Friday, June 30, 2017

Confused By Science and the Media

It’s no wonder Americans are confused.  Last time I wrote about randomness and how it relates to the need for several well-designed experiments to validate each other as we search for the truth.  It is especially confusing in the area of health where single studies seem to be nearly tripping over each other trying to get to press.

Just a few days ago during the health segment of the local news the anchor referred to a new study or an international study four times in the course of one minute.  Each was backed up by a few pictures and a brief explanation.  That was one broadcast on one day with all that information packed into one minute, and it’s not unusual.  Tomorrow’s health news will be a similar list of studies and new findings.  How do we keep track?

The major networks are even more extreme.  Here is a headline from CNN earlier this month:  “Eating fried potatoes linked to higher risk of death, study says.”  It’s interesting that CNN doesn’t seem to understand that everyone’s risk of death is 100% and there is nothing you can do to make it higher.  What they meant to say was an earlier death, but that doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it.

In that case, an Italian research team, who were investigating osteoarthritis by observing the habits of 4,440 people aged 45 to 79 over a period of eight years, decided to take a short detour to compare potato consumption with death rates.  The reasoning was that at this time there is very limited scientific data to support the broadly held assumption that fried potatoes can be unhealthy.

After telling us about potato consumption in America and the percent of those potatoes that are processed – a dirty word lately among the health writers – CNN goes on to say that the study “found that those who ate fried potatoes two to three times each week doubled their chance of dying early compared to those who ate no fried potatoes.”  They never define in the article what dying early means nor do the researchers explain how those people originally being studied for osteoarthritis are representative of the rest of the population, Italian or American.

But then we find out that potatoes are not the bad guys; it’s the frying process and the trans fat in the oil.  Next I go to my freezer at home to see how much trans fat is in the processed potatoes we bought at the grocery store – zero!  Then I go to the McDonald’s website to check the nutritional information on their French fries – zero trans fats!

Ten paragraphs into the article is another interesting admission.  “The study is observational, meaning the researchers simply tracked the behavior of a group of people and found an association between one behavior -- eating fried potatoes -- and another factor -- early death. Because it is an observational study, [the researchers] note it cannot be said that eating fried potatoes directly causes an early mortality -- it would require more research to draw such a firm conclusion.”  (I would add, not only more research, but better research.)  CNN covers this technicality with the usual clever wording in their headline:  linked to rather than causes.

This looks like just another of many cases of much ado about nothing from science and the news media.  And it shows why critical thinking can help avoid panic over each instance of another dire health report.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Understanding Randomness

Randomness is defined as the lack of a pattern in a series of events.  Since there is no pattern or apparent logic to the appearance, randomness allows for no predictability.  This may seem straightforward, but a poor understanding of randomness leads people to make untrustworthy decisions.

The lottery consists of a near-random selection of winning numbers.  In most big-money lotteries there are millions of combinations, so the odds of winning are much greater than a million to one against any individual player.  Suppose the numbers 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 were drawn this week in a certain lottery.  Most people would not consider picking those numbers next week.  “What are the odds of the same numbers coming up two weeks in a row?” they would reason.  BUT because the numbers are chosen randomly, the odds of them coming up again next week are exactly the same as they were of coming up this week.  And the odds of those numbers coming up this week were exactly the same as the odds of any other combination.  To shy away from them because we have seen them so recently is not a sound strategy at all.

Everyone knows that if you flip a fair coin, it should come up heads about half the time and tails about half the time.  So if you flip a coin ten times in a row, most people would expect to see 5 heads and 5 tails.  BUT because the coin comes up randomly each time, the probability of getting 5 of each is only about one in four.  There is a three-times greater chance of getting some other combination.  The coin has no memory from one flip to the next.  It doesn’t know it’s supposed to come up one way or the other. 

In fact it is possible, but not very likely, that the coin could come up all heads.  Flip a coin ten thousand times and ten heads in a row somewhere in the sequence would not be that surprising at all.  It happens, but not very often.

Likewise, if a roulette wheel stops on red four times in a row, there is no logical reason to suppose it will not come up red the next time.  Seeing such a sequence, some people will bet on black, thinking it is “due.”  They will be rewarded for their “logic” about half the time and the rest of the time will remark on the weirdness of the situation.  BUT it’s not weird.  The roulette wheel is no more intelligent than the coin.

This identifying a pattern where there is none affects everyday decisions and beliefs.  When a single research experiment reveals that a certain food or other product is healthy or harmful, it could be true – assuming the experiment was carefully set up and carried out.  The finding could also be a random result – it just happened.  It takes others repeating the experiment and getting similar results, to show the findings were valid and not just some extraordinary fluke.

