Study claims that trivial and poorly supported graphs and formulas — when added to a supposedly scientific report — enhance the public’s belief that a medication works — But the study itself is so ineptly communicated that one wonders why anyone would pay attention to it

© 2014 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Aner Tal and Brian Wansink, Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy, Public Understanding of Science, DOI: 10.1177/0963662514549688 (online before print, 15 October 2014)

Citation — to press release

Cornell University, Blinded by non-science: Trivial scientific information increases trust in products, ScienceDaily (17 October 2014)

This would be a laughable juxtaposition of claim and inferred lack of proof — if the juxtaposition had not been so inadvertently presented

Here is the entirety of the abstract — notice its absence of any methodological data:

The appearance of being scientific can increase persuasiveness. Even trivial cues can create such an appearance of a scientific basis.

In our studies, including simple elements, such as graphs (Studies 1–2) or a chemical formula (Study 3), increased belief in a medication’s efficacy.

This appears to be due to the association of such elements with science, rather than increased comprehensibility, use of visuals, or recall.

Belief in science moderates the persuasive effect of graphs, such that people who have a greater belief in science are more affected by the presence of graphs (Study 2).

Overall, the studies contribute to past research by demonstrating that even trivial elements can increase public persuasion despite their not truly indicating scientific expertise or objective support.

© 2014 Aner Tal and Brian Wansink, Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy, Public Understanding of Science, DOI: 10.1177/0963662514549688 (online before print, 15 October 2014) (paragraph split)

Here is the entirety of Cornell University’s equally uninformative press release:

Published this week in Public Understanding of Science, the Cornell Food and Brand Lab study found trivial graphs or formulas accompanying medical information can lead consumers to believe products are more effective.

“Your faith in science may actually make you more likely to trust information that appears scientific but really doesn’t tell you much,” said lead author Aner Tal, post-doctoral researcher at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Anything that looks scientific can make information you read a lot more convincing.”

The study showed that when a graph – with no new information – was added to the description of a medication, 96.6 percent of people believed that the medicines were effective in reducing illness verses 67.7 percent of people who were shown the product information without the graph.

“Even those with professed faith in science were more likely to be swayed by trivial scientific looking product information,” said Tal.

“In fact, the more people believed in science, the more they were convinced by the graphs.

“What this means is that when you read claims about new products, whether it’s a medication or a new technology, you should ask yourself,

‘where does this information come from?’,

‘what’s the basis for the claims being made?’

“Don’t let things that look scientific but don’t really tell you much fool you. Sometimes a graph is just a graph!”

Cornell University, Blinded by non-science: Trivial scientific information increases trust in products, ScienceDaily (17 October 2014) (reformatted for clarity)

Thus, the abstract and press release make a claim — in the absence of summarized data to support it

One would think that the authors would have taken advantage of their own discovered phenomenon.

A bit of quantitative and methodological data added to the abstract might have avoided the dismissive conclusion that I came away with.

How many subjects?

Tested how?

Why was the experimentally attached data in the study legitimately considered trivial?

And so forth.

Even an abbreviated answer to one of these questions might have cloaked the study summary with a hint of (legitimately acquired) credibility.

The moral? — The authors really should have summarized the answers to their own questions, before signing off on the abstract

Part of the scientific process is communicating at least the appearance of knowing what Science’s rules are.

In a world of busy people and short attention spans, this has to be done in the abstract:

“Where does this information come from?”

“What’s the [statistical and methodological] basis for the claims being made?”

Well said, indeed, Dr. Tal. No disrespect intended. Sometimes, we trip over our own feet in missing the need to communicate what we know, which our readers do not.

Presumably, the answers to Dr. Tal’s own questions are included in the body of his study’s report.

But, being behind the journal’s paywall, we cannot get to it. Which defeats much of the purpose of having an abstract.

Northern white rhino population is now down to only one breeding male — says the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya

© 2014 Peter Free

Citation

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy loses one of its northern white rhinos, OlPejetaConservancy.org (18 October 2014)

That pretty much does it for the northern white rhino

From the Conservancy’s announcement:

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of one of our northern white rhinos, Suni.

