Tag Archives: take down

Stuff we eat is banned in other countries! Freak out!!!

Have you seen this article floating around the internets?

80% of Pre-Packaged Foods in America Are Banned in Other Countries from Babble.com/Shine Food

Oh my God?!  How could this be?

The article is a laundry list of food additives/components that are linked to another laundry list of vague detrimental health effects.  For example: “linked to allergies, ADHD, and cancer in animals” or “known cancer-causing agent.”

The only “citation” (consider those sarcastic air quotes) is a book this “article” seems to be a marketing tool to promote.  (And if you check out the book on Amazon, it’s full of helpful pseudoscientific hints like “Capsaicin, found in cayenne, has thermogenic properties that increase you blood flow and metabolism.”  BS.)  That was a major red flag on the “How to recognize pseudoscience check list“- so my skepticism kicked it up a notch.

Now, I have a full time job, so I can’t debunk each compound mentioned, so I’ll just focus on the one closest to my heart, or perhaps I should say, my gastro-intestinal tract:  Brominated Vegetable Oil, supposedly found in my favorite soft drink, Fresca, which is “banned in more than 100 countries ‘because it has been linked to basically every form of thyroid dieases-from cancer to autoimmune diseases-known to man.'” (Source)

I turned my attention to PudMed, for reliable, peer-reviewed, primary literature for some actual evidence.  I found two studies with some hard data, albeit from animal models, and one that estimated how much BVO was actually in soft drinks.

First up- so how much BVO are the rats in these studies eating? (keep in mind, animal studies are a FAR cry from actual health impacts in actual humans!)

This study by Lawrence et al published in Lipids just looked at accumulations of metabolic byproducts of BVOs in the liver, heart and fat tissue of rats.  They fed the rats 0.24g/kg of body weight per day of brominated olive oil or brominated sesame oil and found the corresponding byproducts in those tissues.  Now, for perspective- if a person were to eat 0.24g of BVO per kilogram of body weight, just how much would that be?

If the average US adult male weighs 185lbs, he would have to eat 20.16g of BVOs. The average women, at 155lbs would have to eat 16.8 grams.

Vorhees et al published a study in Teratology way back in 1983 where they fed rats BVOs in ranges of 0 to 2% if their diet.  They did find significant health effects- including weight loss, sterility, and behavioral impairments at the various doses.  Just how much BVOs would humans have to consume if they ate BVOs as 2% of their diet.  Well, if the average American consumes about 2 tons of food per year (source), one would have to eat about 1.6 ounces (or 45.4g) or BVOs per day.

So how much BVO is in my favorite soft drink?  I found an estimate from Yousef et al here. They estimated that “several commercial soft drinks were found to contain BVO in a range 1.8-14.52mg/L.”

This begs the question- how much soda would a person actually have to drink to get near the doses used in the animal studies?

Based on my previous calculations and Yousef et al’s range, the average man would have to drink between 1,379 and 11,200 LITERS OF SODA PER DAY to replicate the Lawrence et al study!  That’s 689 to 5600 2-liter bottles of Fresca IN A SINGLE DAY!  For the average woman, that would be between 1,159 and 9,333 liters.  We are talking on the order of 1000 times a person blood volume of soda.  Even water can kill you if you drink enough of it (see water intoxication aka hyponatremia).

It’s even crazier if you look at the Voorhees et al study, which actually showed health impacts, not just accumulation.  To replicate the doses in the Voorhees study, using Yousef’s measured range of BVO in soda, a person would have to consume between 3,131 and 25,222 liters of soda in a single day!

Am I saying that BVOs are A-OK?  No, I did not find a study to support that, and most studies concluded that given their results, further research was needed to figure out the health impacts in humans.  Further, it is possible that BVOs are more potent in humans or have entirely different health effects than in rats.  BVOs may also be in other foods (although a PubMed search for ‘brominated vegetable oil’ only turns up estimates of BVO amounts in soft drinks as top line hits, see here). The point of this exercise was merely to illustrate how far removed rat studies are from actual, actionable human behaviors.

Remember that a study in rats is never directly applicable to humans- especially when you are talking of massive, biologically irrelevant doses of a compound (nobody is drinking 10,000 liters of soda a day).

So, overall, I wouldn’t waste my money on that book the article is marketing, and I won’t lose sleep over the 5mg of BVOs in the can of Fresca sitting on my desk.

Shame on you Babble and Yahoo Shine for using scare tactics to parade marketing materials as an evidence-based news article.

This kind of schlock has been peddled before by these kinds of sites.  Click to see take downs of:  Fukushima radiation causing infant mortality in the US, deodorant causing breast cancer, adverse effects of pitocin on newborns, anti-obesity campaigns scaring kids into eating disorders, and sleep training/crying it out causing brain damage.

For some level-headed advice on how to spot BS/pseudoscience, see here.

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Adverse Effects of Pitocin in Newborns

OMG!  “Pitocin Side Effects:  Harm to Newborns Found in Child Labor Drug Study Triggers mommy-Blog Firestorm!

I wasn’t really sure what the problem was from the headline.  Were mommy-bloggers upset over child labor?  Were newborns put to work on a drug study?  What’s going on?!

Apparently the moms at Babble and The Stir have their granny-panties in a knot reporting, sensationally*, on a press release from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (*meaning they are sensationalizing the results for clicks, not that they are doing a sensational job reporting on the study)

All the hubbub is over Poster #74 at ACOG’s Annual Meeting.  Title:  “Oxytocin Usage for Labor Augmentation and Adverse Neonatal Outcomes” by Dr. Michael S. Tsimis et al.

What the study looked at?

…a  retrospective analysis of deliveries that were induced or augmented with oxytocin. The study included more than 3,000 women delivering full-term infants from 2009 to 2011. The researchers used the Adverse Outcome Index, one of several tools used to measure unexpected outcomes in the perinatal setting and to track obstetric illness and death rates. (Source)

What the data showed?

Researchers found that induction and augmentation of labor with oxytocin was an independent risk factor for unexpected admission to the NICU lasting more than 24 hours for full-term infants. Augmentation also correlated with Apgar scores of fewer than seven at five minutes. The Apgar is a test that evaluates a newborn’s physical condition at one and five minutes after birth based on appearance (skin coloration), pulse (heart rate), grimace response (medically known as “reflex irritability”), activity and muscle tone, and respiration (breathing rate and effort). A baby who scores eight and above is generally considered to be in good health. (Source)

What the authors concluded?

The analysis suggests that oxytocin use may not be as safe as once thought and that proper indications for its use should be documented for further study. “However, we don’t want to discourage the use of Pitocin, but simply want a more systematic and conscientious approach to the indications for its use.” (Source)

The take home message?  The study (as far as I can ascertain from the ACOG press release) did not establish a causal link between pitocin use and adverse effects in newborns, it showed a correlation.  Like any drug, pitocin isn’t without side effects.  Doctors and patients must exercise their judgement in using it- adverse effects from pitocin may be preferable to outcomes of NOT using it and complications of delayed delivery of a baby.

Keep in mind, since this is a poster and not a published paper, the data hasn’t been peer reviewed, actually, unless you are actually AT that meeting, you can’t see the data, because it’s on a poster. My search for the abstract was fruitless, leading me in circles back to the press release.

So, as always, talk to your doctor, ask questions, make informed choices.  Don’t just listen to some random mommy-blogger (or in this case, #scimom blogger/Evidence Based Parenting blogger) on the internet.

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More Irresponsible Science Reporting: Deodorant causes breast cancer.

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a link to a web article claiming a recent study showed use of deodorant was linked to breast cancer.  The website touted ‘natural’ products and ‘holistic’ approaches to health and wellness.  Guessing their conflict of interest in peddling ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’ deoderants might have skewed their take on the research, I looked up the original journal article.  “Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum” by L. Barr et al. in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.

I read the paper and realized the holistic website did WAY overstate the conclusions, told my friend it was bogus, and went on my merry way.

