Some thoughts on statistics while I get round to writing some more reviews …
Short people at 50% higher risk of heart problems
The Internet is full of such mind-blowing statements, often culled from newspapers where a day later they would normally have died the death of all spurious pseudo-news, but now are immortalised in cyberspace.
Another one I came across a while back (it happens only rarely and only by chance – serendipity – does this lovely word apply to surfing?) announced that IF YOU EAT A FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST SEVEN DAYS A WEEK YOUR CHANCE OF DEVELOPING HEART DISEASE INCREASES BY 50%.
Think about that. Unlike the first statement, which sounds absurd (the very old are usually short and are doing a good job of surviving, as are more women than men – short, I mean – yet men tend to die younger and more men develop heart disease), the second statement sounds likely to be true. More or less.
But stop and think about it before you read on.
All right. That 50%. It’s 50% of what exactly? I mean, this 50% is an increase in your chance of developing heart disease. But compared with what?
Compared with eating a full English breakfast only six days a week?
Compared with eating a slightly less than full English breakfast? (Kindly remove half of one of these delicious sausages, I’m on a diet – no, leave everything else!)
And that 50% must refer to the population as a whole. It can’t possibly refer to the individual – to you – unless you have just undergone exhaustive tests and they know exactly what the effect of eating a full English breakfast seven days a week will be on you. Or six days a week. Or not quite full.
Actually, I don’t have this problem with English breakfasts. I only ever eat a full English breakfast when I stay at an English (or even worse, Scottish – or should that be better?) B&B or hotel, which happens about twice a year. And even then I usually leave a bit, so it doesn’t count.
But I do have this problem with statistics.
Let’s take another seemingly simple and self-evidently true statement. Your great-grandfather and your grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s / breast cancer (all right, grandmother) / athlete’s foot, and so did your father / mother, and so now do you. It is obviously hereditary. Simple statistics.
Yes, but. Chances are you all lived in the same town, perhaps the same house, working maybe in the same place, and at home using the same cleaners, detergents, shampoos, patent medicines, eating the same foods, drinking the same tea / coffee / coke / other carbonated gluck, and maybe believing that water is for washing in, not drinking. And I doubt if I have mentioned half the environmental influences. There is an awful lot of nurture as opposed to nature here.
I also read somewhere that the Eskimos / Inuit tend to die young and have a high incidence of heart disease because they eat a lot of seal-meat. And somewhere else that the Eskimos / Inuit tend to live to a good old age and rarely suffer from heart disease because they eat seals and other fish, not meat. Now, quite apart from the absurdity of the second statement (seals are mammals and seal-meat is meat, extremely fatty, far worse than mutton or pork), there is the simple fact that one of these “statisticians”, or rather propagandists, is a blatant liar. Either they die young and tend to develop heart disease or they do not.
That last statement of mine is also seemingly simple and self-evidently true. But in fact, of course, some will develop heart disease and die young, others won’t, and as one of my great heroes, William Blake (not a man to mince words) observed: To generalise is to be an idiot.
And that’s all statistics are: generalisations tarted up to look like scientifically established universal truths.
But in reality they are tools the propagandists use to manipulate the minds of the masses. Us.
Take another disease statistic. It seems the Japanese have a lower chance of developing heart disease than most of the rest of us. (As a group, that is, not individually!) (Each time you toss a coin there is a 50:50 chance of it being Heads. It makes no difference whatsoever that the last ten times you tossed it it was Heads.)
The propagandists use this statistic to support a fish and rice based diet.
But the anti-smoking lobby never mention the Japanese, who also tend to to be heavy smokers.
Not all the Japanese, of course, but …