Monday, January 31, 2011

Science blogging in theory and practice: Who writes health news?

This is fantastic work looking into the media, journalists and the quality of their reporting. HIGHLY recommend it!

Science blogging in theory and practice: Who writes health news?: "In times of financial difficulties, health reporters are usually the first to be let go. This is especially true if they actually know somet..."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Children of divorce more likely to have suicidal ideation? Reporting for good rather than guilt.

Why are reports on study results utterly deviod of perspective? Why do writers play a guilt card, when with a little bit of thought, they could do A LOT of good for the most vulnerable members of our society?

Babble reports today about a study in Canada that shows children of divorce are more likely to have suicidal thoughts as adults and it's worse for boys. The title is not altogether that misleading. It is a pretty basic, "Study Says Children of Divorce May Have Suicidal Thoughts as Adults." It's actually funny because ALL children may have suicidal ideations as adults so why would the children of divorce be any different. The title is a truism and a tautology. Queue logic lesson music...

In logic, a truism is a statement that in and of itself is true but because it is couched with words like "may" and "under certain conditions". Under the right conditions, pig fly, but those conditions don't occur very often so it's not really that exciting a development. Headlines do this all of the time (so they can't be held against a mirror of actual truth value).

A tautology, on the other hand is a proposition that is true by definition. Some philosophers debate whether tautologies are truisms, but it's not relevant for th discussion here. A tautology is a proposition which is true by definition or identity. Definitions are great examples. In this article since ALL children grown up to be adults and many adults have suicidal thoughts, the idea that children of divorce having suicidal thoughts is neither surprising nor informative.

Anyway, logic lesson over. What bugs me about this is the FEAR factor. If you divorce, you are putting your adult son at risk of suicide and suicidal ideation. What's missing in the context of this article?

The incidence rate is NOT discussed. Is it 2x more, 1x more .0000001X more? Give us a sense of HOW this compares to adult men in general? What about adjusting for the custodial parent? Do boys who live with their fathers have the same rate of these problems as boys who live with their mother? Could it have to do with the higher incidences of poverty among children of divorce? Poverty is correlated with many problems as well.

The blogger than speculates away about how boys aren't encouraged to express their feelings and therefore bottle them up causing them to be suicidal later in life.  Whatever, a theory looking for a study as far as I'm concerned. Can't you hear perfect mommy on the playground, "Not only did she once give her child, gasp, formula, now she's divorcing...the boy has no chance. Tsk. tsk..." This demon woman lives in my head. She IS irrational and I tell her to "shut up" at least five times a day lately. (Statgrrl loves logic because it reminds her that she can identify irrationality, name it, and make it go away, at least for a little while). When it comes to Statbaby, I confess that I am completely irrational.

As if people in a struggling marriage and children don't have enough to worry about.  Think about the domestic violence victim here. Terrified to leave (because we see that some are killed AFTER they leave, not before), in a state of constant stress and battered self-esteem. Did this just tell them to stick it out for one more day? I don't know. But if one person suffers even one extra beating because they were trying to stay in it for the kids, there's a problem here.

Personal note about StatGrrl: I have worked with victims of domestic violence. They suffer silently among us every day.  Acknowledging their existence and  giving them some context (your son MAY have a slightly elevated risk of suicide but that risk is still lower than being struck by lightening- not sure about that since the article doesn't give me that context) would be the first step in using reporting for good, rather than guilt. These people are living on the edge literally, the article isn't dangerous per se. It is however, devoid of sensitivity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Healthday anti-vax propaganda --Parents believe the MMR Autsim Link and then a third party PAC makes sure you still question rationality

Slightly More than Half of Americans Say Vaccines Don't Cause Autism 18% Don't Trust MMR Vaccine and 30% are Undecided

Seriously? Have 18% of American adults lost their minds? Probably.  I want to skip my tirade about how dangerous this belief system is (based on questioning result after result by claiming conflicts of interest on the part of researchers). Not to mention that it's poor logic.

Time to look at how badly the reporting screwed up the numbers. In all surveys, there is a margin of error. What was it here? No idea. Went to Harris interactive and they can't seem to figure one out.  Sooo... 18%? Who knows. If the margin of error is +/- 5 percentage points. So could be 13%? Could be 23%? Whatever. Poor reporting. Also, isn't there some belief that at any given point in time 20% of American are mentally ill? 18% anti-vaxx, 20% mentally ill... if only... but I try not to commit crimes against logic.

At the very bottom of their tables, they offered some commentary/disclaimers about the survey, (they pay their sample and have to "adjust for" propensity to be online, propensity to respond to a survey, age, race, education level and income to make sure that the sample looks like the American public. Gimme a break. That's A LOT of adjusting.

Here's their explanation,
"All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.
Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated."
Lame. The survey was not meant to be scientific and was not a randomized sample.  Fair enough, but it garnered a LOT of press.

