Have you heard that sitting is the new smoking? Apparently Forbes thinks so. It wrote an article about the dangers of sitting in 2015. When I saw the headline I rolled my eyes so hard you might have heard me.
I was reminded of that article this week when I watched John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on Scientific Studies. The video is a snappier, funnier version of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. The book is still worth reading, but if you don’t have the time I’ve included my highlights below.
Bad science, click-bait headlines drive me up a wall. They give every schmuck out there the ability to cherry pick sound bites to support whatever half-baked ideas they might have. Sometimes it’s just nonsense that can be easily dismissed, but other times it’s offensive and harder to ignore. Like when Ron Burgundy claims male superiority supposedly based on brain size.
I wish I could shame the media for being sloppy and irresponsible with research studies they don’t understand, but I can’t deny that provocative headlines work. With a year of blog writing under my belt I now know the importance of headline writing. People barely pay attention to my articles unless I have a headline like My Name is Don, I’m Unemployed and Live with My Parents.
I admit that headline was click-bait but it at least was a verifiable statement of fact. It wasn’t a hunch loosely based on a ‘scientific’ research study that I skimmed over.
Getting back to the Sitting = Smoking claim. I’m all for less sitting around at work all day. I’ve even experimented with a standing desk in my home office. There was a P.O.S. hand-me-down lying around my parents’ place. I figured what the hell! I might as well give it a try. It won’t cost me anything.
I kind of like it. My neck and back feel better after doing it for a couple of months. Maybe there’s something to standing more and sitting less. But that doesn’t mean I avoided cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. That just defies logic.
Yet, some people believe the sensational headline and open their checkbook to solve a problem that was never there. (Or get their employer to do so.)
The Varidesk ProPlus 36 standing desk costs $395. I used to see people at my old job with these standing desks. They smugly thought they were avoiding the next health epidemic du jour and then proceeded to eat hamburgers for lunch every day.
And what’s next? A treadmill desk of course! Why stand when you can walk. You can buy this top of the line treadmill desk from Inmovement for a cool $4,599.
I wish there were a way to combat bad science, but I suppose it’s a part of human nature and it’s here to stay. Many people will always pay attention to splashy headlines and believe they can buy a quick fix that is too good to be to true.
But be forewarned: If you tell me about the next quack scientific study like drinking a glass of wine has the health benefits of a 4 mile run that you’re going to get one of these:
Thanks for reading.
by Ben Goldacre
a pattern that we will see repeated throughout the world of pseudoscience: instead of addressing the criticisms, or embracing the new findings in a new model, they seem to shift the goalposts and retreat, crucially, into untestable positions.
Read more at location 142
the graph, and the appearance of science. These are superficially plausible totems to frighten off a questioning journalist, a hassle barrier,
Read more at location 197
On one thing we must be absolutely clear, because this is a recurring theme throughout the world of bad science: there is nothing wrong with the notion of eating healthily and abstaining from various risk factors for ill health like excessive alcohol use. But that is not what detox is about; these are quick-fix health drives, constructed from the outset as short term, while lifestyle risk factors for ill health have their impact over a lifetime. But I am even willing to agree that some people might try a five-day detox and remember (or even learn) what it’s like to eat vegetables, and that gets no criticism from me.
Read more at location 214
The presentation of these purification diets and rituals has always been a product of their time and place, and now that science is our dominant explanatory framework for the natural and moral world, for right or wrong, it’s natural that we should bolt a bastardized pseudoscientific justification onto our redemption. Like so much of the nonsense in bad science, “detox” pseudoscience isn’t something done to us, by venal and exploitative outsiders; it is a cultural product, a recurring theme, and we do it to ourselves.
Read more at location 237
that people will buy into bogus explanations much more readily when they are dressed up with a few technical words from the world of neuroscience.
Read more at location 280
People tend, for example, to rate longer explanations as being more similar to “experts’ explanations.” There is also the “seductive details” effect: if you present related (but logically irrelevant) details to people as part of an argument, this seems to make it more difficult for them to encode, and later recall, the main argument of a text, because their attention is diverted.
Read more at location 302
randomizing your patients properly doesn’t cost money. Blinding your patients to whether they had the active treatment or the placebo doesn’t cost money. Overall, doing research robustly and fairly does not necessarily require more money; it simply requires that you think before you start
Read more at location 760
The philosopher professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University discusses this issue at length in his classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit.” Under his model, “bullshit” is a form of falsehood distinct from lying: the liar knows and cares about the truth but deliberately sets out to mislead; the truth speaker knows the truth and is trying to give it to us; the bullshitter, meanwhile, does not care about the truth and is simply trying to impress us
Read more at location 1244
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction…When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose
Read more at location 1247
The more people are listening to you, the greater the effects of a small error can be
Read more at location 1526
If I were writing a lifestyle book, it would have the same advice on every page, and you’d know it all already. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and live your whole life in every way as well as you can: exercise regularly as part of your daily routine, avoid obesity, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke, and don’t get distracted from the real, basic, simple causes of ill health
Read more at location 1559
More than a hundred years ago, H. G. Wells said that statistical thinking would one day be as important as the ability to read and write in a modern technological society. I disagree; probabilistic reasoning is difficult for everyone, but everyone understands normal numbers. This is why natural frequencies are the only sensible way to communicate risk
Read more at location 2634
a cardinal rule of any research involving statistics: you cannot find your hypothesis in your results
Read more at location 2850
Journalists frequently flatter themselves with the fantasy that they are unveiling vast conspiracies, that the entire medical establishment has joined hands to suppress an awful truth