You Better Sit Down for this, with a Plate of Bacon

bacon-f30008721255829ce6102c8289919403283a4928-s700-c85Nothing seems to gets us more motivated to rekindle our curiosity, cast a gimlet eye and read up on statistics than the news of bacon. Specifically the news from WHO stating eating bacon increases our risk of cancer by 16%.

Where have have seen similar research?  There was one about sitting and the increased risk of colorectal cancer. Very similar study based on observational analysis. But that was enough for most to call, “sitting is the new smoking”  and even go on to call, “sitting is fatal”.  Of course most used this as reason to ask standing desks at work and the vendors who sell these are only happy to use this study for their marketing.

As I pointed out then,

So at 1.24 times relative risk if you are sitting down for 8 hours of work the incidence rate goes from 5% to  6.2%. But what other factors have higher relative risk that you should worry about?

No media or blog bothered to do this analysis with sitting but with bacon they ask the exact same questions I do every time with such studies. Explaining the bacon results, Vox writes

Since a person’s lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is about five percent,  daily meat consumption seems to boost that absolute risk by one point to 6 percent (or 18 percent of the 5 percent lifetime risk).

Right way to look at things. Despite being a vegetarian I agree the WHO statistical study means not much to an individual’s cancer risk.

The point is there are many such studies thrown at us from all different places – studies on

We choose to accept, adopt and move on to solution phase without ever stopping to question unless it is about bacon.

I am glad that media looked at the bacon study critically  but I am not holding my breath that this will be repeated for other studies.  Unfortunate. In general we would do well to look past such studies.

“This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,”

Now, does standing up and eating bacon cancel out the effect?

Statistically Significant Pile of Rubbish

Just in time for the new year when most people are thinking about losing weight, eating healthy etc, a new study is out that touts that being overweight may actually help. In case you did not catch this weight study done by “researchers” here is a link. Blogs and news outlets wrote articles with catchy titles like

“Research: A little extra fat may help you live longer” (NPR)

“Study: People who are overweight are less likely to die than people of normal weight” (WSJ)

“Study: Being overweight might have health benefits” (WCNC)

I should point out that Times picked a more reasonable and guarded title than any other outlet (“Study suggests lower mortality risk for people overweight“).

The said overweight study was conducted by a well qualified scientist working for none other than Center for Disease Control and Prevention and will publish the paper in prestigious JAMA. Name brand organization and someone with big degrees presenting a study that has done some level of data collection and analysis seems good enough for most. To good measure the author of the study adds,

“overweight is actually associated with a lower risk of death. It’s certainly not dramatic, but about a 6 percent decreased risk. It’s statistically significant,

Ahhh, the magic words, the difference is statistically significant.

The NPR report despite its oversimplified title digs deeper into the research and brings in others into the conversation to discuss the merits of the study. One such researcher, Walter Willett, from Harvard School of Public Health said,

“This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,”

Willett points out many flaws with the study starting with its use of BMI (which I wrote about as well). The said study overly relies on a single irrelevant metric to make its claim without considering context, people’s health and fitness, quality of life and other lurking variables (like people who are ill and hence thin).

But media and most readers do not stop to ask questions, especially question a study from CDC scientist that is accepted for JAMA publication and when the results are statistically significant.

Did you consider questioning this study like Willett did?

How many times have you seen similar articles in the business realm?  How many tweets have you seen that say, “McKinsey study finds”, “Name-brand-analyst says”, “Seth Godin says (Ridiculous is the new Remarkable)” etc. ?

Do you stop to look for what these popular gurus may have missed and whether or not you are simply reading a pile of rubbish?