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July 14th, 2017 (Permalink)

Java Jive: A Second Cup1

Check out the following newspaper headlines:

Drinking Coffee Can Help You Live Longer2

Why You Need to Ignore the Latest Misleading Study Glorifying Coffee3

You might think these headlines were from articles in different newspapers, but these dueling headlines are both from the New York Observer. Or, you might think that the articles were published months or years apart, but they appeared one day apart. Or, you might think that they're discussing different studies, but both are about the same two studies.

The article under the first headline is short and egregiously credulous, while the second is longer and appropriately skeptical. Since the second is dated the day after the first, it could almost serve as its retraction4. The Observer's new slogan could be: "Two newspapers for the price of one!"

Here's a sort of critical reader's digest version of both articles, side by side so that you can compare and contrast their treatments of the studies:

Drinking Coffee Can Help You Live Longer Why You Need to Ignore the Latest Misleading Study Glorifying Coffee
"Two new studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine confirm that drinking coffee can lead to a longer life, so start sipping accordingly…. "…[I]s coffee healthy? … You may have heard of two large, recent studies that looked at exactly that question. And, like clock work, articles from across the world started screaming about coffee saving your life based on these very two studies. They were almost all wrong.
The first study, Coffee Drinking and Mortality in 10 European Countries: A Multinational Cohort Study, was quite comprehensive. The researchers looked at more than 520,000 people in 10 European countries and found that drinking more coffee could significantly lower a personís risk of mortality. … The second study, Association of Coffee Consumption With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality Among Nonwhite Populations, surveyed more than 185,000 African Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Latinos and whites, and found that the above findings were still true. … Both studies separated the smokers and the nonsmokers, but found that it didnít change coffeeís effects. … The two studies looked at a number of factors, one in a large U.S. population and another across a variety of European countries. … The researchers took truly massive samples of people5―one almost 200,000 and the other about 500,000―and compared their risks of death after taking into account a huge number of counfounding6 factors. They also looked at the effects of coffee across an enormous range of possible conditions, looking at everything from respiratory disease to suicide over a really impressive period of time. … After taking into account factors like smoking, drinking, weight, wealth, education and more, the scientists found that people who drank more coffee were less likely to die overall. They were also less likely to get any number of serious diseases…. Now, the researchers controlled for a lot of factors to try and iron out a definitive causative benefit from coffee. … But, to quote one of the study authors: "This is an observational study, We cannot say, OK, [if] you drink coffee it is going to prolong your life." … There are other issues with taking these studies as evidence that coffee is protective for health. As the authors note, there could be some reverse causality―people who are less healthy could self-select and choose to drink less coffee.
Regular coffee consumption helps ward off heart, respiratory and kidney diseases, in addition to strokes, diabetes and cancer. … Drinking two to four cups a day lowers your risk of death by 18 percent, in comparison to people who donít drink coffee at all." These two studies were what is known as observational research. What this means is that the researchers took a group of people and artificially divided them up―in this case by the amount of coffee they drank―and compared these groups on bad outcomes like death. … There's a problem with observational research. You can't tell if the thing you're studying is causing the problems that you are seeing. It's possible that coffee makes you healthier, but it's also possible that this is just a correlation. Basically, there could be an underlying cause that makes people both drink more coffee and be healthy without coffee itself conferring a protective effect. …[H]onestly, the fact that it's observational research is enough to know that it's unlikely to prove that drinking coffee is going to save your life."

Notes:

  1. If you missed the first cup, see: Java Jive, 5/21/2012
  2. Margaret Abrams, "Drinking Coffee Can Help You Live Longer", Observer, 7/11/2017
  3. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, "Why You Need to Ignore the Latest Misleading Study Glorifying Coffee", Observer, 7/12/2017
  4. The second article doesn't explicitly mention the first article, but it does include a link to the first one when it discusses misreporting of the studies. So, clearly, this wasn't a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing; rather, the left hand knew what the right did, but didn't like it!
  5. This is misleading if not outright wrong, since it suggests that the cohorts studied were randomly selected just for these particular studies, which is incorrect. The first study used the EPIC―"European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition"―cohort, which was recruited in the '90s. The second used the Multiethnic Cohort, which was established in the mid-'90s.

    The idea of these large cohorts is to recruit a group of people, gather information about them, and then follow them over the course of many years, during which some will become ill or die. The researchers in these two studies simply accessed the large amounts of data gathered about these cohorts, and then used statistical analysis on them to compare the coffee drinkers to the non-drinkers. See:

    1. "Cohort Description", EPIC (Accessed: 7/13/2017).
    2. "The Multiethnic Cohort Study", University of Hawai'i Cancer Center (Accessed: 7/14/2017).
  6. Sic: it should read "confounding".

Acknowledgment: The illustration is adapted from the cover of an old EC comic book.


July 10th, 2017 (Permalink)

The Puzzle of the Four Jacks

"The Four Jacks", as the police called them, was a gang of bank robbers, each of whom happened to have the first name "Jack". Their last names are, in alphabetical order: Clubb, Dimond, Hart, and Spayd*. However, according to police informant Eddie "the Snitch", there was a falling out between Jacks Clubb and Dimond that led to the break-up of the original gang.

"That's right," Eddie told Detective Davidson, "those two got into it and now they won't work together no more."

Now, another bank has been robbed, and eyewitnesses saw at least two masked robbers in the getaway car. According to Eddie, some of the Four Jacks are responsible for the crime, but he doesn't know who.

"Hart and Spayd are thick as thieves," Eddie informed Davidson, "they was cellmates in the pen, and you can bet that if either one of 'em was in on it the other was, too. But Spayd don't trust nobody, which is why he won't work with just one other guy, not even Hart. Clubb won't work alone with the two of 'em, 'cause he don't trust 'em. That's why he brought Dimond into the gang."

That's all that Eddie could tell Davidson. Assuming that what Eddie told him is correct, which if any of the four Jacks should Davidson arrest?

Solution

*The names have been changed to protect the innocent.


July 7th, 2017 (Permalink)

New Book: Skewed

I haven't read this new book yet, so I can't recommend it. However, I am intrigued by the book's subtitle: "A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias". That's something I could use.

The topic of media bias is a difficult one to discuss in an unbiased way as it's so partisan: the right cries: "Liberal media bias!" and the left responds: "What liberal media?1 Fox! Rush!" However, both sides are right: there is liberal and conservative media bias, but it depends upon the media outlet. The New York Times and MSNBC2 are biased towards the left and the Democratic Party, while The Washington Times and Fox News Channel2 are biased to the right and the Republicans. Any minimally sophisticated consumer of the news knows this.

The author of the book, Larry Atkins, is a more-than-minimally sophisticated consumer of the news3; in fact, he's a professor of journalism. Unsurprisingly, he's also a liberal:

In an effort to be completely transparent, I should note that I am a staunch4 liberal. … In this book, however, I am attempting to give a balanced, objective, and centrist presentation…. I acknowledge that my attempt at balance may not be perfect, but I will try my very best to both acknowledge and critique conservative and liberal advocates.5

Fair enough. It would be unfair to demand perfection.

Like a previous New Book author6, he retracts the book's title in the "Introduction":

Don't be fooled by the title of this book. This will not be a diatribe against the so-called liberal media. … The point of this book is to examine media bias on both ends of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative.5

Well, that's good. I'm not too interested in reading a diatribe, though they can have their uses. One topic of the book appears to be what Atkins calls "advocacy journalism", which he describes as follows:

Advocacy journalism…is a type of reporting in which the reporter gives an opinion or point of view and uses stories to advance an agenda. … Yet many people rely on advocacy journalism as their main source of news. Perhaps most importantly, advocacy journalism has a polarizing effect upon society, and I hope this book deepens readers' understanding of this polarization. The book will also explore aspects of media literacy and ways to navigate the echo chamber of modern media. (By "echo chamber", I am referring to the tendency for people to get news and opinions from sources that "echo," or reinforce, their own or similar viewpoints.)5

Despite all that, Atkins adds: "I…wish to admit here and now that I am a fan of advocacy journalism, yet I know that it has its flaws, especially with respect to bias." So, I suppose that the book will be, at least in part, a defense of advocacy journalism. I look forward to reading this journalistic advocacy of advocacy journalism.

