Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Back from break...Dr. Oz made me throw my remote at the tv! High heels CAUSE osteoarthritis...

Happy Holidays to all who are/have just celebrated. Mine was a whirlwind of activity with both my family and my husband's family joining us here in San Francisco.  After I said good-bye to my in-laws tonight, I settled onto my couch thinking, "I could use some mindless time." Lucky me.  There was Dr. Oz to wreck it for me.  The description on the listing was enough to make me want to skewer a lot of things. It began with artificial sweeteners, but I didn't make it far enough into the show without becoming enraged to watch it. Fear sells, kids. Fake causal relationships can stoke that fear...

The segment I am skewering has the title, "Do high heels cause arthritis?"  Naturally, for full effect, the headline was projected on a screen, on the back of his set with suitably ominous font.  The answer according to a researcher at Northwestern was  actually the answer to a different question. She did a study about the effects of heel height on knee joints and her findings are not altogether that surprising. Heels higher than 2" are correlated with damage to the knees. However, there is no way to say how often one would have to wear these to completely trash their knees. Fair enough. Next we had a podiatrist talk about a woman who was x-rayed while walking in heels of different heights. The 4" heels had her "out of alignment." Again not surprising. But then she said, keeping the body out of alignment CAUSES osteoarthritis. Is it a contributing factor? Perhaps.

CAUSES osteoarthritis? Give me a break. Apparently she seems to have forgotten her science training. And then they moved on to hocking shoe insets (one of which was made of flax seed - how many futures contracts on flax does OZ own?). I kid you not.

Buy this STUFF, if you can't give up your "ADDICTION" (yes, he used that very loaded word) to high heels. Otherwise, based on the CAUSAL relationship we FAILED to show, you WILL get osteoarthritis. I am off to have a glass of wine in 4" heels, without a flax-seed-padded insert. I'll be sure to report back when I have an osteoarthritis diagnosis.

Friday, December 17, 2010

As much as I wish it were true, Fox news makes you misinformed, not stupid.

"Study: Watching Fox News Makes you Stupid"

I love Business Insider, I must admit it. I have a big old Stat Girl middle-school-googlie-eyed-crush on Business Insider. That being said, since I'm a rational Stat Girl, I am afraid that I must be fair and skewer their reporting of studies too.
 The headline says, "stupid".   I don't know what study would ever say that. "Misinformed" does not mean stupid. It means being in possession and belief of information that is false or inaccurate. When you spew misinformation, you may SOUND stupid but your IQ hasn't necessarily changed.  If you didn't question your beliefs to begins with, well, that's another problem entirely.

What we find is that Mark Harwood's headline was even worse. It said, "Study Confirms That Fox News Makes You Stupid. He used "confirmed". GRRRRRRR. "Confirmed" and "causes" are as misused by writers as "I love you" is by that guy at the bar trying to get you to come home and sleep with him.

The study's flaw is not that it was run by a not-exactly apolitical organization, it is that it concludes that a causal relationship travels in one direction (let's not even get into whether there is a causal relationship at all). The HUGE problem with the study was that it tested the beliefs of FOX news viewers. It ASSUMES that their beliefs (as mistaken and idiotic as they may be) are CAUSED by watching Fox news. What if people with idiotic belifes are attracted to Fox news and watch it more and more? (Like depressed people taking mind-altering drugs). This is as likely as the reverse. Sorry kids, Fox news may have an audience more likely to be misinformed but we have NO right to say it's Fox's fault (AS MUCH AS I REALLY REALLY WANT TO).  Seriously, could a smart person really watch Fox news for more than a few seconds? Doubt it.
THERE IS A CORRELATION but that is not causality. And who knows if "stupid" or "watches Fox news" is the dependant variable in this case (then again, not sure it matters).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism

I am not a fan of anecdotal evidence. To be clear, CAUSE is a very specific word and it has been used incorrectl­y and/or deceptivel­y in the title of this article.

Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Autism Cause Identified! (no not really, just a bad headline). How to spot a nutbag...

Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism

This skewereing will explain how to spot a nutbag.

