Speeding in a car with my Labrador on the way to hernia surgery: The use of stats in our daily lives

April 17, 2012

My lead foot has caused me to spend a fair amount of time in traffic school over my life.  Most of the information in those classes is for the most part straight forward and valuable; however, one statistic they quoted recently caught my ear.  In an effort to debunk the myth that accidents more frequently occur when people are on vacation or traveling in places they are not familiar with, the instructor shared that over 85% of accidents occur within five miles of the home.  Now I get that he was trying to make a point for us to be vigilant wherever we are, but that stat is just downright shady in its attempt to have a shock factor.  Considering that A) almost 100% of every car ride begins and ends within five miles of the home and B) the majority of basic functions we perform (e.g., grocery shopping, schools) are typically within five miles, the only thing that is actually interesting about that stat is that the number isn’t higher.

Two other similarly shady stats recently heard: 1) the dog breed with the most reported dog bites in the US is the Labrador Retriever, and 2) hernia surgery has one of the highest number of malpractice suits.  These both could give you pause on picking out a dog or picking a doctor for an upcoming surgery; however, the numbers behind these stats give a different story.  For dogs, the Labrador is the most popular breed in the US; the more dogs there are, the more bites will occur.  This doesn’t mean that Labradors are dangerous (I have a soft spot for these beauties) – it just means that with the largest population they are the most likely to produce the largest numbers of anything dog related – including bites.  The same goes for hernia surgeries.  Inguinal hernia surgery is one of the top ten most common surgeries in the US, thus increasing the number of malpractice suits possible.

In the end, statistics can be used for good or evil.  The driving instructor gave a questionable stat for a good purpose.  There are a lot of stats out there, particularly in politics and business, which are used for evil.  Statistics are like any cheese that has been sitting in the refrigerator for a period of time – we always need to give it a sniff before we take a bite.

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