The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson doesn’t know how life expectancy works

So maybe take his frantic tirades about the coronavirus with a grain of salt

People walk past a promotion of Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the News Corp. building in New York on March 13, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
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Granted, Tucker Carlson is no stranger to hyperbole. But it is nonetheless worth noting an over-the-top assertion that he made during his Fox News show on Tuesday evening.

“This is the — I think, I honestly think is the greatest scandal of my lifetime by far,” he said with all of the expected breathlessness. “I thought the Iraq War was; this seems much bigger than that.”

The “this” at issue? That the government would “force people to take medicine they don’t want or need” — something that the government is not doing. That President Biden said a few hours earlier that public health professionals might go into communities to offer the coronavirus vaccine to those limited by time or mobility from seeking it out themselves was misinterpreted by commentators like Carlson to suggest that government patrols would soon be seizing people off the streets to inoculate them. This is ... not likely.

Carlson is by now deeply invested in the sort of anti-vaccine narrative that defenders of his network anxiously try to cast as not a central part of Fox’s coverage. He has repeatedly hosted vaccine skeptics and elevated far-right claims about the efficacy or risks of the vaccine. It’s his recognizable style: willfully or ignorantly misinterpreting information in an effort to alarm his viewers and, it often seems, himself.

On Tuesday night, though, he offered a very good reminder of why no one on God’s green Earth should rely on him for reliable information about the coronavirus pandemic or about covid-19, the disease the virus causes. Carlson thought he had a great gotcha, a rhetorical maneuver so sharp and so polished that he might dispatch the “coronavirus is a serious issue” dragon with one piercing thrust. What he actually had, though, was an opportunity to reveal how little he actually understands about public health.

“You spent so much time on TV, and in America more generally, throwing your opinions around, that sometimes it’s good to look at the numbers, the government numbers, and then you can make your decisions based on the data, as they say,” he began. “So we looked into coronavirus deaths: who’s dying and at what age, and we discovered something amazing.”

What was that amazing thing?

“The data show that the median age of death for covid is often older than life expectancy. For real,” he continued. “If you want to get a sense of just how completely they have hyped this virus, turning into something that the numbers show it is not, take a look at Ohio.”

There, he said, the life expectancy was 73, while the median age of those who died was 80.

“So people who died from covid were on average seven years older than the average age of people in Ohio at which they died!” he said triumphantly. Take that, doctors!

Now, look. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Carlson’s data here are right on the money. It’s not clear what follows from that. That the disease killed only those who were already beating the odds? That doesn’t seem like a good outcome. That these people were simply living on a knife’s edge and would have died at any instant anyway? That seems hard to defend. While he layered on the expected “any death is tragic” contextualizing, there’s an inescapable morbidity to this argument broadly: These people were going to die anyway! This is no big deal!

But, of course, Carlson is wrong. He apparently has no idea how life expectancy works.

We can look at national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, life expectancy overall was 78.7 years, with women being expected to live longer than men. A rough estimate of the average age of death for covid patients using CDC data puts that figure at around 76 years. It’s likely higher, but it doesn’t really matter. Regardless, it’s indicated on the chart below.

What’s important to remember, though, is that this is life expectancy at birth. The minute someone was born in 2018, they were expected to live to be about 79 years old. Not all of them would get that far, of course. Some would die earlier, often decades earlier. But, overall, that cohort of Americans would be expected to land at around 79 years.

For those who had already lived to be 65, though, their life expectancy wasn’t similarly 79. After all, they had successfully already made it through 65 years of life! So among that group, life expectancy wasn’t an additional 14 years but, instead, another 18. The older you get, the higher your life expectancy gets because you’ve already lived that long. Maybe once you hit, say, 100, your life expectancy dips into the days or hours. But because it’s a lot more likely that a 75-year-old will reach the age of 90 than it is that someone just born will, life expectancy continues to extend outward.

So for 75-year-olds, life expectancy in 2018 was an additional 12 years — meaning that an American who was that age in 2018 would be expected to live until 2030. Unless, of course, they contracted the coronavirus last year.

For anyone making decisions “based on the data, as they say,” there’s a surfeit of evidence about how covid-19 has truncated human lives. One study released in February estimates that had the pandemic not occurred, a cumulative 20.5 million additional years of human life would have been preserved, a function of the expected life spans of those who otherwise died. An estimate published last year put the toll in the United States alone at more than 1.2 million life-years. It’s not the case that those who died had already beaten the odds by seven years, the lucky devils. Instead, those who died might have been expected to cumulatively have spent another 14.5 million months on this planet.

It is also not the case that death is the only negative side effect of the virus. Many of those who have contracted the virus have experienced significant symptoms for an extended period of time. One study in the United Kingdom estimated that some 2 million people there had months-long bouts with the virus. That difficulty in overcoming the disease can “have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected,” the country’s health minister said last month.

It is the case, though, that those who are dying of the virus at this point — still several hundred a day — are almost entirely from the ranks of the unvaccinated. In Maryland, for example, every single person who died of covid-19 last month was someone who had not been vaccinated. But, you know, maybe they had already passed the life-expectancy-at-birth figure for the state, so no big deal.

Tucker Carlson is more interested in showing how much smarter he is than public-health experts and is more interested in getting his audience ginned up with outrage than he is in offering accurate information about the pandemic. That’s not the greatest scandal of my lifetime, but it is scandalous.