Beware of “Facts”

I’ve always urged that consultants are at their best when they help clients interrogate assumptions posing as facts. The almost “holy” question is, “How do you really know that?” Assumptions lead us often into a cul-de-sac of our own paradigms.

The other danger is what is called “research”. All of us can skew “statistics” in infinite ways. There is the Yogi Berra story I love about stats. Someone asks whether the pizza should be cut in four or eight slices. Comes the reply, “You better cut it into four, I don’t think I can eat eight.”  That in turn brings the old saw to mind, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Today there has been a report released, blazing across news channels about how a new study links sugary soft drinks to an up to 87%  increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer. Wow! Well, that is, until you read the small print of the study.

Some news channels segued from this to panning diet drinks and saying they were “poison.”  They may well be, but not on the basis of this study, which only speaks of sugary soft drinks. The same study confesses that fruit juice has virtually the same amount of sugar, but doesn’t have these alleged effects.

Let me say right out, I think the fact that sugary sodas have a host of health ills is probably not controversial. So my taking on the “spin” being given to this study is NOT a defence of soft drinks. It’s an expose of our tending to state definitive conclusions based on ambiguous, if not gossamer facts.

This study, which was conducted in Singapore, tracked 60,000 individuals over about 14 years. Of these 60,000, 140 developed pancreatic cancer. Of those 140, 30 they say consumed sugary sodas on a regular, weekly basis. The balance, 110 who developed the illness, did not consume sugary sodas. So how is this being advertised as a “finding”?  How can these numbers not more persuasively argue for a chance connection at best? The researchers also refer to 4 past studies that found no link between such drinks and pancreatic cancer!

Yet the headlines proclaim, “Sugary sodas linked to pancreatic cancer.”  What ineffable twaddle!  Or, certainly so, on the basis of the facts actually cited in the study. Now excess sugar intake can precipitate the onset of diabetes, which is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. I get that link and rationale…which though is a sidebar to this study, and wasn’t anything particularly studied here.

The takeaway? Beware of grandiose sweeping conclusions, from scant, inconclusive facts. Consultants be the voice of bracing balance. We can’t solve what we don’t understand. While everyone runs around drowning in data, be enough of a contrarian, enough of a healthy skeptic, to make sure that what glitters in that instance is really gold, not brass.