Wishful Thinking

I’ve received permission from Professor Peter Diggle, the President of the Royal Statistical Society, to publish our recent correspondence. So here it is, minus the start and end felicitations. Here’s what I sent him:

I write to you in your capacity as the current President of the Royal Statistical Society. I am myself merely an English old age pensioner who is becoming increasingly dismayed and bewildered by the seemingly exponentially rising number of health warnings being carried more or less every day in the media.

For example, the BBC yesterday carried a story about processed meat:

Processed meats – such as bacon, sausages and ham – do cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Its report said 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

Meanwhile, it said red meats were “probably carcinogenic” but there was limited evidence.

And this is just the very latest. A couple of days back there was another story about cheese being as addictive as hard drugs. There have also been innumerable warnings about sugar, salt, saturated fats, and any number of other things, most of which I have been consuming for my entire life, and have no intention to stop consuming now.

My question to you is this: 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 for one never pay any heed to any of them at all. And I don’t know anybody else who does either. In my experience, there is a deepening collapse in public confidence in these sorts of epidemiological studies.

I today visited the RSS website in the faint hope that the institution that speaks on behalf of British statisticians would carry a disclaimer dissociating itself from the media scaremongering currently going on. I watched a number of videos on the website, including a very interesting one about the failure of pollsters to predict the result of the General Election earlier this year. I also watched your address to the society, in the hope that you might address yourself to the growing problem to which I refer.

But I take hope that you may yet actually agree with my concern, given that in your entry in Lancaster University, you cite a pizza restaurant among your favourite eateries, and I very much suspect that you neither believe that you are addicted to mozzarella cheese, nor that you are killing yourself with the salami, bacon, and ham that are often added as toppings to these very tasty dishes.

To which Prof. Diggle replied:

Thank you for your message.

I completely agree with you, and it is not a new problem.  Rather it stems from a perennial (and I suspect deliberate) failure of journalists  (and others, to be fair) to distinguish between strong evidence of an effect and evidence of a strong effect.

I need no convincing that  a big enough sample will show significant differences in a wide range of health outcomes  between people  who do and do not include processed meat in their diet, but I would expect the sizes of these differences to be very small. As you surmise, I include many things in my diet, and in my life-style more generally (including, for example, driving a car) that increase my risk of death, but not to an extent that worries me.

I do agree that there seems to be a particular spate of these things at the moment.  I’m not sure that there is anything new that the RSS could say  about it, but I will certainly raise the possibility with colleagues at RSS HQ.

I followed up by thanking him, and telling him I wrote a blog which had just been discussing the RSS. He said he’d take a look at the blog. I may need to write him a further email to explain the nature of the blog and its author and readers.

Anyway, I was delighted to get his email. And after I’d read a little of his colleague’s (Professor Spiegelhalter) blog, I began to wonder if the RSS might be a little haven of reason and sanity in our increasingly demented world.

It reminded me that in the 1950s, Sir Ronald Fisher – perhaps the pre-eminent statistician of his day – was one of the principal critics of the idea that smoking causes lung cancer. He even wrote a book about it: The Cancer Controversy (which is freely available online), published in about 1958.  He was also a pipe smoker. He died in 1964. I recently acquired a copy of his daughter’s biography of him.

I began to wonder if the statistics profession had been invaded by upstart non-statisticians like Richard Doll and Bradford Hill, whose disciples now fill the media with scare stories about almost everything, which are repeated over and over again until the general public have absorbed them as the gospel truth as told by anointed ‘experts’.

Might it be, I wondered this morning, that the scepticism of Sir Ronald Fisher still survives in the recesses of today’s Royal Statistical Society, its voice drowned out by the WHO and its baying acolytes in the mainstream media?

But that’s probably just wishful thinking.


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38 Responses to Wishful Thinking

  1. harleyrider1978 says:

    Believing in second hand smoke or even thirdhand smoke or even the direct smoking claims of the last 60 and more years is practically believing in witchcraft in Old Salem Mass. Or believing in witch Docotors in Deepest Africa or the Medicine Man of American Indians. They have no proof to their claims only the promotion of fear induced via ignorance of scientific data and its interpretation. Junk Science is what its dubbed today and after nearly 100 years of anti-tobacco claims by tobacco haters they have yet to ever prove end point causation to any claim they have ever made. Now they claim eating red meat or a hotdog causes cancer in you,the same folks who made up and invented the passive smoking scare which was adopted from Hitlers own PASSERVACHEN propaganda when hitler passed his own anti-tobacco laws. There was no proof to such claims just more propaganda to incite the people to hate,to hate smokers. Todays movement is no different and comparing 6 hours in asmoky bar to the same amount as smoking a pack of cigarettes is beyond black magic and voodoo science its an outright LIE. The same as all the lies made against people who smoke. Will you believe the same hype when they claim second hand obesity exists! You see they have already made that claim and even tried passing anti-obesity laws in Miss. back in 2008 forbidding the feeding of people who are obese in restaraunts. That’s no different than banning a smoker from the same table or building based purely on hate and no evidence of harm to anyone. Its a worldwide lifestyles war on everyone and they will soon come after you too. Its a guarantee.

