“The most heinous use of statistics I have seen showed up on a large sign at a metropolitan airport. The sign, sponsored by a cancer organization, blared, “By this time in five years, ____ of ____ you will not be in the picture.” (I have replaced the numbers with blanks so as not to perpetuate the inference. The sign showed photos of 20 faces, with a certain number blacked out to indicate they would be dead of cancer. I felt repulsed by this ad. The sign was programming a belief that would burrow into the subconscious of the hundreds of thousands of people who would view it, and contribute to the continuity of the statistic – in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You may justifiably argue that a statistic is simply a statement of the way it is; a certain percentage of people do die of cancer, and this is a fact. But facts are always evolving. They are not solid entities at all; they have a life span, disintegrate, and give way to new facts, sometimes quickly. Sir James Jeans noted, “Science should give up on making pronouncements. The river of truth has often turned back on itself.”
Alan Cohen, in “Why Your Life Sucks…And What You Can Do About It”
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