Suni was one of the four northern whites residing on Ol Pejeta Conservancy. He was born 34 years ago at the Dvůr Králové Zoo as the first-ever northern white rhino to be born in captivity. Together with one other male and two females, he was translocated from the zoo to Ol Pejeta in 2009.

Our rangers found him on the morning of October 17th, 2014, dead in his boma. Suni was not a victim of poaching and we have yet to establish the cause of his sudden death. The Kenya Wildlife Service vets will conduct a post mortem as soon as possible. In 2006, his father Saút died in the Dvur Kralove Zoo by natural causes at the same age as Suni was now.

There are now only six northern white rhinos left in the world. Suni was one of the last two breeding males in the world and no northern white rhinos are known to have survived in the wild. Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race.

© 2014 Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy loses one of its northern white rhinos, OlPejetaConservancy.org (18 October 2014)

The moral? — Nasty critters, those humans

One has to wonder whether a species that literally trashes everything around it can survive over the geologically long haul.

If this were a computer simulation, it would be interesting. As an apparently “real life” experiment, it just seems sad.

The mechanics of existing seafloor iceberg scours — found as far south as southern Florida — may be explained by a hydrological model of glacier melt

© 2014 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Jenna C. Hill and Alan Condron, Subtropical iceberg scours and meltwater routing in the deglacial western North Atlantic, Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038/ngeo2267 (advance online publication, 12 October 2014)

Citation — to press release

University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests, ScienceDaily (12 October 2014)

 The need to explain iceberg scours found on south Florida’s continental shelf

Author Jenna Hill found numerous scour marks on pictures of the sea floor between Cape Hatteras and Florida:

“The depth of the scours tells us that icebergs drifting to southern Florida were at least 1,000 feet, or 300 meters thick,” says [Alan] Condron.

“This is enormous. Such icebergs are only found off the coast of Greenland today.”

To investigate how icebergs might have drifted as far south as Florida, Condron simulated the release of a series of glacial meltwater floods in his high-resolution ocean circulation model at four different levels for two locations, Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

© 2014 University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests, ScienceDaily (12 October 2014) (extracts)

How did huge icebergs get that far south?

After using the ocean circulation model to simulate conditions:

[Alan] Condron reports, “In order for icebergs to drift to Florida, our glacial ocean circulation model tells us that enormous volumes of meltwater, similar to a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood, must have been discharging into the ocean from the Laurentide ice sheet, from either Hudson Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Further, during these large meltwater flood events, the surface ocean current off the coast of Florida would have undergone a complete, 180-degree flip in direction, so that the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream would have been replaced by a cold, southward flowing current, he adds.

As a result, waters off the coast of Florida would have been only a few degrees above freezing. Such events would have led to the sudden appearance of massive icebergs along the east coast of the United States all the way to Florida Keys, Condron points out. These events would have been abrupt and short-lived, probably less than a year, he notes.

“This new research shows that much of the meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet may be redistributed by narrow coastal currents and circulate through subtropical regions prior to reaching the subpolar ocean.”

© 2014 © 2014 University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests, ScienceDaily (12 October 2014) (extracts)

The moral? — If these are indeed iceberg scours, the team’s explanation of how they got there makes considerable intuitive sense

Imagine the volume of meltwater necessary to shift the Gulf Stream that noticeably.

Living methane-consuming microbes inside undersea carbonate rocks may be serving as a methane sink — or not

© 2014 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Jeffrey J. Marlow, Joshua A. Steele, Wiebke Ziebis, Andrew R. Thurber, Lisa A. Levin, and Victoria J. Orphan, Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy represents an unrecognized methane sink in the deep sea, Nature Communications 5: 5094, doi:10.1038/ncomms6094 (14 October 2014)

Citation — to press release

Mark Floyd, Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink, Oregon State University (14 October 2014)

“Didn’t know you guys were there and doing something”

From the abstract:

Here we show that seep-associated carbonates harbour active microbial communities, serving as dynamic methane sinks [“sop” up methane].

Microbial aggregate abundance within the carbonate interior exceeds that of seep sediments, and molecular diversity surveys reveal methanotrophic [methane-eating] communities within protolithic [before becoming rock] nodules and well-lithified [turned into stone] carbonate pavements.

Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy [methane-eating] extends the known ecological niche of these important methane consumers and represents a previously unrecognized methane sink that warrants consideration in global methane budgets.

© 2014 Jeffrey J. Marlow, Joshua A. Steele, Wiebke Ziebis, Andrew R. Thurber, Lisa A. Levin, and Victoria J. Orphan, Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy represents an unrecognized methane sink in the deep sea, Nature Communications 5: 5094, doi:10.1038/ncomms6094 (14 October 2014) (paragraph split)

Which translates to:

We found lots of methane-consuming microbes inside undersea carbonate rocks.

We should figure out whether these “guys” are eating noticeable amounts of methane that would otherwise go up into the atmosphere.

In more detail

The research team took a chemical look at underwater “authigenic” carbonate rocks near the Pacific Northwest, California and Costa Rica. Authigenic just means that the rock came into existence where it is now.

From the press release:

[S]ediment-based microbes form an important methane “sink,” preventing much of the chemical from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation.

As a byproduct of this process, the microbes create a type of rock known as authigenic [see here] carbonate, which . . . was [previously] not thought to be involved in the processing of methane.

A team of scientists has [now] discovered that these authigenic carbonate rocks also contain vast amounts of active microbes that take up methane.

“No one had really examined these rocks as living habitats before,” noted Andrew Thurber . . . .

“It was just assumed that they were inactive. In previous studies, we had seen remnants of microbes in the rocks – DNA and lipids – but we thought they were relics of past activity. We didn’t know they were active.

“This goes to show how the global methane process is still rather poorly understood . . . .

“Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound,” said [co-author Jeffrey] Marlow . . . .

“Rocks located in comparatively inactive regions had little microbial activity. However, they can quickly activate when methane becomes available.”

© 2014 Mark Floyd, Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink, Oregon State University (14 October 2014) (extracts)

Significance?

No one knows.

Whether the microbes can actually “quickly activate when methane becomes available” depends upon whether they are still alive. One would think that they would expire fairly quickly in the absence of methane or its substitute.

I also doubt that massive quantities of methane are going to “seep” very deep into these rocks. Which would make their categorization as a very noticeably important undersea methane sink unlikely.

The moral? — A worthy study, whose finding raises interesting research questions

And illustrates how little we know about possibly important details of the planet’s mechanics.

A 2014 International Osteoporosis Foundation report — highlights a hitherto unrecognized level of osteoporosis-induced mortality risk in men — but there are caveats

© 2014 Peter Free

Citation — to report

Peter Ebeling, Osteoporosis in Men: Why Change Needs to Happen, International Osteoporosis Foundation (2014)

Citation — to press release

International Osteoporosis Foundation, Why men are the weaker sex when it comes to bone health, OsteoFound.org (09 October 2014)

Commonly held health idea appears to be wrong?

From the press release:

Alarming new data published today by the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF), shows that one-third of all hip fractures worldwide occur in men, with mortality rates as high as 37% in the first year following fracture.

This makes men twice as likely as women to die after a hip fracture. Osteoporosis experts warn that as men often remain undiagnosed and untreated, millions are left vulnerable to early death and disability, irrespective of fracture type.

Often mistakenly considered a woman’s disease, osteoporotic fractures affect one in five men aged over 50 years.

A study from the USA has shown that men were 50% less likely to receive treatment than women. As governments and health-care systems focus on diseases such as cancer and heart disease, this ‘silent killer’ is not being recognized as a threat and affecting an increasing number of victims.

Professor John A. Kanis, President, IOF said[:]

“It is estimated that the lifetime risk of experiencing an osteoporotic fracture in men over the age of 50 years is up to 27%, higher than that of developing prostate cancer. Yet, an inadequate amount of health-care resources are being invested in bone, muscle and joint diseases.”

Lead author of the report, Professor Peter Ebeling (IOF board member and Head, Department of Medicine, Monash University, Victoria, Australia) said,

“In the EU, projections suggest that by 2025 the total number of fractures in men will increase by 34%, to almost 1.6 million cases per year.

