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Lies, damned lies, and statistics

While Andrew’s off recharging his batteries, I thought I’d draw your attention to an article on ‘curbing the media hyperbole when reporting on statistics’ that was in last week’s New Scientist – I know it’s a little late, but as it represents a lot of what we strive for in our science communications, I thought it was still worth a mention.

The article uses some great examples of food stories that have hit the headlines over the years, including: ‘drinking hot cups of tea leads to an eightfold increase in the risk of developing oesophageal cancer’ and the even more unlikely sounding ‘a quarter of a grapefruit a day increases breast cancer risk by 30% in post-menopausal women’, but the story closest to our hearts, is the one that had Andrew hailed as the ‘saviour of the bacon butty’ when he countered the ridiculous sounding news that ‘a daily bacon sandwich raises the likelihood of bowel cancer by 20%’. Although this might be an accurate figure, it is misleading and doesn’t tell us anything about the absolute risk. David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge sums it up nicely: ‘For an average person, the chance of getting bowel cancer at some point in their life is around 5%’, so based on a relative risk of 20% increase in bowel cancer: ‘this translates to an absolute increase in risk from 5% to 6%’ – this means in real terms, the increased risk for the population is just 1%.
This just goes to show how providing a simple statistic can distort the true situation, and as a reader there’s not a lot you can do to interpret the numbers in any other way if you’re not provided with the facts – the only safe thing to do is treat every headline-grabbing statistic with caution. But this is in itself is problematic – people are now numb to the numerous health scares that fill the papers.

This provides a dilemma for the Agency – we know that applying numbers to something helps people understand a risk and we also know that the media love them to sell stories. So if we want our advice and the results of research to reach a wider audience we have to play the game. But what we try to do is provide realistic statistic with the hope that journalists won’t jump to their own conclusions. To achieve this, we rely on our top team of statisticians in the Agency, they are involved throughout our research projects – from the planning stages, ensuring sample sizes are representative and the study design is appropriate, and in the interpretation of the results so that we can be confident that the results are statistically robust.

So, although we’re not completely guilt-free of using statistics to tell a story, we do endeavour to ensure they are honest and not misleading.  I am a 100% certain of that.


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I entirely agree with your concern about media reporting on statistics. I would like to see the FSA issue statements, where you have the grounds, to rebut some of these scare stories which could discourage people from eating healthy foods, like grapefruit. I believe FSA has a role, not only to protect food safety but also to correct misinformation about unfounded risks in the interests of encouraging a better understanding about what constitutes a safe and healthy diet. Even though FSA statements may not be reported in the press, at least there would be some information on the FSA website for interested parties to use as a resource to get the story straight.

Posted by Clare Cheney on February 18, 2011 at 03:23 PM GMT #

Interesting correlation between the bacon butty and bowel cancer; without reading the original research, is the cause the low fibre from white bread, nitrate from the bacon, life style of those who eat bacon butty or other possible cause not mentioned. Would a bacon butty on wholemeal bread, no butter, lean bacon and tomato have the same affect? Is the correlation the result of data dredging, or was the experiment set up to investigate specific causes of bowel cancer? With newspaper reporting, the problem is they only want to sell tomorrow's paper, nothing else matters. My father had two axioms: the first for food "a little of everything does you good" and for newspapers " if you know about the subject, half of what is printed is wrong". These days I think it is probably closer to 70% is wrong. As scientists we may be able to sort the wheat from the chaff in our own subjects, but when we try to set the matter straight, the newspaper always gets the last word!

Posted by Richard Barron on February 21, 2011 at 09:23 AM GMT #

Anybody interested in this subject will find many more examples of the spinning of statistics on the website

While the media are often at fault, the spin frequently originates earlier, in government reports, scientific and medical papers, and press releases.

Nigel Hawkes
Straight Statistics

Posted by Nigel Hawkes on February 22, 2011 at 01:38 PM GMT #

I think your point about the bacon butty is essentially a good one, especially about the white bread and more so if the bread was produced by the now largely endemic Chorleywood bread process. However, the issue about the bread is not so much about the absence of bran and insoluble fibre, but rather about the presence of gluten and the 'release' of gluten by industrialised baking methods. I think in general, demise in consumption of insoluble fibre of suitable quality could be promotional of many health issues of the day. But I challenge the inference about the butter. This not so much that I think that butter is inherently healthy but more that I think the bacon butty (especially one prepared for you) is more likely to be spread with marg. Marg, I think is inherently UNhealthy. This is on the basis of it being high in polyunsaturates some of which are highly promotional of inflammation and are notably HEART TOXIC (source; ISSFAL). Chronic, or 'slow' inflammation would, I think, have the potential to be disruptive to the functional workings of the immune system and so, for the sake of placing the point, could impede a natural and bichemical immune reponse with possible potential to inhibit proliferation of cancerous cells. That said, I'm no Doc.

Posted by Chris on February 22, 2011 at 01:48 PM GMT #

Odd that you posted this about a week before the Department of Health, in effect, recycled the bacon butty story - as they put out a press release linking quite small amounts of red meat to bowel cancer.

Posted by Jon on March 09, 2011 at 11:42 AM GMT #

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