Step 1: Look for  for the word "CAUSE" where it does not belong.

Quackery, chicanery, or sell more booksism? Mark Hyman, a praciticing physician and therefore expert on autism (note not a neuroscientist, epidemiologist or peer-reviewed researcher) tells us that a recently published study in JAMA identifies the cause of autism as a mitochondrial disorder. And, what causes the mitochondrial disorder?...Mercury (queue the anti-vaccine wackadoos).   Help me please.

He used the word "CAUSES" in the headline. No one knows what casues autism. A potential mechanism for the disorder has been proposed. But this nutbag seems to KNOW the cause because he identified it in the anecdotal evidence of a little boy named Jackson.  Causality is notoriously difficult to prove. Is so difficult in fact that most people either prove a contradiction or disprove the opposite of something (Remember rejecting the null hypothesis?).
Step 2: Look for poignant anecdotes.
The story of Jackson is personal and interesting but it is an anecdote. This is a little boy saved by fish oil according to Dr.Hyman.  Maybe, who knows. Maybe the fish oil helped, maybe he was randomly "cured" at the same time he started taking fish oil. WHO KNOWS? The Huffington Post doesn't.

So, why is anecdotal evidence so powerful?  Actually, it goes to some psychology. There have been some tests done in behavioral economics that talk about why human beings are better equipped to help an individual (and are more moved to help an individual) than a group.  Dan Airley uses the example of the American Cancer Society using a network of cancer survivors to appeal to our sense of helping an individual. That is, one person who we know.  Look at Save the Children. They don't have you look at the staggering, heartbreaking numbers of starving children, they use one child.  Sadly, the quacks do this too. So do the anti-vaccine groups.

So what should we do? We MUST recognize that we are susceptible to the power and emotional pull of anecdotal evidence and return from "emotion mind" to "reason mind." If that fails you, look up pictures of individual children with polio or measles. That'll send you to the doctor for a vaccine, STAT.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kids aren't "stuck" on sugary cereals ... or no kidding, this is a slow news week isn't it?

"Kids not so stuck on sugary breakfast cereals, study finds"

Oh Babycenter. Merry Christmas - turns out you don't have much to worry about with those diabetic-shock- inducing cereals after all.  Not so fast.  This study attempted to show that kids don't need sugary cereals to induce them to eat breakfast.  THIS IS NOT NEWS. If kids are hungry, they will probably eat what's in front of them. That is why what's in the house is probably more important than what's advertised on tv (opinion alert - that's my opinion).
This one is just plain old poor writing. George Orwell writes about the importance of clear, concise writing in his classic Why I Write.  He reminds us that ALL writing can be and is political to some extent. even if the writer is siply trying to express something, the politics of the writer will insert itself through word choice, sentence structure and the desire for the reader to identify with the author and his/her text.
End digression

The author of this headline seems to be saying that, children aren't addicted to sugary cereals. At least that's what the headline says to me. The study doesn't show that AT ALL. The study took 91 children (yes, 91 and they were mostly minority children in a summer camp setting - no amount of inductive reasoning can get you to any generalizations about children in the U.S. as a whole) and offered some of them a choice of "Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Pebbles." The other group were offered "Cheerios, Rice Krispies and Kellogg's Corn Flakes." Guess what? Both groups ate their breakfast. We didn't test whether or not, left to their own devices, the children chose the sugary cereals over the less sugary cereals. I think that test could have given us a headline that said the kids weren't stuck on sugary cereals. But, in this case, the design was bizarre. The children were given a set of choices where they could eat a sugary cereal or a sugary cereal. Likewise, they could chose a low sugar cereal or a low sugar cereal.

This is basically saying that kids will eat what's in front of them. If that's the conclusion, which was mind blowing for those " many parents [who] believe that if cereals aren't loaded with sweetness, kids won't eat them.," is the only advice, don't put sugar cereal in your child's bowl and your children will eat anyway? This is sad.  Not only did the methodology stink (sample was biased), also, the "test" and "control" groups didn't really answer a question with any useful information. The headline was deceitful because it tried entice someone to read an article about a terrible study with no REAL findings. Yay, Babycenter.com!!!!!! Everyday you add value. AS IF...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I am "fit to be tied"... Cell phones harm the unborn? STOP THE BAD REPORTING!!!

