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Understanding Uncertainty's Blog

 

Exploring the language of chance in a sensitive context

August 7, 2016 Comments (0)

What words are appropriate when describing the unavoidable unpredictability of real life – what we might casually call ‘chance’? This became a vital question in a recent project to build a website explaining survival outcomes in children’s heart surgery: this was a fine collaboration between CORU at UCL, Sense about Science, King's College London Psychology, and the Children's Heart Federation. Put rather coldly, the PRAIS (Partial Risk Adjustment in Surgery) risk-adjustment system uses...

The risks of Big Data – or why I am not worried about brain tumours.

June 29, 2016 Comments (0)

In a careful study published last week, Socioeconomic position and the risk of brain tumour: a Swedish national population-based cohort study, the authors examined the association between the socio-economic status of men and women in Sweden with diagnosis of brain tumours over 18 years. One of the main findings is shown below. Part of a table showing a significantly increased incidence of gliomas in men with more education: the final column shows the relative risks adjusted for marital...

The risks of trying to be funny

June 8, 2016 Comments (0)

I’ve had a lot of publicity over the last few days, but none of it was welcome. It arose from the story below from the Daily Telegraph of June 6 with the headline “Britons are having less sex, and Game of Thrones could be to blame, says Cambridge professor” I really did say all this. At a talk for the general public at the Hay Festival plugging Sex by Numbers, I was talking about the decline in sexual activity over the last 20 years identified by the NATSAL survey, and said that the press...

The importance of what you don’t see

May 25, 2016 Comments (0)

Remember all those autism stories over the last few weeks? You don’t? There’s a reason for that. The first story you did not hear about concerned a claimed association between autism and aerial crop-spraying of pyrethroids, arising from a press release from the American Association of Pediatrics of a non-peer-reviewed poster at a conference. The Science Media Centre asked for quotes from their cohort of scientists while the story was still embargoed, and the comments received were so...

Medicine, poison, poison, poison, ……

January 19, 2016 Comments (0)

Yesterday the Chief Medical Officer announced new guidelines for alcohol consumption. The Summary says, The proposed guidelines and the expert group report that underpins them, have been developed on the basis of the following principles: People have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks. There is a responsibility on Government to ensure this information is provided for citizens in an open way, so they can make informed choices. This admirable aim...

Jeremy Hunt, the Guardian, and the importance of getting the stats right

November 21, 2015 Comments (0)

On Thursday November 19th the printed version of the Guardian had the headline “Experts dispute Hunt's claim on weekend hospital treatment“ [online version here]. But it was not only Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who gave a misleading statement – the Guardian also made a serious error about statistics. The background to the story is Hunt’s comment in the Commons on October 28th, that “currently, across all key specialties, in only 10% of our hospitals are patients seen by a consultant within 14...

HRT, breast cancer, and the framing of risks

November 14, 2015 Comments (0)

The way that risks are 'framed' can make a big impression on their apparent magnitude. The controversy following the recent report by NICE on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) provides a fine example. HRT is known to increase the risk of some cancers, and the Daily Mail reported claims that these risks were not given sufficient attention by NICE. In particular, the journalist quotes Professor Val Beral as saying ‘About one million UK women are currently using hormones for the menopause,...

Is it fair that a single bad outcome should label a surgeon as an outlier?

October 19, 2015 Comments (0)

Surgeons are increasingly subject to statistical monitoring, and named results may be made publicly available. But consider a surgeon in a low-risk specialty who has had a successful and blameless career, until a combination of circumstances, possibly beyond their control, contribute to a single patient dying. They then find they are officially labeled as an ‘outlier’ and subject to formal investigation, all because of a purely statistical criterion. Is this fair? The 'outlier' procedure...

Why live interviews are a particular challenge for statisticians.

May 18, 2015 Comments (0)

I like doing live interviews for radio or TV – it’s exciting and they can’t edit what you say. The programme is almost inevitably running late, so last Saturday morning when I did an interview for Radio 4’s Today I remembered my media training and had prepared carefully to get my points over before they cut me off. But it was a nightmare. Well maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the start went very badly. The topic was pre-election polls, and the researcher had assured me that they would ask...

Was anyone right about the pre-election polls?

May 14, 2015 Comments (0)

There has been much wailing and gnashing of blogs since the dismal performance of the pre-election polls last week. These had confidently and consistently predicted a rough tie in vote-share between Labour and Conservative, but when the votes were counted the Conservatives had a 6.5% lead. Comparison of vote-share BBC Poll of polls on May 6th, and actual results on May 7th. Party Polls vote share Actual vote share Conservatives 34% 36.9% Labour 33% 30.4% UKIP 13% 12.6% Liberal...