The difference between data and information (19 March COVID Notes)

When looking at articles about any subject, but especially science topics, you have to appreciate the difference between data and information.  For example, people are freaking out about articles like this one that are saying the SARS-COV-2 virus (the beast that causes COVID19) can survive “for hours or days” in the air or on surfaces.  That is “data”.  But what does in mean to you, practically?  How is this different from other virus like influenza? That would be information. So let’s convert that data point into information …

To start with, let’s be clear it doesn’t mean anything different from the standpoint of guidelines:  your best bet as to what to do is  the CDC COVID-19 web site. For other preparation tips, try the DHS/FEMA site. By now you should know the drill: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, social distancing, just stay home and isolate if you don’t feel good. Help those around you as needed.

OK, so SARS-COV-2 can survive in airborne droplets for a few hours, and on surfaces for a few days in a controlled environment.  How is that different from the cold or flu?  Well … it isn’t.  The influenza virus can remain infectious for several days on things like doorknobs. The viruses that cause the common cold (and recall 20% of them are in the coronavirus family) can be viable for over a week, even longer.  To quote from NIH (who funded the study):

The findings affirm the guidance from public health professionals to use precautions similar to those for influenza and other respiratory viruses to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 …

These kinds of studies are important for practitioners to assess the guidelines and see if anything needs to be changed. However, reporters have a responsibility to put that data into context so it becomes information.  Sadly, they often don’t, or do it “below the fold” so they grab the attention of readers (ZOMG! Its Lives!) but people don’t see the context (oh, it’s just like other viruses).

In summary, for cold and flu and, now, COVID19 season, just follow Sgt Apone’s advice and you’ll be ok …

One thought on “The difference between data and information (19 March COVID Notes)

  1. To quote Frank Zappa (who may have been quoting Einstein), “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom…” Thanks, Chuck, for all that you do.

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