“In the USA the number of hip fractures among men is expected to increase by 51.8% from the year 2010 to 2030, and in contrast the number among women is expected to decrease 3.5%.”

International Osteoporosis Foundation, Why men are the weaker sex when it comes to bone health, OsteoFound.org (09 October 2014) (extracts)

Caveats

The Foundation’s call to action seems to be slanted toward motivating action, rather than toward adhering to reasonably strict scientific analysis.

For example, looking at page 4 of the report, one might ask:

At what geographic location — and in which (over age 50 ) male demographic — is the “risk of lifetime risk of experiencing an osteoporotic fracture in men over the age of 50 years . . . up to 27%, higher than that of developing prostate cancer”?

If you look at footnote 3, which cites the relevant authority for the Foundation’s “up to” comment — you see that the fracture data apparently came from a study conducted in southern Tasmania. The title of the cited study itself indicates that the applicable data vary within the same country:

Cooley H, Jones G (2001) A population-based study of fracture incidence in southern Tasmania: lifetime fracture risk and evidence for geographic variations within the same country. Osteoporos Int 12:124-130

In contrast, the prostate cancer rate apparently came from a study conducted in the more populous and, probably more demographically diverse, United States. See footnote 4.

In other words, the two studies are probably not statistically comparable.

Second, a similar problem exists with:

Hip fractures in men are associated with greater mortality compared with women, with rates as high as 37% in the first year following fracture.

In addition, mortality is increased after most fragility fractures in men, not only following hip fractures.

Peter Ebeling, Osteoporosis in Men: Why Change Needs to Happen, International Osteoporosis Foundation (2014) (at page 5, third column, second paragraph) (paragraph split)

Footnote 19, which accompanies the above paragraph, refers us to:

Bliuc D, Nguyen ND, Milch VE, Nguyen TV, Eisman JA, Center JR (2009) Mortality risk associated with low-trauma osteoporotic fracture and subsequent fracture in men and women. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 301:513-521

A look at the JAMA paper indicates that the study was conducted in Dubbo, Australia. The “up to 37% mortality” appears to have come from interpreting a graph on page 517 of the cited paper. The graph refers to a sample of (only) 49 hip-fractured men aged 75 or older.

This small sample is not exactly a statistically persuasive tidbit, when it implicitly purports to apply to a much wider, global and future sample of men.

Sentences with “up to” usually hint that someone may be trying to dramatize a finding  — which more scientifically interpreted, might not reach the level of statistically based horror that an author desires

Pertinent to this thought, small print at the end of the Foundation’s press release indicates that:

World Osteoporosis Day is observed annually on 20 October, and marks the beginning of a year-long campaign dedicated to raising global awareness of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis and related musculoskeletal diseases.

Led by the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF), it generates worldwide media and assists with public awareness campaigns organized by more than 200 national osteoporosis patient and medical societies from around the world with activities in over 90 countries.

World Osteoporosis Day is supported globally by unrestricted educational grants from Amgen, UCB, Fonterra, Lilly, MSD, Pfizer Consumer Healthcare.

International Osteoporosis Foundation, Why men are the weaker sex when it comes to bone health, OsteoFound.org (09 October 2014) (extracts)

From a common sense perspective

If:

(a) we celebrate or organize “Any Day” on an annual basis

and

(b) we use Any Day to kick off a “year-long campaign” —

then —

(c) the campaigning never ends, no matter its accumulated outcome.

The moral? — Maybe so, maybe not

I generally restrain enthusiasm, under circumstances in which drug companies directly or indirectly are sponsoring a new global alarm.

In partial support of my skepticism, page 18 of the Foundation’s report lists the “Summary of benefits of osteoporosis therapy in men”. Not surprisingly — given the pharmaceutical sponsorship and the medical condition at issue — these interventions are all pharmaceutical.

I emphatically am not saying that the Foundation’s conclusion is mistaken or that its alarm is unwarranted or premature.

I am just pointing out that caution is scientifically and medically in order, until someone comes out with a rigorous meta-analysis that supports the Foundation’s conclusions.

When pharmaceutical companies touch something, self-interest too frequently nudges sound science out.