The important factor of how the newspapers report the findings of scientific studies should be considered next. How do news stories amplify and exaggerate results whilst maintaining a grain of truth? This is not to point the finger at the journalists because in reality it is our responsibility to realize that we may not even read news stories except for the catchy headline. Our job here is to point out how this is achieved so that people with diabetes do not become so overtly worried about eating white rice and that more harm than good comes from how they interpret the information.

Another interesting point is to reveal how we love to be influenced by numbers, especially big numbers, even if they mean absolutely nothing in the bigger picture of our lives. My mind is taken back to a memorable article written by Dr Ben Goldacre for his 18 November 2008 Bad Science column in The Guardian.

“you are 80% less likely to die from a meteor landing on your head if you wear a bicycle helmet all day”

This shows as Ben explains how we are all suckers for big numbers, it shows how we can make a story out of nonsense and it shows how we should be critical and not to believe everything we read.

Getting to the point of this story about white rice, The Daily Telegraph began their article with the studies’ conclusion, they state that for every large bowl of white rice eaten there is an 11% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. One obvious question is what does this really mean to me? Does this mean that every time I eat a bowl of white rice I should test my blood sugar? I might start doing this with such alarming regularity as to become even more neurotic and compulsive.

The point of percentages is that they are the most obvious way for newspapers to write a headline. Refer back to Ben Goldacre’s example that you are 80% less likely to die from a meteor landing on your head if you wear a bicycle helmet all day. This is 80% compared with what percentage that a meteor will fall on your head in your lifetime? It is obviously 80% of a very tiny number bearing in mind that I have never seen this happen.

If the chance of a meteor falling on your head was say 0.1 events per lifetime then an 80% reduction is 0.08 events if you wear a helmet (80% of 0.1). Is this going to encourage you to wear a helmet or will you conclude the stupidity of doing something on a background of such a small gain? This is what is called ‘absolute risk reduction’, it is personal and absolute to you. If you think of it in those terms you will see how newspaper headlines quoting percentages encourage us through the influence of big numbers to focus on the story. The reporting of percentages giving what is called ‘relative risk reduction’ is not untruthful, it is just unhelpful.






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