Archive for the “Bad Science” Category

Several people asked if I planned to take apart the latest “meat kills!” study to make a big media splash.  In case you missed it, here’s part of one of the many, many articles about the study that hit the news:

A diet rich in meat, eggs, milk and cheese could be as harmful to health as smoking, according to a controversial study into the impact of protein consumption on longevity.

The overall harmful effects seen in the study were almost completely wiped out when the protein came from plant sources, such as beans and legumes, though cancer risk was still three times as high in middle-aged people who ate a protein-rich diet, compared with those on a low-protein diet.

You just know the vegan crowd loved reading those words.  But let’s keep reading:

But whereas middle-aged people who consumed a lot of animal protein tended to die younger from cancer, diabetes and other diseases, the same diet seemed to protect people’s health in old age.

So there you have it:  meat, eggs and other animal protein will kill you until you turn 65.  Then the same foods protect your health.  Since I’m already 55, I’ve decided I’ll keep eating meat, eggs and cheese and hope I manage to hang on for another 10 years – then I’ll increase my consumption of those foods to ensure I live to age 90.

That contradiction alone – animal foods can kill you until you reach the age at which most people actually die, then protect you – should be enough to convince you this is another piece of observational garbage.

But if you want a more thorough take-down of this idiocy, Zoe Harcomb already wrote one.  Here’s a bit of it (and I’d suggest you read the whole post):

This is a direct quotation from the article (my emphasis): “Using Cox Proportional Hazard models, we found that high and moderate protein consumption were positively associated with diabetes-related mortality, but not associated with all-cause, CVD [cardiovascular], or cancer mortality when subjects at all the ages above 50 were considered.”

i.e. when we looked at the 6,381 over 50 year olds there was not even an association with protein intake and all-cause mortality, or CVD mortality, or cancer mortality.

There was a relationship with diabetes mortality and protein intake, but the numbers were so tiny (one death from diabetes in one group) that this was not considered important.

And that could have been the headline – “There is no association between protein intake and mortality” – but then there would be no headline.

One of those animal-protein foods that will kill you until you turn 65 and then save your life is the humble egg.  I recently received an article about the importance of a nutrient that eggs provide:  choline.  Here are some quotes:

Choline plays a role in multiple physiological systems from all cell membranes to the function of organs like the liver. Choline produces a neurotransmitter involved in memory storage, muscle control and many other functions.

For more than five decades, nutrition science has known that choline is an important compound in the body. However, because humans have the ability to synthesize choline and our diets generally contain significant amounts of choline, it has been difficult to de­finitively show that choline is needed in the diet.

One of the first clear indications that the body does not make choline quick enough to meet the body’s own needs was recently demonstrated. When healthy men were fed a diet which was adequate in all known essential nutrients but very low in choline, the men developed liver damage. This indicates that even though the body can make choline, there is a dietary requirement as well.

Foods especially rich in choline include beef liver, with about 450 milligrams per 3 ounce serving, and eggs, with about 280 milligrams per egg.

So according to the latest observational nonsense, animal foods will kill you until you turn 65 … but at the same time, clinical research shows that choline is an essential nutrient, and the richest sources of choline are beef liver and eggs.

I vote we ignore the observational nonsense and eat our eggs.  That won’t be a problem here on the mini-farm.  Now that the chickens in our second flock have started laying, they’re producing more eggs than we can consume.  I took this picture a week or so ago to demonstrate.

Then a couple of days ago, it occurred to Chareva to check the top level of the barn, which required climbing a ladder.  This is what she found.

Another 60 eggs or so.  Fortunately, with the cool weather, they’re still quite edible.  Oh, and Sara will be taking delivery of 25 chicks soon as part of a 4-H project.  So now she and Alana and Chareva are planning to open an egg stand by the road.

And I’ll keep eating eggs and other sources of animal protein way beyond age 65.