Unfortunately, it’s more exciting for scientists to do an original experiment and release the findings to the press with great fanfare, than to do the boring process of duplicating the work of others, especially when getting the same outcome will help those others take all the credit.  It might also be harder to get funding for a duplicate study.  We have to understand this to keep from over-reacting to the health news discovery-of-the-week.  So many people want to hang their hat on the results of a single study that just happened to confirm what they want to believe.

There are many other examples in our random world where we can be fooled either by apparent coincidences or by expecting patterns that don’t really exist.  But one important issue concerns self-medication, the pills, foods and experiences that each of us is sure make us feel better.  Most times, unless several researchers have done extensive studies, the improvement we feel is either coincidence or placebo.  Either we remember only the favorable outcomes or we put so much faith in the cure that our brains do the work.

When the folk medicine or sports superstition runs up against a ten-heads-in-a- row situation, we take it as truth rather than randomness and swear by it for the rest of our lives.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why Be Responsible?

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times.  In fact I probably have said it one hundred times, because out of about 630 little essays here, this is the 107th that refers to the subject of responsibility; specifically, when you don’t exercise responsibility, you give up some of your freedom because someone is always eager to step in and take over the job for you.

In many cases the helper, the one seeing to it that your careless actions don’t hurt you or someone else, is the government.  In those case the irresponsible actions of a few result either in an additional cost to everyone, an additional restriction on everyone’s actions or both.  In the latest case it is probably just a minor cost, but the example is revealing.

It seems a few people buckle their children into the child safety seat in the back seat of the car on a hot day, drive to their destination and walk away, forgetting the child is locked in a potentially dangerous car.  According to Reuters this has resulted in 800 accidental deaths since 1990.  Now that’s a long period of time, but small steps may save the lives of about 40 children a year.  (It has happened 9 times already this year and the summer temperatures are just beginning in many parts of the country.)

In response, three lawmakers in Washington have proposed a new regulation requiring that automakers install “devices to remind drivers to check their back seats for passengers before getting out.”  Safety experts agree and General Motors will already include this feature in a few high-end 2018 models.  This should not be much of a challenge or a cost.  It requires a bell or a light on the dashboard as a check-the-back-seat reminder when the car is turned off.  It should be easy as there are so many lights and bells in cars today warning of open doors, unfastened seatbelts, front airbags, etc.

One concern would be whether such a system would be easy to grow accustomed to and ignore, although some might find it helpful to remind them of a briefcase riding in the back seat.  Also, unless all the cars were recalled, it would take about 20 years to be universally installed and in that time we could lose hundreds more children.

Of course, true to the new American mythology of an excuse for everything, we are assured that it’s not really our fault.  We are too stressed out.  From Consumers Union:  “Dr. David Diamond, the director of the Neuroscience Collaborative Program and Center for Preclinical and Clinical Research on PTSD at the University of South Florida, noted that competing brain functions can cause a parent to lose awareness that their child is in the car.”  He blames the negligent acts on “flaws in the brain.”

The cost is unknown.  Congress rarely thinks about these small costs when imposing more regulations.  But if this simple fix costs less than five dollars per car, then based on annual sales of about 10 million vehicles with back seats (16 million minus some pickups and sports cars), the total cost would be under $50 million, less than or about $1.25 million for each child saved.  This would be reasonable, based on the assumption that no one ever knowingly leaves a kid in the carseat to run a quick errand. 

But that’s $50 million per year not available to spend on other things – there’s always a trade off.  What would we rather spend that money on if a few people didn’t have this "brain flaw" that interfered with their behavior as responsible parents?

The final concern is that when this is successful in saving a few lives, Washington will continue to feel duty bound to take on more of our irresponsible behavior with costs and restrictions, like this suggestion by a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.  She believes sugary drinks should be regulated similarly to alcohol.  “We regulate alcohol… We do not sell alcohol to children. We tax it and you can’t drink while you are working.”

Some fail in the dimension of responsibility and we all lose.  Little by little we pay more and we give up our freedom.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Just Another Oil Crisis

This has nothing to do with OPEC and strife in the Mideast.  It’s another press release about oils in our diet.

It started with a headline on the BBC declaring:  “Coconut oil is as unhealthy as beef dripping and butter, say US heart experts.”  As usual, we have to be very wary of headlines, especially ones like this one designed to scare.  It turns out that the information is from the American Heart Association (AHA).  They are concerned that coconut oil is considered by some to be a health food containing fat that “may be better for us than other saturated fats.”  The AHA says there are no good studies backing up this claim.  According to them, all saturated fat is bad.

