Misleading using numbers

Advertising has ALWAYS had an agenda to sell you something and, quoting the experts from Gruen Transfer, it’s about getting you to “feel something” or to “imagine something” or to surreptitiously get you to “lead yourself into believing something that is not actually claimed in the advertisement”.
And if you have led yourself into believing something that is not actually claimed in the advertisement, then you only have yourself to blame when you find it’s not really true. You cannot say the advertiser has misled you!

And of course leading you into believing you are getting something for nothing eg BOGOF sales. (buy on get one free).

The Telstra TV commercial about their smart WiFi modem is an example of getting you to imagine something. The WiFi signal is depicted as snaking it’s way throughout your house, seeking out your devices, leading the ignorant into believing all sorts of bollocks. The truth is that WiFi travels in straight lines, it does not snake it’s way through doorways and hallways, and it does NOT home in on your devices.

It pays to be cynical, being mindful that the goal of advertising is to sell you something, not present you with a balanced bunch of truth and facts.



Do you have any examples where this is done using numbers?

Report calls out ‘mistruths’ on $40b spend on Indigenous Australians

Wow 40B dollars! That is huge! Are all those indigenes rolling in it?

Yet they live much shorter lives with much poorer heath. Their education is seriously lacking and they are incarcerated far more often. By almost any measure of society’s welfare as a group they tend to be worse off.

So is spending that much a sign of wasting public money or just a made-up number with very little significance? If the former does that mean the recipients are already getting plenty from the public purse? Why would such a number be spread about?

You cannot know anything about what a big number means unless you study its origin and context. Big numbers are not intrinsically important, they must have context, but some who generate them don’t want you to think that way.


Its that ham time of year and the question of the safety of eating processed meats comes up.

On the topic of the health consequences of consuming processed meats containing nitrates or nitrites a well known consumer journal told us:

According to the IARC, the more processed meat you eat, the higher the risk – it found that every 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18% over the course of a lifetime.

“On average, people’s risk of developing bowel cancer by the age of 85 is about 8.2 per cent, so it’s increasing that level of relative risk,” says Hughes.

So for the purpose of understanding what these two paragraphs mean let us assume that our patient whose name is X is newborn into a family that does in fact consume 50g of processed meat per head per day. I ask that we assume that this is a statistically representative family and that they have typical base risks and that they eat representative processed meats in the specified amount. The new parents are pondering on behalf of X the decision whether to eat less bacon and ham or not to worry.

To start with and make things simple let us also say that 85 is a lifetime or close enough and that colorectal and bowel cancer are the same thing. The question that needs answering is; given the two statements quoted above what is X’s approximate risk of developing bowel cancer in their life if they eat as the rest of the family does?

  • about 8.2%
  • about 26.2%
  • about 9.7%
  • another number not listed
  • impossible to say even approximately on the data available
  • I am really confused
0 voters

Please, let us not get into how much bacon you eat or whether you like the research on the topic but stick to the logic and mathematics of the two statements. I want to know what they mean to you.


There is a risk of colorectal cancer regardless of eating processed meat or not. The 8.2% average includes all levels of consumption in the calculations, it is based on how many people get the disease and some will eat processed meat every day, some occasionally, and some not at all. Risk for that particular family will involve a number of factors including if they have a genetic disposition to the disease and other factors that increase or decrease the risk. So all that could be said is that the consumption every day would very likely increase the risk as nitrates and nitrites are known risk factors. However that total risk may be greater than, less than, or equal to the average risk.


Each real family and individual have their own characteristics. In this case ‘a family’ is just a manner of speaking, they aren’t real. I framed it around a family to make the question more concrete and relatable to the reasons why we read articles about the subject of identifying healthy eating. I could have put it in terms of abstractions about the whole population where the individual characteristics disappear but that leads into much more complex statistics and epidemiology which would distract from the question of what the two quoted statements mean together.

I ask that we assume that this is a statistically representative family and that they have typical base risks and that they eat representative processed meats in the specified amount.

If that is OK can you then say anything about how much change there is likely to be in the chance of X getting bowel cancer during their life depending on whether they follow the family tradition of eating processed meat?