the median is not the message – statistics & cancer

I’ve just been talking with a very dear friend who was diagnosed with cancer not so long ago. She was telling me the various things she was doing to stay positive as she begins her treatment, & I remembered an inspirational article I first read years ago, by Stephen Jay Gould. (As you might have gathered, he’s one of my favourite authors.) The median is not the message is an excellent piece on statistics, told from a very personal point of view.

Gould wrote it when he he’d just been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly nasty cancer that has a median survival time of only 8 months from first diagnosis. After the first shock, Gould remembered that if the median survival time was 8 months, then while 50% of those diagnosed would die in 8 months or less, the other 50% could – with treatment – live for much longer. As he did: he lived a further 20 years & when he died in 2002 it was of quite a different cancer.

Anyway, this is a very humane piece of writing that also does a lovely job of explaining some valuable statistical concepts. If you’re interested, you can find a pdf of Gould’s article here.

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