on being educated about cancer, death rates, and their statistical interpretation

comments about education, its settings and agents, triggered by a New York Times story about cancer death rates.

Last week, I completed the first draft of what is to be the postface of the third volume of the Perspectives on Comprehensive Education Series I am co-editing with Ed Gordon.  It includes a few lines about the responsibility for journalists to build on their educative role.  They educate, whether they are aware of it or not, simply by providing information about the world we all inhabit.  I use the word ‘educate’ rather than ‘teach’ to distinguish between activities where one can check what those who read (watch, or whatever) might learn, and activities where there is no way to check.  Journalists make something available that is much more than “information” or even “opinion.”  Journalists make us discover what we might not know, and they organize a curriculum, as well as a pedagogy.  How might we get them to take this activity even more seriously than some of them already may do?

There is much evidence that journalists know about their educative role.  One example is a sub-story that accompanied a New York Times story about the difficulty of curing cancer, “Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer” (NYT, April 23, 2009).  The handle supposed to get our attention (I think) is the fact that modern medicine has been much more successful at dealing with heart disease than with cancer.  The basic “data” is a comparison of death rates and a spectacular table summarizing “Deaths from cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population [compared] to death rates from heart disease and stroke.”

What I found interesting was that the story was accompanied by a related story, “As Other Death Rates Fall, Cancer’s Scarcely Moves.”  This story was published as a box within the other story in the print version of the New York Times.  That story consisted of an explanation of what is meant by “death rate,” why the statistics are not “lying and hiding major advances,” why there might be “other explanations… for example … the competing cause-of-death hypothesis” and why there are no easy explanations.  This story is really not “news” but it is an essential educative expansion of the story by exploring the questions a reader might ask.  The story ends with links to related stories from the Times over the past few years that might be considered an expansion of the paper’s curriculum about cancer death rates.

Now, I do not know enough about the editing of newspapers to know how the basic story, and then the explanatory story, are scheduled or which story is to be expanded by an explanation.  It is not uncommon.  I would say I learned most of what I have gotten to know about “credit default swap” and other mysterious financial stuff from explanatory stories in the major media.

The interesting next question is how to encourage the media to expand this service.  In all sorts of ways, the development of the web has made it much easier for them to do this, as long as the stories remain available essentially for free.  One imagines, and this is a matter of both curriculum and pedagogy,  that they would link to some kind of “wiki.”  Given the doubts about wikis, the media and/or a university that might stand with it, one imagine a controlled wiki where information would be peer reviewed, then linking further to less controlled wikis, as well as an expanding web of links.  I am sure there are many other possibilities.

What I now want to find out easily is: how do statistics about death rates relate to statistics about causes of death?

One thought on “on being educated about cancer, death rates, and their statistical interpretation”

  1. Reading about the inside work of medicine and health care always scares me, in part because it tends to reveal that there is a lot more ambiguity than the public likes to perceive. I have a feeling that we prefer to think of the human body as a machine, where we can identify why something is not working, and fix it or replace it.

    I’m tempted to go Latourian again (as usual), and I wonder how accurate it is to directly say that “death rate” can be linked to only one source “heart disease” or “cancer.” Is it always that clear cut? Certainly, “heart disease” is a vague term, and it seems like the decline of death rates could be linked to any number of factors. Perhaps heart disease is more preventable through better diet and exercise.

    On a related note, I’m curious to know what the table for cancer only has whites and blacks. More specifically, I’m curious about what happened when the people collecting the data came across a non-white and non-black person. Did they disregard the data?

    BTW, speaking of learning about the credit crisis, I learned it via youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0zEXdDO5JU

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