In discussing the recent recommendation against yearly mammograms for women between 40 and 50, NBC reporter/analyst Dr. Nancy Snyderman opined that "we are on the verge of becoming scientifically illiterate". Dr. Snyderman is much too generous in her observation. We have actually been scientifically illiterate as long as I can remember.
The agency involved balanced the negatives and the positives in making the new recommendation. The negative of course is that of every 1900 women, one will actually get breast cancer. The positives are an avoidance of anxiety based on the many false positives in those 1900 cases, and of course the reduction in expense and trouble.
The media perpetuates this scientific illiteracy by prefacing every statement with "Of course if you are that one person, then it is important." This is akin to the statement often heard from folks when you try to tell them that the odds of winning the lottery are one in ten million. The response one often gets is, "But what if you are that one person". Or, upon telling my ex-wife the odds on something, she said "But there's a 50-50 chance the odds are wrong!"
Recently I heard it said that a single person who wants to work and can't find a job is unacceptable. This represents not only scientific illiteracy, but a sort of pandering to the least common denominator of intelligence which is completely unacceptable, whether it comes from the media or from the administration. It is the same sort of mathematical illiteracy demonstrated by the acceptance of Dan Quayle's justification for getting into the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War, which was that "there were a hundred openings at the time", ignoring the fact that in a Guard of 10,000, there are always going to be at least 100 openings based on normal comings and goings in personnel. In other words, the Guard was full and the stats show that Quayle *did* get special treatment; but of course the media, in its ignorance, let this slide.
Now today we have a report that radiation causes 29,000 deaths per year. Part of the problem is said to be the insistence of many patients that they be given CT scans. It will be interesting to see if this information is processed by the media and the public with any kind of scientific literacy.