The headline read:
Angelina Jolie inspires women to save themselves the agony of breast cancer by having preventive double mastectomies
There were any number of similar headlines in mainstream media this week, all full of praise for A(ish) List Celebrity, A-list barm pot and alleged actress Angelina Jolie for being brave enough to have her tits off because according to "experts" she had an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer. Angelina Jolie was not brave, her decision was either cowardly or calculating. It would be uncharitable to suggest the Jolie jugs were sagging unattractively as she nears forty and her 'people' came up with a great way of having them lifted and milking maximum publicity out of it, so we will not mention that possibility.
But why are we celebrating self mutilation. If some teenager who'd had a shitty childhood was cutting him or herself would we celebrate that?
Ah no, but Angie had an eighty seven per cent chance of developing breast cancer. Eighty Seven per cent of what, you wonder. We did at the Boggart Blog editorial meeting. Only yesterday I was trying to explain to a science head Daily Telegraph blogger why only nine per cent of people trust statistics. It went like this:
Fifty-eight per cent of Britons between 16 and 75 believe that if you flip a coin twice, the probability of getting two heads is 50 per cent. Fifty-four per cent of Britons are "fairly confident" in their ability to use data and numbers.
If the Ipsos-Mori poll from which this is taken was accurate, it means that at least 12 per cent of Britons think they're pretty good with numbers but can't work out 0.5 times 0.5.
I'm not especially brilliant with numbers, data and statistics, in the scale of things, I should admit. But they are important. They're the only tool we have for assessing the world dispassionately, for stripping it as far as we can of the colour of our own experience. Which is why the numbers given above are not, actually, the most depressing in the poll.
The most depressing numbers are the following. One thousand and thirty-four British adults between 16 and 75 were asked to choose between the following statements:
Statistics are more important than my own experiences or those of my family and friends in helping me keep track of how the government is doing
My own experiences or those of my family and friends are more important than statistics in helping me keep track of how the government is doing.
Forty-six per cent chose the latter. Just nine per cent chose the former.
But how can anyone, using their own experience and those of the, say, 150 probably fairly similar people they regularly come into contact with, possibly gain any sort of insight into the effects government reforms of the NHS, or benefit cuts, or whatever, are having across a nation of tens of millions of people? (read all this post)
Tom, you are probably not as deficient in maths and statistics as you think. If you could be more objective about anything that wears a "science" label I reckon you would do fine.
The trick is to be able to discriminate between what is a statistic and what is an interpretation.
Manchester United won 30 out of 37 matches played this so far season.
Chelsea won 22 out of 37 matches played so far.
These are statistics and are easily verifiable.
Now if we say (using mental arithmetic) Manchester United won 80% of games played this season while Chelsea won 60% we're still OK but will alienate many people because percentages are used in statistics to deceive and deflect.
If however we come over all Brian Cox and say Manchester United win rate 80%, Chelsea win rate 60% therefore Manchester United are 20% (or 33% depending on how you calculate) better than Chelsea, that's statistical bollocks and people are a lot more adept at seeing through it than media type, politicians and academics are willing to accept.
You see, statistics are not always numbers, more often they are interpretations of numbers. And when government or big business is involved they are interpretations that are deliberately skewed towards the outcome the sponsoring organisation wants.
Angelina Jolie did not have an eighty seven per cent chance of developing breast cancer, according to figures from the U S National Cancer Institute fact sheet she had a 12.4% chance of developing cancer. Or maybe an eighty seven per cent of twelve point four percent. Like candidates in a mathematics examination, scientists and big science shills should always be required to show their workings.
from U S National Cancer Institute
What is the average American woman’s risk of developing breast cancer during her lifetime?
Based on current incidence rates, 12.4 percent of women born in the United States today will develop breast cancer at some time during their lives (1). This estimate, from the most recent SEER Cancer Statistics Review (a report published annually by the National Cancer Institute’s [NCI] Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results [SEER] Program), is based on breast cancer statistics for the years 2007 through 2009.
This estimate means that, if the current incidence rate stays the same, a woman born today has about a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during her life. On the other hand, the chance that she will never have breast cancer is 87.6 percent, or about 7 in 8.
In the 1970s, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States was just under 10 percent (or about 1 in 10).
The last five annual SEER reports show the following estimates of lifetime risk of breast cancer, all very close to a lifetime risk of 1 in 8:
Someone close to me has recently undergone treatment for breast cancer. In her case neither her mother or her aunts or either grandmother ever had any sign of breast cancer, in spite of them all living beyond the average lifespan for their generation. Statistics mean nothing, reality is what counts.
So Angelina Jolie was caluclating that by having her tits off she had a one hundred per cent chance of grabbing front page headlines in ninety five per cent (I made that up) of the worlds print and broadcast media of she was so terrified of having an eighty seven and a half per cent chance of not developing breast cancer.
Or as many American experts are agreeing with a more sceptical view of the statistics that informed Angelina's assault on her breast tissue that in fact her chanches of developing breast cancer based on the fact that she has two genes active that have been idientified in studies funded by the reconstructive surgery industry, she had a far smaller probability than my crude statistical calculations show. Did Angelina Jolie Make A Mistake By Acting On The breast Cancer Gene Theory
Here's a teaser:
The 'prophylactic' removal of women's breasts due to BRCA1/BRCA2 status has become a disturbingly popular trend, and increasingly it is being celebrated in the mainstream media and medical establishments as a reasonable choice. But does the scientific evidence itself refute this approach?
Angelina Jolie's recent announcement in a New York Times op-ed that she had a 'prophylactic' double mastectomy due to her BRCA1/BRCA2 status has disturbing implications, some of which we covered late last year in connection with Allyn Rose, the 24-year old Miss America contestant who announced she would be undergoing a double mastectomy to "prevent" breast cancer.
Whatever, you can bet if there is a sudden rush to private clinics by rich, egotistical silly tarts wanting their tits off "like Angelina", Ms. Jolie will be well, if indirectly rewarded for her sacrifice. In fact the publicity she has had already must be worth enough to pay for ten double mastectomies.
The irony is our forebears who did not have technology, modern medical techniques, designer drugs and all the rest and just had to catch what life threw at them and run with it seemed to suffer far less stress and anxiety than we do. I can't help feeling that the plague of progress in the 20th century has robbed us of more than Angelina's tits.
As for Tom Chivers, I hope his blind faith in statistics does not induce him to go and have his tits off.
St Angelina, save us from ourselves! - Brendan O’Neill, Spiked
The beatification of Angelina Jolie for writing about her mastectomy confirms that celebrity culture has reached new and hysterical heights