Statistics prove…exactly what?

My second job out of college was in the sales promotion department of a local TV station.  There, I learned the skills necessary to twist numbers into combinations that encourage advertisers to buy time on the station.  I’m not great with numbers, but it wasn’t rocket science.  Nobody checked, anyway, as long as the station looked good.  And out of that grew my skepticism about statistics, in general.

If statistics are to be believed, I should be planning my funeral about now.  Five years is generally considered to be the outside statistical boundary of survival for anyone whose initial diagnosis is stage 4 breast cancer.  Well, guess what….I’m not only not dead, I’ve never felt better in my life.

Statistics have their purpose, but they don’t define our futures.  The sooner we figure that out, the faster we can concentrate on returning to the life we had before the disease, or implementing the new life we invent that’s fuller, richer … just plain better than the old one.

Here’s the quick-and-dirty about how statistics come to be.  A researcher gets an idea and funding for a project.  Numbers are gathered, some of them as long ago as 5 to 10 years before the study containing the statistics is finally published – first in academic journals, where it’s “vetted” by peers – before it finally reaches the general public.  All of this takes years.

In the meantime, hundreds of new drugs that have been developed and released to treat our conditions hit the marketplace, changing or challenging the outcomes of those statistics, even as early as while the numbers are being crunched.  Look around you.  With a few unhappy exceptions where research hasn’t caught up with need yet, like pancreatic cancer or the most aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, we’re living longer.

No, living longer isn’t “cured”.  If you think about it, we begin living a different life when we hear “You’ve got…”, whatever it is.  We can never go back to the life that preceded those words.  And to a great extent, how the rest of our lives play out have very little to do with statistics.  It’s how we chose to live, however long that is, that matters.

The reason I decided to post this now is because I was discussing statistics in general with a friend dealing with her cancer, when she told me a terrifying first-person story about her own oncologist, who was caught by the FDA and charged with manipulating statistics.  Dubbed “Dirty Harry” by his detractors, and even more frightening than her story, the charges against him were unaccountably dropped.

I’m not suggesting that statistical errors are most often produced by design, as in the case of my friend’s doctor.  The majority of numbers are just subject to manipulation, often to suit the premise of the hypothesis the researchers are pursuing.  And they’re almost universally out-of-date.

Here’s how we should view statistics: infrequently.  And with a healthy does of skepticism.  The odds of yours, or my particular case fitting neatly into any statistical pattern, is extremely small.  Probably statistically so.

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One Response to “Statistics prove…exactly what?”

  1. Dan says:

    Statistics: A mathematically precise line drawn between an unwarranted assumption and a foregone conclusion.

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