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Dubious Data


When new studies and demographic analyses are published, it's easy to find yourself making assumptions by interpreting the raw data. Those assumptions can lead to misleading conclusions that run contrary to what the data actually illustrates. STATS, a "non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service (STATS)... on the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media," attempts to provide a counterbalance to quickly rendered assumptions made upon the release of studies, just published their "Dubious Data Awards." The awards are an interesting collection of the way new research and statistics have been interpreted by the media in ways that misinform or mislead.

One example: In July, the Associated Press - and many other news organizations - reported that "Using marijuana seems to increase the chance of becoming psychotic... even infrequent use could raise the small but real risk of this serious mental illness by 40 percent." Since marijuana use rates have skyrocketed since the 1940's and 50's, going from single digit percentages of the population trying it to a peak of some 60 percent of high school seniors trying it in 1979 (stabilizing thereafter at roughly 50 percent of each high school class), we would expect to see this trend have some visible effect on the prevalence of schizophrenia and other psychoses.

Roughly one to two percent of the population has schizophrenia (and another two percent or so have other psychotic disorders), and this percentage does not vary much with the region within the U.S. Over time, diagnosis of schizophrenia has changed, making it almost impossible to evaluate whether low-level exposure to pot could increase the risk by as much as 40 percent.

Of course, the STATS analysis is not necessarily the right one every time, but the different perspective they offer is helpful.

STATS Dubious Data Awards [via kottke]
The STATS Blog

Advertisement, published in Popular Science, Dec. 1957, via Todd Ehlers's Flickr


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