Sunday, July 14, 2002

Robert Matthews in The Sunday Telegraph writes this report about the witless scare story engendered by the results from a Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) study that apparently showed there was a 26% increase in the risk of breast cancer in patients undergoing HRT. Matthews points out that this is a 26% relative increase - a quarter more than a small number is still a small number. It's like the hoo-ha about breast cancer screening using mammograms. The incidence of breast cancer in women under the age of 50 is tiny - but that hasn't stopped the scare-mongers from touting screening as some sort of talismanic solution to cancer. What harm can screening do, you may ask? None, per se, of course, but it is not the most efficient way of allocating a finite health services budget. Cooler heads appear to have prevailed in the drive to introduce mass screening for prostate cancer. More men die with prostate cancer than of it - it is a disease that many men will fall prey to, but usually in later life.

There is an excellent web site, which I urge everyone to visit, called Number Watch. It has been created by a very distinguished Electronic Engineer, Professor John Brignell (if there were any justice, it would be Professor The Viscount Lord Brignell of that Ilk, KCVO, GCMG, OM). He is the author of a book called 'Sorry, Wrong Number' which details the ways in which junk science, ably assisted by its handmaiden the credulous media, and co-opted (if not sponsored) by enviro-fascistic watermelons, foists dubious scientific findings upon us - leading to, variously: gloom; despondency; taxes; disease; desuetude and death. Number Watch brutally fillets many of the dominant scare stories, and does it with verve and wit (and a certain, rather poignant note of despair - familiar to any who have spent time within the halls of acadème).

Prof. Brignell shows how, with a small amount of elementary statistical modelling, plus the notorious 'publication bias' (negative results tend to be suppressed, this being a function of the funding structures extant in modern academia), the purported increased risk is indistinguishable from a random artifact.

HRT is, I believe, one of the most significant therapies in modern women's healthcare. The reduction in osteoporosis and heart disease alone are more than enough to justify its use - the secondary psychological effects of promoting a satisfactory lifestyle, especially in the realm of sexual drive and enjoyment, cannot be overstated. A vestigial increase in the risk of an already rare disease (even if this effect is genuine) is a small price to pay for the many years of enhanced physical and mental health that HRT can bring.

This is why a sound understanding of mathematics and science is so essential to a mature public discourse. It is not so much that the majority needs an understanding of the issues in order to make good choices for itself - it needs it so as to not foist bad ones on the minority, like me, who actually can grasp the issues.


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