Quite probably – even though it’s quite hard to envisage what a really really big number means.
But people can also be swayed by big numbers when they shouldn’t be. Ben Goldacre gives an example in his latest post. A media story about a particular statin (a drug used to lower the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol) reported that it lowered the risks of heart attack by 54%. Sounds good.
But hang on a minute – 54% of what? Before you can assess how good this statin is, you need to know the risk of heart attack for people not on the drug. The actual trial was looking at using the statin as a preventative in people who were already at low risk of having a heart attack. It turns out that in this group the relative risk was 0.37 events ‘per 100 person years’. For those on the drug, this dropped to 0.17. Yes, it was indeed a 54% reduction in relative risk – but off a low base in the first place…
Ben concludes: We all love big numbers, and we’re all fooled by big numbers, because we’re all idiots. That’s why it’s important to think clearly, and ignore all newspapers.
(I don’t know if I’d go that far – but you do need to think very clearly indeed about what you read.)