confidential sources, and forget the statistics ...Of Cabbages and Kings Over at the Washington Post, the newspaper has begun (or at least, I never no
May 11, 2005
confidential sources, and forget the statistics ...Of Cabbages and Kings
Over at the Washington Post, the newspaper has begun (or at least, I never noticed it before) an irregular series on how the media handles or mishandles health stories. In this case, the stories being scrutinized were generated by a report in JAMA last year suggesting that aspirin might lower the chances of a woman getting breast cancer. The research was widely reported, including in the Post and all the television networks. Women who took aspirin regularly had a 20 percent lower risk compared to nonusers, the stories said. (I'll bet that line came from a press release). The inability of the media--many science writers included (and most of all, their editors)--to deal with statistics in medical research is widely known, and this was no exception, although that the reporters were not totally at fault. The three authors of the Post stories, clinicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the stories misled readers about the size and certainty of the benefits. Key questions weren't asked, such as how big the benefit was and whether the benefits outweighed the side affects of taking aspirin. Most of all: Does taking aspirin really prevent breast cancer or is there something else at work, such as something about women who take the pills versus those who dont? The Post points out that the JAMA article didn't answer those questions either, a failure of the JAMA editors. Still, the statistics were mishandled. Continue reading

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