Oct 15, 2012
This post has been almost written dozens of times over the last few years.
I nearly wrote it after this.
But today I’ve seen this, and I can hold back no longer.
Whether the message is about mobile phones, bank notes or our hands, the underlying story’s always the same: we’re a grubby bunch, there’s all shit on everything we touch, and this is very bad news.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Because this coverage is spectacularly unhelpful in telling us what the real risk actually is.
To do that, it’s completely beside the point to offer us statistics of contamination, bacterial density, or any other big numbers in the way that these reports present them.
What we need to know is: does this matter?
And to do that, the research needs to focus on different questions. Try these:
1) are the levels high enough to cause some of us harm? …and if so,
2) who is at risk, of what, and by how much?
3) are these levels significantly higher than in comparable societies?
4) is there evidence of a progressive trend, whether for better or worse?
That’s the meaningful stuff.
The fact is that we’re pretty tolerant of these bugs. Think of some of the places – extraordinary places – that your mouth might have been. You know what I’m talking about. And you didn’t get ill, did you?
The claim that kitchen chopping boards have about 200% more bacteria on them than toilet seats? (I will skip over the omission of a base unit of measurement, and the old favourite of whether 200% really means “three times” but written more scarily.) Evidence, surely, that the best place to chop carrots is the loo?
We’re not all collapsing just because we prepared the veg in the kitchen, are we? Or boaking furiously after every phone call?
A little more sense is required, in the writing and the reading about this topic. Numbers by themselves mean nothing.
Look for the outcomes and the trends. That’s where the meaning lies.