Unhelpful Statistics Create Misleading Political Statements

Unhelpful Statistics Create Misleading Political Statements – 21st July, 2018 – By Lynn Webster, M.D.

Benjamin Disraeli reportedly said that there are three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He may have been right.

The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Companies shipped 1.6 billion opioids to Missouri from 2012 to 2017, report says.”

The story references a report released by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that says “drug distributors Cardinal Health, McKesson Corp. and Amerisource Bergen funneled the equivalent of about 260 opioid pills for every person in Missouri in the six-year period.”  

Taken at face value, that quantity of opioids does sound huge.

But what does the number mean?

Another way to spin numbers is illustrated in this slide.

It shows the number of pills reportedly dispensed in various milligram amounts. We can see that 1.6 billion 5 mg pills are equal to 266 million 30 mg pills.

If reducing the number of dispensed pills were the goal, that could easily be accomplished by increasing the strength of pills.

However, that might be riskier to patients.

Statistics Can Be Twisted to Prove Anything

As Cracked pointed out, “Even innocent statistics can be twisted to support any nefarious thing you want to prove.”

Here are just a few of my previous posts about the “devious art” of statistics:

…and so many more posts on how we’re lied to by drug-war statistics.

A more recent startling example is the CNN headline, “Drug deaths rose 8,370% in some US counties over 34 years.

  • Why look back 34 years?
  • What does that increase in drug deaths mean?
  • And why choose select counties?

The only plausible explanation is that it provided data that would shock readers.

When they are taken out of context, figures — particularly those involving large numbers — can be used to make false arguments and to mislead people.

That seems to have happened with the Washington Post article about opioids.

What Do Statistics Tell Us About the Opioid Crisis in Missouri?

It seems to me that the 1.6 billion figure is a political statement rather than a helpful statistic.

It comes from a 6-year rather than a 1-year period, and that inflates the figure. Obviously, the longer the time period the report covers, the greater the number would be.

More importantly, we have no idea how the number relates to the needs of Missourians.

  • How well is pain managed in the state, and who is receiving the medication?
  • Are opioids used mostly for palliative care, or are people receiving far more medication than they need following surgery?

To imply that anyone in the opioid distribution chain has been guilty of wrongdoing on the basis of the gross number of pills dispensed is not responsible.

But the article’s out-of-context headline troubles me.

It is misleading. It can lead to harmful political statements that can affect the health and well-being of Missourians, specifically, and people living in the United States, generally.

Author: Lynn Webster, M.D.

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