  2. Roobeedoo2 says:

    If we can take anything from the likes of Doll and Hill then it is that wishful thinking works. Have a Song 😉

  3. lysistratatheoriginal says:

    What an eminently civilised and well-written reply! No, I don’t think it is wishful thinking. I think there are small pockets of hope out there.

  4. cherie79 says:

    Nice to see there are still some sane people left, hopefully one day they will prevail and the madness will pass.

  5. waltc says:

    “Merely an old age pensioner” my ass.

    Elsewhere in the news for those following US politics, the Republicans had a debate last nite. Skipping other comments about it, of the ten candidates, all of whom at one point or another discussed health care, the moralist healthist born-again-thin-man (who, after losing 100+ pounds gained much of it back) former Arkansas governor and smoke-banner Mike Huckabee was the first to say that the real answer to the costs of health care was prevention — to prevent killers like cancer and heart disease. (As we know, this means us.) The thought was then echoed by Ohio Governor John Kasich. Just saying.

    • If you go to http://www.bizpacreview.com/2015/10/28/poll-which-of-the-gop-candidates-won-cnbcs-republican-primary-debate-268928 you’ll see that smoke-banner huckabee got 15 votes as winner of the Republican debate.

      That’s 15 out of roughly 3,500 cast.

      Or, in percentage terms:


      Looks like the smoke-banner’s getting about what he deserves….

      – MJM
      P.S. Any idea on what Ted Cruz may have said or hinted at on our issue? I’m thinking he’s the most likely candidate: People are voting for Trump to make a splash, but I don’t think they’ll go for him as a serious contender against Hillary.

    • Frank Davis says:

      What did The Donald have to say about healthcare?

      And I actually am an old age pensioner. I’ve been getting a full state pension for years. Very handy it is too.

      P.S. I emailed the prof to describe my blog. And I mentioned the ISIS survey, which I thought he might be interested in.

      • waltc says:

        Trump is all over the place. He said recently that he favors universal health care, (which usually means socialized) that he’ll insure everyone but save money. Gets no more specific than that piece of pie in the sky. Don’t recall what if anything he said in the debate.. There may be a transcript somewhere.

  6. craigm350 says:

    Reblogged this on CraigM350 and commented:
    What a refreshing reply.

  7. margo says:

    Very good letter and reply, Frank!

  8. prog says:

    I’d have thought the RSS could say plenty about the misuse of statistics for propaganda purposes.

    How difficult would it be to to regularly issue press releases that put things into perspective? After all, shouldn’t that be the whole point – putting things into perspective (in simple terms) so that the public can either be reassured or have real cause for concern?

  9. churchmouse says:

    Great letter and good response, Frank.

    There seems to be a whole health scare industry, now well entrenched. This latest panic about whole foods which people have eaten for centuries, especially in mountainous climes, beggars belief.

    By the way, for anyone interested, I confronted Tobacco Control this year:


  10. harleyrider1978 says:
  11. harleyrider1978 says:

    Russia’s Putin Says Global Warming Is ‘A Fraud’

    Russian President Vladimir Putin believes global warming is a “fraud” — a plot to keep Russia from using its vast oil and natural gas reserves. Putin believes


  12. Rose says:

    A good letter and a comforting reply from Professor Diggle.

  13. harleyrider1978 says:

    NOAA Attempts To Hide The Pause In Global Warming: The Most Disgraceful Cover-Up Since Climategate


  14. harleyrider1978 says:

    don’t agree with the new law on not smoking in a car with under 18’s in it. Last week my kids got soaking wet in the rain while I was having a fag in the car. They were literally banging on the windows begging me to let em in, but as I explained to them, it’s illegal. Stupid law really.

  15. harleyrider1978 says:

    Cheese is as addictive as crack? Give me a break

    These gastronomic jihadists will stop at nothing.


  16. harleyrider1978 says:
  17. nisakiman says:

    It’s gratifying that the RSS are in accord with you on the subject of playing fast and loose with statistics. I do wonder, however, whether they would still be in accord when it came to the meta-analyses (mis)used to justify the smoking bans and all the other concurrent fuckwittery, smoking being the current ‘love that dare not speak its name’. Would they be prepared to confront the orthodoxy? I have my doubts.

  18. harleyrider1978 says:

    Fewer people joined Stoptober smoking challenge


    However, the 15% fall in the number of people joining Stoptober this year compared to 2014, far exceeds any reduction in people smoking over the …


  19. Clicky says:

  20. Joe Public says:

    Prof. Diggle: ” …. it stems from a perennial (and I suspect deliberate) failure of journalists (and others, to be fair) to distinguish between strong evidence of an effect and evidence of a strong effect.”

    Those reporting global warming / climate change / climate disruption seem similarly afflicted. [Or in the case of Beeb ‘journos’, have the 28-gate affair diktat to comply with.

  21. Pingback: Are Academic Professors and Doctors Just Jumped Up Students? | Bolton Smokers Club

  22. Pingback: A Statistical Investigation | Frank Davis

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