The actually said that cellphone use could harm the unborn!!!

Babble.com, which purports to be for smart parents is full of it this time.  The article's title asks,
Is Your Cell Phone Hurting Your Unborn Child?. (As if the writer isn't trying to imply that it does). Anyone who remembers Alicia Silvestone in Clueless circa 1995 can imply my tone here.

Moms-to-be, all over the world just dropped their collective smartphones and recoiled in horror as this article told them that the conference call they just took is about to lead to behavioral problems for, WAIT FOR IT... THEIR UNBORN BABIES!!!!! This is disgusting. This is fear selling at its worst.  AAAAnd this my dears, is BS!

Here's where we find that the whole thing is a red herring, (below the fold, of course),

Researcher Leeka Kheifets says that the association between cell phone use and behavioral problems isn’t all that strong and, because the mothers were self-reporting, the data cannot be considered completely reliable.  However, she and her colleagues speculate that cell phone use might lead mothers to excessively secrete melatonin, which can impact her metabolism and potentially influence the brain development of the fetus.
At this point we must stop to consider that the RESEARCHER said that the association isn't all that strong. End scene. If it's not strong, why are we reporting on it?

Worse than that, they "speculate"s some causal power associated with melatonin.   Nice try. Not buying it. And neither should anyone. What is particularly damaging here is that the authors feed on a mother's rational desire to protect her child to create an irrational fear.

How to spot a study deigned to scare the heck out of you even though the conclusion is weak and/or non-existent:

as in "Is Your Cell Phone Hurting Your Unborn Baby?"
Adrenaline of the 100lb-mom-lifts-bus-off-child variet kicks in. "Yes. Mustn't it? If they are writing about it..."

Be assured the answer is more likely a relationship that is "not all that strong." Let me put it another way, "NO, there is not enough evidence to say anything about it..."
P.S. Don't get me started on the flawed nature of self-reported data...I'm just too tired to go there today.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Did You Have a Nice Day on the Right Wing, Dear? Fox Confirms the Married Men Are "Nicer"

 "Married Men Are Nicer and Here's Why"

Seriously.  This title actually confuses a correlation (which I think is not really that surprising anyway) with fewer occurrences of anti-social behavior and likelihood of a male twin to be married.  Ignoring the fact that this is not really a major aha moment (a##holes are less likely to marry) and therefore not really that interesting, the title assigns a CAUSE!! "Here's Why."  They think they know why!!! 289 pairs of twin men and Fox can tell you "why". As my eighteen-month-old is fond of saying, "No;no;no;no;no;no;no!" Envision a little blond head wagging back and forth. Also, is someone who engages in fewer anti-social behaviors "nicer"? What does "nice" even mean? The English language has many words in it. It certainly has enough words to be more specific and descriptive than "nice."

When anyone has a theory about why populations in a study behave differently, it is simply that, a theory. It is not the cause. It is not "the why." The writer in this case assigns an "explanation" to a set of data. In this case Fox decided that it was a data set in search of the family values crowd to explain what they believe they already know (marriage is good because it make people behave in a certain way). Give me a break!

It gets better, in a paragraph that begins with the incorrect usage of the word "however", the reporter goes even further. According to the study, for those pairs in which one of the twins married during the observation period, "anti-social" behavior decreased. They don't tell us by how much. They don't tell us how many were in the sample. There was a questionable control group (the ones who didn't marry). What if twins behave differently in marriage than non-twins and those men behave worse after marrying? We're reaching beyond the relevant range here.
Is this Fox's way of saying, "get those wild boys married, or anti-social behavior will destroy our country"? Give them a day to pass this on to some of their more insane commentators and it might be.

