21 July 2009

Chew on this

One of the ironies of the modern age is, as the number of communications channels widens, the number of different sources of news actually narrows. Cutthroat competition to produce the latest, quickest, hottest stories at the lowest cost has created the concept of "churnalism", and those feeding the rapacious news beast are as complicit as those who buy the papers and download the podcasts. One of the upshots of this is the constant need to produce new information, facts and opinions no matter how useful they are to an audience. It is the news equivalent of making chewing gum.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a government press release. And to make it easier to understand - to give the gum some flavour - it has any contextualising background removed, and is presented as naked truth to a scared world. This week gave birth to a "fact" that I can see becoming burnished across the popular consciousness, and accepted without question. "65,000 people could die of swine flu" was the headline that everyone grabbed from an announcement by Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer. That sounds like a lot of people, the sort of number that is clearly designed to make me panic, hide under the bed, or buy multiple copies of the Daily Mail to await their special feature on how swine flu will impact house prices.

Just suppose I want to accept that the government is trying to tell me something useful. How do I use this information in my assessment of likely risks and understand the consequences? There are some things I need to know to do this:

  • What's the baseline? What would be a normal number of deaths we could anticipate from seasonal flu, and how many swine flu deaths will offset those who would have died from regular flu anyway?

  • This is a worst case scenario, though no doubt it will be talked into fact imperceptibly over the coming weeks, though it is little more than a back-of-an-envelope calculation. How likely is a worst case scenario? Governments need to plan for those, but they also need not only to tell us the probability of it happening but how they worked it out so we can do the sums ourselves.

  • 65,000 people represents 0.1% of the population. So 99.9% of us will live in fear of something that will, in all likelihood, mildly inconvenience us. This is not to deny it is important, but we need to bear it in mind. In Botswana, half the adult population is HIV-positive or has AIDS. That clearly is something that affects a whole host of decisions on a daily basis. But I don't think we're quite there yet.

What I would like is a reasoned statement of the facts and to understand the conclusions that have been drawn from the data. We cannot eliminate risk from our lives, but I would like to understand what it actually is. Maybe we are a victim of our innumerate society that governments don't bother trying to give people the tools to make informed decisions, because there is too much other media noise to distract our interest.

1 comment:

PW said...

I think the real problem with obtaining a meaningful understanding of the risk associated with the H1N1 virus is the abandonment by the UK of any scientific measurement. Because our so-called 'containment' exercise failed miserably, we quickly moved to a situation in which no one is being swabbed and 'diagnosis' us being handled by non-English speaking migrants in £6ph call centre jobs. Now, all projections are pure speculation and based on the flimsiest of scientific data. As a result, Liam Donaldson is on the telly saying that swine flu seems to be worst in densely populated areas. No s** t, Sherlock. You really need a PhD in epidemiology to work that one out, don't you? Let's pray the virus doesn't become more deadly in it's second wave (as was the case in 1918). If it did, these people would be so out of their depth, we might as well turn out the lights and declare the UK a write-off.