Statistical Studies Create Overkill


“We are being overwhelmed by science,” said S. Q. Lapius, “bowled over by the vaunted double-blind studies that prove this or that.”


“Whoa, Simon,” I said, “this coming from you?”  You sound like an ignorant clodpate.  Science is rational Statistics is the rational method of expressing a scientific fact. 


“Sorry to disagree, Harry.  Scientific fact is progress.  Statistics are important for comparing experimental data.  But I am not certain that they serve equally well in population samples to indicate when this or that drug should be used.  For example, the UGDP study indicated that oral diabetic agents were killer drugs, at least that is what the headlines proclaimed; or the subsequently issued questionable statistics that suggested that rauwolfia compounds increased the incidence of breast cancer in females – ach – my patience runs thin.”


“But suppose they are correct, Simon,” I protested.


“Suppose they are.  Actually a small increase in breast cancer has to be a trade off against the value of suppressing high blood pressure.  The same with diabetes.  The oral agents improve the quality of life.  But the statistics quibble about small numbers.”


“After all, Harry, neither the physicians nor the populace are imbeciles and either or both groups would quickly detect a medication that was dangerous and useless.  They accept these drugs because they help, and the increase in risk is not apparent.  And now additional statistics questions the first conclusion.”


“After all, what is a statistic?  It is an effort to deduce from a small sample the effect of disease or medication or you name it on a large scale.  If the change is obvious – no statistical methods are required.”


“For instance, flu stands out like a sore thumb.  People do not need statistics to know when an epidemic is in the works.  Actually, the double blind study is blinding us to the fact that it merely samples the experience of the entire population over a long period of time.  Acceptance of medication by the public for twenty years or more is the true statistic.  All other studies are merely samples inserted into computers that extrapolate that data to tell us what we already know.


“After all, cigarettes were called coffin-nails long before statistics showed them carcinogenic.  The public knew, but accepted the risk.


“You think people should smoke or drink?” I asked.


“Smoke and drink?” Lapius was clearly wounded, since he loved both vices.  “They do, despite the warnings and the statistics, Harry.  The public doesn’t need statistics to tell them that Red Grange was one of the greatest running backs in football.  Before statistics were stylish, Babe Ruth drew crowds at Yankee Stadium.” 


“You are against stats, then?”


“Of course not, Harry.  I just wish they would not be so widely publicized.  they are often misleading, and can cause trouble.”


“In what way?”


“Talk to Gautier to find that out, Harry.  You saw perhaps the most recent study that was proclaimed in headlines.  It turns out, according to scientific study, that common colds are not easy to catch.  On the contrary, science says they are hard to catch.  In a recent experiment, Dr. Elliot C. Dick, leader of research group at the University of Wisconsin, showed that couples had to spend more than 122 hours together in intimate contact before a cold could be transferred from one to another.” 


“Interesting,” I agreed, “but what has this to do with Gautier?”


“Well, he caught a cold.”


“So what.  Lots of people catch cold.”


“Precisely the point, said Lapius.  “Mrs. Gautier would have thought nothing of it had she not read the article about Dr. Dick.  Then she remembered that Gautier had been complaining for the past week that his secretary had a cold.  Then, when Felix caught cold, she put 2 and 2 together and came out with 122, then accused Gautier of having a liaison with his secretary for at least 122 hours.”


“She is the jealous type,” I said hopefully.  “But, at her age, certainly she won’t concern herself with his minor peccadilloes, will she?”


“According to Gautier, that is not the point,” Lapius responded.  “He believes that his privacy has been invaded, and blames the doctors.”


So, what else is new?”