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Mangled Statistics Make Good Reading

".... the analysis of how facts can be distorted by bad statistics is easy to translate to breast cancer research and policy decisions."


Statistics can strike fear into the hearts of patients with cancer. They are the basis for clinical treatment decisions, distribution of research funds and political agendas.

The problem is that not only are statistics sometimes misinterpreted, all too often those statistics are dead wrong.

According to University of Delaware professor Joel Best, who chairs the sociology and criminal justice department, statistical information is misused by people and organizations interested in shaping debate to their own ends.

In his introduction to the book, "Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians and Activists" (University of California Press), Best said his interest in the manipulation of statistics was spurred by a gradate student's dissertation prospectus, which attempted to grab attention by quoting a statistic that claimed "every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled."

Best decided to look carefully at the figure, which was published in a journal in 1995. He did the math and found that if only one child had been killed by gunfire in 1950, an annual doubling would have brought the figure to 32,768 by 1965, to 1 million in 1970, to 1 billion in 1980 and to more than 35 trillion by the date the journal was published.

Investigating further, he found the basis of the claim: a 1994 report by the Children's Defense Fund that found the number of American children killed each year by guns had doubled since 1950, not doubled each year since 1950.

The lesson should be clear, Best says: "Bad statistics live on; they take on lives of their own."

"Damned Lies and Statistics" is designed to help readers think critically about statistics presented as fact, and Best centers his work on a wide assortment of contemporary issues including abortion, cyberporn, homelessness, teen suicide and the U.S. census.

Although he doesn't discuss breast cancer statistics, the analysis of how facts can be distorted by bad statistics is easy to translate to breast cancer research and policy decisions.

In the book, Best outlines how and why flawed statistics emerge, spread and reach the public consciousness in debates over public policy. He also offers recommendations on how to detect statistics that have been misrepresented and how to make sense out of the "stat wars" that break out among experts for the various sides of issues.

The book, which was featured in the May 4, 2002 "Chronicle of Higher Education Review," has received widespread critical acclaim.

"Joel Best is at it again," Patricia Adler, author of "Peer Power," wrote. "In 'Damned Lies and Statistics,' he shows how statistics are manipulated, mismanaged, misrepresented and massaged by officials and other powerful groups to promote their agendas. He is a master at examining taken-for-granted 'facts' and debunking them through careful sociological scrutiny."

Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists - from

Also see in Resources -> Breast Cancer Statistics

Elsewhere on the Web:

Understanding cancer statistics - incidence, survival, mortality

Understanding Statistics Used to Estimate Risk and Recommend Screening

Last Updated April 21, 2017





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