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Statistics and popularity

by Trevor Moore

When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.

William Gibson (Zero History)

We are being bombarded with statistics and, as I observed in an earlier article, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. I commented in a recent tweet on Twitter that politicians are past masters at the first two but that they can dig holes for themselves when they try and use statistics. It was Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) who said “one swallow does not a summer make.” And the latest set of numbers in a trend do not necessarily tell you anything about the trend.

Morrison was pleased to tell us (though his breathing was noticeably laboured) over the weekend that the COVID19 numbers were trending down. What he was referring to were the numbers of extra cases per day over the previous few days. Here is a graph that shows those numbers over the 7 days to 31 March 2020. Beside it, on the right, is a chart that shows that same data but over 14 days. Here it looks like things are getting better but the trend is still upward though it looks like things are getting better … better being a relative term … but there are some things to be cautious about.



The World Health Organization (WHO) reports an incubation period for COVID-19 of between 2 and 10 days with outliers of up to 27 days. So, the numbers being recorded today are the result of events that occurred a week or so ago. On the one hand that means we should be sceptical of the numbers but on the other hand one could hypothesise that indeed things are getting better. But in a communications blunder, in my opinion, Morrison starts by saying that things seem to be getting better and then imposes more draconian constraints on social contact. You can’t have it both ways. The only interpretation of the data that it is safe to make at present is that we are still on an exponential curve. There is no statistical evidence that the curve is flattening; there is not enough data. Here is a chart showing the Australian cases with the corresponding line for the logarithm of the cases. You cannot draw any conclusions from these.



You also have to bear in mind that we only know about the cases we have found. The group of people who have been tested have not been selected at random. We do not actually know what the incidence COVID19 might be in the general population. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested today (1 April 2020) that up to 1 in 4 people with COVID19 show no symptoms so would never present for a test and be missed in the statistics.


So, while Morrison was right to talk about tighter constraints, he was poorly advised to suggest that things might be on the turn; they might be, but they might not be. But you do have to feel sorry for the man. He is not a brilliant leader, and neither is he a mighty intellect. Those are problems when you are trying to deal with a dysfunctional system of government such as the one that the Founding Fathers of the Commonwealth of Australia left us when they drafted the Constitution. The disaster of the Ruby Princess is evidence of that.

There are, of course, many statistics that politicians keep an eye on for good news. One such set of statistics are those found in the opinion polls that typically ask voters who they trust and whether they are satisfied with their leaders. Now Morrison’s inadequacies in relation to the Bush Fires were reflected in the Newspoll results of February 2020 but recovered slightly in the last set of results (two weeks ago so be careful, things may have changed) earlier this month. His net approval rating had risen to 41% and his net disapproval rating was at 49%. This is pretty miserable compared with other figures. Two such figures spring to mind.


One is Neville Chamberlain who was Prime Minister of Great Britain in the years leading up to, and just beyond, the start of the Second World War. In September 1939, public opinion polls showed that Chamberlain's popularity was 55 per cent. By December it had increased to 68 per cent. It would seem that the general public saw him as the man who could negotiate Britain out of the war. By May 1940 his approval rating had dropped to 32.75% and soon he was gone. Just after Churchill tool over his approval rating was 87.36 %. In late 1944 Churchill’s approval rating was still very high at 89.25% but in the 1945 general election they kicked him out. Only 36.2% voted Conservative while 47.7% voted Labour. So, a high approval rating is not a passport to greater glory.

Donald Trump, a man who seems only to take his foot out of his mouth so that he can put the other one in, manages to do better than Morrison. He has seen a small upward trend in his approval rating, in surveys released this week by Gallup (49 percent), Fox (48 percent), Monmouth University (46 percent) and Pew (45 percent). I suspect Morrison would be pleased with any of these numbers.

But the king of the polls at present has to be Boris Johnson. According to Bloomberg 72% of eligible voters are satisfied with Johnson’s performance as Prime Minister, with 25% dissatisfied. There has been speculation that he has surged (that’s a great journalistic word that means “improved slightly”) in the polls because he tested positive for COVID19. I hesitate to draw the obvious conclusion in regard to Morrison – or even Trump.

We live politically, diplomatically and militarily, in a strange Anglo-Saxon centric world that consists of the three nations above (Australia, the UK and the USA), New Zealand and Canada. These are the so-called “Five Eyes” nations and apparently, we are very friendly with them. In New Zealand a poll by Roy Morgan found that “Jacinda Ardern was rated as having the highest ‘Net Trust Score’ of all political leaders – meaning the ‘Trust’ felt toward the New Zealand leader far outweighs the ‘Distrust’.”

Unfortunately for Scott Morrison “he is the most prominent Australian political leader with a ‘Net Distrust Score’ with more feeling ‘Distrust’ towards the PM than ‘Trust’.” In Canada, just to round out the five nations, Trudeau has faced some significant political problems recently. An Ipsos poll found that “four in ten (40%) Canadians now approve (7% strongly/33% somewhat) of the performance of the Liberal government under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, down 3 points since last week and down 5 points since the election”. So, about the same as Morrison … and Trudeau has had some BIG problems.

Boris, then, is the role model for approval ratings.

But, then, it’s all only statistics and perhaps these results are not even statistics. Perhaps they are lies, or even damned lies. Or perhaps even fake news.

We will not know if the curve is flattening for three or four weeks. And even then, we do not know what the tail might look like. Wash your hands. Keep your distance … … do whatever it says on the Federal Government Health Website. And if you aren’t already doing it, then you better start now.

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