Monday, November 07, 2011

Florida Causes Arthritis

Many old folks live in Florida.  Many old folks have Arthritis.  Therefore, living in Florida causes Arthritis.

While I'm certain that anyone reading this claim could easily poke holes in the logic, I'm not convinced that we apply the same rigor to all the other assertions we are bombarded with on a daily basis. 

Today's claim indicated that women drinking 3 - 6 alcoholic beverages/week raise their risk of breast cancer by a statistically significant amount.  And just yesterday I read that sending toddlers to daycare could retard development of their brains.

In our Twitter-fed world, where everyone expects the universe to be explained in 140 characters or less, this kind of "science" is rapidly becoming a replacement for the real thing.

What's missing, of course, from these types of assertions is the rest of the story.  No person with even a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method would accept as fact that Florida could cause arthritis. So then, why are we so quick to jump on the bandwagons of other dubious claims?   Does moderate consumption of alcohol really increase a woman's risk of breast cancer?  Maybe, but other factors would need to be considered and without that scrutiny the claim belongs to the realm of junk science.  Someone who regularly consumes alcohol may be more likely to lead a lifestyle rife with other cancer causing factors; smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, etc..  Without due consideration given to these other factors in the same study, the conclusion becomes suspect and flawed.

An inevitable corollory to the ease of access to information in our age is the ease of access to poor conclusions based on pseudo-science conveniently bundled up into a palatable tweet.  A proper study needs to include randomized trials, blinding, and cohort comparison all subject to review and repitition by peers.  We'd do well to remember this rather than gulping down the latest fad claim on the internet.

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital."~Aaron Levenstein