I woke up this morning to a headline in Pulse news that read: Sugary Beverages Linked to 180,000 Deaths Worldwide. Well, with a statement like that I had to read it.
This brought up one of my least favorite types of journalism: Science and Medical writing.
The problem is that journalists don’t really understand science or how studies are done. They also look for attention grabbing headlines.
I have a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology because the University of Texas at Austin didn’t offer a Bachelor of Science at the time I got my degree. I wanted to do experimental psychology. One of the phrases I heard in every Psych class I took was: Correlation does not equal causation. Just because two variables correlate (increase or decrease together) doesn’t mean that you can tell which one causes the other.
For example, mothers who listened to Mozart while pregnant had children who were several IQ points higher than those that didn’t. So does that mean listening to Mozart will make your kid smarter? Or, does that just mean that parents who listen to Mozart are smarter and thus pass on those genes for intelligence on to their kids?
The fact that journalists like to see causal links (as do most humans) leads to the conflicting headlines we used to get about butter being good for you, or bad for you, no, use margarine, no margarine is bad for you. You get the point.
The problem isn’t that the studies were wrong. The problem is that studies are there to gather evidence, not form ultimate conclusions.
The sugary beverage study is a good start, but is not the final word.
Now, after reading all that you may think I don’t believe that sugary beverages cause diabetes, obesity and other diseases. I do. I stopped drinking soda (aside from the occasional drink – no more than 16 oz per month or two) about a year or two ago. I have acid re-flux and I just can’t drink sodas anymore. The fact that my body essentially told me to stop drinking Dr. Pepper isn’t evidence that soda is bad. There are people who drink soda till they’re 90. It’s my biology and genetics that make it so I can’t drink that delicious Dr. Pepper anymore. Mmmmm, Dr. Pepper. Sorry.
We know sugar is linked to diabetes, and that soda is linked to obesity. I don’t doubt any of that. My problem is that every article written treats this study as if it were a scientific law like the law of gravity.
The part about the article that irked me probably the most was this section:
In 2010 in the U.S., the researchers report that 25,000 deaths were linked to sugary beverages; these drinks were associated with 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 heart disease deaths and 6,000 cancer deaths.
You see what the author did there? 25K deaths linked to sugary beverages. The other numbers make it seem worse. 133K diabetes deaths, 44K heart disease, 6K cancer deaths. Now the numbers linked to sugary beverages in the US seem a lot higher. That’s 180K deaths right there! But that’s worldwide.
How many diabetes deaths in the US? Heart disease?
According to the CDC in the U.S. deaths in 2010 (same year as the study used) for each of those diseases was:
- Diabetes – 69,071
- Heart Disease – 597,689
- Cancer – 574,743
That totals 1,241,503 deaths of which 25K are linked (meaning sugary beverages were consumed in “excess” I’m guessing) giving you 2% (if I did my math right) of deaths linked to sugary beverages. Or, if you wanted to spin it another way: 98% of these deaths had no link to sugary beverages. To put the numbers into bigger context in 2010, 2.4 million people died in the US. 38K by suicide. Maybe mental health is something we should be concentrating on more than what people are drinking.
I don’t have a good ending for this so I just leave you with a comic from one of my favorite webcomics XKCD about this same subject, only more concise and wittier.
Last weekend while I was at my local Target I saw an ex-girlfriend. I’m sure she saw me too because her cheeks got that red color I remember very well from when she got embarrassed. I was with my sister and my dad so I didn’t make an effort to say hello, and she was with two kids I’m assuming are hers.
The crazy part is just that week I thought to myself. I wonder what would happen if I ran into her? We broke up about 12 years ago. The reason I was able to see the Twin Towers in New York is because of a vacation we took together in 2000. I have very fond memories of her and a few not so fond. She was funny, pretty, liberal, and smart. Just my type.
I said we broke up but, in truth, she dumped me. All these years later I’ve realized that her dumping me was a catalyst that helped me grow up. About 5 years ago I remember discussing with a friend and mentor, Mieka, that I’d gotten complacent and didn’t show the ambition that made me attractive to this ex. I’d started to think about life in terms of just getting by instead of getting ahead. I’d given up big dreams in favor of small ones. I’d become the kind of guy I’d encouraged girls to break up with. Continue reading “Over a decade later”
I was catching up on Castle (I’m way behind, no spoilers), and one of television’s favorite tropes reared it’s head: Mr. Therapist please fix me in one session.
As a person who majored in Psychology because I actually enjoyed the subject, and who has a sister who is a social worker, I know that we all could use a little therapy. People are just barely beginning to accept that people who see a psychologist or psychiatrist aren’t necessarily crazy, but people still seem to think that a therapist should be able to fix you in one session.
I’ve never heard this said, but it should be in some script in the future: therapy is like exercise. Say you work out, eat right, and get that body you’ve always wanted. Do you stop working out and get to keep that body forever? No. You have to keep working out for the rest of your life.
When you’re overweight you can’t just will yourself thin, you have to work at it. Same thing with your mind. If you have anger issues or control issues, what you’ve been doing isn’t working, you need something more. For weight it’s exercise, for the mind it’s therapy.
If you go to therapy for a specific problem, sometimes you can quit going. But the brain is complex and we all have issues that go beyond simple “fix X and everything will be fine”.
Anyway, I wish just once someone would use the exercise analogy when dealing with their TV patient.
Part 2 of 5
This is the second in a 5 part series of notes I’m taking on the book Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.
Sorry it took so long to get to part two. I actually finished reading it a while back and am currently through most of chapter 5. I just got distracted by other books and became daunted by the note writing process. I don’t know if I could go back to college without a lot of prep.
Anyway, here’s part 2:
Part 1 of 5
I just started reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I’ve read two reviews of the book and heard one podcast review that each point to the flaws of his argument. I figured, I would take notes on the book to help me better understand what his actual points are. I will try not to argue for or against his point of view (though I would probably be inclined to agree as I studied Evolutionary Psychology at UT Austin.) I’m just going to be taking notes using this blog. I’ll summarize what I think are the points he is making in each chapter in an effort to better understand the text myself. So here we go. Continue reading “Better Angels of our Nature notes”
This is a perfect subject for my imaginary future documentary series “it’s not that simple”. This is one of those complicated issues that gets boiled down to an overly simplistic they’re bad/we’re good dichotomy. One of my favorite authors, Dan Gardner, asked a simple question on twitter, “Many aren’t answering the question: What should the cops in the video have done? Nothing? If so, can anyone veto cops by sitting down?”
I work hard to be a skeptic. I try as much as possible to not let ideology be the only thing that shapes my point of view. It’s not always easy, but I try. I don’t always succeed, but I try.