Here are two representations of the horror of this pandemic.
First, a graph of coronavirus deaths in Italy.
Second, the obituary page of a newspaper in the Italian city of Bergamo, first from February 9 and later from March 13.
Bergamo daily newspaper pic.twitter.com/N3ECABz8dr— David Carretta (@davcarretta) March 14, 2020
Both of these are only representations of this pandemic. They point at its horror, but they aren’t the horror itself. They reveal and conceal different aspects of the horror.
For example, I can take the second derivative of the graph of deaths and notice that while the deaths are increasing every day, the rate of increase is decreasing. The situation is getting worse, but the getting worse-ness is slowing down.
I cannot take the second derivative of an obituary page.
But the graph anesthetizes me to the horror of this pandemic in a way that the obituaries do not. The graph takes individual people and turns them into groups of people and turns those groups of people and their suffering into columns on a screen or page.
Meanwhile, the obituaries put in the foreground the people, their suffering, and their bereaved.
Math has prepared me poorly for this pandemic–or at least a particular kind of math, the kind that sees mass death as an opportunity to work with graphs and derivatives.
For students, it has never been more necessary to move flexibly and quickly between concrete and abstract representations–to acquire the power of the graph without becoming anesthetized to the horror that’s represented much more poignantly by the obituaries.
For teachers, there has never been a more important time to look at points, graphs, tables, equations, and numbers, and to ask students, “What does this mean?” and particularly now, “Who is this?”
Two relevant quotes here.
- “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin.
- “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” Paul Brodeur, quoted in Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies.
2020 Apr 10
Another example. It’s one thing to see a graph of unemployment, and another to see the lines for the food bank.
This is what I saw. Blistering heat. Folks in line since 7pm the night before. To get food. Hundreds of volunteers busting it to serve, so families could go home (probably to pass some out to their neighbors too) & get the nourishment they need.— Robert R. Fike (@robfike) April 9, 2020
This is the COVID-19 Crisis. pic.twitter.com/CL8Be0wNwI
I have worked for the Star Tribune for nearly 29 years and have never seen 11 pages of paid obituaries in our Sunday paper. Stunning.— Scott Gillespie (@stribgillespie) May 3, 2020
2020 May 25
The front page of The New York Times for May 24, 2020 pic.twitter.com/d14JhFp4CP— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 24, 2020
Sympathy card section in Walgreens today. pic.twitter.com/XfGo5bO1g9— Victoria Weinstein (@peacebang) May 25, 2020