who are powerless to reverse this insane course. Even if 1% followed through on their thoughts it would be over one hundred thousand of our youth dead. When compared to fewer than 300 deaths to date for that same cohort the choice becomes clear: resume normal lives for our youth without delay. No more threats of shutting down school. No more social distancing. No more masks. No more online classes. Childhood years are a precious resource that the adults are looting from the children and squandering in a futile attempt to eradicate this virus. For shame.