Grayish, Dark, and Just Bad Science

I am sure we are all familiar with headlines such as:
“New study links coffee to cancer” or
“Coffee may prevent cancer” or
“Eating nuts may make you live longer” and perhaps
“Study shows people who drink alcohol live longer than those who abstain”

Obviously in the case of coffee, there is a bit of a disparity.  Coffee seems to both cause and prevent cancer, depending on which study you look at.  Something has to be wrong there?

These headlines are examples of a science called epidemiology or the study of incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.  Now, obviously there are doctors or practitioners of epidemiology who do their due diligence and strive to use science, laws or physics, and our knowledge of mathematics and statistics to do good science and arrive at sound conclusions.  Unfortunately, and perhaps more prevalently, there are also those scientists out there who practice pseudo or just plain bad science often for monetary gain.

If you scroll through the health feed on Yahoo, MSN, MensHealth, or any major website you can see there is a vast amount of information on what is and what is not good for you.  How is it possible that in this sea of information, we can spot good science from bad science.  Let me suggest a few simple ways.

1. Authority
This is probably the easiest way to fool someone.  We as humans are naturally submissive and un-questioning to authority.  I’ll provide an example.  Dr. Gillian McKeith actually has a non-accredited correspondence PhD but has used the title Dr. to leverage authority to market her products to millions of customers.  From this, arguably people buy into authority and some classy marketing. Check credibility of authority before buying in.

2. You’ve got to have proper evidence
For this one lets revisit our coffee example.  I found a paper which draws ties between consumption of coffee in people under 55 and mortality both from cardiovascular disease and all-causes.  Now, the study contains a significant amount of data: around 44,000 participants over the course of about 30 years.  The study finds men who drank more than 28 cups of coffee per week had higher all-cause mortality.  Also, after some data manipulation, men and women < 55 years old show significant association between high coffee consumption (> 28 cups per week) and all-cause mortality.  This association had been “adjusted” (the study notes) for confounders and fitness level.

I look at this and wonder a couple of things.  First of all, to isolate coffee as a variable the study would have to analyze their group of coffee drinkers against a group of people who drank no coffee.  And now that we’ve mentioned variables, I suggest that maybe people who drink more than 4 cups of coffee a day are working a lot.  Being overworked perhaps adds some extra stress to their lives, and it so happens that other studies have correlated work stress to early cardiovascular mortality.  So I suggest that maybe coffee isn’t the only variable here.

Evidence is a tough one. Some studies will have vast evidence, but the way in which it is utilized can be misleading. Other studies can have very narrow evidence, or evidence that is weakly correlated to the conclusions drawn.

3. Cui Bono
This latin phrase means literally “as a benefit to whom?”  Lets take for instance the blanket statement that red wine is heart healthy.  The skin of the grapes used to produce red wine contain a polyphenol called resveratrol.  Studies in MICE have showed that resveratrol have reduced the risk of the mice becoming obese or developing diabetes, both of which contribute greatly to heart disease.  However, this has not been tested on humans, and to get the same dose of resveratrol that was used in the mice, a human would have to drink around 60 liters of red wine a day.  Obviously, the benefits of “heart healthy” red wine do not outweigh the cost.  Plus, red wine isn’t the only substance that contains resveratrol.  It’s like saying you need to drink milk to get your calcium.  It’s true that milk contains calcium, but so does spinach and at about the same density.  One source is obviously a better choice than the other.

Whenever I see a marketing tag line claiming some form of health benefit for a product, I immediately throw up a red flag.  If the wine bottle says it’s heart healthy, that would be either the manufacturer or the distributor using sales psychology to persuade people to buy their product so that THEY ultimately benefit……not your heart.

I love science, and marvel all the time how far we’ve come as a civilization.  But just as science can be used to further our existence, bad science can be used to trick us into believing things that aren’t true.  Arm yourself with unbiased, well researched, and truly authoritative data and you’re likely to spot pseudo science miles away.

My dad used to tell me, “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.”  That’s a bit conservative, but you see where’s he’s coming from :)

Throw out some crazy headlines you’ve seen in your travels around the net.  I love them!

The O-Board Says…

For time:
30 Clean & Jerk
30 Overhead Squat
30 Pullups (chest-to-bar)

Post by Stets.