IT’S only Crikey, so we can afford to give thanks for the errors and inanity populating that daily epistle to people who, while now earning too much to read Green Left Weekly with a clear conscience, remain bogged in the smug, undergraduate sensibility that is the essence of Eric Beecher’s little business strategy. If not for the errors and howlers that brighten Crikey’s daily snooze-a-thon, the publication would qualify for listing under the Pharmaceutical Prescriptions Act (1953) as a life-threatening soporific. If you notice a colleague nodding off at his or her desk, be confident that the latest dispatch has reached the in-box.
There was, however, a Crikey item yesterday, copied, pasted and passed along by reader Bob on the Murray, that defied the norm, not for its content but as a remarkable testament to one writer’s willingness to analyse statistics in accordance with which way the wind of accepted opinion happens to be blowing. Writer Melissa Sweet, who is a veteran health reporter, reported in Thursday’s edition that stories asserting a surge in bowel cancer amongst younger people were misleading -- a beat-up, in other words. As Sweet put it, citing one of her sources:
...[WA GP Brett] Montgomery’s analysis (which as he acknowledges merits further review) suggests there has actually been a slight decline in the proportion of bowel cancers occurring in people under 35, depending on which time frame you examine.
Bowel cancer is one of those “safe” subjects, the left’s only interest being that it did not carry off Tim Blair a few years ago. Sweet is thus free to exercise reportorial diligence and question the science, the presentation of statistics in graphs and charts, and the apparently arbitrary selection of periods of years over which the “cherrypicked” numbers can be cast as an ascending trend. Sweet’s suspicions may be justified or they may not, but the important thing is that she can address the alleged misrepresentation without being excoriated as a cancer denier or tumour-frendly tool of, as militant vegans prefer to believe, Big Meat.
On global warming, however, Sweet’s skepticism goes walkabout, as her 2007 cover story for Rural Doctor leaves no doubt. Global warming will present all manner of problems to country physicians, she reports, mentioning dengue fever and various other maladies poised to scourge the bush as temperatures soar. The article’s certainty is summed up in the index, “The Heat Is On: How climate change is threatening rural health and what needs to be done”, and the publication’s editrix, Marge Overs, expands the alarmist line in her note to readers:
In March, leading epidemiologist Professor Tony McMichael addressed the National Rural Health Conference in Albury about the impact of climate change on rural health. His wake-up call left many of us shifting uncomfortably in our chairs, as he painted a dire picture of new and changing disease patterns, of increasing injury and death from floods, droughts and heatwaves, and of ecological processses that will change crop yields, human nutrition and health. In this issue Melissa Sweet investigates climate change and rural health, and whether enough is being done to protect vulnerable rural communities.
Funny, ain’t it, how one topic brings out a reporter’s inner statistician while another inspires nothing but unquestioning stenography. While all Sweet’s observations about the poor reporting of bowel cancer statistics could be applied to assertions about the impact of climate change, they aren’t.
CONUNDRUM: How will Ms Sweet report this development?