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The mathematical errors that make us misunderstand the true danger of the coronavirus

Mathematical errors, such as not knowing how to correctly decipher the value of a fraction, can lead us to underestimate the real threat of the new coronavirus

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Mathematics is not an opinion. An affirmation that in itself can make us approach the world of calculations with extreme caution, and that sometimes feeds us feelings of anxiety or even hatred . So much so that for some, putting aside limits, integrals and derivatives, even simple fractions can become a real nightmare. The aversion that many people have for mathematics , especially in a historical moment like this, could misrepresent the reality of the facts. And, in particular, let us misunderstand and underestimate how dangerous the pandemic of the new coronavirus is, both for our health than for the society in which we live.

To emphasize this issue on the pages of The Conversation were Clarissa Thompson and Pooja Sidney, two psychologists experienced in the field of mathematical cognition, that is, they study how and how much people of all ages know about this discipline. One of the most common mistakes we make, say the two experts, concerns our propensity for whole numbers , even in the world of hamlets. “Based on data and reports on the pandemic of the new coronavirus “, explain the two, “we wonder if this common misunderstanding could induce people to underestimate the risks of themselves and others associated with Covid – 19 “.

But let's start from the basics. The fractions are composed of two parts: the numerator, for example, the 3 in the fraction ¾, and the denominator, which in this case is 4. The mistake, explain the two experts, occurs when people automatically think of the numerators and denominators of the fractions as whole numbers. For example, one might mistakenly believe that 1 / 14 is less than 1 / 15 why 14 is less than 15. In other words, everything known about integers applies to all other numbers, including fractions: pay attention for example to only one part of the fraction, rather than considering the whole ratio , or only the denominators are compared.

When it comes to health statistics, misinterpreting the value of numbers can lead to negative consequences, such as underestimating mortality from Covid – 19 . At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, some suggested that the flu was more lethal than the new coronavirus (the president of the United States himself Donald Trump said it over and over again). But focusing on the total number of deaths or the number of infected people rather than on proportions and relationships, experts say, is a mistake. Another recent example, they add, was when Trump claimed that the United States has tested multiple people for Covid – 19 than anywhere else of the world. And although it may be true in terms of absolute numbers, the calculation does not take into account the size and density of the population of other countries.

To understand the real risk of the new coronavirus , the researchers conclude, the most correct way is to compare the number of deaths with the total number of people positive . So, compare this lethality rate with the lethality rates of other more familiar diseases, such as influenza. But here too we must be careful and keep in mind that for now it is rather complicated to know the real number of people infected with the new coronavirus , both because the numbers change every day both because the number of swabs is limited and many positive people have not been identified or diagnosed promptly (not to mention the army of the asymptomatic ). In short, let's remember that with numbers you have to know how to do it in order not to reach hasty conclusions.

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