This headline is beyond ridicule. It is FALSE. We don't really know why. Incidences of anti-social behavior decreased after the men married. We also don't know if men with fewer anti-social tendencies to begin with are more likely to marry, or marriage made them less anti-social.  Honestly, I'm not sure that i care. One type of anti-social behavior was an episode of binge drinking. The difference between the two groups (1.3 occurrences and 0.7). So over the study period, the non-married men got drunk one extra time. Shocking. Well, not really.

One other thing, the men who married during the study were OLDER when they married thatn they were at the outset of the study. Anyone think that age and maturity might have something to do with a reduction in "anti-social" behavior? Just wondering.

We don't know why married men are "nicer" (or if they even "ARE" nicer). I repeat, WE DON'T KNOW WHY. And neither do you, Fox news.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

If you get divorced, your kids are 2x as likely to have a stroke...If you got divorced in the 1940s!!!!!

Struggling in your marriage? Here's HealthDay and Babycenter to warn you...
"Children of divorce face twice the risk of stroke as adults

Mon, Nov 22, 2010 (HealthDay News) — Children of divorce appear to have more than double the lifetime risk for experiencing a stroke compared with those whose parents' marriage stays intact during their childhood, new research suggests."
So, you're marriage is in trouble. You're having a rough time. Here comes Babycenter to make it that much easier to decide to stay in a marriage that you probably shouldn't or to feel so much guiltier and worse about what your decision to divorce is going to do to your children.  That's what you need right about now, isn't it?
When you read all the way down, you see that the people with double the occurrence were people of children who were divorced in...WAIT FOR IT..."1930s, 1940s and 1950s."  It's amazing to me that this is newsworthy. The study focused on Canadians in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The results were presented at the annual meeting of the American GERENTOLOGICAL Association.  This is not for parents who might be divorcing today, this is for doctors of people over 60 who are trying to identify populations with stroke risk.  If we assume that the profile of a child of divorce in 1935 is the same as now, we are making an error. It even has a name! Extending the relevant range.
The best way to illustrate a relevant range is with water. Water, as it cools, becomes more dense.  So from 38 degrees to 4 degrees centigrade, water molecules come closer together. So let's just ASSUME that that relationship continues down to two degrees. We might, since we didn't measure the density of water at two degrees. But we would be wrong. Ever notice how ice floats on top of liquid water? That's because water, unlike other substances is the most dense at 3.98 degrees centigrade <http://www.helium.com/knowledge/6620-the-temperature-at-which-water-is-most-dense>.  
So if we assume that the children of divorces that occur in the 2010s will have the same increased likelihood for stroke as the children of divorce from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, we are looking outside of the relevant range. We can make NO assumptions about the likelihood of these children having a stroke over the course of their lifetime.

Long story short, Divorce is really difficult for everyone involved. It is a decision that I have anecdotal evidence telling me that most people don't make lightly.  If you are considering the effects of getting divorced on your children, PLEASE focus on things other than their risk of stroke in their sixties.  It's too far off and we don't know if it's correlated (don't get me started on causal). 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why I Pick on Babycenter.com(not just because it's so easy)

A little about Stat Girl. I am the mother of a beautiful, wonderful 18-month-old daughter who has brought more joy, more challenge and more meaning to my life than I ever could have imagined. Also, I am a full-time outside of the home professional; a consultant who works in the financial field. I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy (yes, you read that correctly, an employed Philosophy major - turns out there's a lot of us and we're pretty darn good too http://www.clemson.edu/caah/philosophy/information/famous.html). I have an MBA in Finance and Marketing. My brain did not fry from hormone overload when I gave birth (I was terrified that it might). More personal than all this is the fact I am in recovery from an Eating Disorder. As such, I take an SSRI every day. I took one every single day of my pregnancy and every single day that I breastfed. My daughter, according to a recent assessment, is ahead in almost all of her milestones except for "empathy" (I am smothering the snark about to rise from keyboard). When my daughter was 8 months old, I woke up from the "Do everything the experts say because you, as only a mere mother and not a baby professional, do not know what's best for your child". My BS meter started lighting up like a Christmas tree.

