Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Elections are a dangerous time. Politicians are desperate to win votes. They’ll often make ridiculous statements to win votes. They also have a tendency to try to make huge issues out of small things. David Cameron provides an example of this when he supports the lie that Labour targeted voters suffering cancer with a postcard about Tory cancer care policy. The media joined in by giving this story air time or column inches.

The postcard highlights the fact that a Tory government would scrap Labour’s guarantee of quick access to an oncologist. It was then sent out in a mass delivery. All straight forward so far. The trouble arises when the media report that Labour has deliberately targeted cancer victims. And then the Tory health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, adds

“For Labour’s campaign to deliberately distress or scare sufferers from breast cancer is shameful…. [A] number of serious questions about who authorised the potential misuse of personal data and who was involved in the production of the cards”.

This, of course, makes it seem like Labour got the health records of cancer victims and sent them a postcard. That’s the damned lie. Here come the statistics.

The Labour party sent this postcard to 250,000 women. That much has been confirmed. We know that women have an 11% chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their life. We also know that 0.12% of women will be suffering from breast cancer at any time. Given that 0.12% of 250,000 is just over 300, then this card is bound to have landed on the doorsteps of women suffering breast cancer at the time. They are then going to feel like they have been targeted. That’s understandable.

What isn’t understandable is that the Conservative party ignore these statistics and try to take political advantage of story. And that the press allow them to do it. The press also ignore the fact that Labour’s initial claim is correct.  The Tories have promised to scrap Labour’s maximum waiting time targets. I would think people would be more concerned about that. And I write as someone who lost my father to lung cancer just over a year ago.

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One comment

  1. I am so glad you wrote that because me and another nurse at work today were trying to work out the stats we read in The Times. It does make sense.

    Happy birthday!

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