Last week, while friends and I were discussing the sensationalistic news coverage of the swine flu pandemic, I was joking that if you were not coughing up bacon, you were probably OK.
I fact, I wasn’t so much joking about the flu itself than about how (dis)information is presented in sensationalist news channels such CNN, Fox, or even Montréal-based LCN. Earlier this week, news were that the flu had already caused tens, maybe hundreds, of deaths, but that data was presented as if, you know, you just catch the swine flu and you die right away from it. However, on Thursday morning, on the radio, I heard that the Mexican authorities recounted “swine flu” death to… less than ten. To really understand what’s going on, you really have to do some research, and sometimes what you discover is radically different from what you’ve been told.
After a tiny bit of digging, I found the following from the authorities. The last (at the time of writing) report from the WHO reads as follows:
3 May 2009 — As of 1600 GMT, 3 May 2009, 18 countries have officially reported 898 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection.
Mexico has reported 506 confirmed human cases of infection, including 19 deaths. The higher number of cases from Mexico in the past 48 hours reflects ongoing testing of previously collected specimens. The United States Government has reported 226 laboratory confirmed human cases, including one death.
The following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths – Austria (1), Canada (85), China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1), Costa Rica (1), Denmark (1), France (2), Germany (8), Ireland (1), Israel (3), Italy (1), Netherlands (1), New Zealand (4), Republic of Korea (1), Spain (40), Switzerland (1) and the United Kingdom (15). [source].
Seasonal influenza kills something like 36000 people in the United States alone each year, mostly indirectly, resulting from flu-related complications [source]. So, while one should remain cautious about the new flu, one should also consider that it is still somewhat globally benign.
So every time you hear numbers, statistics, and their interpretation, you should try to find the original data—whether it’s epidemiological or some other experimental data—and question the breakdown, the methodology, the interpretation and the intent as well. It is well known that one can make data say anything, especially if using statistics!
Darrell Huff — How to Lie with Statistics — W. W. Norton & Co, 1993
Joel Best — Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists — University of California Press, 2001