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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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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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abuse of power America current events politics quick thoughts

Thoughts on The Mueller Report

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I’ve been reading The Mueller Report about the investigation into matters related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. There are two volumes. Volume 1 deals with crimes related to Russian interference in our elections. It details incidents and evidence that supports charges against various individuals and entities for tampering with our elections. None of those charged are Americans or members of President Trump’s campaign or administration. It also deals with incidents and evidence of crimes discovered in the course of the investigation, in particular lying to Congress and lying to the FBI concerning an ongoing investigation. Several members of Trump’s campaign and administration were charged. Nevertheless, the investigation did not find evidence of collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russian-backed organizations or individuals who interfered in our elections. There were a couple of questionable incidents, but it was not clear that any laws were violated.

Volume 2, which I have not yet finished, deals with the President’s efforts to end the investigation. I will need more time to discuss it, so I will only say now that it does not exonerate the President. Far from it.

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