Friday, 5 July 2013

It's all in the question...

Two Roman Catholic men were having a vigorous discussion in a pub. They were debating whether smoking was a sin or not. They decided to write to the Bishop and ask him to settle the matter.

John wrote first, and asked this question: “Bishop, is it a sin to smoke a cigarette while I’m saying my prayers?”  The Bishop wrote back swiftly, saying, “Yes, of course it is. When you’re praying you must focus on your prayers.”

Alan wrote the next week, putting the question slightly differently: “Bishop, is it a sin if I pray to God while I’m having a cigarette?” The Bishop was quick to reassure him, writing, “No, it is not. We should take every opportunity to pray to the Lord.”

As on so many occasions, the answer you get depends on the question you ask and, of course, who you ask.

Every day the media carries the results of some new survey, usually revealing some ‘shocking’ new insight into public opinion. Unless the survey has been carried out by a reputable pollster, and more often it’s some glossy magazine trying to boost their sales, we should be very sceptical, and always ask ourselves “What was the question, and who did they ask?

On a related matter, news stories often include headline statistics which, on further investigation, may not be all that they seem. For example, some newspapers specialise in telling us which products cause, or don’t cause cancer. So a headline that reads “Eating butter increases cancer risk by 20%” (I’m making that up, of course) would be pretty startling, and not a little frightening.

However, if you found out that the cancer in question currently had a risk rate of 1 in 100, and that eating butter might increase your risk to 1.2 in 100, you might be a little less startled.

The old saw that there are lies, damned lies and statistics doesn’t have to be true, if you question everything you read before believing it.

1 comment: