Confusing Relative and Absolute Risk

firearmThe age of the internet has created an explosion of information, both good and bad. Popular media accounts of a recent study by the University of Nevada-Reno and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health provide a classic example. The result is a misleading headline that confuses relative and absolute risk. It shows the media bias that exists with gun control.

Reviewing the Study

The researches analyzed mortality data provided by the World Health Organization. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that American mortality caused by firearms is ten times that of other developed countries. But what does that mean? Let’s crunch some numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 33,636 deaths from firearms in 2013. That figure translated into 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Put another way, your chances of dying by a firearm are 0.01 percent. The implication from the popular media headlines of 10 times the risk means you’re going from 0.001 to 0.01 percent. Call me a skeptic, but that doesn’t sound like a much greater chance of being gunned down.

And that is a clear example of irresponsible reporting by the media. The 10 times figure sound scary; the 0.01 percent figure does not. To get the page views, the media opted for the more sensational headline. It relies on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have a handle on statistics.

The Agenda

But, wait, there’s more. The study was founded by an award from The Joyce Foundation. The foundation has admirable goals of better education and a clean environment. However, a mission for gun violence prevention should not include blatant misleading information. It rests on an agenda by popular media to sway public opinion through deception.

I find this aspect especially hypocritical. The anti-GMO sector is quick to point out a study funded by Monsanto as evidence of bias. However, making such a claim commits its own logical error via the appeal to motive fallacy.

Granted, there is a fine line between biased and unbiased reporting. In the case of Monsanto, federal law requires manufacturers to conduct studies of their products. They cannot opt out and wait for a third party to do the testing required of them. The fact that they publish studies isn’t an immediate accusation. They have no choice but to publish.

In the case of The Joyce Foundation, the award was a choice based on the foundation’s own publicly-stated mission. And yes, it cannot control how the media will report its findings. However, the misleading nature of the headlines suggests an attempt to deceive. But, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, some reporters have admitted being light in the stats department.

The Final Point

There’s one more point to add about the absolute risk of firearms violence. I quoted a figure of 33,636 deaths. However, that figure includes all firearm mortality, including suicide, hunting accidents, accidents when handling/cleaning, justifiable homicide (self-defense), and any other way a firearm could harm. Your chances of dying from gun violence are in reality much lower than 0.01 percent. Let’s all relax.

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Sig P226 via photopin (license)

Toxins? Stop the Nonsense!

toxinsPseudoscience gives us a perfect example of the bandwagon effect in the wild. The situation becomes crystal clear when you try to detangle the issue of toxins. While I sit on the proverbial fence about creating new words, I stand firmly against making up definitions.

This is the case with toxins. Many attribute a wide host of ills to them Hogwash! First, let’s get the definition right.

Defining Toxins

An article in Gizmodo put it best:

“Here is a scientific definition for a toxin: It’s a poisonous substance produced by living cells, especially one that, when introduced into a new body, spurs the creation of antibodies. That’s a toxin. That’s what it is, where it’s made, and what it does.”

It is not a build-up of waste products that the likes of Food Babe would have you believe. Its definition is pretty straight forward. If your body isn’t excreting waste, you don’t need a diet; you need a doctor.

This concept gets tossed around so much that the uninformed masses believe it. It’s everywhere. I saw an article just like week published in Bon Appetit about your detox diet for the new year. Please.

But the nonsense of toxins persists. And unfortunately, it has crept under the insidious rock of ideology. To attack someone’s notion of toxins and detox is to attack their fundamental belief system. However, it goes deeper than that.

Why We Fall for It

From an evolutionary perspective, we need to understand a basic tenet of how we navigate our world. We fear the false negative. To believe the bush is just a bush is a fatal false negative if it turns out to be a hungry saber-toothed tiger. The same logic is at work here.

To believe that toxins can’t harm us (in the manner that pseudoscience defines it) sets us up for the tiger attack. So, people cling to the belief. Evolution created that beast; the bandwagon effect is an example of it gone bad.

It’s difficult to pull ourselves away from the tenacious hardwiring that we have. Equally troubling is the fact that so many people are willing to accept this crap without investigating its merits. It’s a symptom of information overload, lack of oversight, and hyper-busy schedules. We like our news in sound bites.

The Bane of Anecdotes

Another issue concerns anecdotal “evidence.” What works for Minnie and Mickey (in studies on mice) is not the best choice for dealing with health issues for Grandma and Grandpa. Too many times, people prefer the story to the science—especially if it’s laced with a little confirmation bias. You can’t learn biology in one internet session no matter how many Yahoo answers you read. I beg your pardon, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

But why is this? Why do some people trust Google rather than a doctor or a scientist, for that matter? Why are they so quick to believe a stranger’s story about losing weight with this new wacky diet than the science that paints a different and more realistic picture?

Perhaps it’s because some people are intimidated by science. They are scared of the ivory tower and look toward a voice they can understand. In this age of MOOCs, one would hope that science would prevail as the teacher. The late Richard Feynman put it best when he said,

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

(Feynman won the 1965 Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.) It takes time, understanding, and lots of reading to get complicated subjects like physiology or physics. It’s frustrating for science too. It used to be enough to debate research among their learned colleagues. Now, they have Yahoo as their nemesis.

If you’re interested in facts versus stories, consider this for a New Year’s routine. Next time you see a bit of nonsense like the toxins baloney, follow up with some checking. Go to sites like or Cochrane Review and get the facts. Don’t put your health in the hands of quacks like Dr. Oz and these other laughable sites. )If you don’t believe the risks, check out this site.) Take back science!

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Apple Dearie? via photopin (license)

business statistics

Statistics in Popular Media

Statistics are powerful weapons. Marketers and politicians weld them well when the situation demands it. Unfortunately, this skill often results in misinformation and sometimes, downright lying.

How Statistics Are Misused

One way they deceive is by confusing the scientific process. Statistics summarize experiments and studies to get at the conclusions. But, they are not synonymous. A study is a situation in which data are observed. The investigator cannot control for everything that may influence the results.

An experiment is a controlled situation−ideally. A good experiment has a randomly selected representative sample along with a control group. It is big enough to be meaningful. It is also conducted double-blinded. Neither the researchers nor the participants know what group they are in.

Marketers may use studies and report the results like experiments. The problem with this scenario is that one cannot find causation with studies, only correlation. Yet, when journalists/marketers pick up on these stories, that line is blurred.

Cherry Picking the Results

Another devious tactic involves the results. Don’t like what the study or experiment shows? Throw it out! With over a million papers published yearly, you’re likely to find something you like better.

I’m not suggesting all papers are examples of good science. Stinkers get through each year. Just ask Andrew Wakefield or Gilles-Eric Séralini.

Spotting the Fraudsters

There’s one surefire way to spot a liar fraudster. They break a cardinal rule of science. You probably see this whopper all the time. And it’s so blatantly false. Whenever you read or hear someone claim that something is scientifically proven,  you’re being had.

Science is provisional. This means, according to Merriam-Webster, “existing or accepted for the present time but likely to be changed.” In science, there is no truth with a capitol T.

Some people may find this statement uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be. Rather, this is an accurate assessment of what science is. Don’t be afraid of it. Ignorance is not always bad. The late Richard Feynman offers sage advice.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

So, the next time a marketers tries to sell his scientifically proven best widget, give him a dose of Mark Twain and tell him,

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” Chris DR

photo credit: Numbers And Finance via photopin (license)

Bird Lives Matter

eagle raptorThe White House recently announced proposed laws to beef up the protection of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The reasoning of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is that birds face dangers from new technology that the MBTA did not foresee.

Reading the Fine Print

On the surface, it sounds great. Though if you look at the fine print, you’ll find some disconcerting language. There are provisions for authorized incidental take with military-readiness activities. Okay, no problem there. Other wording is not so cut and dry.

The proposed laws also address incidental take with regard to certain industry sectors. Another part of the text reads:

“. . . and the effects on migratory bird populations of impacts to migratory bird habitat, including, but not limited to, climate change.”

Bird Losses

While worthy to note, it presents a political motivation for targeting certain industries. Let’s look at some numbers. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) located in the Mojave Desert, takes upward of 28,000 birds per year. This is a rate of one bird every two minutes.

Then, we have wind turbines. According to FWS numbers, wind turbines take nearly 440,000 per year, including raptors like golden eagles. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) warned that wind industry is actively lobbying to weaken regulations regarding eagle take. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill killed an estimated 225,000 birds. The Deepwater Horizon killed between 7,000 and 23,000 birds.

Birds and Politics

Some bird deaths are unavoidable. To suggest otherwise is an appeal to ignorance fallacy. However, the proposal wording to include climate change sets up a political firestorm. It gives the government the power to pick winners and losers. Birds are the vehicle to do it.

If the administration was serious about bird lives—bats are affected too BTW—then all industries would be fined equally. It makes little difference if a bird died outright as a streamer or if it was stunned by a turbine and then taken by a predator. The result is the same.

Provisions for “conditional authorization” must recognize the bird loss and not the means by which it occurred. And as the numbers show, the renewable energy industries have a lot of answer for. Chris DR
photo credit: eagle via photopin (license)

boxing match

Study or Trial; Whatever You Want to Call It

boxing matchYou know that you’re dealing with a person suffering from science starvation when he says study or trial, whatever you want to call it.

It’s like a featherweight coming to a professional boxing match. You’ve thrown the match before the first punch. It’s like not knowing the difference between a hay maker and an upper cut.

Suspicious of Science

I had a discussion about science with a friend of mine. He is admittedly suspicious of science. He believes that all researchers are on the take. Yes, they have to publish to get grant money. Science, after all, isn’t cheap. Yet, he believes that puts them on the same level as used car salesmen. That’s like saying all women are bad drivers. It’s just as stereotypical—and wrong.

I suspect that his suspicion is intertwined with some deep-rooted ideology. That seems to be a common theme with the more contentious issues of our day. And it’s because of this relationship that discussions have descended into arguments. There are no winners in such debates.

Study versus Trial

The fact that he equated study and trial tells me that his position involves emotion rather than fact. They are by no means the same thing. They are not synonymous. As I tried to explain to my learned friend, a study can only draw correlations. It doesn’t determine causes. There are confounders that researchers can try to account for, but there may always be something.

A trial, on the other hand, controls for confounders. There is an adequate random sample of the population. They are randomly assigned into groups, control or treatment. It is only from trials that scientists can make causal statements. And as I also tried to explain, science cannot run trials on all the questions we may have because of ethics. You can’t run a trial on the effect of second-hand smoke on babies without drawing some backlash.

But my friend did not budge on that point. Science, in his eyes, is flawed. Never mind the fact that scientific papers undergo a peer-review. Never mind the fact that other scientists read papers regularly and will gladly point out flawed studies. Never mind the fact that the scientific community is its own check of fraudulent research. Everyone is on the take like one huge conspiracy in the scientific community. The suggestion is laughable to say the least.

Yes, my friend is a true agnostic—except when it comes to his own beliefs. He is one of those people who fly happily in the face of facts. Facts only fuel his fury however misplaced it is on the waves of ignorance. But he’s probably relishing the fact that he was right, while I too relish the fact that I know he was wrong. At least I know which one is indeed true. Chris DR
photo credit: Boxing cake via photopin (license)