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Read between the lines

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in Career Management,Workplace Communication

We’re swimming in health statistics. Every day we see new findings linking various foods or behaviors to good outcomes (veggies prevent cancer!) or bad (stress causes Alzheimer’s!).

The real question is whether we’re able to treat these reports with the proper scrutiny. Americans are notoriously prone to statistical illiteracy.

Even physicians fall into this trap. A 2008 study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that doctors struggled to interpret data from cancer screenings when the numbers were presented as probabilities.

That helps to explain why your doctor may resist assigning odds that you face a particular health outcome. Even giving a rough answer can prove misleading if a medical provider lacks grounding in statistical analysis.

As consumers, we face the same challenge of sifting through medical news to draw valid conclusions. If you read about a new study, delve to determine if it’s well-vetted scientific research conducted by a respected organization—and compare the findings with the results of previous studies on that topic.

Some news reports string together anecdotes from subjects who undergo an experimental treatment. The results of such “research” generally lack the heft of documented statistics based on large, scientifically sound samplings.

Translate hype into knowledge

In health news reports, “proves” is among the most overused words. As John Swartzberg, M.D., the chair of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter editorial board, writes, “‘Proves’ usually means only that the truth is being stretched. A single study never proves anything.”

A study that warns that a food or other substance “increases the risk of” some disease does not mean it causes the disease, Swartzberg adds. Even if something “doubles your risk,” that’s not particularly alarming if your absolute risk is 1 in 100,000.


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