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I apologize for the lengthy delay in posting and answering comments.  It was a strange and sometimes stressful week with virtually zero time for blogging.

I finally had some free time over the three-day weekend, which we used to solve a couple of issues around the ol’ farmstead.  The first issue involved a runaway dog.  Well, not exactly a runaway dog, but a loose dog.  I was looking out the kitchen window on Saturday and thought, Hmmm, that’s a big animal poking around at the edge of forest back there … almost as big as one of my Rottweilers.  Hey, wait a minute!

Yup, it was our dog Misha, running happy and free, waaaay outside the backyard fence.  Nobody had left a gate open, which meant she was jumping the fence.  Most of the fencing is 48 inches tall, and she can’t jump that.  But over on the side yard, there’s a long section that’s only 40 inches.  There’s also a section that was apparently caved in a bit by a tree at some point, and it’s even shorter.

The long-term plan is to fence in the entire property, but we’re not ready to make that investment yet, so we needed a quick and easy (and inexpensive) solution.  Chareva remembered that she’d used a cow panel to make the hoop part of the portable chicken coop and thought cow panels would be tall enough to keep Misha from exploring the countryside and possibly deciding to explore the highway full of fast-moving vehicles.

I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t the most aesthetic solution, but what the heck, the existing fence isn’t a charmer anyway.  That’s one of the reasons we plan to get all-new fencing someday.  The cow panels were easy to strap to the existing fence, and so far they’ve kept Misha from doing another remake of The Great Escape.

The other issue we solved was getting across the creek without requiring balance or long-jumping skills to avoid stepping into muddy water.  The shortest route from the house to the chicken coop and the garden is across the creek.  During dry months, it’s easy to just step over it.  But for several days after a good rain, crossing the creek requires either a decent long jump or stepping on big rocks that may or may not be slippery.  I’ve had my foot slip off a rock and plunge into the muddy water enough times to expand my vocabulary of four-letter words.

To keep our feet dry when the creek swells after a rain, I figured we needed something 12 feet long.  I thought a steel bridge with handrails would provide a charming touch, but didn’t find the price on 12-foot steel bridges charming in the least.  So we decided to just go buy $100 worth of wood at Home Depot and make a bridge ourselves.

For the base of the bridge, we bought 4×4 beams.  For the surface, we bought 12-foot planks that are just under an inch thick and cut them into 3-foot sections.

Chareva likes this picture because (according to her) I look like a boy pulling his wagon.


She suggested pre-drilling holes before attaching the planks with 2-inch wood screws.  While putting together the portable chicken coop, she apparently had a bad experience trying to drill long screws directly into the wood.   I replied that in the interest of time and efficiency, I’d like to try drilling the screws directly first.

When I pushed the drill down and the screw head ended up flat against the plank, she said, “Huh … I guess you’re stronger than I am.”  And here I thought – you know, with our workouts at the gym and all – she already knew that.  Nice when a construction project clarifies your wife’s opinions of your abilities.  She also told me several times how happy she was to see me building a bridge from scratch.  I get that … my dad never did anything with tools, I never did anything with tools until we moved to the farm, and all the years she knew me in Chicago and Los Angeles, she never saw me take on a project more complicated than hanging a picture.

I thought we’d probably have to prop up at least one beam with rocks or paving stones, but nope.  With a little moving and shoving and adjusting, we found a spot where the bridge settled in nicely, with no tilting or rocking.  I celebrated with a round of disc golf, patting myself on the back a bit each time I used the bridge to cross the creek.

Meanwhile, the girls have decided it’s a great perch for watching crawdads.

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Okay, they’re not exactly beasts and they haven’t exactly been released, but our 18 chicks are now living outside in the portable coop Chareva constructed.  The one real design flaw was the wheels (assuming, of course, you consider not staying in place and not rolling to be a flaw).  So we attached a chain to the coop, then I made like a donkey and dragged it behind me to the field behind our house.  Not a bad workout for the legs.

Chareva made two final modifications to the coop, both for security purposes.  She found that with her makeshift cord latch, she could easily push the door in several inches – which means a raccoon could do likewise – so she attached a couple of better latches, one high, one low.  Now the door doesn’t push in.

After a couple of readers warned us about predators digging underneath the bottom rails, she made a floor out of 2 x 4 fencing.  We hope that’s enough to discourage a raccoon from tunneling into the coop while still allowing the chickens to peck and scratch.  Time will tell.  When she builds her next coop, Chareva will attach fencing to the underside first.  It wasn’t an easy task doing a retrofit job.

The chicks cowered inside their cardboard box for a bit after the move, then began exploring the coop.  Soon they were pecking the ground like crazy.  I hope that means they’re eating ticks.  If they turn out to be enthusiastic tick-eaters, I’ll happily raise as many chickens as we can handle.

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It’s not exactly diet-related, but how’s this for a classic case of confusing correlation with causation?  An article on the NBC News site reported on a study of what people were drinking before ending up in an emergency room:

Many people who end their Friday or Saturday nights in a hospital emergency room have been drinking alcohol. In fact, public health experts estimate that about one-third of all injury-related ER visits involved alcohol consumption.

I consider that good news.  It means if you avoid getting @#$%-faced, you’re less likely to end up in an emergency room.  Better choices, better results.

But what, exactly, are people drinking? What types of alcohol and even what brands? Is there a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury?

I’m already convinced there’s a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury.  I can’t tell you how many drunk people I’ve seen collide with billboards.  Good thing most of them were walking.

Until now, those questions have been unanswerable, frustrating alcohol epidemiology researchers.

Sounds to me as if those alcohol epidemiology researchers are easily frustrated.

“Honey, what’s wrong?  Why are you slamming the drawers in your file cabinet so hard?”

“Because, dangit, I can’t determine if there’s a direct link between alcohol advertising and later injury!  It’s driving me nuts!  Make me a martini, will you?”

But if results of a pilot study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hold up, there may soon be a way to connect the dots.

Whenever media health reporters write about connecting the dots, I brace myself for a head-bang-on-desk moment.  You may want to get out the desk pad before we continue.

When the Hopkins researchers surveyed ER patients who’d been drinking, they found that Budweiser was the number one brand consumed, followed Steel Reserve Malt Liquor, Colt 45 malt liquor, Bud Ice (another malt liquor), Bud Light, and a discount-priced vodka called Barton’s.

Wait a minute … they went to an emergency room and surveyed drunk people who had injured themselves?  I’m surprised they didn’t report the number one brand of alcohol consumed by injured drunks is called @#$% Off!

Anyway …

Though Budweiser has 9.1 percent of the national beer market, it represented 15 percent of the of the E.R. “market.” The disparity was even more pronounced for Steel Reserve. It has only .8 percent of the market nationally, but accounted for 14.7 percent of the E.R. market. In all, Steel Reserve, Colt 45, Bud Ice, and another malt liquor, King Cobra, account for only 2.4 percent of the U.S. beer market, but accounted for 46 percent of the beer consumed by E.R. patients.

Before we continue, I feel obligated to remind you I suggested getting out the desk pad.  This is your last warning.

“Some products are marketed to certain groups of people in our society,” explained Traci Toomey, the director of the University of Minnesota’s alcohol epidemiology program, who was not involved in the study. Higher-alcohol malt liquor, for example, is heavily advertised in African-American neighborhoods. “So we might want to put some controls on certain products if we find they are tied to greater risk.”

Head.  Bang.  On.  Desk.

We might want to put controls on certain products if they’re tied to higher risk? As if that will mean fewer drunk-person injuries?  Genius.  Pure genius.

I don’t doubt that Budweiser, Colt 45 and Steel Reserve are tied to greater risk of ending up in the emergency room in poor communities.  But it’s not because of the marketing or the higher alcohol content.  The reporter (and perhaps the researchers) apparently thinks it works like this:

1.  Evil distributors of high-alcohol malt liquors decide to target poor communities with irresistible advertising and marketing campaigns.

