the facts of life

A day or two ago I bandied the following statistic about wildly to make a point about our irrational fear of germs; and I have been feeling guilty ever since. [post titled whitewash May 25th 2011].

A 17 year study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that women who work in the home have a 54 per cent higher death rate from cancer than women who work outside the home.

 No doubt, you are asking why I am experiencing such feelings using a statistic provided by a reputable organisation such as the EPA.

I don’t for a moment doubt that the statistic is correct. My feelings arise from the way I have used it to support my argument, without really knowing the background of how, or why that statistic was created. What was the context?

I read the statistic in a book that had the agenda to promote organic food and household products. They did not provide any background or context for the statistic.

Now, I am no mathematician (that sound you hear is MR FD laughing). I have been known to email a daughter urgently for assistance on working out some mathematical equations when merely calculating students’ marks! The last time I studied mathematics was in year 10 at school, for in my day, one was not required to take maths in final years.

However, I know enough that we can make statistics say whatever we want them to say.  So my unease arises from the following questions:

When did the study take place? If it was in the early part of the 20th century it might have been before industrial laws protected people in the workplace and maybe there were working women dying early deaths due to workplace practices.

  • Where did the study take place? Was it just one town, one state, one country?
  • Were the poor working women dying of heart disease and hypertension from trying to be superwoman before cancer had a chance to set in?
  • Do working women suicide more than, once again before cancer can set in?
  • Were the women dying at home all aged 94? As we know statistics also show that the older one gets the more likely one is to die of cancer.  They might have died of a very happy old age in lovely clean homes.
  • Or perhaps the domestic women drank too much from depression and the fact that the bathroom never stayed clean for more then 90 seconds and so developed one of those nasty cancers like poor Michael Douglas from his wild life.
  • Were the women dying of cancer because they were living on low incomes and had no health care?
  • Were they dying because they were less educated and didn’t know how to get the help they needed?
  • Did the women at home actually have clean homes? Were they using the “bad” cleaning products?

I am sure that you can all add many more questions to the list, and rightly so. My point is that we need to look critically at the information that is pushed our way each day.  Where has that information come from, and what authority do they have? What is their agenda? Usually it is to persuade us to their view or to take the action that they desire.

Simply we need to ask : who, what, where and why, but also when. Who created this? Too often it was sponsored by a multinational. What was the context? Where was it created;   is it a large sample or a small sample? Why – the reasoning, the agenda and its intended use. When – is it relevant now?

My sister used to have a habit of saying “they say”. “They say that women who work in the home have a 54 per cent higher death rate from cancer than women who work outside the home.” It made me angry when she did so, for the first question I always had in my mind was “Who are they?” Usually the source is some purveyor of fear, who wanted to use that fear to either promote a television show, their agenda or to sell a product. That is not always a bad thing of course.

So, what I am basically saying, dear reader,  is we need to think critically about the information we absorb, use and replicate. I am in no way saying become a sceptic, because then we risk falling prey to conspiracy theories and asking presidents to produce their birth certificates. I mean, make that information stand up and prove their bona fides.

One last point, has occurred to me as I write this – what is our agenda for believing the statistic, or not believing for that matter? Are we searching for information, for own knowledge, to support our own agenda or to convince us of something we want to be convinced of in the first place? I am reminded of that enduring, Arts students’ quip; “is my truth, your truth?”

I have asked lots of questions, and I make no effort to provide answers. I have learnt over time that there is rarely one zip less answer to most questions, it all depends on what you want. The one answer I can provide is to suggest that you think critically about the information that you select, and the knowledge that you create.

Critical thinking: what our world needs now.

Anne St. Marie, Harper’s Bazaar

oranges may not always be oranges when they are statistics

10 thoughts on “the facts of life

  1. 50% of all medical students graduated in the bottom half of their class.

    In order for something to be a true statistic, it must meet certain criteria. The statement, “Crime is up by 50%,” is NOT a statistic.

    The statement, “Reported violent crime is up by 50% in the year 2010 within the City of San Diego,” WOULD be a valid statistic, assuming there is data to back it up. You can see the difference.


    • and some classes are such high achieving classes that to be in the bottom 50% one year would maybe be in the top 60% the next year! We can certainly do a lot of harm by misrepresenting statistics!


  2. Spoken like a true English teacher! Nothing is ever straight-cut. And every writer has an agenda. You can do so much with words–they are very powerful. One reason why I love the art of writing. I have to admit, I absorb a lot of junk that I never bother to look into–I’m just too lazy or busy. It’s something I need to get out of–because I think the whole world is like me. XD


    • We have so much information bombarding us these days that it is getting harder and harder to sift through it all. Often not enough energy or time I agree. At the same time, it is becoming more necessary for the individual. What a crazy world we have invented for ourselves!


  3. Apart from the use/misuse of stats, there is the issue of who did the research. Not so much who commissioned it, but did the researchers observe the highest principles of science in conducting the work? Since the revelations of the University of East Anglia emails (to not accept work of scientists labelled climate deniers), my confidence has been a little shaken. And I say this as someone who worked 8 years in a research organsiation, part of that time serving on an Editorial Panel which was an internal process set up to review our scientists’ work before being submitted to journals. While there were antagaonisms – it was at the level of “don’t send me a paper by so-and-so because I can’t agree with the work”, I never saw active intent to deny publication (except where the work was not up to standard – usually, would you believe, the statistical component). For those of us who lost our religious upbringing and have only the substitute of human logic and scientific process, it is not just stats, but integrity of the researchers that is vitally important. The future of your cancer-ridden housewives may depend on it!


    • The integrity of the researchers and the identity of those who paid for the research grant, as well as what “results” they expected. The politics we witnessed in Universities in recent years made us very distrustful of much of the research that occurred. It is only when the money comes from a non political fund that real research occurs.


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