Knowing Your Chances: What Health Stats Really Mean

Learn how to put aside unjustified fears and hopes and how to weigh your real risk of illness—or likelihood of recovery
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In a 2007 campaign advertisement, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chances of surviving prostate cancer—and thank God, I was cured of it—in the United States? Eighty-two percent. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England? Only 44 percent under socialized medicine.” Giuliani used these statistics to argue that he was lucky to be living in New York and not in York. This statement was big news. As we will explain, it was also a big mistake.

In 1938 in World Brain (Methuen & Co.), English writer H. G. Wells predicted that for an educated citizenship in a modern democracy, statis­tical thinking would be as indispensable as reading and writing. At the beginning of the 21st century, nearly everyone living in an industrial society has been taught reading and writing but not statistical thinking—how to understand information about risks and uncertainties in our technological world. That lack of understanding is shared by many ­physicians, journalists and politicians such as Giuliani who, as a result, spread misconceptions to the public.

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