Fear, Uncertainty and the Land of Math

According to a recent poll, 99% of Americans are aware of the coronavirus and Covid-19. This is pretty much the highest percentage of Americans that has ever been aware of anything, though 9/11 comes close.

The poll result does not mean that all of the 99% is equally aware or that they are all having the same response. There are good reasons for this.

A lot of math is involved in predicting the progress of the pandemic and many people run in the opposite direction when they see the first number. They run faster when the numbers are part of equations.

Worse, some of the numbers are estimates that can be ignored if they don’t fit in to our pre-existing mindset.

Worse still, compounding can be counterintuitive. If the cases double every three days, there will be more than 1000 (1024 to be exact) times as many cases one month later. Today, there are 5894 cases in the United States. If the number doubles every three days, there will be more than 6,000,000 cases when you file your tax return. If you are three days late, the number will be 12,000,000.

The point of this story is not to walk you through the math of epidemiology, it is to shed some light on why others might not agree with your opinion (whatever it is) on the seriousness of the situation.

The picture at the top is well known to entrepreneurs. It depicts the diffusion of innovation.

Imagine you come up with a new idea like a cell phone or email or a wearable health and fitness monitor. Do you try to sell it to everyone, or do you focus on different groups in a specific order?

Way back in the 1960’s, business school researchers learned that new ideas will first be sold to a tiny percentage of innovators, then to a larger group of early adopters and so on as shown in the chart.

If you know a Tesla owner, he is an innovator and he is part of only 2.5% of the population that always wants the newest thing. If you know someone who does not own a cellphone, he is a laggard who is in the last 16% of the population to do anything new.

Coming to grips with a pandemic is sort of the same. The seriousness of the situation needs to be “sold” to innovators, early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and the laggards in that order and with different sales techniques.

The challenge is that everyone has to get on board quickly or we won’t contain the problem. Maybe the innovators and early adopters would do well to join in the effort to convince the late majority and the laggards?

It might not be possible to mobilize such an effort, but the diffusion of innovation curve might help you to understand why others take the coronavirus more or less seriously than you do.

11 Responses to “Fear, Uncertainty and the Land of Math”

Carter lotd, March 17, 2020 at 8:31 pm said:



I cant believe it. Way to go


Mike Moore, March 17, 2020 at 8:47 pm said:

Hard for innovators and early adopters to convince the late majority and laggards that there is a problem when facts and science are regularly under assault. We’ve always had differences of opinion in society. But we are likely at an all time high when it comes to a different set of standards for the truth. Pleased to see that some have gotten right with God on this over the last week. But damn the price that we are going to pay as a society and as an economy is going to be massive. As it turns out, facts do matter. We are just now discovering how much.


Haven Pell, March 18, 2020 at 3:06 pm said:

changing public opinion is not easy especially, as you suggest, when there are opponents.


Helen Stovell, March 17, 2020 at 9:35 pm said:

The problem is the 18-24 year olds who haven’t been persuaded of the importance of their own ‘social distancing’.
I was shocked to return to the US today wearing a mask and gloves, to find in Fairfield County, CT, that the young seem to be unaware of the importance of the CDC recommendations and take no precautions in terms of masks, gloves and social distancing in shops that sell food. In fact, the store managers are equally unaware. It’s scary. A boy from Senegal told me, “C’est pas la fin du monde”. No big deal to their generation, so they spread he disease which will overwhelm the hospital system. HS


Haven Pell, March 18, 2020 at 3:04 pm said:

There are many examples of people who don’t think the rules apply to them.


Mac Norton, March 18, 2020 at 12:20 pm said:

An interesting way to think about, and approach, the problem. I hope your analysis is widely circulated.


Haven Pell, March 18, 2020 at 3:03 pm said:

Thank you Mac. Send it around to anyone you think might do so.


Julie, March 19, 2020 at 1:46 pm said:

Love the graphic and the explanation. I’m an early adopter. I used logic/statistics and my siblings to convince my father (a laggard and at high risk of dying if he catches COVID-19) to stay home. Thanks!


Haven Pell, March 19, 2020 at 6:24 pm said:

he is not the only one to be well advised by his children


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *