Monday, February 17, 2014

A Study In Studies

It's a bit funny, whenever we see studies mentioned in the media, even small media like blogs, almost 100% of the time those studies are going to be misinterpreted or misrepresented.  The problem, usually, is that the writer really doesn't know the field very well and either reads it not very carefully or assumes there is some implication to the study that the author didn't actually write, then runs with that as the point.  

Case in point, today's Develop a Writing Habit prompt refers to "The Nun Study", a long-term study of nuns began in 1986 to examine the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.  One of the more striking findings of this study went back to essays written by these now elderly nuns when they were in their early 20's, upon entering the order.  Taken as a whole, the "linguistic density" of those early essays were found to be a significant predictor of later development of Alzheimer's Type Dementia.  That is to say, nuns who wrote essays with little complexity or fluency were much more likely to develop the disease, with roughly 80% of the simplistic writers developing Alzheimers as opposed to only 10% of the linguistically dense.

Now reading the writing course prompt, a line is included to suggest that being expressive and articulate was a way to promote brain health, and developing better writing skills would ward off Alzheimer's (and presumably other brain problems) later on down the line.  In other words, rather than a predictive result of the study, the writer assumes a prescriptive implication.

Not that the study doesn't actually say this.

After all, it's possible that there is a deeper mechanism that the linguistic depth of essays written in the nuns' early adulthood is actually a reflection of.  Indeed, this seems a very likely implication, but it's also not something that can be assumed.  However, the fact that it does seem likely presents a new hypothesis which can then be developed and tested, and so the process of science continues.

What you can't reasonably do, and what reporters and bloggers do all the time, is make an assumption that's not there and run with it as if it were proven.  And yet for a variety of reasons, that's what we get.  Which, unfortunately, encourages readers to believe the frankly made-up interpretations as if they had the force of science behind them.

To be fair to writers of these stories, especially professional reporters, it's really not possible to have in-depth knowledge of everything you're called upon to write about.  A science writer might know science in the broad strokes, but can they really be expected to know the details of biology and astronomy and partical physics and climate change modelling and brain chemistry and and and and and...  Of course not.  And worse, even when they do have some degree of knowledge, they aren't necessarily the ones writing the headlines with an eye to pageviews, and often they aren't the only ones with their hands on a story as it will then pass through an editing process with people even less likely to be experts.

Besides which, most bloggers, reporters and other writers who bring these studies up aren't scientists themselves.  They're writers.  Perhaps writers who are great fans of science, like Slartibardfast, but not actually scientists.

That leaves the responsibility on the reader to be careful about what they read.  And honestly, that's not an easy thing since most of those readers aren't scientists either and are generally left relying on the writers, who at least have a little more experience with this stuff, to be telling the truth.

Not that all misrepresentations of studies are honest.  I haven't even touched on advertising, science denial or a huge portion of the alt-med community.  These are dangerous waters indeed.  Dangerous profit and ideology oriented waters.

As we've already seen, it's tremendously easy to misrepresent a study even with the best of intentions.  So what if you don't have the best of intentions?  What if winning is more important than being honest?  As even a casual observer can tell, that's when things really fall apart.

Climate science is especially vulnerable to misrepresentation on ideological grounds, since it's a very complex field that isn't well understood by the general public.  So a cursory examination by a layperson isn't likely to reveal much in the lines of errors, omissions or outright lies so long as it sounds plausible.  And a great deal of it is done with an eye towards sounding very plausible indeed, without actually being true.

One famous trick for instance is to play with time scales.  Since there's so much "noise" in the world climate and volatility from year to year, measurements are generally broken up into 30-year blocks in order to be representative, and then those are compared to previous blocks.  The denialists, knowing this, tend to break things up into much smaller blocks sometimes as small as two or three years to try to claim a falling trend when it's actually the slight fall-off that follows a peak year that is nevertheless much higher than most of the years prior.

You see it elsewhere as well, of course.  Men's Rights Activists are fond of twisting around studies to do with rape to make it look as if men are equally, if not more, likely to get raped than women are.  And I'm sure most of us have encountered some fool claiming that men are more often the victims of violence than women, while neglecting to mention that the vast majority of perpetrators of men-on-men violence are also men, or that when it comes to domestic violence in particular women are much more at risk.

Other ideologies may take other tactics.  Creationists, for instance, while clearly anti-science in terms of modern biology (and a number of other sciences such as physics, astronomy, geology, all forensic sciences, etc. but they try not to call attention to that) tend to attack science mostly on a rhetorical basis or come up with sciencey-sounding material of their own such as Intelligent Design rather than necessarily using real surveys and papers.  But it does happen, such as the attempts to claim that the fossilized T-Rex soft tissue proved that it was recently deposited.  For them, it's better to dress God in a lab coat than to try to pass off a misinterpreted study since most of the time their ideas really aren't that credible to start with and thus the general public isn't as easily fooled.

As I mentioned earlier, one place you do see a lot of bogus research, either in terms of misrepresented studies or highly biased studies that are passed off without mentioning the bias, is alternative medicine.  It's not that easy to sway the general public away from things they know work, such as a bottle of ibuprofin, in order to try something somewhat less credible, such as homeopathic remedies.  Especially when it's easy to go do some research and find out that it's nothing but magic water with no active ingredients.  This is a bit different from MRAs or Creationists in that while ideology plays a role, profit motive plays a much bigger role.  And a lot of people are willing to go to great lengths in order to sell a $40 bottle of distilled water.  They just need to convince people that it's actually medicine.

And like the modern snake-oil salesmen they are, they do everything they can to fake up as much credibility as possible.  That needs testimonials like the old days, but it also needs science.  And if you can fake or misrepresent enough science to sound credible?  Well, you don't even need to ask the question.  

You see it all over.  Miracle herbal cancer cures.  Chiropractors claiming to be able to heal all sorts of medical problems with what amounts to a bad massage.  Acupuncturists making similarly inflated claims.  Indeed, the whole alternative medicine industry these days seems to rely on taking studies that at least tentatively support some part of the practice and extending it to mean positive support for all of it.  And all in support of the dollar every bit as much as the so-called "Big Pharma" they claim to be against.

Oh, there's ideology in there as well of course.  Where else would they get the confirmation bias laden testimonials that just about every alt-med site carries right up front?  And again, even those are extended to cover claims that the testimonial itself didn't even mention.  Someone claims a spinal adjustment cured their headaches?  Awesome!  Now we can file off the actual ailment, leaving the bit about how effective they thought it was, and put that next to a claim that it cures diabetes too!  And a public who may not have a great deal of medical knowledge sees that and thinks "well, it worked for them!"

It's a jungle out there, be careful what you believe.

2 time segments

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