The catalyst was a post on Babycenter.com that was emailed to me in my weekly , "How to be a better mother" email from Babycenter. It talked about the "delayed onset of breastmilk in mothers who took SSRIs". That hit me in a more personal way than most headlines.  I read the article and it was flawed and DANGEROUS! Do you know what happens if you suggest to a fragile new mother, who is prone to depression (by the fact that she's on SSRIs to begin with) that she stop taking her pills? It's called Postpartum Depression and it's not pretty. So, I wrote to the kind folks at BabyCenter.com. Here's my note:

Dear Editors:
     I have to wonder whether or not your posting of content from the Health Day news service ismerely interesting and attention grabbing. It is perhaps ill advised. I have noticed that the health day reports rarely cite any concern over study methodologies. A particular example is the one pager suggesting that use of SSRIs is associated with delayed onset of breast milk.  Since so many mothers and expectant mothers are already weary of taking ANY medication for fear it will affect their child, the decision to continue on an anti-depressant medication is one that can be truly heart wrenching.  While the mothers and mothers to be know that they are already at increased risk for post partum depression and other complications, they also know that the effects of some of these medicines aren't known. In a population predisposed to depression and the concomitant symptoms of increased feelings of guilt and anxiety, they may decide to cease or reduce medication.  This study implies that a woman who takes SSRIs will have less success in breast feeding because the delayed onset of milk may require early formula feeding. Here is the rub, did this study control for maternal age at time of the birth, dosage of the SSRI, length of time on the SSRI, the version of the SSRI (some have much longer half lives than others? What about c section vs. vaginal birth? What about duration of labor and additional interventions? A HUGE influence on milk production is the mother's overall hydration level.  Were these mothers monitored for their hydration levels? Furthermore, what was the control group? How was the SSRI variable isolated?  Since none of these answers can be made in a short one pager, I must assume that, no, they probably weren't. Basically, this article will just make the decision to continue anti-depressant therapy (a decision that rightly belongs between a woman and the prescribing doctor when ALL factors of her situation are considered) even more difficult.  If ONE woman falls victim to post partum depression as a result of the reporting in this story, it is one too many.  Not ONCE in the article NOR in the "what can you do" section was the danger of discontinuing an anti-depressant without the supervision of a LICENSED medical professional mentioned. For a site that claims to be a place for mothers, I have to wonder how such a relevant issue went unmentioned.
Thank you,
Stat Girl (name edited, of course)
San Francisco, CA
Mother to Stat Baby (I'm actually going to start calling her that) - 8 months

Here's the response:
Hi Stat Girl,

Thank you for emailing BabyCenter with your thoughtful note.  You make some good points - I will forward your email to our news editors. Thank you for your interest in BabyCenter!

Community Administrator

NO FURTHER COMMUNICATION, EVER. Even after I wrote again:

         Thank you for forwarding my concerns. I am a bit trobled that there has been no additional response to my letter. Is it normally the policy of babycenter.com to simply reply "thanks for writing?". I have looked for any updates on PPD and have not seen much.  However, I have noticed more coming from the wire service Reuters (which is at least a reputable news source). I am encouraging the new mothers who I know to read the reporting of studies via babycenter.com with a high degree of skepticism.  Furthermore, in a survey that I was asked to take for babycenter.com, the survey seemed to be asking my degree of confidence in the information provided by the site.  If your goal and value proposition is to be "the authority on the web for all matters baby-related", I have to question whether or not your content team is aware of what such a goal entails.  If you are simply serving as a lead source for diapers.com, then I suppose catchy headlines are all that matters.  For example, today's email blast has a link to an article about VBAC. It says, "Vaginal birth after C section may be safe."  VBAC is VERY common. VBAC after multiple cesarians being safe, however is newsworthy. Making the lead link, "Vaginal birth after multiple C sections may be safe", seems like a more appropriate headline and does not imply that VBAC in general has heretofore been considered unsafe. I imagine that the click-through rate would be lower though.
Thank you again for reading my thoughts and passing them on.
Respectfully yours,
Stat Girl

MORAL OF THE STORY: This is my small way to save us from this kind of psychological warfare. That may seem hyperbolic, but that's how it feels to me.