Earlier this year a striking fact made the news: Most cancers, about two thirds in fact, were down to bad luck rather than lifestyle or environmental factors. Cue a whole pile of discussion, with some declaring that we might as well take our chances, and others wanting to pick the ‘fact’ apart.
It’s a classic example of bad reporting on a science story. ‘Most types of cancer’ is not the same thing as ‘most cases of cancer’. Get it wrong, and you’ve basically told people that it doesn’t matter how they live, a message that many people would happily embrace.
- The Daily Mail misunderstood it, with a lead sentence that claimed “most cases of cancer are the result of ‘bad luck’ rather than unhealthy lifestyles, diet or even inherited genes, claim scientists.”
- The BBC got it right in the headline, Most cancer types ‘just bad luck’, but then muddied the waters in the very first sentence by using the example of smoking. Lung cancer and smoking is in no way a matter of luck. They then added a photo of a pint of beer and a smoking cigarette with the caption ‘time to throw caution to the wind?’ The article says it isn’t, but you’d have to read that far down.
- The Guardian landed somewhere in between with the headline ‘Two thirds of adult cancers largely ‘down to bad luck’ rather than genes’, the ambiguous ‘cancers’ making it unclear whether we’re talking about cases or types.
I imagine the scientists behind the study are banging their heads on the wall. Their paper is called ‘Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions’, and it is much more concerned with DNA replication in different tissues types. It’s not really about the chances of you or I being diagnosed with cancer.
How did it get so misconstrued? Perhaps it’s from the John Hopkins University press release, which was titled Bad luck of random mutations plays predominant role in cancer, study shows. It’s not an irresponsible press release, but perhaps the ambiguity of ‘role in cancer’ opened the door to being misunderstood. The explanatory notes to the press release, posted a week later, are longer than the original story.
How did the ‘two thirds of cancer are down to luck’ story get so much attention? Because the media loves a striking fact – a statistic or comparison surprises and shocks.
When campaigns use such facts deliberately, they’re often referred to as ‘killer facts’ – facts that cuts through the debate and, hopefully, strikes opposing arguments dead. Here’s one I’ve used myself.
A killer fact has real power. It will be repeated and passed around, especially when visually presented. It can generate headlines and discussion on TV and radio, and reach millions through social media. In can genuinely influence debate. I’ve had several conversations with people about cancer and lifestyle in the last few weeks. I’ve also had several conversations about inequality this week.
You get the impression that the ‘two thirds of cancers’ story became a headline stat at the media stage, and that John Hopkins Medicine weren’t entirely aware of what they were doing. Oxfam, on the other hand, are well aware of what they’re trying to do when they release their facts about inequality.
As I mentioned last week, Oxfam’s latest killer fact is that the richest 1% of the world’s population owns 48% of its wealth, and by 2016 they’re likely to have the whole half. It made headlines around the world, and sparked another round of discussion about inequality, including here on the blog.
It’s the third year in a row that Oxfam have seized the opportunity of the World Economic Forum in Davos to draw attention to global inequality. Last year we had the fact that the 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.
In 2013 it was ‘The top 100 billionaires added $240 billion to their wealth in 2012 – enough to end world poverty four times over.’
Generating killer facts is part of the strategy at Oxfam, and there are notes on how to do it well. With admirable transparency, those guidelines are public and you can look them up for yourself on the charity’s in-depth Policy and Practice pages.
One of the things the guidelines stress is the need to back up your statistics and be prepared to defend them. If in doubt, they say, don’t publish it. Oxfam have done their homework, though not all of it was in the briefing that accompanied last week’s PR effort. You’d need to root around in the wider Even it Up campaign and the charity’s research blogs for answers to some common objections.
However, no matter how much groundwork you do, the ‘killer fact’ is out of your control once it’s released into the wild. Like the cancer story, Oxfam’s inequality stats can easily be misunderstood and misreported. Last year I noted stories that suggested 85 people had half the world’s wealth, which is not the same thing as having the same wealth as half the world. It can get confusing.
Because these are such striking facts, they’re also likely to be endlessly repeated at the expense of those other narratives around inequality. As I’ve said before, there are several things happening at once around inequality. The difference between global inequality and in-country inequality is one of the important distinctions lost in the retweeting, for example.
So there are risks to the killer fact approach. You want to know that if people are going to attack them, they attack the interpretation rather than the fact itself (Tim Worstall on Oxfam’s stat is a case in point: “It does have to be said that their numbers are correct” he admits, “but also that they’re not very important.”) They should be approached with caution, but when they’re used well, at an opportune moment, the striking fact can be a powerful tool for jamming an issue onto the agenda.