Posts Tagged ‘age’

Can Statistics Really Make You Live Longer?

November 9, 2012

Statisticians who predicted a win for Barack Obama in the US Presidential election are now casting themselves as prophets, soothsayers and Sybilline Oracles and making outrageous claims that statistics can affect how long we live. Is this justified? W-e-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l-l, they were rightish. All the science head managed to do in fact was call the winner of a two horse race correctly, a trick which anybody has a 50% chance of pulling off.

Few regular gamblers would bet to win in as two horse race (or a football, cricket, boxing match). The bookies would offer much more attractive odds on the winning margin, how many lengths a horse would win by, how many runs or wickets a cricket team would secure victory by, in which round a boxer would prevail.

On that basis most of the American statisticians were within their margin of error (which is set at plus or minus 4 %. Now as voter shifts tend to be small in American elections being “within the acceptable margin of error” means totally wrong.

The statistics boys are undeterred and are even claiming Obama’s victory was down to the science of a pollster named Nate Silver. Nothing to do with the people who turned out to vote Democrat then. Oh no, it was Silver’s statistics wot won it. In fact Silver, whose statistical conjuring tricks were accompanied by commentary so biased he clearly thought it was an affront to democracy that Obama was not being returned unopposed, predicted a landslide for the Democrat. Obama squeaked home by less than two per cent of the votes cast.

But as you all should know, there are three kinds of lies, lies, damned lies and statistics and egged on by the election victory for the science of manipulating data the science heads are now claiming statistics can make you live longer.

Andrew Gache, longevity consultant at actuaries firm Club Vita, says that retiring at age 70 rather than 60 adds around 13 months to men’s life expectancy – and 12 months to women’s longevity – even after allowing for differences in individuals’ health, wealth and lifestyle.

That’s really great news for the rising numbers of people arriving at what used to be retirement age with grossly inadequate savings to fund a life of leisure or any kind of life. Poor old sods find they struggled scrimped and saved to build a retirement fund and now find it is worth five pounds a year while the silly buggers who drank, smoked, gambled and took out loans to go on foreign holidays are doing very nicely thank you on taxpayer funded pension credits. Still, abolition of the default retirement age of 65 last month means more people who want to work until they are 90, lose their minds or can no longer hold themselves erect will now be able to do so.

If the thought of an extra decade at work is just too much, then Another aspect of research shows that much shorter periods of work can also improve life expectancy. For example, men who retire at 65 rather than 60 live an average of 7.5 months longer, while women who delay retirement by the same period live an extra 6.5 months.

As always with statistics though the key to uncovering the fraud lies in what is being counted. Many occupations make working into advanced old age impractical – there aren’t many septuagenarian bricklayers – and individual illness will force those whose occupations are physically demanding or environmentally unhealthy will account for many early deaths.

Now a little balance has been brought into the equation some readers who are sceptical about pseudo sciences like statistics may prefer to ignore the science and side with former American President Ronald Reagan who observed: “They say hard work never killed anyone but I figure, why take the chance?”

There’s more than a grain of truth in that joke, as demonstrated by Office for National Statistics data which shows that manual workers tend to die much younger than administrative staff. Dave Grimshaw of actuaries Barnett Waddingham pointed out: “Lawyers, accountants and so on are a group in the data called ‘higher managerial and professional’. They would have life expectancy of nearly 19 years for males at age 65. At the other end of the scale, you would have occupations such as labourers and cleaners, where life expectancy at 65 is nearer 15 years.”

While medical advances, improved diet and cleaner working environments mean more people across Britain are living longer, the gap between lifespans for different groups of the population is growing, according to analysis by the Longevity Science Advisory Panel.

Here and now, the Club Vita research prompts the common sense question: why should working longer help us live longer? Bear in mind that, as mentioned above, the actuaries have allowed for the fact that people forced to retire early by ill-health are likely to die sooner, as well as the mathematical fact that some who retire at 65 will die before reaching 70.

In the end it is the workshy and those who can think of more entertaining ways to spend their final years will argue that advice to work longer and live longer brings to mind a joke told by hard Drinking, chain smoking Irish comedian Dave Allen who died aged 68 but enjoyed every minute of it. A seeker asked a guru for the secret of eternal life and was advised to give up smoking, drinking, chocolate and sex.

“But will that really make me live forever?” asked the questor after truth. “No,” replied the guru, “but every day will feel that way.”

A career for tossers?

August 21, 2007

A few weeks ago I was involved in a bit of a kerfuffle with the boy scientists from The Bad Science forum. One of the more intelligent and articulate commenters eventually asked why science gets such a bad press?

Well it could be something to do with the way, when their certainties are challenged they tend to respond, You’re not a scientist, you don’t understand scientific methods.” Such a response puts “scientists” in the same category as those religionists whose response to any challenge is, “Anything is possible for God.”

Or it could be because we see so many stories like the two below.

Researchers at Herriot Watt University and Strathclyde University claim to have proved older people have difficulty using new technology because physiological deterioration in connections between cells in the frontal lobes of the brain causes them to be easily confused by unfamiliar things.

Typically the “scientists” involved in this study forgot to look at the most obvious thing. So we oldies can watch movies or play games on our mobile phones. Are we bovvered? Many of us who have been rounded out by leading full and interesting lives can think of a hundred better things to do than watch a movie on a three inch by two inch screen.

I cannot take pictures or record video clips with my mobile phone. Is my brain going or is the case simply that my excellent digital camera and state of the art camcorder perform those tasks far better than the phone ever could. So I cannot do those things simply because I am never likely to want to.

Similarly neither I nor my wife ever learned to set the VCR to record a week in advance. Are we sliding into dementia or are we simply not the type of people to get withdrawal symptoms if we miss an episode of a favourite program. They will be repeated in a few months anyway.

It is not a question of neurological degeneration because everybody is different in that respect, it is a question of how interested we are. QED. And that is how to do the science, just think things through and a lot of time, effort and expence can be saved.

The second story has slightly more sinister connotations. Scientists (again – its never philosophers or artists or historians causing trouble) at the University of Kentucky, Louisville – now keep in mind this is in Kentucky, think fried chicken, bluegrass and red necks – claim to have found a link between eye colour and intelligence.

Blue eyed people, amazingly, are found to be more intelligent, ambitious and focused. Brown eyed people can run faster.

Nobody thought to mention in the context of this study that brown eyed people tend to have darker skin and curlier hair than blue eyed people.

My entirely unscientific observations on this issue, made throughout a long career in management consultancy is that if you tell people they are intelligent, thoughtful and capable of more than they have ever given themselves credit for, they tend to aim higher and as a result grow in confidence and status. This approach works regardless of eye colour.

So let’s throw this one back at the boy scientists who have been trying to give me a hard time (and actually themselves being on the receiving end of a harder time.) What is it exactly that us alleged non scientists don’t understand? That ageism and racism are OK so long as they are backed up by properly conducted scientific studies?

I’ll bear that in mind when advising young friends on whether they should follow me into a science related career. (Clue: proper scientists tend not to refer to themselves as “scientists” but by the specific discipline. I am (was) a systems analyst, later an Information Technology Consultant. 

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