Imagine walking through today's headlines with a mentor by your side. Are mobile phones dangerous? What about overhead power lines? Should you believe the statistics on lung cancer and smoking? Who is telling the truth about drinking and driving? Reading this book is like taking such a stroll. Whatever the current media scare, John Brignell has been there and found the fallacy in the figures.
Brignell is an electrical engineering academic, with experience in forensics, but there are few areas of technical expertise that escape his scrutiny. Aids, BSE, CJD, DNA, EMF, ERM, ESP - no acronym or abbreviation has been left unexplored. His witty investigation of the ills and threats of modern living make this an ideal work for sixth-formers broadening their horizons with general studies, but anyone feeling overwhelmed by the latest media-induced panic should buy it. It is better than Prozac at calming the nerves.
Particularly attractive is the material's up-to-the-minute feel, confirmed by the "webography", which is maintained at Brignell's website (www.numberwatch.co.uk). This means the book needs only a modest conventional bibliography as the cutting-edge data and comment are to be found, regularly refreshed, in cyberspace. In addition, the book inculcates a habit of mind - probing, prying - that will long serve the reader.
Brignell's concern is the abuse of measurement. Every "government expert" or "industry spokesman" backs up his questionable propositions with statistics, charts and figures. Should we take these on trust? "No", answers the book. Brignell recognises that we are often misled with the best of intentions. But he emphatically rejects the proposition that it is justifiable to lie for a good cause - first, because such lies tend to get found out, and when they do the layperson loses faith in experts altogether; second, because if science "accepts but one lie it ceases to be science".
He exposes the logical fallacies that underlie misleading statistics, along with the multitudinous causes of wrong numbers, from indolence to prejudice and fashion. This work is a rollercoaster ride around every politically correct and incorrect media fetish. After reading this, you will think twice before asserting baldly that "smoking is bad for you" or "drink-driving kills".
Brignell encourages scepticism of official pronouncements not merely by puncturing official balloons inflated with questionable data, but also by his own comments on the issues. I would take a different view on many of these, but there is no doubt that Brignell has dug out the facts, digested the figures and set out a coherent case for why he adopts the position he does.
Take anti-smoking statistics. Brignell contends that the oft-used figure of 400,000 premature deaths a year in the United States because of smoking is a "total fabrication". He asserts that the figure depends on 60 per cent of those "premature deaths" occurring in smokers aged over 70, and 17 per cent of them at age 85 and above. Brignell argues that the same data can be used to "prove" that tobacco saves 200,000 lives each year. He also quotes a study from the University of Athens that asserts that Greece has the highest per capita consumption of tobacco in the world but the lowest rate of lung cancer. And Japan, with a high smoking rate, has an average life expectancy of 79.1 years.
Brignell also addresses passive smoking in some detail. He claims that nicotine is found in many common vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines, and he cites research that suggests that eating a normal portion of potatoes equals three-and-a-half hours in a smoky room. He further asserts that US Department of Transportation figures reveal a negligible difference in exposure between smoking and non-smoking flights, and quotes figures from a pro-smoking lobby indicating that flight attendants working exclusively on smoking flights are exposed to, at worst, the equivalent of about six cigarettes a year. Since non-smoking flights began, he says, airlines have reduced filtering to save money. The result, he says, is an increase in lung infections among travellers on non-smoking flights.
Having questioned the statistics against smoking, Bignell sets out the positive benefits of lighting up. He quotes a report apparently showing that "generally, the health of smokers is better than that of many former or non-smokers". It seems that the worst sufferers of hypertension caused by stress are ex-smokers and the "never-smoked". Figures for steady smokers are much lower. The same is apparently true for Parkinson's disease. It is also claimed that non-smokers suffer 50 per cent more Alzheimer's disease than smokers.
Such iconoclastic material made me sceptical of the official figures. It made me even more sceptical of the figures purporting to show that smoking might be good for me. I suspect this is the reaction Bignell wants.
Some of the issues addressed by the book are tackled superficially, which is inevitable given its range. But it is an easy-to-digest overview of issues that bombard us daily. A healthy scepticism is the outcome - what better mindset for the preservation of modern democracy?
Robert Gaitskell QC is a chartered engineer and former vice-president, Institution of Electrical Engineers.
Sorry, Wrong Number!: The Abuse of Measurement
Author - John Brignell
ISBN - 0 9539108 0 6
Publisher - Brignell Associates, Chalk Bank Cottage, Broughton, Stockbridge, Hampshire, SO20 8AN
Price - £14.00
Pages - 243