The statistics of vaccines

November 4, 2009
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I took my Atlantic to work with me yesterday, and did some old-fashioned analog reading, giving my iTouch a well-deserved rest. Both articles I read were dripping with statistical analysis.

First, vaccines. There’s a nicely done skeptical analysis of the effectiveness of vaccines in fighting the flu. Some of the statistics appear to show how effective the vaccine is. But there’s a case to be made that a large proportion of the people most likely to die in the coming flu season don’t get vaccinated. The entire article is about statistical samples.

The other story was a criticism of the measure of gross domestic product (gdp), the number we’ve placed at the heart of our economy. But does it represent wealth, or well-being? Megan McArdle provides a smart look. Again, it comes down to what we want to count.

Consider a stay-at-home mother, she says, who has to return to the work because of the hard times:

As she heads back to the workplace, that mother will be boosting GDP. If her husband has lost not his job but merely some income from sales commissions or a business, she will probably have to pay for child care. She may need to buy new work clothes. Money will be



I took my Atlantic to work with me yesterday, and did some old-fashioned analog reading, giving my iTouch a well-deserved rest. Both articles I read were dripping with statistical analysis.

First, vaccines. There’s a nicely done skeptical analysis of the effectiveness of vaccines in fighting the flu. Some of the statistics appear to show how effective the vaccine is. But there’s a case to be made that a large proportion of the people most likely to die in the coming flu season don’t get vaccinated. The entire article is about statistical samples.

The other story was a criticism of the measure of gross domestic product (gdp), the number we’ve placed at the heart of our economy. But does it represent wealth, or well-being? Megan McArdle provides a smart look. Again, it comes down to what we want to count.

Consider a stay-at-home mother, she says, who has to return to the work because of the hard times:

As she heads back to the workplace, that mother will be boosting GDP.
If her husband has lost not his job but merely some income from sales
commissions or a business, she will probably have to pay for child
care. She may need to buy new work clothes. Money will be spent on
commuting, and the family will probably shift away from homemade meals
to costlier prepared foods that save time. All of these transactions
further swell the national income accounts. Yet all of them also
represent a decrease in life satisfaction.

My colleague Mike Mandel also pans GDP in a BusinessWeek cover story, saying that it counts the wrong things: “…[T]he official statistics are not designed to pick up
cutbacks in ‘intangible investments’ such as business spending on
research and development, product design, and worker training.”

Increasingly, our lives and jobs and economy are defined by what we choose to count. Statistics should be a high school pre-req.

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