Here’s the 2020 update of a series I started in 2013. This year, after the basic facts, I’ll add some pandemic facts below.
Is it true that “facts are useless in an emergency“? I guess we’ll find out this year. Knowing basic demographic facts, and how to do arithmetic, lets us ballpark the claims we are exposed to all the time. The idea is to get your radar tuned to identify falsehoods as efficiently as possible, to prevent them spreading and contaminating reality. Although I grew up on “facts are lazy and facts are late,” I actually still believe in this mission, I just shake my head slowly while I ramble on about it (and tell the same stories over and over).
It started a few years ago with the idea that the undergraduate students in my class should know the size of the US population. Not to exaggerate the problem, but too many of them don’t, at least when they reach my sophomore level family sociology class. If you don’t know that fact, how can you interpret statements like, “The U.S. economy lost a record 20.5 million jobs in April“?
Everyone likes a number that appears to support their perspective. But that’s no way to run (or change) a society. The trick is to know the facts before you create or evaluate an argument, and for that you need some foundational demographic knowledge. This list of facts you should know is just a prompt to get started in that direction.
These are demographic facts you need just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed — or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I test the undergraduates, I give them credit if they are within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 264 million and 396 million!).
This is only a few dozen facts, not exhaustive but they belong on any top-100 list. Feel free to add your facts in the comments (as per policy, first-time commenters are moderated). They are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:
COVID-19 Addendum: 21 more facts
The pandemic is changing everything. A lot of the numbers above may look different next year. Here are 21 basic pandemic facts to keep in mind — again, the point is to get a sense of scale, to inform your consumption of the daily flow of information (and disinformation). These are changing, too, but they are current as of August 31, 2020.
Global confirmed COVID-19 cases: 25 million
Confirmed US COVID-19 cases: 6 million
Second most COVID-19 cases: Brazil, 3.9 million
Third most COVID-19 cases: India, 3.6 million
Global confirmed COVID-19 deaths: 850,000
Confirmed US COVID-19 deaths: 183,000
Second most COVID-19 deaths: Brazil, 121, 000
Third most COVID-19 deaths: India: 65,000
Percent of U.S. COVID patients who have died: 3%
COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Americans: 50
COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 non-Hispanic Whites: 43
COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Blacks: 81
COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Hispanics: 55
COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Americans over age 65: 400
Annual deaths in the U.S. (these are for 2017): Total, 2.8 million
Leading cause of death: Heart disease, 650,000
Second leading cause: Cancer: 600,000
Third leading cause: Accidents: 160,000
Deaths from flu and pneumonia, 56,000
Deaths from suicide: 47,000
Deaths from homicide: 20,000
COVID-19 country data: Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center
U.S. cause of death data: Centers for Disease Control
U.S. age and race/ethnicity COVID-19 death data: Centers for Disease Control
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