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current events death mathematics numbers politics probability science statistics trust

Why Stories Circulate about Covid-19 Deaths

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I’ve seen several posts on Facebook claiming that deaths of relatives or friends have been falsely attributed to covid-19 when in fact they were due to some other cause. These anecdotes represent a misunderstanding of the way statistics work and how data for statistics is collected. Of course, researchers want as accurate a count as possible for the number of deaths caused by Covid-19. But that kind of accuracy is harder than it sounds.

At first researchers were counting only deaths where the person who died had tested positive for Covid-19. They soon realized however, that they were under-counting the number of Covid-19 deaths. How did they realize that? They knew what the death rate in a particular place was prior to the pandemic. For example, if a city typically had 1,000 deaths in 30 days, and suddenly the number jumps to 3,000 but only 1,500 of those were due to patients who tested positive for Covid-19, then that left 500 deaths unaccounted for. So researchers decided to broaden the criteria for recording deaths as attributable to Covid-19. They decided to included deaths where symptoms were similar to those caused by Covid-19. They also included deaths even when the patient tested negative.

Why would someone who tested negative for covid-19 still be listed as a victim of it? Testing is not 100% accurate. Data on accuracy of the most widely used Covid-19 test is not publicly available, but some estimates range as high as 30% for false negatives, meaning that 3 out of 10 people who test negative for the disease actually have it. Even with a test that is 100% accurate under ideal conditions, real-world conditions can skew results. Many conditions can affect the amount of virus in a specimen collected by a swab. The most widely used test has close to a 100% accuracy for positive results, the the accuracy for negative results is uncertain and can vary depending on many factors. This is why some people who have died after testing negative for covid-19 are nevertheless listed as victims of covid-19. As long as they had symptoms consistent with the infection, they might very well have covid-19 listed on their death certificate. Of course, casting a broader net for data also means that there will be instances of people being listed as having died from covid-19 who actually died of other causes. Researchers make every effort to ensure this does not happen, but no procedure is foolproof. However, if the number of deaths identified as having been caused by Covid-19 matches the uptick in deaths overall, then it’s a pretty safe assumption that the data is pretty clean.

Because many people are suspicious of our government or the media or liberal elites—none of which are actually sufficiently monolithic to carry off a genuine conspiracy—and of expert authority in general, these types of stories gain currency on social media. Some may be true, but they usually do not contain sufficient detail to validate them. Even if they are true, they are generally offered by people who are not experts in determining cause of death.

So before you share one of these anecdotes about a suspicious Covid-19 death, consider not just whether it is true, but also whether it undermines the very institutions we have put in place to help us deal with infectious disease epidemics. While there are plenty of politicians ready to make hay out of crisis events, the experts and researchers who do the actual work genuinely care about producing good quality studies that advance our understanding of the virus and how it spreads. They are not out to get you.

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Christians current events guilt jesus kindness love persecution poverty punishment religion righteousness Satan sin spiritual life suffering theology

Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him….”

John 9:3

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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abuse of power current events injustice law politics

More Thoughts on the Mueller Report

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Robert Mueller was in a quandary. On the one hand, qualified legal opinion prevented him from prosecuting a sitting President for criminal acts. On the other hand, his investigation had uncovered compelling and substantial evidence that the President had sought to obstruct justice and tamper with witnesses in multiple federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Even determining that a crime had been committed could potentially weaken a future case against the President because it could be argued that the President was unfairly slandered when there was no official venue for him to clear his name or defend his integrity. Mueller therefore did the only thing he could do. He reported the facts and evidence in his investigation into obstruction of justice by the President without drawing a conclusion about whether his actions constitute a crime.

Mueller offers four reasons for conducting a thorough investigation without prosecuting the President or even determining whether he committed crimes.

  1. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Justice Department issued an opinion that a sitting President could not be prosecuted because it would undermine his ability to fulfill the duties of his office. Since Mueller’s investigation was for the Department of Justice, he chose to abide by that opinion. The Constitutional duty of determining whether the President committed crimes and prosecuting them falls on the Congress, with the House of Representatives bringing articles of impeachment and the Senate acting as a judicial body for the trial.
  2. The OLC’s opinion still permits an investigation, and Mueller had broad authority under the Department of Justice to pursue his investigation wherever the evidence might lead. Since the OLC’s opinion applies only to a sitting President, charges may still be brought once he is no longer in office. A thorough and comprehensive investigation now preserves the evidence for later prosecution. This gives new meaning to Trump’s reiterated wishes that he might be President for life.
  3. Since no charges could be brought, it would have been unfair to determine that the President had committed a crime. Under normal circumstances, prosecution and public trial provides an opportunity for the person accused of a crime to explain their actions and present exculpatory evidence. The courts have held, for example, that naming persons in an indictment without also charging them violates their right to clear their name in a public trial.
  4. Despite being unable to bring charges or determine that a crime was committed, the investigation was unable to find that the President did not commit obstruction of justice. If they had, they would have said so. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The facts and evidence presented in volume 2 of the report show that the President repeatedly and consistently sought to interfere both in the FBI’s investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election and in the special counsel’s subsequent investigation. He sought to influence FBI Director Comey’s conduct of the FBI’s investigation, eventually firing him because he could not obtain the result he sought. He also sought to curtail the Mueller investigation and urged witnesses to lie to investigators. The evidence is substantial and well-documented. The President even made public statements about his intentions.

The case against the President is serious and substantial. Charges stemming from it—if they are ever filed—would constitute federal felonies. Some members of Trump’s campaign and administration have already been charged with similar crimes and pleaded guilty or been convicted. Some are currently serving terms in federal prison. The question still to be decided is, “What are we, the People, going to do about the President?”

For many Trump supporters, of course, none of this makes any difference. They have already doubled-down on their support for him so many times that they are now blind and deaf to any fresh allegations of crimes he may have committed. It is all a conspiracy by the deep state. Even a cursory examination of Robert Mueller and his investigation, however, shows that such ideas are utterly unfounded. It would be hard to find a man of greater integrity in the conduct of his office. His investigation was thorough, painstaking, and by the book. If you have any doubts, read his report. Of all men living, only Trump could slander Mueller and be widely believed.

For the rest of us, our elected representatives in Congress have been handed a detailed case for impeachment. The only impediment to starting impeachment proceedings is political. Democrats have both a hope and a fear. They hope to win enough Senate seats for a majority in the Senate. They fear that impeachment proceedings could sway the election next November in Republicans’ favor. They might also be holding impeachment in reserve in case Trump wins a second term. If he does not win, he very probably will face charges in federal court. There will be no opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel to hold back federal attorneys from prosecuting him.

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