Posts Tagged ‘Health’

Numbers, damned statistics and egg on journalists’ faces: cautionary tales

March 1, 2012

If you read a headline that eating a bacon sandwich a day increases your risk of cancer by 20%, that’s sounds bad. Not according to Tim Harford, columnist of the Financial Times.

At a seminar of the Reuters Institute in Oxford, he gave a hair-raising account of the pitfalls awaiting journalists tempted to use juicy statistics in news stories.

So what cancer was involved? It turned out to be bowel cancer. How many people get bowel cancer in the UK? Four in 100. So a 20% increase means five in 100. Is that so much different? Is the bacon sandwich factor significant? Hardly.

A British Prime Minister announced that his government would spend £300 million over five years on care for pre-school children. Seemed a lot. But divided by five, the amount each year was £60 million. Around one million pre-school children in the UK qualified, so that made £60 per child per year. Which was about 20 pence per day.

“Not much childcare to be bought for that,” notes Harford.

These are his tips for journalists dealing with numbers:
– Is it true?
– What’s really being said? Does the statistic exactly define what’s measured?
– What’s the bigger story – the context, the history, the period of time?

Mmm. After 50 minutes of his harrowing tales, I think I’ll avoid numbers altogether. I’m just going to look silly.

Swine flu or not swine flu?

June 20, 2009

I have been in England and for the last three days I had a sore throat, felt wretched, and had a sense of chills. So have I had swine flu? There have been cases reported not so far away.  But who could tell? I was not ill enough to bother a doctor, let alone report into some hospital for anti-virals or whatever. Most people suffering from this flu are said to have mild symptons.

So who is to know who has had it or not? The cases  reported in official statistics are said to be mostly mild. So surely the statistics wildly under-report the numbers. I have seen one estimate that 7% of Americans have already caught it. That’s about 20 million!

Maybe it is better to catch the mild summer version, since when it returns in the autumn and winter, it is likely to be stronger. Perhaps having a dose now will immunise me partly against another attack? In which case, why do health authorities go to such lengths isolating victims and pumping anti-virals into all their kith and kin? Could this even by counter-productive?

It would be nice if the WHO, instead of agonising over levels of pandemic, would offer a little more practical advice.

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