(Roughly) Daily

“Indeed, you won the elections, but I won the count”*…




“There’s nothing from the CDC that I can trust,” snapped US coronavirus task-force leader Deborah Birx at a White House meeting earlier this month. According to news reports, Birx was frustrated at the agency’s tally of coronavirus deaths, as she and colleagues worried that reported numbers were up to 25 percent too high. However, if some people inside the Beltway think the counts are inflated, others think they’re too low—and the seemingly simple task of tabulating bodies has become an intensely political act.

It’s a bizarre situation, because in some sense, there’s nothing more inherently impartial than a tally of objects. This is why the act of counting is the gateway from our subjective, messy world of confused half-truths into the objective, Platonic realm of indisputable facts and natural laws. Science almost always begins with counting, with figuring out how to measure or tabulate something in a consistent, reproducible way. Yet even that very first rung on the ladder to scientific understanding is slippery when the act of counting gets entangled with money or power…

With contested vote tallies, concerns over Census data, and now the Covid-19 death toll, 2020 may mark the ugly climax of a long dispute: “The Politics of Counting Things Is About to Explode.”

And for a case study in why the terrifically-difficult underlying mechanics of “counting” lend themselves to politicization, FiveThirtyEight’s “The Uncounted Dead.”

* Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, quoted in the Guardian (London), June 17, 1977


As we contemplate calculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the Dow Jones Average made its first appearance in the Customers’ Afternoon Letter, the precursor to the Wall Street Journal.  It was named for two of the Letter‘s three reporters, Charles Dow and Edward Jones. It was originally comprised of 12 companies (now 30).  Although it is one of the most commonly followed equity indices, many consider it to be an inadequate representation of the overall U.S. stock market compared to broader market indices such as the S&P 500 Index or Russell 3000 because the Dow only includes 30 large cap companies, is not weighted by market capitalization, and does not use a weighted arithmetic mean.


Historical (logarithmic) graph of the DJIA from 1896 to 2010



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