Monday 27 November 2017

David Spiegelhater on the drinking guidelines

The statistician David Spiegelhalter gave a speech to the Public Health England conference in September. You can see it on Youtube. His main point is that the health lobby could do a much better job of communicating risk. In his polite and cheerful way, he gently alludes the fact that many in 'public health' do not want to communicate risk properly. Instead they want to communicate risk in a scary way because their objective is not to have an informed population. It is to have a compliant population.

(There are some exceptions. For example, doctors do not want to scare people off having X-Rays so the (very small) risk of having one is carefully explained in terms of absolute risk rather than relative risk. Cancer Research UK also explain the risk of eating processed meat in absolute terms because they are not yet ready to fight a war on sausages. Contrast this with the way the risk of getting cancer from drinking or breathing secondhand smoke are presented.)

Of particular interest is Spiegelhalter's discussion of the drinking guidelines. He skips over the problems with the Sheffield model (although he was partially aware of the effect that changing the methodology had) and focuses on the way the 'evidence' was reported to the public. He mainly blames the government's communications people, thereby overlooking the role of the guidelines committee and Sally Davies herself, but he rightly says that the communication of drinking risk was very miselading.

You can watch that section of the speech above. My favourite moment is when he subtly puts the knife into Mark Petticrew, one of the leading members of the guidelines group who recently published a silly article claiming that the booze industry denies the link between alcohol and cancer. Petticrew's article was based on a review of alcohol company's websites and Spiegelhalter responds with this slide...


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