On the WHO-says-bacon-as-bad-as-cigarettes business:
Experts attack claims that bacon is ‘as big a cancer threat as smoking’
Dr Ian Johnson, Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Food Research, said: “Although there is epidemiological evidence for a statistically significant association between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, it is important to emphasise that the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined.
“It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around 20 fold.”
One of the things that always puzzles me about many of these epidemiological statistical studies is that many of them have been carried out by doctors. For example, Richard Doll was a doctor. So also was Ernst Wynder. And George Godber. And the WHO is behind the bacon scare. And so what we often have are a bunch of doctors doing statistics, in which they probably had little or no training. They were operating “out of area”.
And why is it that somebody from Food Research responds to these statistical studies?
I’m always wondering what real, professional statisticians think about these studies. So today I set off to do some investigating.
The first thing I discovered is that Britain has a Royal Statistical Society. I wondered whether it would be trumpeting the bacon-causes-cancer scare, but there was no mention of it at all.
Eventually I found myself watching a few videos on the website, which were actually quite interesting. They were discussing what went wrong at the UK General Election earlier this year, which pollsters said would result in a hung parliament, but which the Conservatives actually won. I’d expected to see lots of mathematics, but there was none at all. And the participants were from polling companies, the BBC, and various newspapers. They all just talked, and made some interesting points.
I then watched a video of the current president of the Society giving what seemed to be a review of the state of the society in June 2015. He started off saying that the appearance of computer statistics packages had been widely predicted to be the death of the profession, but said that in fact statisticians were as much in demand as ever. He talked quite a lot about computers and computing languages, and mentioned Sir Ronald Fisher using a giant early calculating machine. There was no mention of Richard Doll or Bradford Hill. He also discussed the use of statistical methods in Africa, to keep track on various communicable diseases, and the difficulties in doing so.
He talked for about an hour, and I kept hoping/expecting him to talk about tobacco, alcohol, sugar, salt, and the flood of statistical studies we’re all too familiar with here. But there was not a word about any of them.
I also took a look at the society’s Code of Conduct, and was a little disturbed to find:
1. Fellows should always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good; including public health, safety and environment.
This might mean the Royal Statistical Society has been overrun by healthists and environmentalists, like almost everywhere else. But none of the videos I saw this afternoon seemed to be particularly health- or environment-oriented. So the jury has to be out on that. But I would think that honesty and integrity should have been the prime requirements in a code of conduct, not public health and safety.
But, while I’d heard several interesting talks, I still had no idea what the attitude of the Royal Statistical Society to the tidal wave of bacon-causes-cancer, cheese-as-addictive-as-hard-drugs statistical studies might be.
So I thought I’d just go straight to the top, and email the President of the Royal Statistical Society to ask him. I cited various of these scaremongering stories in the media, and said that I didn’t believe a word of any of them. My question to him was; “Do you not think that there is a considerable danger that the entire science of statistics is being brought into disrepute by the plethora of these scare stories?”
I have no idea whether I’ll get a reply from such an august figure, but he seemed to be a pretty down-to-earth Lancastrian. And since he had also listed his favourite restaurant as an Italian pizza outlet (lots of cheese, salami, bacon, ham!!) I deduced that he wasn’t exactly a vegetarian.
Anyway, I came away from the investigation with the impression that the society was a small (I had the impression that the president was addressing 50 or so people) but active one, and slightly fearful of its own extinction, and also wrapped up in what seemed to me to be silly questions about whether they were doing “mathematical statistics” or “statistical mathematics”.
I’ll let you know if I get a reply. I suspect that I’ll get a pretty fulsome reply if he’s as sick of all these scare stories as I am. And no reply at all if he’s a fully paid up healthist.