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Relying on Statistics Can Lead to Wrong Conclusions

A recent health-related episode sent me scurrying to my files for the account of a friend who nearly starved to death in one of the nation’s leading hospitals, because his diagnosis was based primarily on statistics.

Two decades ago, the distinguished missionary careers of Ernie and Jan Harvey were cut short when Ernie was stricken with viral encephalitis while serving abroad. The often fatal disease stripped Ernie of his physical stamina but not his missionary zeal. In fact, he and Jan returned to the mission field for a while but were soon forced into early medical retirement.

Natives of Florida, they moved to Cambridge, Mass., to be near their daughter. Soon after the move, Ernie’s physical condition began to deteriorate even more rapidly.

Following a series of extensive tests by some of the nation’s finest physicians, Ernie was told that cancer was a possibility because of the elevated phosphate, but both a bone marrow and bone biopsy ruled that out, leaving them totally puzzled.

More tests followed, including extensive X-rays. In constant pain and unable to eat, Ernie’s weight dropped to 127 pounds on his six-foot, two-inch tall body.

When all the results of the sophisticated examinations and procedures came back with negative findings, Jan consulted with the medical laboratory director.

Combining her knowledge of Ernie’s medical history and the expertise of the medical director, the two solved what all the statistical data had not.

For 13 years, Ernie had been taking an anti-convulsive drug. One side effect of this powerful drug is osteomalacia–the softening of bone tissue. This occurs when vitamin D is insufficient and results in a depletion of calcium. Ernie’s body had been forced to get its calcium from bone tissue.

As long as he was living in Florida, Ernie was getting enough vitamin D from the sun to keep his body functioning. After the long winter in Massachusetts, in which he was totally covered with heavy clothing when outside the house, his body became completely depleted of vitamin D. As a result, his body cells lost their ability to extract nutrients from the food he consumed. In short, Ernie was suffering from severe malnutrition.

Ernie’s primary physician, who lectured at Harvard Medical School, used the case to illustrate to students the necessity of developing diagnostic skills rather than relying solely on the result of medical technology and statistics.

There is a greater lesson here. In helping to solve Ernie’s medical predicament, Jan teaches us not to rely on statistics alone. She looked at Ernie’s “uniqueness” rather than how he compared to everyone else.

In this age of sophisticated technology, we tend to judge a person’s worth by statistical data. In business, it’s the bottom line. In education, it’s the test scores. Even in religion, it’s some numbers game.

How one stacks up with the average may be valuable information, but statistics alone do not always lead to the right conclusion. In politics, for example, Harry Truman was given little chance of being elected president. Statistically, he did not measure up. Yet history has been kind to his performance as president.

In ancient times, who would have chosen Moses to lead a nation based on statistical data? Or Saul of Tarsus to lead a missionary enterprise?

Repeatedly, Jesus chose persons to further his kingdom who might have been eliminated based solely on statistics. Notable examples are Simon Peter, the brash, impulsive fisherman, and Matthew, the despised tax collector.

While on vacation this summer, I was stricken by a continuing heart-related illness and was advised by my cardiologist to go immediately to the nearest emergency room to “find out what is going on.” It came as quite a shock when the attending physician told me that based on statistics he would not prescribe the medication I was taking. Back home a few days later, however, my cardiologist’s response was somewhat reassuring. He said the attending physician made the correct diagnosis based on the limited statistical data he had of my condition. “But I know your history,” he said.

Statistics alone, no matter how sophisticated and relevant, may result in a person with unique gifts, skills and powerful potential being overlooked or excluded. How sad when those persons are left to starve and die because the statistics are correct but the conclusion is wrong.

Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from SamfordUniversity after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. A slightly different version of this column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.