2.  Swayed by the irresistible marketing, poor people buy malt liquor.

3.  Because the malt liquor has a higher alcohol content, poor people accidentally get @#$%-faced.

4.  After accidentally getting @#$%-faced, the poor injure themselves because they’re @#$%-faced.

Boy, if only we had some controls on those products.  Take away the cheap malt liquor, those people would stay home and play pinochle … perhaps while sipping a fine white wine with a subtle hint of citrus and a color reminiscent of an Autumn sunrise.

Now here’s how it actually works:

1.  Poor people decide to get @#$%-faced.

2.  Wanting to spend as little of their limited funds as possible to get @#$%-faced, poor people choose cheap beer, cheap malt liquor and cheap vodka, thus getting more bang for their buck.

3.  Recognizing that the biggest market for cheap alcohol is in poor neighborhoods, distributors advertise in those neighborhoods, hoping to sway people who have already decided to get @#$%-faced to drink their particular brand when getting @#$%-faced.

Now here’s how it will work if we put some controls on those products:

1.  Poor people decide to get @#$%-faced.

2. Thanks to controls instituted by do-gooders, the cheaper alcohols are no longer available.

3.  Poor people buy just as much alcohol and get just as @#$%-faced as before, but have less money to spend on things like food, clothes, shoes, gas, entertainment, etc.

I don’t drink beer very often, but when I do, it’s usually Guinness Extra Stout.  (Did I sound like the guy in those Dos Equis commercials just now?)  The alcohol content (7.5%) is higher than the alcohol content in Colt 45 malt liquor (6%).  So why isn’t Guinness Extra Stout tied to more emergency-room visits in urban hospitals?  I’m sure you can guess:  The stuff isn’t cheap, so it’s not a big seller in poor communities.  If Guinness were as cheap as Colt 45, we’d see more poor people getting @#$%-faced on Guinness.

According to the article, the study was conducted at a hospital in Baltimore in a poor, mostly-black neighborhood. The results were predictable and ultimately meaningless.  It would have been more interesting if the researchers had gone to an emergency room in Beverly Hills or Martha’s Vineyard and asked injured people what they were drinking.  Then the headline would have been something like Martinis, Single-Malt Scotch and White Wine With a Subtle Hint of Citrus Most Popular Among E.R. Injured.

Then we’d need some controls on those products.

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Here’s the second episode of the BBC documentary series The Men Who Made Us Thin.  This episode deals with exercise and drugs as failed methods for treating obesity.

The first half takes us down memory lane to revisit the fitness craze that sparked jam-packed health clubs, aerobics classes, and of course Jane Fonda’s workout videos.  As the researchers who are interviewed explain, the belief that aerobic exercise induces weight loss is certainly entrenched, but was based on bad science — which is why even today, health clubs are packed every January and half-empty by May.  People put in the time and effort, don’t lose weight, become frustrated and give up.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with exercise itself.  Exercise (the right kind) is great for overall health, endurance, mood, etc.  Part of our Sunday routine is to go to the recreation center, where Chareva and I take turns lifting weights while the girls swim.  I’m delighted that as I near age 55, I’m stronger than I was at 35.  I feel good when we leave the gym. Chareva was delighted recently when she was checking out at a hardware store and the clerk looked at her arms and asked, “Do you lift?”

But the notion (heavily promoted by the fitness industry) that walking on a treadmill or dancing around the aerobics room a few times per week is going to lead to significant weight loss simply isn’t true.  I believed it was true for years and had a difficult time letting go of the idea … perhaps because exercise = weight loss just feels cosmically correct:  if you put out that much effort, you should be rewarded with the weight loss you desire.

