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November 6th, 2017 (Permalink)

Java Jive: A Refill

A recent headline reads:

Study: Coffee may help kidney disease patients avoid early death1

In a previous entry2, I discussed how three classes of words and phrases may help you understand science and health reporting. The above headline contains two of them: "may" and "help". "May" is one of a class of related words that indicates that the results of the study are less than definitive. Coffee may help; but, then again, it may not. No one now would say that cigarette smoking may cause lung cancer because this would suggest a reasonable doubt about it. "Help" is a word from a different class that indicates that the supposed healthful effect of coffee is weak.

The article beneath the headline begins:

Can caffeine help people with chronic kidney disease [CKD] live longer? That's the suggestion of a new study that found that among more than 2,300 Americans with chronic kidney disease, those who drank the most caffeinated drinks reduced their risk of premature death by 24 percent.1

"Suggestion" is another word, like "may", that indicates that the results of the study are less than conclusive. Also, we now learn that it is "caffeinated drinks", rather than coffee, that supposedly "reduced" the risk of death. So, presumably, you could get the same effect by drinking tea, or one of those highly-caffeinated "energy" drinks, instead of coffee.

When reading news reports of scientific studies, I strongly suggest reading the whole thing or at least skipping down to the end and reading the last few paragraphs: it's often there that we get the bad news. In contrast, in this article we get the bad news as early as the fourth paragraph:

"…[O]ur observational study cannot prove that caffeine reduces the risk of death, but only suggests the possibility of such a protective effect," [lead researcher Dr. Miguel Bigotte Vieira] said.1

This, despite the fact that a couple of paragraphs previously we were told that "those who drank the most caffeinated drinks reduced their risk " of death. Now, the lead researcher tells us that the study only "suggests" such a "possibility". It's a good thing that he didn't say that it may suggest such a possibility!

However, the study found a "dose-dependent inverse association"3 between caffeine consumption and death, which does indeed suggest a causal relationship between the two.4 However, since it was only an observational study, it cannot establish such a relationship, which is why Vieira goes on to note:

The findings also need to be replicated in a trial that compares caffeine consumption with no caffeine consumption before patients are counseled to drink more coffee or other caffeinated drinks….1

I think this is exactly right, but it comes close to contradicting what Vieira said in a press release:

These results suggest that advising patients with CKD to drink more caffeine may reduce their mortality. This would represent a simple, clinically beneficial, and inexpensive option, though this benefit should ideally be confirmed in a randomized clinical trial.3

This suggests that, while it would be ideal to have a randomized clinical trial, it's not too soon for CKD patients to increase their caffeine intake. In contrast, Dr. Leslie Spry, a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation, is quoted at the end of the original article:

This is yet another observational study, Spry noted, where only an association was found, not cause and effect. Given the relatively small size of the study, and the small reduction in death risk, Spry said he's not willing to tell kidney patients that the more caffeine they drink, the longer they'll live. "I would rather say that compared to little or no caffeine intake, those people with the highest intake of caffeine as estimated by dietary recall, may have a lower mortality, but the reason for this lower mortality is not proven by this association research," he said.1

This is actually a better-than-average news report on a new study, for it includes something that most such articles leave out: a second opinion from an independent expert. Moreover, Spry's cautions are not included in the original press release, so this is not just a rewritten press handout, which is all too common nowadays.


  1. Steven Reinberg, "Study: Coffee may help kidney disease patients avoid early death", UPI, 11/4/2017
  2. See: Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffery, 6/11/2017
  3. American Society of Nephrology, "Caffeine consumption may help kidney disease patients live longer", EurekAlert!, 11/3/2017. This is the press release that probably started it all. A "dose-dependent inverse association" between caffeine intake and death means that the more caffeine the study's subjects consumed, the longer they lived.
  4. This is an application of John Stuart Mill's "method of concomitant variation", see: Philosophy of Scientific Method (Hafner, 1963), Book 3, Chapter 8, Section 6.

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October 31st, 2017 (Permalink)

A Hallowe'en Treat of a Puzzle

On Hallowe'en night, after the trick-or-treating was done, thirty-five neighborhood children got together to compare their hauls of treats. The treats fell into three broad classes: candy, fruit, and nuts. Thankfully, every child received at least one treat in his or her Hallowe'en bag. According to their counts, the following facts were established:

  1. Two more children were given only fruit than received only candy.
  2. Two children found only nuts in their bags.
  3. Three less children found both candy and nuts but no fruit in their sacks than found both candy and fruit without any nuts.
  4. Three kids received only candy.
  5. Two less kids found only fruit in their bags than found both candy and nuts but no fruit.
  6. One more kid received nothing but fruit than was given both fruit and nuts but no candy.

Every child who received all three kinds of treat got a special prize. How many prizes were given out?



October 20th, 2017 (Permalink)

A Fabulously-Sized Euphemism

According to reports, Kmart is planning to stop calling some women's clothes "plus-sized" and start calling them "fabulously-sized"1. Kmart announced this plan a little more than a month ago, and it appears to have met with some derision2. I don't live near a Kmart store so I can't check one out, but Kmart's website has no sign of the phrase "fabulously-sized" as far as I have been able to find. There is still a page for the category of "Plus Size Clothing", under "Women's Clothing". So, perhaps the chain has wisely decided to drop the silly new euphemism.

The phrase that was supposed to be replaced, "plus-sized", is itself a euphemism, since "plus" tends to have a "positive" overtone: would they call the sizes for short or thin people "minus sizes"? Of course not! However, the euphemistic effect of "plus-sized" seems to have worn off:

Of the language shift, [Kelly] Cook [Kmart’s chief marketing officer] said, “When we reached out to our members on social media, they told us…we should call it something different. They absolutely love this whole mantra of "Fabulously Sized.”1

If you can't trust a "marketing officer", who can you trust? How about a "plus-sized" model:

"…[P]lus-size feels outdated and no one thinks of it in a positive way," model Marquita Pring told Cosmopolitan. "It's always got this sort of stigma attached to it. I'd like to do away with that."3

Okay, but how long do you think it will take before "fabulously-sized" no longer fools anyone? What's happened to "plus-sized" is "euphemism inflation", in which a euphemism loses value over time and must be replaced. Of course, the new euphemism will eventually lose its power and need replacing, and the process will repeat itself4.

Another euphemism that apparently hasn't completely lost its euphemistic power is "full-figured": "By adding larger size options to its brand mix, full-figured shoppers can find everything from casual, basic fare to 'date night' looks, like 'a little black dress in a size 18,' Cook says."5 Those "full-figured" shoppers are the ones wearing those "plus-sized" clothes, which suggests that women who don't must have figures that are not "full". If you're not full-figured are you only partially-figured?

And shouldn't that be "a fabulously-sized black dress"?


  1. See: "Kmart rebrands plus-size section, calls it 'fabulously-sized'", Fox News, 9/11/2017
  2. See: E.J. Schultz, Adrianne Pasquarelli & Jessica Wohl, "Marketer's Brief: Kmart's 'Fabulously-Sized' Pitch Is Jeered", Ad Age, 9/13/2017.
  3. Lauren Chan, "The Problem With Kmart's Relabeling Plus Size as 'Fabulously Sized'", Glamour, 9/12/2017
  4. Steven Pinker calls it "the euphemism treadmill", see: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), pp. 212-213.
  5. Barbara Thau, "Kmart Ditches 'Plus-Sized' For 'Fabulously Sized' Amid Bold Expansion Of Larger Sizes", Forbes, 9/11/2017

October 6th, 2017 (Permalink)

Counterfeit Goods

"If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts."―Albert Einstein1

I've noted previously that Albert Einstein is a quote magnet, that is, any quote about science will eventually be attributed to him2. Moreover, Einstein is the paradigm example of a "genius", so many quotes having nothing to do with science are attributed to him as a sort of all-purpose authority on everything. As Ann Althouse writes:

People love to pass along quotes they think are from Einstein because Einstein is the one name everyone associates with GENIUS! and we have this delusion that if a genius says something, on any subject, it must be genius. Consequently, the "Einstein" label gets slapped on some counterfeit goods.3

The specific example of such "counterfeit goods" that Althouse was referring to came from bodybuilder, former California Governor, and still movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In reference to political gerrymandering, Schwarzenegger said: “As Einstein said, those who created the problem will not be able to solve it.”4

Schwarzenegger was arguing that redistricting ought to be taken out of the hands of politicians because they would not be able to stop gerrymandering. By attributing the quote to Einstein, he hoped to give it a rhetorical power it wouldn't otherwise have. Schwarzenegger may have a point about the likelihood of politicians solving the problem of gerrymandering, but the quote appears not to be Einstein.

As Einstein actually said: "Many things which go under my name are badly translated from the German or are invented by other people." It's not as catchy, but it has the virtue of being true.5


  1. This is not actually Einstein, see: Jessica Estepa, "Albert Einstein estate corrects old Ivanka Trump tweet: No, he didn't say that", USA Today, 7/25/2017.
  2. Book Club: Wrong, Chapter 2: "The Trouble with Scientists", Part 1, 1/31/2011.
  3. Ann Althouse, "'As Einstein said, those who created the problem will not be able to solve it.'", Althouse, 10/4/2017.
  4. Adam Liptak & Michael D. Shear, "Kennedy’s Vote Is in Play on Voting Maps Warped by Politics", The New York Times, 10/3/2017.
  5. George Seldes, The Great Thoughts (Revised edition, 1996), p. 132. Via: Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), p. 175.

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