David Boyle

How long is a piece of string?

Off the Page, BBC Radio 4 - 16 March 2005


There we were in the labour room. It was the dead of night. If you wandered into the corridor, there were these unearthly cries of pain, but otherwise everyone seemed to be asleep except us.

We already had almost 24 hours of singing hymns with very low notes. We’d drunk vast quantities of tea. And at about one in the morning, Sarah said she really couldn’t take the pain any more and it was time for something serious.

Just over two hours later, there was the anaesthetist with her trolley.

But this wasn’t the immediate relief it should have been because we then had to wait while she gave us a ten-minute lecture – not just about the terrifying side-effects of an epidural – but the precise statistical likelihood of these happening to Sarah.

One in five thousand five hundred get an epidural abscess; one in ten get back pain.

Apart from asking if we could have the quick version, I remember thinking: this so isn’t the time for risk statistics.

Actually, the whole experience of pregnancy these days is having NHS professionals spout statistics at you – often when you’re in rather a lot of pain.

You have a one in one thousand two hundred and sixty-two chance of the foetus being Down’s syndrome, for example.

Well, what do you do with that?

Once Sarah had the epidural and everything was fine, the midwife told us that – just between us – she would have done the same.

And I thought afterwards: that’s the problem of medicine by numbers. I suppose it is informed consent in a sense, but what you actually want is the one thing technocrats and lawyers won’t give you – a relationship.

Someone to say, well most people in this situation would probably have the injection now.

Because actually you can’t boil decisions about anything that really matters – love, health, morality – into numbers. Those who rule us believe otherwise, but actually they settle for counting things they can measure – mistakes, waiting lists, exams, and so on.

Everyone else knows these are not the same as efficiency, health, education – which is what you really want to know, and which a bit of common sense will probably tell you better than any statistician.

I understand that a Japanese corporation has developed a computerised toilet that analyses what you put in it, and sends the figures automatically to your doctor.

Probably the last thing my doctor wants is statistics from me every time I flush.

But it also makes me nostalgic for the days when we knew if we were healthy because that’s what we felt. We used our judgement, rather than waiting for the figures from a computerised lavatory.

So I say, let’s cling to our common sense. We’re going to need it.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers