Category Archives: Science

Caveat Lector

The next time you read, see or hear a news story related to dietary or health study claims you might want to keep remember story titled “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How” 

“Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily,” page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Here’s how we did it.

You really should read the whole thing to see exactly how easy it is to game the science journalism field. And if you want to be happy you should also embrace the strategy of believing the studies that purport to show the health benefits of eating/drinking whatever you want and ignoring those that claim those same habits are unhealthy.

Works for me.

Lies, Damned Lies and …

Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” and it stuck because 125% of humans who have ever lived have been misled using statistics. (See what I did there?) If you think this is a problem unique to politics or baseball, think again:

Reinhart is a physicist turned statistician who has set out to write a book whose aim is to improve the quality of statistical education and understanding that researchers need to have. Statistics Done Wrong is not a textbook. It is a highly informed discussion of the frequent inadequacy of published statistical results and confronts the sacred cow: the p value. Here is what he has to say on page 2.

“Since the 1980s, researchers have described numerous statistical fallacies and misconceptions in the popular peer-reviewed scientific literature and have found that many scientific papers — perhaps more than half — fall prey to these errors. Inadequate statistical power renders many studies incapable of finding what they’re looking for, multiple comparisons and misinterpreted p values cause numerous false positives, flexible data analysis makes it easy to find a correlation where none exists, and inappropriate model choices bias important results. Most errors go undetected by peer reviewers and editors, who often have no specific statistical training, because few journals employ statisticians to review submissions and few papers give sufficient statistical detail to be accurately evaluated.”

Astonishing to my eyes was his conclusion that

“The methodological complexity of modern research means that scientists without extensive statistical training may not be able to understand most published research in their fields.”

The excerpt above is from a post on Boing Boing about a book that Alex Reinhart has written (Statistics Done Wrong) to try and address the issue of statistical malpractice and I’m thinking it could be a useful reference for all of us who need to parse statistics as part of our daily lives, which based on my extensive research would be all 125% of us.

Urinal Dynamics

BYU, of all places, has posted what is likely the most useful study any man will ever find – Urinal Dynamics – on Splash Lab.

This research highlights the physics of urinal usage.  Through high-speed videos we show that significant splash back can occur when using a urinal, however, there are mitigation techniques.  First, aim for a vertical surface rather than a horizontal one and keep away from the water bowl.  Second, get close enough that the stream remains a stream rather than breaking up into droplets.  Third, aim at an angle to the urinal either by aiming sideways or downward.

And we have video!

Here’s a Bone In Your Eye

If you're considering cosmetic surgery you may want to steer clear of some procedures involving the use of stem cells:

Wu could see that something was wrong: Her eyelid drooped stubbornly, and the area around her eye was somewhat swollen. Six and a half hours of surgery later, he and his colleagues had dug out small chunks of bone from the woman's eyelid and tissue surrounding her eye, which was scratched but largely intact. The clicks she heard were the bone fragments grinding against one another.

About three months earlier the woman had opted for a relatively new kind of cosmetic procedure at a different clinic in Beverly Hills—a face-lift that made use of her ownadult stem cells. First, cosmetic surgeons had removed some the woman's abdominal fat with liposuction and isolated the adult stem cells within—a family of cells that can make many copies of themselves in an immature state and can develop into several different kinds of mature tissue. In this case the doctors extracted mesenchymal stem cells—which can turn into bone, cartilage or fat, among other tissues—and injected those cells back into her face, especially around her eyes. The procedure cost her more than $20,000, Wu recollects. Such face-lifts supposedly rejuvenate the skin because stem cells turn into brand-new tissue and release chemicals that help heal aging cells and stimulate nearby cells to proliferate.

This kind of puts the potential risks of botox to shame doesn't it?

Science and Art

I'm a big believer in providing students with a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum.  I also believe that we made a critical error with our education system when we marginalized the "industrial arts." Not that I think every kid needs to learn how to fix an engine, anymore than I think every kid needs to write poetry on a daily basis, but I do think that our education system is letting down our kids and our industry by not finding a healthy balance between what could be called a "practical education" and a "liberal arts education."  Thus you may understand why I found this post by Fred Wilson so interesting:

I've been thinking about what happens at the intersection of science and art, how science impacts art, and how art impacts science, how New York City has been blessed to be at the intersection of science and art for at least two centuries, and how much of what is interesting to me in the technology revolution of the moment, the Internet, is at the intersection of science and art…

Science and art are seen as two very distinct endeavors and I suppose they are. But I see science and art as the yin yang of creative culture and innovation. To quote from Wikipedia, science and art are seemingly contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and they give rise to each other in turn.

I was talking to a longtime reader of this blog, Chris Dorr, last night. Chris has been working in the film industry for a long time and blogs at the Tribeca Film Festival Blog. We were talking about changes in the film business and Chris blurted out that "filmakers and software developers need to start sleeping together and it is starting to happen." Filmmaking is art, particularly great filmmaking. But the art of filmmaking has always been based on a number of fundamental scientific inventions. And Chris' point is that the art of filmmaking will continue to be impacted by scientific inventions that are happening in real time…

I was at a meeting yesterday with an economic development group in NYC. We were talking about 3D Printing, an important new technology that was "science" a decade ago. The economic development types were explaining to me why 3D Printing technology is so important to NYC. They explained that our artist and design communities need 3D Printing technology because it allows these artists to turn their ideas into objects rapidly and at lower cost. It is a game changer for artists, designers, and architects. Our portfolio company Shapeways and other innovators like MakerBot are doing just that right here in NYC.