Can statistics heal?

(A rather florid headline, I’ll admit.)

I was reading this article on survivors of the 2005 London bombings and was struck by the story of someone who had been involved in two acts of terrorism but found it helpful to learn the stats from a disinterested third party:

One patient – so unlucky as to have also been caught up in a previous terrorist attack – was only reassured after being taken to a bookmakers to see how long the odds were of being in a third.

It makes me wonder how statisticians can help provide this sort of information to clinicians caring for people with PTSD and related problems. It is so easy to construct comparisons that are not quite right (horse-riding=ecstasy, for example, or Sally Clark, or lightning = cricket balls), so it is unfair to expect the doctor or psychologist to put them together as required. Perhaps future generations will have a more advanced grasp of statistics from school, but I wouldn’t count on it being able to overcome pathological distortions of risk perception. There may be a role for the quantified-self sort of data here; consider the popularity of pedometers and GPS for knowing how much exercise you really are doing.

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