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Archive for November 21st, 2012

Anecdotes: Cheaper by the Dozen

A loan officer sets up a meeting with an aspiring entrepreneur to inform him that his application has been denied. “Mr Smith, we have reviewed your application and found a fatal flaw in your business plan. You say that you will be selling your donuts for 60 cents apiece. “Yes” says Mr. Smith, “that is significantly less than any other baker in town. This will give my business a significant competitive advantage!” The loan officer replies, “According to your budget, at peak efficiency the cost of supplies to make each donut is 75 cents, you will lose 15 cents on every donut you sell. A look of relief comes over Mr. Smith’s face as he realizes the loan officer’s misunderstanding. He leans in closer, and whispers to the loan officer “But don’t you see, I’ll make it up in volume.”

If you find this narrative at all amusing, it is likely because Mr. Smith is oblivious to what seems like an obvious flaw in his logic.

A similar error in logic is made by those who rely on anecdote and other intrinsically biased information to understand the natural world. If one anecdote is biased, a collection of 12 or 1000 anecdotes multiplies the bias, and will likely reinforces an errant conclusion. When it comes to bias, you can’t make it up in volume. Volume makes it worse!

Unfortunately human beings are intrinsically vulnerable to bias. In most day to day decisions, like choosing which brand of toothpaste to buy, or which route to drive to work, these biases are of little importance. In making critical decisions, like assessing the effectiveness of a new treatment for cancer, these biases may make the difference between life and death. The scientific method is defined by a system of practices that aim to minimize bias from the assessment of a problem.

Bias, in general, is tendency that prevents unpredjudiced consideration of a question (paraphrased from dictionary.com). Researchers describe sources of bias as systematic errors. A few words about random and systematic errors will make this description clearer.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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