stats and disease

There's a story making the rounds that started off of the Router's News wire. It's core is about the avian flu and a quote by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In the story he says:

"It's been over 30 years since we've had a pandemic, so inevitably we are going to have a pandemic within a reasonable period of time, it's not a matter of when or if."

Now I suspect that the quote is taken out of context because anyone in the field of infectious diseases--unless he's a Bush appointee with a background in horses--is going to be well versed in statistics. The reason I say this is that you can't predict particular future events based on the past.

It's like when a baseball announcer says that a player is "due" when he steps up to bat. Just because the guy is a .250 hitter and this is his fourth at bat of the game, so far hitless, doesn't mean he'll get a hit this time. Or even next. Hell, it could be the start of a 20 at-bat cold streak. Think about the stock market--everytime you look at a prospectus for a mutual fund it'll boast about past performance but then plainly states that past performance is no indicator of future performance. That said, I'd be more likely to bet on a .350 hitter than a batter at the Medoza line (a term coined by George Brett and referring to Mario Mendoza's career batting average of .215 though in usage it means .200 for some odd reason), but I'd not bet on any particular at bat regardless of batting average. Averages only have meaning over time, not in particular at-bats. I suspect at this point I'm beating a dead horse. Not good for the horse and a waste of time for me. ;-)

Anyway, the point is that just because more virulent than usual strains of influenza typically emerge every 30 years does not mean that every 30 years one will hit. In fact it could be a century before the next one hits--just don't bet on it. Two reasons. One, you should never bet particulars based on averages and two, humans are such a monoculture (an agricultural term meaning one species planted over a large area--making the crop more susceptable to disease) that a pandemic is inevitable. That reminds me...the woman that lives next to me has 8 chickens in her back yard! *gulp*

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