Saturday, 18 July 2009

The mathematics of swine flu

Having worked on Psychic News in the past, I know just how reliable predictions can be ("There Will Be No War - Psychic News headline in August 1939). And the "65,000 swine flu deaths predicted" headlines of yesterday have now given way to more sensible reasoning (see The Guardian story). Any editor/sub-editor knows that once journalists start talking about statistics it's time to start the alarm bells. Journalists do words - not figures. And the government figures needed the cool cynicism of journalism that deadline pressure just did not allow. Blame the 'instant news now' culture of this multi media world. It turns out of course that you might just as well have made up your own figure and you were as likely to be right. The 65,000 was a worst-case scenario (still based on guesswork). A more intelligent guess is about 3,000 deaths. Which means you're more likely to die falling down stairs or crossing the road on the way to get Tamiflu than you are to die from swine flu itself. This swine flu story has a life of its own that's going to sweep common sense out fo the way.

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