So here's the SCARY PART. Healthday. at it again, does not get a quote from the researchers, but from an unrelated third party (remember propaganda spotting?). The third party talks all about how parents deserve more research. The NVIC sounds like a branch of the government doesn't it? It ISN'T! It's a third party lobbying organization that wants to increase the availability of exemptions for vaccines.  Also, it wants people to "KNOW" all the side-effects of vaccines. This group is NOT interested in making sure that good science is done but rather stirring the anti-vax soup a little more.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Breastfeeding paranoia - feed my child food? Oh the humanity!

A new study published in the BMJ,suggests that it might be a good idea to supplement breastfeeding with food at four months. This is pretty common advice from pediatricians anyway.
Sierra, over at Babble's blog strollerderby is appalled. She almost sounds like an anti-vax person about vaccines when it comes to, wait for it...FEEDING YOUR BABY - Food.
 First what the study does NOT say: Stop breastfeeding at 4 months. You MUST feed solids to your child at 4 months. Breastmilk is bad.

What it DOES say:
The official policy in the UK to advise mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months may have been entered into too quickly and should be reconsidered in light of some new evidence. Iron is crucial to brain development and we should ensure that children are getting enough. Also, it calls into question the idea that breast milk prevents allergies (which has NEVER been proven by the way).

I remember the day my pediatrician told me to buy baby vitamins because breast milk probably wan't giving my daughter enough iron (I think, I was too sleep deprived and furious with the evil lactation consultant who made me feel like a failure and a bad person). It was one of the most eye-opening moments of my short time as a parent.

Furthermore, I take issue with the way Sienna interprets weaning. It has a very clear meaning to her - ceasing to breastfeed altogether. In the study, it means adding solid foods regardless of continuing to breastfeed. She claims this is wrong. I claim that the UK often has words with different meanings in the US (even "pants"). Her complaint is a rather US centric viewpoint and raises an eyebrow given her progressive views about breastfeeding. Actually, views about breastfeeding that are unwilling to consider new evidence is as closed minded as the anti-vax , junk science folks are.

What kills me is the vitriol with which the Breast is Best crowd is pouring over this thing. Food isn't poison. It's food. Big deal if some of the research was funded with food company money, maybe they want to know if the breastfeeding propaganda is all true.

Monday, January 10, 2011

UPDATE: Well educated otherwise normal parents in CT are STILL listening to Jenny McCarthy for medical advice. Absurd.

Today is  crimes against logic day, or so it has been for me. Here's one reason why:

 An article in the Chicago Tribune today claims that, Many Connecticut Parents Of Autistic Children Convinced Of Vaccination Connection.
Why? Because people like Jenny McCarthy ""have a lot of credibility with parents." 

Crime 1: Ad Hominem Fallacy
This is a belief system, pure and simple. It stems from a culture that is at present profoundly anti-expert. Parents in this article state that they believe that the recent claims of fraud in the Lancet study have suspect timing and therefore must be discarded. That's a logical error. It even has a name "attacking the motive" which is a subset of an entire class of logical fallacies called "ad hominem" attacking the person, (i.e. he may a creep, but that is neither necessary nor sufficient to say that he is wrong).   

Crime 2: Failure to take a position to it's logical conclusion
One of the mothers is apparently incapable of higher order thinking.  She claims that she has not had any of her children vaccinated. However, were she to engage in international travel, then she would consider vaccination. let me get this straight.  You live in a bubble in CT. Your children play with other children in this bubble. Since your children will not leave said bubble they will never be exposed to icky things like polio. What about your children's friends? We live in a highly mobile society with these cool big bird-like devices called airplanes. They go to places where icky things like polio live and bring things back to. So when your children's friends bring back something icky to your bubble, don't come crying to me.

It seems to me that this anti-expertism and conspiracy theory susceptibility are a function of a country where science is not taught well in even the "good" schools. The most destructive part of this entire mindset is that , "we all have a right to our opinion." Well, when my child, or any other for that matter is sickened as a result of your ill-conceived right to your opinion, it is no longer a right, but a menace.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best, "Your rights end where my nose begins." And my nose would prefer NOT to contract measles, thank you very much.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Breastfeeding propaganda train rolls through again... Breastfed babies have stronger legs as teenagers...

Ah babble. The strollerderby blog is a new one to visit for ridiculous reporting and focus on studies that a) don't matter much to begin with and b) don't even hint at causality.

The title was actually pretty darn funny, "Nice legs! Thanks, I was breastfed."

So, researchers in Spain found that when they tested teenagers at tasks like jumping, the ones who were breastfed jumped higher. Ergo, stronger legs.  Apparently this followed a study that only showed this link in boys. This is killing me. Even if the ONLY variable that could be teased out was that the child was breastfed, how did they minimize the effects of diet, daily routine, genetics and exercise habits? I cannot believe that there aren't other things that the populations have in common than having been breastfed as infants. How do we rule out other causes when we compare teenagers to their conditions as newborns? Also, just in case you hadn't been made to feel like a guilty failure enough already by the breast-is-best-holier-than-thou crowd, now we add that your child will have weak legs. REALLY? Please. Can't we fund something that might help someone, like finding cures fir childhood illnesses? These studies are funded because they suit an agenda. Well, go sell your do-this-or-else somewhere else.