What worries me about advocacy journalism is whether the advocacy journalist is a journalist first and an advocate second, or an advocate first and a journalist second. If the former, then I have no problem with such journalism, even if I disagree with the position advocated―I'm not afraid of hearing people advocate positions I disagree with as long as they do so honestly. However, I wouldn't trust a journalist who put advocacy ahead of journalism―that's propaganda, not news.

In many cases, there is a conflict of interest between the advocate and the truth-seeker, so an "advocacy journalist" is in danger of having to choose between the role of advocate and that of journalist. If the truth goes against your cause, should you tell the truth or conceal it to protect the cause? Historically, there have been "advocacy journalists" who concealed the truth as well as those who exposed it even when it hurt their cause7.

There's also a paradox facing the advocacy journalist: an advocate wants to influence people in a certain way, but the ability to do so is partially dependent on the trust that comes from being an honest journalist. I'm not the only one who doesn't trust "journalists", such as Michael Moore, who are willing to put their advocacy ahead of the truth. So, what should the advocate who is also a journalist do? Pretend not to be an advocate? Or be an honest journalist, instead?

These are a few of the questions I hope to see addressed in Atkins' book.

Notes:

  1. See Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003)
  2. Among others. Also see note 4.
  3. "…[E]ven though I am liberal, I can recognize that news organizations such as MSNBC and various websites have a staunchly liberal agenda." ("Introduction") It's interesting that Atkins writes "even though" here, since it suggests that it wouldn't be surprising if he couldn't recognize it.
  4. Atkins likes the word "staunch": he uses it three times in a single paragraph, though once as an adverb (see previous note).
  5. See the "Introduction".
  6. See New Book: The Death of Expertise, 2/28/2017. Perhaps publishers ought to allow writers to entitle their own books.
  7. Compare and contrast the reporting of Walter Duranty and Malcolm Muggeridge on the Ukrainian famine. See Ron Radosh, "The mendacity of Walter Duranty", The New Criterion, 6/2012.
June 30th, 2017 (Permalink)

The Limits of Experts

I've been skeptical of Tom Nichols' new book The Death of Expertise1, but perhaps that's because it reminds me of former Book Club book Wrong2, which lived up to its title. Now, however, there is another excerpt from the book, entitled "The Crisis of Expertise"3, which is worth a look.

I'm just as skeptical that there is a "crisis" of expertise as I am about it's alleged death2. "Crisis", like "death", is one of those scare words intended to draw attention and motivate to action: in this case, to at least read a magazine article. I recommend that you do so, but not because there's a "crisis".

There is, however, a long-standing problem of expertise, namely, how a layperson can tell a genuine expert from a pseudo-expert. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that often the same person is both, that is, an expert about one thing but a pseudo-expert about another. Here's Nichols on that sub-problem:

One of the most common errors that experts make is to assume that, because they are smarter than most people about certain things, they are smarter than everyone about everything. Overconfidence leads experts not only to get out of their own lane and make pronouncements on matters far afield of their expertise, but also to Ďover-claimí wider expertise even within their own general area of competence. Experts and professionals, just as people in other endeavours, assume that their previous successes and achievements are evidence of their superior knowledge, and they push their boundaries rather than say the three words that every expert hates to say: ĎI donít know.í No one wants to appear to be uninformed or to be caught out on some ellipsis in their personal knowledge. Laypeople and experts alike will issue confident statements on things about which they know nothing, but experts are supposed to know better. … The public is remarkably tolerant of such trespasses, and this itself is a paradox: while some laypeople do not respect an expertís actual area of knowledge, others assume that expertise and achievement are so generic that experts and intellectuals can weigh in with some authority on almost anything.3

Nichols proceeds to give some prominent examples of experts making fools of themselves outside of their areas of expertise. While there may be no "crisis" of expertise, this is a perennial problem, especially when it comes to politics. The fact that this is not a recent phenomenon is shown by Nichols' examples: Linus Pauling died over twenty years ago4 and the example involving Helen Caldicott is from 1983. Whatever truth there may be to the claim that the problem of expertise is worsening, I don't think it's because experts are worse now than they've ever been about over-reaching. Back to Nichols:

Day to day, laypeople have no choice but to trust experts. … This is not the same thing as trusting professionals when it comes to matters of public policy: to say that we trust our doctors to write us the correct prescription is not the same thing as saying that we trust all medical professionals about whether the US should have a system of national healthcare. To say that we trust a college professor to teach our sons and daughters the history of the Second World War is not the same as saying that we therefore trust all academic historians to advise the president of the US on matters of war and peace. For these larger decisions, there are no licences or certificates. There are no fines or suspensions if things go wrong. Indeed, there is very little direct accountability at all, which is why laypeople understandably fear the influence of experts.3

There are no experts about "whether the US should have a system of national healthcare", and other questions of what political policies we should adopt. Of course, there are experts in the sense that they know much more than you or I do about Obamacare, or what's in the healthcare plan currently wending its way through congress, and we should consult with them to learn such things. However, what type of healthcare system we should adopt is a political decision ultimately depending on ethical judgments, and there are no experts who can tell us what judgments to make.

One thing that Nichols writes that I think is not quite right is the following passage:

Prediction is a problem for experts. Itís what the public wants, but experts usually arenít very good at it. This is because theyíre not supposed to be good at it; the purpose of science is to explain, not to predict. And yet predictions, like cross-expertise transgressions, are catnip to experts. These predictions are often startlingly bad.3

Prediction is a part of the scientific method because theories are often tested by using them to make predictions, and then checking whether the predicted event occurs. I suspect that Nichols is overstating his case because he's thinking in terms of his own area of expertise, which is political science, and related areas of social science such as economics and sociology. How well a science can predict things depends upon whether it is a natural or social science. For instance, astronomers can make very accurate predictions of the positions of planets in the sky, the return of comets, and the occurrence of eclipses.

However, sciences that deal with human beings are different, partly because people are unpredictable, but there is also an inherent problem that such predictions may affect whether the predicted event occurs. For instance, a prominent economist's prediction of a recession may contribute to a loss of confidence in the economy that triggers a recession, or a prediction of an economic boom may lead to increased confidence that prevents a recession5. For this reason, despite the overconfident predictions of some 19th-century philosophers and scientists6, there can be no social science able to predict the course of human history.

I now have access to a copy of the book, so I may have something more to say about it later this year.

Notes:

  1. New Book: The Death of Expertise, 2/28/2017
  2. Wrong, Again, 3/24/2017
  3. Tom Nichols, "The Crisis of Expertise", Aeon, 6/6/2017
  4. "Linus Pauling―Biographical", Nobel Prize, 2014
  5. This is over-simplified, of course, in that the pronouncements of no single economist would probably have so much of an effect on the economy, but what people think about the economy does affect it, and what economists predict can affect what people think.
  6. Comte, Hegel, Marx, to name a few.

Update (7/1/2017): Friend of The Fallacy Files Patricia Heil emailed a good point about Nichols' claim, quoted above, that experts are "smarter" in their areas of expertise than other people:

It's clear the text has problems like the title. Experts are not smarter than other people. They have more training. This is a chronic problem in the US if not other places. Intelligence or being smart is a capability. Expertise is the result of knowledge and experience, that is, education. I tell people: you take Einstein and raise him in the Russian steppes instead of Germany, and he may still be intelligent enough to learn math easily, but he's not going to describe relativity because he doesn't get an education. The people like Linus Pauling who sound off in fields where they've never trained or worked are victims of this problem.

June 11th, 2017 (Permalink)

Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffery

There are three sets of words to be on the lookout for in media reports of statistical studies of medicine or nutrition:

  1. "Could", "may", "possible", "suggest", and other words indicating that the results of a study are weak.
  2. "Link", "association", "connection", "relationship", and other words that mean that two variables are related statistically, but not necessarily causally.
  3. Other words, such as "help", that indicate that any possible effect is probably small.

With that in mind, I have highlighted every occurrence of these words in the following excerpt from a recent news story1. They first make an appearance in the headline:

Eating chocolate may help prevent a fairly common heart problem

Eating chocolate has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Now a study from Denmark suggests that regular consumption of the treat may help to prevent the development of atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat.

In the study…researchers found that people who ate chocolate at least once a month had rates of atrial fibrillation that were 10 to 20 percent lower than those who ate chocolate less often. …

When researchers took into consideration other factors that might influence development of atrial fibrillation, such as alcohol intake, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, the study showed an association between people with a moderate intake of chocolate and a lower risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

The study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. And although the exact mechanism of how chocolate may prevent atrial fibrillation is not known, itís possible that compounds in chocolate called flavonoids may play a role, the researchers said.

Flavonoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties…. They may limit the inflammatory process in the body, reducing the stickiness of the blood and leading to less scarring of connective tissue. All of these factors may help prevent the electrical remodeling of the heart that leads to atrial fibrillation….

The findings showed that for women, the strongest association was seen in those who ate a one-ounce serving of chocolate once a week: This level of consumption was linked to a 21 percent lower risk of atrial fibrillation compared with those who ate less chocolate. For men, the strongest association was seen in those who ate two to six one-ounce servings of chocolate weekly. These men had a 23 percent lower risk of atrial fibrillation. …

All in all, the findings suggest that compared with some other snack choices, a moderate intake of chocolate may be a heart-healthy snack….

If only The Washington Post and other news media would publish health articles with these three types of word highlighted, as above, then it would be obvious how weak the studies often are. I don't pick on the above story on the grounds that it is especially bad; rather, it's a typical example of this type of reporting.

It's also typical in its first-the-good-news-then-the-bad-news structure: in the first half, we're given the good news: chocolate is good for you! In the second half, we're told the bad news: never mind! This is why, as I've noted before2, you should read these articles all the way to the end. Unless, of course, all you want to read is the fake news.

Notes:

  1. Cari Nierenberg, "Eating chocolate may help prevent a fairly common heart problem", The Washington Post, 5/27/2017
  2. Caveat Lector, 9/3/2011

June 9th, 2017 (Permalink)

Puzzle: Your Mileage May Differ

A family owns two cars: a sport utility vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon and a compact car that gets 40 MPG. Both vehicles are getting old and the family has decided to trade one in on a replacement that gets better mileage on a tank of gasoline. The possibilities are switching the SUV for one that gets 25 MPG or replacing the compact with one that gets 50 MPG. They drive each car about the same amount. Assuming that the only relevant consideration is how much they can save on gas, which vehicle should they trade in?

Solution


June 8th, 2017 (Permalink)

Amphibolous Headline

Teen accused of killing Uber driver with machete in one hand, knife in the other1

My first thought when I saw this headline was: if an Uber driver came at me with a machete in one hand and a knife in the other, I guess I'd kill him, too. However, if you read the story beneath the headline, it was the teen who is accused of using a machete and knife to kill the driver.

This headline isn't funny and neither is the story beneath it. However, it is ripe for misinterpretation since the headline is ambiguous; more specifically, it is amphibolous2 because of a misplaced modifier3. Grammatically, the modifying phrase "with machete in one hand, knife in the other" should modify "Uber driver", which it immediately follows, and not "teen" or "killing". Using brackets to indicate the scope of the modifying phrase, three distinct meanings of the headline can be disambiguated:

  1. Teen accused of killing [Uber driver with machete in one hand, knife in the other]

    The phrase acts as an adjective, modifying "Uber driver", which means that the driver had the weapons.

  2. [Teen with machete in one hand, knife in the other] accused of killing Uber driver

    Again, the phrase acts as an adjective, but now modifies "teen". The teen had the weapons, but when accused, not necessarily while killing.

  3. Teen accused of [killing, with machete in one hand, knife in the other] Uber driver

    The phrase now acts as an adverb, modifying the verb "killing" rather than a noun. This version accurately represents what the news story reported the teen was accused of doing.

I can sympathise with the editor who wrote the headline, since it's difficult to pack so much information into a brief headline unambiguously. However, here's a suggested revision:

Teen accused of using a machete in one hand and a knife in the other to kill Uber driver

This is four words longer but three times clearer.

Notes:

  1. Samantha Schmidt, "Teen accused of killing Uber driver with machete in one hand, knife in the other", The Washington Post, 6/1/2017
  2. See Amphiboly.
  3. See Robert J. Gula, Precision: A Reference Handbook for Writers (1980), sections 10B & 10C

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