Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Statistic

There are times when nothing makes sense. The universe, despite its patterns, seems random, chaotic, and even cruel. Yet, reality simply is. We can study statistics, predict possible outcomes, develop complex models for nearly every contained system… yet on the personal level those models are useless.

We can predict that one person of every thousand contracts a given disease, a numeric formula safely separating the person from the calculation. Risk management, economics, and various sciences step in for the analysis. Everyone involved digests the numbers and accepts them as theoretical models.

Yet the model is meaningless to the statistic… that one person.

Parents hear statistics and worry. Contexts are often missing, especially comparison to other statistics. How dangerous is something, really, when compared to other risks?

We know travel by car is very dangerous, but it is familiar. We worry about the unusual, the strange.

In 2004, 27 children died in cribs according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. That's it... 27. By comparison, 6047 people died that year trying to cross the street. Yet, we worry a lot more about cribs than street crossings.

Two years ago, six children were harmed by swimming pool filtration systems. One was fatal, sadly, at a Minnesota country club. Now, we have state and federal regulations covering filtration system inspections.

What does this have to do with autism?

Statistics and anecdotes compete for the attention of parents. Statistics and risk analysis might indicate one thing, as measured and tested by scientists and researchers, but parents hear and read personal stories. These stories matter more.

In fact, I've read numerous studies that show people who read a personal story simply cannot relate to the statistics afterwards. You read about a child's negative reaction to a treatment, a vaccine, an over-the-counter medication, an educational strategy, and you remember that negative story. Negatives are far, far more memorable. Recalling negatives helps a species survive -- we evolved to be cautious.

Personal stories affect us. Statistics don't. That's why horror stories about dangerous cribs, swimming pool filters, and even exploding cell phones scare us. We remember those stories, especially if we lack enough positive offsets. Because we don't have an accident every time we ride in the car, we rationalize the risks. We understand driving does not always equal death. But, how familiar are we with vaccines? We don't get them every day. How familiar are we with special diets? Hyperbolic chambers?

The unfamiliar is hard to understand -- even with statistical analysis.

No matter how many numbers I cite, no matter how scientifically and statistically valid the results, what matters to a parent is what he or she has read, seen, or heard anecdotally. The people they meet, the other parents they talk to, the conference gatherings, all matter more
than any statistics. It's human -- lot logical, but human.

And, even with statistics, that one person who does react to a "statistically safe" treatment, medication, etc., won't care about the statistics. We want "safe" to mean "0.0% risk" and that's simply not possible. So the one injury, the one horror story, matters.

I worry about tornadoes. I know that statistically, the last deadly and destructive tornado where I live was nearly 20 years ago. I still worry. It's not logical, as least not statistically, but tell that to the families affected by a storm. They aren't mere statistics.

We try to avoid risks. Curiously, we don't always avoid the statistically significant risks. We avoid those risks that scare us the most.

1 comment:

  1. Your thesis probably explains the differential fear of animals: a mountain lion kills one person every second year, and it ignites a panic with people demanding that someone "do something" and wondering if they should take a gun with them when they hike in the woods, while being unmoved by the fact that deer kill a hundred times as many people every year as every other sort of wildlife (except microbes) put together.

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