Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Can You Trust The Numbers?

Health statistics can have an important bearing on behavior, especially those interested in their own health and those who are charged with raising money, creating initiatives, or riding their own health hobby horses to death. Many years have passed since the anti-smoking initiatives began to get traction among the general population. One of the major numbers cited as the reason to become anti-smoking and/or stop smoking was the proposition that 400,000 deaths yearly could be ascribed to tobacco use. The particular bogey- man was lung cancer, when fact there could be a number of different cancers and health conditions developed from smoking.

I use this number as a way of raising the question about the reasonableness of relying on statistics of this sort as a way of managing one’s behavior. For example the number 400,000 deaths is still used as the standard for abating tobacco use. What happened? Tobacco use is at its all time low yet the number of deaths has remained unchanged. There is another reason the be wary of the numbers thrown out by anti-anything advocates. Now that obesity is the target guess how many deaths per year are charged to this condition. You got it in one! 400,000, now I wonder where that number came from?

I recommend that when you hear or read about a statistic that is posited as the reason you should do something to take a hard look at it and its basis. You are going to be surprised and disappointed. Surprised because you will often find the numbers are exaggerated or at the very least mischaracterized, disappointed because certain groups are trying to manipulate you into behaving in they want you to.

You can look it up.

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