The Mystery of All the Covid Cases: Why Complexity Breeds Conspiracy

The Mystery of All the Covid Cases: Why Complexity Breeds Conspiracy

A covid-19 conspiracy theory shines a spotlight on the data literacy divide. It’s not unreasonable to note the uncanniness of the search results (try it if you haven’t).

There’s an idea circulating since early summer claiming that a Google search for any three-digit number followed by “new cases” will yield recent headlines with that exact number of new covid cases. The implication is that it’s so improbable to have every three-digit number represented in recent headlines of new coronavirus case reports that only a conspiracy of media companies could make it happen, presumably with the goal of spreading fear by providing a headline for any search of a specific number of cases.

It’s not unreasonable to note the uncanniness of the search results (try it if you haven’t). Even mathematically inclined friends, after reluctantly admitting that the phenomena is a little strange, had to resort to calculations to reinforce their sense that complete coverage of the three-digit case space was indeed possible. So it’s not surprising that many people have taken this phenomena as evidence of secret coordination by a few powerful players in government or media companies. I was skeptical of any conspiracy but couldn’t offer any intuitive explanation aside from the glib recap of the law of large numbers (aka the smart person’s conspiracy theory). I had to scratch my head and work out some code to see the what likelihood of complete coverage up to 999 would be if the number of new cases reported were essentially random (results below).

data-science covid19 conspiracy-theories data analysis

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