These Guardian / Independent stories are dodgy. Traps in data journalism.
December 30th, 2011 by Ben Goldacre
Here’s an interesting problem with data analysis in general, and so, by extension, data journalism: you have to be careful about assuming that the numbers you’ve got access to… really do reflect the underlying phenomena you’re trying to investigate.
Today’s Guardian has a story, “Antidepressant use in England soars“. It’s much more overstated in the Independent. They identify that the number of individual prescriptions written for antidepressant drugs has risen, and then assumes this means that more people are depressed. But while that’s a tempting assumption, it’s not a safe one.
Thinking off the top of my head, it could be – for example – that doctors are writing more frequent prescriptions for the same number of patients, but with each prescription for smaller amounts (to reduce overdose risk, say). These potential alternative explanations are the sort of thing that comes up all the time in data analysis for medical research.