Statistics are a tricky thing, as 94.7% of Americans will attest.* Numbers are supposed to be cold, impartial measures of one dynamic or another. Yet 79.4% of quantitative studies are seemingly undertaken with an objective, not objectivity, squarely in mind. How else can you explain why less than 7.8% of the population believes fewer than 62% of research reports only 30-40% of the time (margin of error: +/- 97 points)?
Black and white certainly turns gray in the statistical battle over the effects of smoking bans on restaurant sales, as we reported last issue ["Smoking Adversaries Trade Data Salvos"]. Choose an outcome—good, bad, or no impact—and we guarantee you can find stats to bear out the contention. We know, because proponents of the other two assessments are quick to backhoe a library's-worth of stats supporting their view atop an editor's desk. We're not saying some of it may be fishy, but the mailroom guys have taken to wearing Hazmat suits while feeding our in-boxes.
And then there's the rising cause of calculator melt-down: The health issue, as our current news section readily shows. The matter soared into consciousness because of astounding data detailing the extent and severity of obesity in the U.S. Some 400,000 Americans a year die from being overweight, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention somberly reported.
It's quite possible the CDC moonlighted as a weapons-of-mass-destruction spotter. Upon reflection, it acknowledged that it had detected four times as many obese corpses as were actually there.
Of course, a change in the public's perception of the problem wasn't exactly eased by the comeback of a prominent restaurant-industry representative: Na-na-na-na-na-na. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a mouthpiece for casual-dining chains, bought full-page newspaper ads to chide the CDC for being an alarmist. Some readers might've thought the group was suggesting 112,000 deaths a year wasn't a cause for acute concern. The gloating might have been taken as proof the industry wants health pressures to disappear, which contradicts its insistence that restaurants would provide more waist-friendly options if patrons really wanted them. Next time, we hope, the CCF will count to 10 before acting.
More worrisome is the confusion likely to result from even favorable 180s. A few years ago, I awoke one day in reasonable health but went to bed obese and statistically near death because of revisions during the intervening hours in the government's weight standards. Now come indications that my level of Michelin Man-like fitness could lead to inquiries about steroid use. The CDC and the National Cancer Institute are saying that persons who are overweight but not obese are headed for longer lives than beanpoles or the lean-and-mean. In short, I'm the bomb.
So how should Average Restaurant Patron eat? The new federal dietary guidelines apparently aren't providing much direction; NPD Group research suggests more than half of adults don't understand them. Not surprisingly, 35% say they won't follow the recommendations.
Instead of relying on stats, consumers seem to be forming their own assumptions about what's healthful and what's not. Nearly half, according to Technomic, see "fresh" and "healthy" as interchangeable menu descriptors. And the equivalent of a heart symbol for those "healthful" items: "Fresh baked," says the researcher ("Study Confirms," page 18). Statistical daze may be numbing the public's sensitivity to important numbers, like fat and calorie counts.
We hope that every party with a stake in the health issue will forego using numbers as smoke and clear the air instead. The objective shouldn't be evidence, but understanding.