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The Ten Percent Solution : ‘Studies’ Get Plenty of Media Attention, but Should We Rely on Their Findings?

ALMOST EVERYTHING we know about ourselves comes from “studies.” Our newspapers are full of their results. They are made by scientists, or graduate research teams, or think tanks; their findings are usually taken as gospel.

I don’t like to go against the Establishment, but I sometimes wonder whether the studies we consider in the conduct of our lives are really dependable.

For instance, we have been told variously, as the result of studies, that salt is bad for you; that salt is good for you; that cholesterol is bad for you; that cholesterol is good for you; that beer is bad for you; that beer is good for you, and so on.

A reader has sent me an article from a UC Berkeley School of Health publication that notes that 240,000 biomedical articles “in English alone” are published each year. “If every ‘study’ proved something, there would be no questions left unanswered. A dose of skepticism is always in order . . . .”

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The article recalls a recent study allegedly showing that people who drink coffee heavily had double or triple the normal risk of heart disease. As usual, some of the media jumped on these findings without heeding the accompanying warning that many other factors had not been considered, so it wasn’t clear that coffee was at fault. As usual, one study begets another.

It is widely accepted as a fact of contemporary life that half of all marriages end in divorce. I have used that figure myself. Margaret Lee of Fullerton has sent me a newspaper clipping quoting the results of a Harris poll disputing that statistic.

Pollster Louis Harris himself said that the idea was “one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetrated in modern times.”

On the contrary, Harris said, government statistics and his own surveys show that only one out of eight marriages will end in divorce. In any one year, he said, 2% of existing marriages will break up.

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The misapprehension that half of all marriages end in divorce, he said, came from a 1981 government report that there had been 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces in that year. On the contrary, Harris said, that figure is accurate only if it is made clear that it applies only to that year and cannot be projected into the future.

Harris and others say the statistics didn’t take into account the marriages that have lasted 20, 30 or 40 years and still endure. Combining those marriages with recent statistics would not add up to half as many divorces as marriages, he said.

But if half as many people are getting divorced as are getting married, today, this year, I’d say a newlywed’s chances for a lasting marriage aren’t very good. So 10 million couples who got married in 1950 didn’t get divorced in 1981; that year the rate was still two marriages to one divorce.

I have also been rebuked for repeating the notion that commercial flying is the safest form of travel. In the sense of safety per passenger mile, that might seem true, since people travel such long distances by airplane and pile up hundreds of thousands of miles per accident. But the National Safety Council in Chicago tells me that per 100,000,000 passenger miles, buses are safest, airlines second, railroads third and automobiles fourth.

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However, it seems to me that if the statistics were based not on passenger miles but on trips, the automobile might be safer than the airplane. But how do we calculate how many trips people take in their automobiles?

So I don’t know what the answer is. But I always fasten my seat belt, whichever way I go.

John Daly of Santa Maria sends me a column by Nick Clooney of the Cincinnati Post, who also is skeptical of “studies” and “statistics.” He points out that 10% seems to be the favorite figure of statisticians. “We are told that 10% of us are alcoholic, 10% of us are homosexual, 10% of us are child abusers, and so on. Oh, really? Says who?”

I don’t like to add to the unreliability of statistics, but ever since I became skeptical of their worth, I’ve been making them up. For example, I might say that fewer than 1% of Americans have read “Huckleberry Finn,” or that 67% of Americans spend eight hours a week watching sex and violence on TV. So far, not one of my statistics has been challenged.

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Perhaps that shows how docile Americans are in believing what they’re told--if it sounds scientific. On the other hand, it just may show that I am psychic or have an uncanny knack for divining the truth.

I doubt that any other nation in history has been the subject of so many studies--that any other nation in history has been so confused about what it is really like.

Believe me: 64% of all Americans are confused.


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