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Radical Statistics was radical

Today I went to the Radical Statistics conference in London. RadStats was originally a sort of left wing revolutionary group for statisticians, but these days the emphasis is on exposing dubious statistics by companies and politicians.

Here’s a quick rundown of the day.

First up Roy Carr-Hill spoke about the problems with trying to collect demographic data and estimating soft measures of societal progress like wellbeing. (Household surveys exclude people not in households, like the homeless soldiers and old people in care homes; and English people claim to be 70% satisfied regardless of the question.)

Next was Val Saunders who started with a useful debunking of done methodological flaws in schizophrenia research, then blew it by detailing her own methodologically flaws research and making overly strong claims to have found the cause of that disease.

Aubrey Blunsohn and David Healy both talked about ways that the pharmaceutical industry fudges results. The list was impressively long, leading me to suspect that far to many people have spent far too long thinking of ways to game the system. The two main recommendations that resonated with me were to extend the trials register to phase 1 trials to avoid unfavourable studies being buried and for raw data to be made available for transparent analysis. Pipe dreams.

After lunch Prem Sikka pointed out that tax avoidance isn’t just shady companies trying to scam the system, but actually accountancy firms pay people to dream up new wheezes and sell them to those companies.

Ann Pettifor and final speaker Howard Reed had similar talks evangelising Keynesian stimulus (roughly, big government spending in times of recession) for the UK economy amongst some economic myth debunking. Thought provoking, though both speakers neglected to mention the limitations of such stimuli – you have to avoid spending in pork barrel nonsense (see Japan in the 90s, that buy-a-banger scheme in the UK in 2009) and you have to find a ways to turn of the taps w when recession is over.

The other speaker was Allyson Pollack who discussed debunking a dubious study by Zac Cooper claiming that patients being allowed to choose their surgeon improved success rated treating acute myocardial infarction. Such patients are generally unconscious while having their heart attack so out was inevitably nonsense.

Overall a great day.

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