But all the differing opinions about good fat and bad fat can be very confusing.  Generally animal fat is considered unhealthier than vegetable fat, but not everyone agrees with that distinction either.  I wrote about this just five months ago when the story came out that Nutella contains palm oil which has recently been placed on the bad list.  In that piece I reviewed a number of different sources showing how they ranked the oils in different orders of healthiness.

Another article (coincidentally also) from the BBC but a year earlier, “Diet debate: Is butter back and is sat fat good?” gives a balanced explanation.  At one time the experts felt that all cholesterol is bad, but now everyone knows about HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol).  The oil and fat debate is equally subtle, making the comparison to butter in that latest headline questionable.  Furthermore, any research is difficult because it depends on many people accurately reporting what they eat over long periods of time.

Back in the 1950s some researchers found evidence that fat was the culprit.  To understand the history in detail an interesting source is the book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz.  It tells of some of the problems with study methods – in one case looking at Italians during Lent to assess their usual eating habits – and of the politics involved – when the US Government commits to a particular diet recommendation, studies with contrary findings are often ignored and scientists risk loss of funding.  Those who thought sugar, not fat, was the problem were marginalized.  As a NY Times Magazine piece from 2002 put it:  While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.”

That Times article also gives a great summary of the history and politics.  At one point they explain it this way:  A huge government study “concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith.”  With virtually no evidence that eating less fat had any health benefits, they assumed that “if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same.”  But the research and the experience over many years could not confirm this conclusion.

With all this conflicting evidence, what’s an eater to do?  The best answer has to do with moderation: in fat, in sugar, and in portion size.  Contradictory news will continue to pour in.  For example, eggs that we were told just a few years ago were "worse than smoking cigarettes" (for the cholesterol) are back on the good-guy list.  Popular Science reported just two weeks ago “An egg a day could help babies grow bigger and taller.”

So the answer is not to take all the headlines too seriously and to practice moderation.  You heard it here first! – Except this is really just common sense.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Trying to Stay Non-political

As I’ve said before, I try to keep away from any political subjects, first because there are many other writers who love to make political comments, but more important because Washington is unable to fix problems we have brought on through our own behavior.  The only difficulty with this stance is that almost everything that happens lately is reframed as a political dispute making it very difficult to find behavioral examples of a non-political nature.  (A clear demonstration of a national perspective failing is that Senate hearings take center stage while what used to be considered real news is treated as an afterthought.)

Perspective is about values, what is important and what is trivial, setting appropriate priorities, separating wants from needs and gratitude for our blessings.  Two stories this week, when taken from a nonpolitical angle, reinforced this need for perspective:  the President’s son’s shirt and the Boston Globe’s comments on air conditioning.

As Barron Trump exited the helicopter with his parents upon arrival on the White House lawn, he was wearing a t-shirt with the words “The Expert” on the front.  Within a matter of hours people going to J. Crew’s website found a message saying that the shirt was sold out and offering other suggestions.  Some observers point out that the shirt was already sold out before everyone saw young Trump wearing one, but others attribute some of its popularity to his appearance on camera.

It could have been the news spot or the President’s son could have just jumped on the same bandwagon as many others.  In either case a $30 t-shirt most people didn’t even know existed suddenly became a must-have item.

In the second instance the Boston Globe published an editorial suggesting that readers should reduce or eliminate the use of air conditioning for the summer.  They pointed out that since “the first window unit was brought to market in 1939, air conditioners have become ubiquitous in the United States. Today, almost 90 percent of American households have one – as do the vast majority of restaurants, stores, museums, and office buildings.”  They go on to warn about the high amount of energy usage with a global-warming impact equivalent to each family driving 10,000 extra miles per year. 

Conservative sites were quick to point to it as another example of climate-change hysteria and to question whether the Globe would be turning off the air conditioning in their own building.

Setting aside the politics, the Globe has a point that air conditioning is one more thing we take for granted.  It wasn’t that long ago, certainly within my memory, that families would look for an excuse to go to the movies in the summer just to enjoy a couple of hours of air conditioned comfort before returning home to the sweltering heat.  People in cities would sleep on the fire escapes and those in the suburbs might spend the night in the basement.  Today we look at an outside temperature of 92 and decide we will stay in the house in comfort.  Jokingly referring to a 4-60 air conditioning system in the car (4 windows open at 60 mph) would be lost on today’s car buyers.

We can live without it, but would prefer not to, and are probably more productive at work and at home with it.  From a perspective point of view, A/C has crept from nice to necessary in only a couple of generations.  Many can’t imagine living without it, but many others in the world have no choice.