Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Secret Language Of Statistics

Back in ‘95, the news warned women that third-generation birth control pills increased the risk of potentially lethal blood clots by 100%. Many women stopped taking the pill, which led to unwanted pregnancies and about 13,000 additional abortions in Wales and England the following year.

The response to the potentially lethal pills made sense. A 100% increase is a lot.

But how by much did the likelihood of blood clots increase exactly?

Turns out, not much.

The earlier second-generation pills were expected to cause blood clots in 1 out of every 7,000 users. The third-generation pill increased this number to 2 out of 7,000.

Which the journalists conveniently left out of their reports. And was never told to the general public.

That distortion of the facts cost the National Health Service roughly 21 million pounds in maternity care and 46 million pounds in abortion provision.

The only people who benefitted from the incident were the journalists who got their story on the front page.

If you dig into more media reports, you’ll notice that many statistics give us false ideas on what’s actually going on. That’s because journalists either don’t know the language of statistics, or care more about their story going viral than informing the reader.

So until media outlets see transparency as the highest good, you have to become literate in the language of statistics yourself. Or else you can easily be led astray.

Which can have dire consequences if you’re in a position of power over others. Such as a boss, politician or judge.

Back in ‘99, an English judge sentenced an innocent mother to life because he didn’t understand statistics and probability.

That mother was Sally Clark and she was convicted of killing her two baby boys, who both died with no clear explanation within three months of being born. 

The defence argued the children died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Which the prosecutor overturned by relying on statistical evidence by a paediatrician, who said that the chance of two children from an affluent family suffering SIDS was 1 in 73 million.

After Sally served three years of her sentence, a microbiological report proved that the second son died of natural causes. And a reexamination of the paediatrician’s statistics showed that the numbers were wrong because the statistics didn’t keep track of genetic factors.

Which the judge could have known if he knew more about statistics and probability.

Although Sally was released from prison after almost three years, she suffered severe psychological damage from having lost her two children, serving time behind bars, and being crucified by the press.

Unable to recover by herself, she looked for peace in a bottle. Sally died four years later of alcohol poisoning.

The misuse of statistics can have scary consequences. If you want to defend yourself against numbers, pick up Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics. Which you can legally read and download for free here.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach