Tuesday, December 16, 2003

How to write the perfect panic

Some hack at the BBC should be warmly congratulated for this piece which encapsulates the perfect moral panic.

1. Assert that undertaking an activity doubles your risk of some terrible outcome.
2. Illustrate just how many people already suffer this terrible outcome.
3. Point out how many people undertake the dangerous activity.
4. Describe in detail just how terrible that outcome can be.

BUT:

Singularly fail to point out the difference between relative and absolute risk. In other words, note that the risk doubles, but that the risk was tiny to begin with.

To take the particular example.

1. If you drink a lot, you could double your risk of stroke.
2. 130,000 people suffer a stroke in the UK each year.
3. Lots of people drink more than five units in a single session frequently.
4. Having a stroke is fatal in one-third of cases, and can leave the victim with permanent disability.

BUT:

While stroke is a common form of death, it effects the old disproportionately. According to the Office of National Statistics, ages 0-35 years old suffered 0.2 cases per 1000 population annually in England and Wales from 1994-1998. But those 85 years old and over suffered stroke at a rate of 26.2 per 1000 population i.e. 130 times more often.

BBC NEWS | Health | Stroke warning to binge-drinkers

Prevalence of stroke per 1000 patients, by age, sex and calendar year: 1994 - 98

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