Thursday, January 5, 2017

Statistically Speaking

I love statistics. My favorite math classes in college were statistics classes. Statistics can be quite helpful. And they never lie.

Did you catch that? Statistics never lie.
But.
People do.

We are quite capable of taking in numerical information and manipulating it to align with our personal platforms. You see, a statistic is just a number. It actually means nothing all by itself. We have to evaluate it to determine a meaning.

For example, if i were to tell you that statistically, you are more likely to be overweight if you eat at McDonald's, you might consider that to mean McDonald's equals weight gain.

You + McD's = weight gain

However, that is not the case. Even if that statistic is true (i'm totally throwing that out there without any knowledge of validity), it doesn't really prove anything.

See, statistics are tricky. In the right hands, statistics help us understand trends, evaluate the effects of set variables on a set population, and interpret research findings. In the wrong hands, statistics will lead us astray... take us down a rabbit hole of misinterpretation that can ultimately lead us to believe something that is just not true.

So, while "9 out of 10 dentists" prefer XYZ toothpaste "over the leading brand" is, for sure, completely accurate, that doesn't tell you much, does it? I still have unanswered questions:
- which toothpaste is the "leading brand?"
- were these dentists new to their profession or retired, highly-experienced dentists?
- what did they prefer about it, specifically? Was it because it prevented cavities better than the "leading brand" or because it was just more readily available nationwide?

(I discovered in one of my statistics classes that "leading brand" really just applies to generic! Shh!)

So you see, statistics are helpful, but they are tricky. They are practically weapons of partial information.

Here's where it gets personal for me....

I was born with a tongue tie. It was never discovered by my parents or doctors because I had no issues with feeding or talking. I discovered it myself in my teens, far too old to worry about correcting it.

Two of my three children have developed something most people have never heard of: Transient Synovitis. It is when a virus settles in the hip joint and the child loses the ability to support his/her own weight on that leg. Oftentimes without pain. Not dangerous, but not exactly common.

My youngest child was born with the most uncommon form of congenital hypothyroidism. Her bloodwork told a story her development didn't support. Still, we saw specialists and confirmed. Medication was prescribed and she'll have this condition forever.

This same child developed obstructive sleep apnea at 12 months of age. We saw specialists and confirmed. We were told by the specialists at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital that "we don't usually see kids this young with this condition." Surgery corrected the condition, but her recovery was a bit abnormal compared to the other patients. She just didn't fit the norm.

Same child develops not one but THREE separate reactions to vaccinations. Highly unlikely. Unrelated coincidence, the doctor tells us after the first round, then again after the second reaction. After the third one, which was by far the worst, we found another doctor.

Fast forward several years. She is very small in stature. We're beginning to worry about her growth. X-Rays of growth plates are taken and the diagnosis is that she will be a late bloomer. Fairly uncommon. She doesn't fit the norm. Again.

Last year, my dog was very sick and we thought he was dying. After trying everything and being about to give up, we sought a specialist who discovered that our dog (who is a house pet and walks with my husband around the neighborhood) had contracted a canine form of MRSA. A couple of months of exhausting treatment saw great improvements, and we eventually beat the bug. But still. MRSA?!

I love statistics. Really.
But when someone looks me in the eyes and says anything is "highly unlikely" or "statistically unlikely" or not something i should worry about because it isn't common, i feel less than relieved. In my world, statistics are just really fascinating numbers and we often fall outside the norms.

And somebody has to be the minority.
Statistically speaking.