Friday, April 20, 2012
Healthy Skepticism Above All
This point was drilled home to me again today by a friend on Facebook (names withheld to protect the innocent!) who - with very good intentions - posted a link to the Facebook site "Cancer is finally cured in Canada but Big Pharma has no interest" and to the video at the top of their page taken from an old CTV National News broadcast, likely 5 years old or more. The claim is made that there is a "simple cure for cancer" that currently exists but that it is somehow being suppressed by "Big Pharmacy". This is a perfect storm of scaremongering: cancer, evil big business and doubt about the legitimacy of major charities all fusing together brilliantly. Unfortunately, as a quick check of Snopes shows, it is also completely misleading with gusts up to outright lies.
Now, I am not trying to pick on my friend here - nor really anyone who shares this sort of misinformation with the best intentions - because if people didn't fall for this sort of nonsense then the ones propagating it would be really lousy at their "jobs". What I really want to stress, though, is this: if something is shocking, outrageous, too good to be true, or even just out-of-whack with what you expected to read - even if it reinforces some unfounded suspicions you previously held - do not just assume you are hearing the truth. This sort of false conclusion borders on the principle known as Occam's Razor, although by no means a perfect illustration. Still, that principle cautions against jumping to complex conclusions or explanations to explain a data set; in this case, the information was that dichloroacetate (DCA) was showing promise for curing cancer in rats but that the simplicity of this non-patented compound was making it difficult for the scientists to receive clinical funding for future experimentation. This is an easy situation to comprehend; however, it soon spun out of control and became a sinister sort of "cover-up" story which eventually made it all the way to the National News.
It's no wonder people were angry when they heard these "facts" being laid out by good ol' Lloyd Robertson himself, but this leads me directly back to the point of this post: maintain a healthy skepticism in everything you do or you risk being taken in by non-stories like this one. The downside of the Information Age is that it's easier than ever for a trouble-maker to disseminate this kind of misinformation on a global scale; however, the upside is that it's also easier than ever to debunk these falsehoods without even leaving your own home. Information is power which means that, like any other form of power, it can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands but incredibly useful in the right ones.
I found this site to have some more excellent examples of how necessary a healthy skepticism is in everyday life, but I also have another personal example of how dangerous this sort of misinformation can be if handed out unopposed by people who should be digging just a little deeper.
This interviewee, as I mentioned, was convinced seat belts did more harm than good if you were in an accident and you should never wear them while driving. To back up this position - one which was not only scientifically inaccurate but illegal in Ontario - he produced some set of "facts" which I cannot reproduce here verbatim but "proved" that, of all the fatal accidents in Ontario the previous year, the percentage of people who died while wearing a seatbelt was far higher than the percentage of people who died while not wearing one. An impressive stat, to be sure....but completely and utterly irrelevant. (I'll explain why in a moment.)
The nonsense he was putting forth itself was bad enough, but I was stunned that Beninger let it run completely unopposed by a single person who could have easily debunked this ridiculous "theory". Instead, she acted like a fan-girl, saying things like "wow, I never realized that!" and "I'm going to have to think hard about wearing my seatbelt from now on!" I was outraged by this and called in immediately to speak to someone about how dangerous this was; alas, although I spoke to many people at CFNY on many, many occasions, this was not one of them. As you can tell, I still haven't forgotten how egregious her behaviour was that day.
As promised, here is a quick explanation as to why the stats our "rebel" was using that day were horribly twisted.
Let's say you live in a community of exactly 100 drivers. Of those 100 drivers, 90 of them wear a seatbelt at all times and the other 10 never do. Now let's say that one very eventful day, all of those 100 drivers get in an accident (50 2-car accidents, 1 100-car pileup, it really doesn't matter although it would be more impressive if each of them was in precisely the same kind of accident). Of those 100 drivers, 50 are killed. Of the 50 that are killed, 40 are wearing seatbelts and 10 are not - meaning all 10 drivers who never wear seatbelts are killed.
To use the stats that Mr. Anti-Seatbelt was using that day, in 40 of the 50 fatal accidents that day (or 80%), the drivers who were killed were wearing seatbelts. In only 20% of the accidents, the fatalities were seatbelt-free. This, on the surface, might seem to be a pretty compelling argument for never wearing a seatbelt. But it's a ridiculous conclusion based on an equally ridiculous "statistic".
It's much more important to look at this situation from the reverse angle. Of the 10 people who were in an accident that day - any accident, fatal or non-fatal - without wearing their seatbelts, all 10 of them died. This is a fatality rate of 100% among drivers not wearing seatbelts. Conversely, of all the drivers who had accidents that day and survived, all 50 of them were wearing seatbelts. Furthermore, of all the drivers that day who were wearing seatbelts while being involved in an accident, 50 of the 90 survived - a survival rate of a little more than 55%. So your chances of surviving your accident that day were better than 1 in 2 if you were wearing a seatbelt, but absolutely nil if you were not.
Same overall numbers but a wildly different conclusion if the stats are actually processed properly. There's a reason Mark Twain was fond of quoting (but didn't actually coin) the expression, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
As a born contrarian and lifelong cynic, I am very unlikely to ever take anything anyone tells me at face value, no matter how much I trust the source. It's really only been this new Information Age where that position has finally started to pay off instead of just annoying the hell out of everyone around me. I mean, it still does that; now, however, I can point to how healthy it is and laugh. I highly recommend this to everyone!