Unfortunately, the research shows otherwise.  Here are just a few examples:

In this study, women participated in aerobics and resistance exercise sessions five times per week for 24 weeks.  That’s a lot of exercise.  The result?  On average, the women lost 2.2% of their body mass and 10% of their fat mass.  A 10% loss of fat mass may sound impressive at first, but let’s do some simple math.  If a woman is at 35% bodyfat (obese) and weighs 175 pounds, that’s 61 pounds of fat.  So the reward for 24 weeks of exercising five times per week is … dropping six pounds of fat.  Whoopee.  Clean up your diet, and you could lose that much fat in a few weeks.

This study supports a point one of the researchers made in the film:  Kids don’t get fat because they don’t move around as much as their lean peers.  They get fat first, then stop moving as much.  (That’s why I cut the walking-to-school bits from the Director’s Cut of Fat Head.  It was after the original release that I learned I got in wrong in that section.)

This article about a meta-analysis of studies on kids and exercise makes the same point, only in reverse:  getting fat kids to move around more doesn’t make them thinner:

Researchers analyzed results from 14 earlier trials that assigned overweight and obese youth to a diet and exercise program or a diet-only intervention. Those programs lasted anywhere from six weeks to six months.

Most studies found kids tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI) – a ratio of weight in relation to height – and a smaller percentage of body fat after completing either type of intervention. Adding aerobic exercise such as jogging or dance to a restricted-calorie diet had little effect on weight loss.

Once again, results like these don’t mean I’m against exercise for fat kids.  Here’s why:

However, kids who did resistance training lost more body fat than those who didn’t exercise, according to the analysis. Strength training for an hour or less each week was tied to an extra half a percent drop in body fat and a greater increase in muscle.

Forget the jogging.  If you want to improve your body composition, lift some weights. Toned muscles make you look and feel better, whether you lose weight or not.

When the episode of The Men Who Made Us Thin recounted the aerobics/Jane Fonda craze, it occurred to me that waaaay back in the day, I did some bits on those topics in my standup act.  So I dug out a box of tapes and found an old Hi-8 tape from the 1990s.  Fortunately, I also found my old Hi-8 analog camcorder in the attic and was able to transfer from the Hi-8 to a digital camcorder and then to my Mac.  Since the exercise bits were short, I included few minutes on other topics as well.  (As was usually the case when recording in a crowded club, you’ll see some good close-ups of a waitress’ head.)

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If you like seeing bad science and bad policy ripped apart by someone with a sharp wit, I can’t recommend Dr. Malcolm Kendrick’s blog highly enough.  (Same goes for his book The Great Cholesterol Con.)

In one of his recent posts, titled Proving that black is white, he demonstrates how researchers managed to torture their data in order to reach a conclusion that was the opposite of what the raw data revealed. Their conclusion, of course, is that elevated cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease in old people.

Here are a couple of quotes from Dr. Kendrick:

I remember when I first read this paper a few years ago. My initial thought was to doubt that it could be true. Most of the evidence I had seen strongly suggested that, in the elderly, a high cholesterol level was actually protective against Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). However, when a bunch of investigators state unequivocally that elevated cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. So I read the damned thing. Always a potentially dangerous waste of precious brainpower.

… Dying is not really something you can fake, and once a cause of death has been recorded it cannot be changed at a later date. So how can someone seem to die of something – yet not die of it?

The answer is that you take the bare statistics, then you stretch them and bend them until you get the answer you want. Firstly, you adjust your figures for established risk factors for coronary heart disease – which may be justified (or may not be). Then you adjust for markers of poor health – which most certainly is not justified – as you have no idea if you are looking at cause, effect, or association.

Then, when this doesn’t provide the answer you want, you exclude a whole bunch of deaths, for reasons that are complete nonsense.

That’s just a taste.  I’d urge you to read the post, then go read his many other posts.  Then you’ll know (as if you didn’t already) why I like to say Scientists Are Freakin’ Liars. (Not all of them, of course.)

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