FEATURE30 September 2019

Sir David Spiegelhalter in seven

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Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter is the Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, associate fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy, and author of several books. His most recent is The Art of Statistics.

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1. Why are relative risk factors so poorly understood?

Good research has shown that relative risks – such as some food increasing a cancer risk by 20% – produces an exaggerated impression of the importance of risk. So it’s the researchers’ and media’s fault if they are poorly understood, as audiences are not being told the crucial factor: 20% of what? Without knowing the baseline risk, relative risk is impossible to interpret. On principle, I try to ignore every story that mentions ‘an increased risk’ – except as an example to criticise.

2. The media are often quick to be blamed for the misunderstanding of risk – is that a fair criticism?

I have a high regard for most health and science journalists. I believe – and this is backed up by research on press releases – that researchers and press offices are as much to blame as the media when it comes to exaggerated risk stories. And, of course, the sub-editors add clickbait headlines.