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The Danger Of Statistics
Posted by Grady Miller on Jul 28, 2013 - 5:02:40 AM
HOLLYWOOD—Statistics are best used sparingly, if at all. A sanguine approach is to handle these mantras of the Western world with the care usually reserved for transporting of nitrogylercin. Statistics are equipoised, containing equal amounts of good and harm. Now here is a perfectly good statistics capable of raising hopes and modifying behavior in a beneficial way: “A large study of 2,692 adults found that those eating a lot of Omega-3s added two years to their lives. Try walnuts, flaxseeds, salmon, and spinach for a boost.”
Somebody exposed to that may be ripe to try salmon, spinach or walnuts.
On the other hand, there was a statistic that had engaged me in an uneasy waltz while writing my diet book. Quoted at the head of an article in the LA Times—95 percent of dieters who lose weight don’t keep off and gain it back within two years. (It had to be true: the Times was quoting it.) This alluring statistic gave me bragging rights. My dietary practices had allowed me to maintain a lower weight for the last six years. But apply the acid test to this statistic: even if a statistic is true, is it good for people? Is it empowering or disempowering? On that basis, I threw it into the statistical trash heap. To hear this sort of factoid go viral can have a debilitating effect on people, who may be teetering on the edge of adopting exercise and better eating; the 95 percent statistic infects them with “why bother” thinking. If I am just going to gain it all back, statistically speaking, why bother adopting a healthier way of living?
The right statistic can help you crave super healthy spinach.
Investigative journalist and foodie iconoclast, Gary Taubes, wrote in The New York Times: “The classic example is the statement heard repeatedly that 95 percent of all dieters never lose weight, and 95 percent of those who do will not keep it off. This will be correctly attributed to the
Pennsylvania psychiatrist Albert Stunkard, but it will go unmentioned that this statement is based on 100 patients who passed through Stunkard's obesity clinic during the Eisenhower administration.”
When I read this, I thanked my lucky stars that I stayed away from that statistic even though it could add luster to what I was doing to stay thin. So good and harm dwell equally in every statistic, just how much good and harm has been illustrated by the research of Dr. Mario Martinez, a clinical psychologist who has studied the effects of cultural beliefs on aging and longevity. Here’s an example:
“For women, when they have menopause (in
Peru), they call the hot flashes, bochorno, which is another word for shame. ‘The shame’ they call it. We know now that shame causes inflammation. You test Peruvian women for their level of interleukins and other inflammatory products and they’re high,” states Dr. Martinez. “Now you go to
Japan. Same, women, human beings, but the cultural interpretation of menopause and the hot flashes is ‘a second spring,’ an opportunity for wisdom. You check their inflammatory products and they’re normal. That’s how culture can create biology.”
Dr. Martinez has coined a term ‘healing facts.’ What we choose to believe can actually affect the immune system. The Chinese example reveals the consequences, toxic or life-enhancing, of what we choose to believe.
One irresistible statistic, appropriately attributed to a German psychologist, appears widely on the internet. “In the 1950s, people used to laugh 18 minutes a day, but today we laugh not more than 6 minutes a day, despite the huge rise in the standard of living.” Irresistibly it appeals to our belief in the decline in civilization and to our hope that the best things in life, like laughter, are free. A German psychologist Dr. Michael Titze quoted this, but did not write it. Near as I can reckon from internet reconnaissance, this nugget was authored by a
Berlin newspaper columnist. Invented whole cloth, not one statistic backs it up, and yet it challenges us to shake off gloom and be cheerful.
It is indeed a “healing fact,” to be embraced and repeated. In the meantime, beware of the statistics we buy into: there is a direct correlation between them and the heaven of health and achieving the body we desire or the hell of statistical determinism.
Grady Miller is the author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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