Prostate Cancer and the Inexorable Pull To Act On Unlikely Events

March 10th, 2010 by Mimi Yin

Here’s another example of how we seize on numbers we can see, no matter how uncertain and meaningless they might be, because there’s not yet a viable alternative source of information.

As a society, we will probably opt for prostate testing no matter how flawed it is until there’s a better, more accurate alternative. In other words, bad, misleading information is better than no information, especially in a culture that prizes initiative and can-do-ness over a more fatalistic view of life: Yes We Can!

This is a design challenge for anybody trying to help people make sense of data. It is also especially important for us right now as we try to figure out a meaningful privacy guarantee for the datatrust. It’s easy for us to guarantee that you’ll never know with 100% certainty the answer to any question. But in many situations, people won’t need anything close to 100% certainty to feel compelled to act.

Certainly in the case of screening for diseases, it’s incredibly hard to do nothing if there is even a hint of a chance that we might be fatally ill.

What are other examples of numbers we make too much of and can’t get enough of?

  • Poll numbers
  • Housing data
  • Almost any study that comes about health and nutrition

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