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Dodgy data bad for your public health

By Duncan Graham - posted Wednesday, 14 September 2016


There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Numerous claimants to coinage. Possibly Benjamin Disraeli.

As a trainstopper the intro to an ABC Health and Wellbeing programme last month [aug] couldn't have been more shocking:

'About one in two Australians will be diagnosed with cancer. That means if you don't get it, the person sitting next to you will.' Later promotions sandwiched 'during their lifetime' between the sentences, though it seemed superfluous.

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Will – or may? How could this be? Fifty per cent of the population? That's 12 million people. Surgeries and hospitals would crash.

Cancer is an important issue that demands attention – which it received in the story of a fit young man who cared for his health yet still contracted bowel cancer - but had the ABC got the figures wrong?

Like most Australians I've lost friends and relatives to the disease and know others in treatment. But that's a small minority of my acquaintances.

Denise Musto from Audience and Consumer Affairstook a fortnight to reply that the unit was'satisfied that the story kept with the ABC's editorial standards for accuracy' adding:

'… the statistic was taken from the Cancer Australia website which states: 'In 2016, it is estimated that the risk of an individual being diagnosed with cancer by their 85th birthday will be 1 in 2.' Then it added a rider: '1 in 2 males and 1 in 3 females'.

So the ground had shifted. The birthday clause was not in the original promotion nor was the gender difference. But the data was still frightening.

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Cancer Australia'sDr Nerissa Soh said the national government agency got its statistics from on-line books published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

"In the AllCancers on their Incidence page, there are numbers for the risk of being diagnosed with cancer before the age of 85," she said. "In 2012 this was 1 in 2 and this risk has been the same since 1987."

Is risk certainty? Not in my understanding of language.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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