“Who are you, who are so wise in the ways of science?” – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Pictured: Science. Not pictured: Stubborn Old Italians.
In December I put together notes about a story that I’d read online that rubbed me the wrong way. It was about stubborn people. Specifically, the headline said, “Stubborn People Live Longer: Here’s Why.” I read the story. Some science-y folks studied a small (relatively) remote village in Italy. They picked 29 participants between the ages of 90-101. Then they picked family members that were between the ages of 51-75.
They picked people that lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the ravaged Italy after World War II and found out . . . shockingly, that they were stubborn?
They then picked people who grew up in a post-war renaissance, rebuilding, and rebirth and found out they were not as mentally healthy as people who had been toughened in some of the most horrific conditions of the 20th century? Where literally every day of their lives was better than any day of 1944?
I’m shocked. (okay, I’m not)
And to further confound this “study” when you pick a small town in Italy, you simply have to deal with the fact that . . . these people are more closely related than you’d see in New York City. When I drive around Smalltown, in northeast Midwesteria, I see can see family resemblances everywhere. When you see the names on the plaques in the high school lobby for the team that won it all in 1954, you see . . . the grandparents of kids The Boy and Pugsley go to school with today.
The Italians may all share characteristics and genetics of some stubborn old dude who kept making Italian women pregnant up until he was 99 while Leonardo DaVinci was still fingerpainting.
And any statistician will tell you that 29 participants isn’t enough to tell you . . . anything.
So, we have a questionable study that gets rolled out by a “journalist” who needs to pop something into the paper so they can feed their kids. They and 20 other 24 year old kids get assigned the “write a science filler piece about old Italians.” Since the only science they know was taught to them on the Disney® Channel (there is no science requirement to be a journalist, folks) they poke at the scientific study like Ukrainian Mall Lawyers attempting to fix a broken printer, hoping their clumsy fumbling fingers mash into something so the pretty words come out again so they can go back home to Nadia, who is boiling potatoes and smells faintly of vodka and used to repair tanks at Ukraine Tank Manufacturing Plant Number 342.
So, they pick what words they understand, and attempt to educate us all . . .
Don’t get me wrong – there are some really, really smart journalists. And some have dedicated themselves to covering science and do a great job.
But not many, because science is really hard.
How hard is it? To plumb the depths of the structure of the sub-atomic world we build machines miles long, some stretching the diameter of the Earth.
And biology and behavioral science is also hard. I read once (way back a long time ago, in a book, on paper) about a scientist who was studying mice in mazes. Mizes? Anyway, this scientist looked not at the mice, but at the experiment itself. How could the mice cheat? Well, they could look up and see the light position for guidance, so he made the light diffuse and uniform over the maze. They could sense the table wasn’t level, so he leveled the table. They could hear noise from nearby offices and laboratories, so he soundproofed the room. They could even feel vibration from the building’s heating system, so he had to dampen the table. All to get one maze to be “fair” so the mice couldn’t cheat. As I recall, he did this in the 1920’s or 1930’s. After he published? People promptly ignored him and this wonderful research.
Bad science has shown up in lots of places, and journalists with bad stories have helped it along:
- Then: Eggs will kill you! Now: Eggs are the perfect food.
- Then: Fat will kill you! Now: Plenty of place in a healthy diet for fat.
- Then: Eat high carbs! Like PopTarts®! Now: Carbs are death.
- Then: High fructose corn syrup is the same as sugar! Now: No, it’s not even close.
I heard about this company in Great Britain that was going to, wait for it, transplant poop from one person to another for a fee. Because it happened to this one lady and she lost a lot of weight. Hey, a journalist wrote about it – it must be awesome!
Yeah. Great science. It may turn out to be founded in reality, but I’m expecting more Ukrainian Mall Lawyers . . . poking at the copier this time.
But I’m skeptical. Which is . . . another word for stubborn?