Then today, what headline do I see on Yahoo News?  “Study proves my 80-year-old grandfather correct:  Deodorant may promote breast cancer” by Summer Banks, a Yahoo Contributor.  According to her bio, Summer has 4 years of college nursing eduction, but isn’t a nurse, she’s a medical assistant.  While I’m sure that makes her more knowledgable than your average woman on the street when it comes to medical expertise, it apparently does not make her capable of reading and comprehending primary research papers.  Alternatively, she may be spinning the results for a shocking headline that Yahoo will pay her for or to promote the brand name products she mentions in the ‘news article.’

So thanks to Yahoo and Summer, I now feel it necessary to address this paper and share what researchers actually did, what they actually found, what they actually concluded, and what it actually tells us about deodorant and breast cancer.

In a nutshell:

What the researchers actually did was collect human breast tissue from 40 mastectomies performed on patients with breast cancer.  They tested these samples for the presence, amount, and type of parabens (a component of deodorants, but also found in other stuff too, click the link for more info).

What the researchers actually found was that 99% of the samples had detectable levels of at least one paraben and 60% had detectable levels of all five of the parabens they tested for.

What they actually concluded was that, “The results of the current study confirm and expand our previous work (Darbre et al., 2004) and indicate that intact paraben esters can be measured in human breast tissue.” (Not exactly the headline Summer was going for.) “The current study has provided a larger sample size (160 rather than 20), and multiple sampling at four serial locations across the breast (axilla, lateral, mid, me- dial) has enabled study of the distribution of parabens across a single breast for the first time.”

Now, for what the researchers did NOT do/find/conclude…

The researchers did NOT compare breast tissue from patients with breast cancer to those without.  Thus, for all we know, the levels of parabens might be equally high in both cases, meaning that the presence of parabens isn’t the whole story, or that parabens aren’t correlated with breast cancer.  This failure to compare tissue from patients with and without cancer is a major stumbling block for this research paper.  I was actually surprised the authors were able to get it published without that comparison.  I’m guessing that the reason they were only able to conclude that parabens were detectable- and not make a single conclusion about breast cancer and parabens- is because they lacked this crucial comparison.

The researchers did NOT find a correlation between the paraben levels and the presence of cancer in a region of breast tissue.  Meaning paraben levels were similar in regions in which tumors were found and in cancer-free regions.

The researchers did NOT find a correlation between use of deodorant and levels of parabens, meaning there is no link between parabens in breast tissue and use of deodorant (I guess Summer must have missed that because her headline says the exact opposite of this).

The researchers did NOT conclude that there was a causal link between parabens and breast cancer.  They did NOT conclude that the parabens present in breast tissue came from deodorant. They did NOT conclude that the levels of parabens found were sufficient to stimulate tumor growth.

OK.  Now that we have that out of the way- let’s break it down and see how well Summer’s reading comprehension is.

Summer Banks wrote (as the headline!):  “Deodorant may promote breast cancer.”

The researchers wrote:  “The finding of similar concentrations of parabens in the breast tissue of women who reported to be current, past or nonusers of underarm cosmetics suggests the parabens to have originated from a source other than underarm cosmetic application.”

So, it’s not the deodorant!  Summer is wrong.

The researchers also wrote:  “The presence of a chemical in the breast cannot be taken to imply causality per se…”

So they didn’t prove any causes!  Summer is wrong. (Although half-credit since she did say “may cause breast cancer”)

Summer Banks wrote:  “The study went on to reveal that paraben levels were high enough to cause estrogen-based cancers, like breast cancer, to grow faster.”

The researchers wrote:  “Although oestrogen is an acknowledged component in the development of breast cancer (Miller, 1996), it remains to be established as to whether environmental chemicals with oestrogenic properties [like parabens] contribute a functional component to the disease process (Darbre and Charles, 2010).”

So, the parabens aren’t causing cancer to grow faster!  Summer is totally wrong here.  The study performed no such experiments and drew no such conclusions.  Actually the study didn’t even show a single piece of data about the growth of cancers AT ALL.

Summer Banks also wrote:  “There are no medical studies, including this study, that prove parabens cause breast cancer…”

Why then the headline that deodorant may cause breast cancer?

Perhaps it has to do with the products Summer mentions as safe alternatives to traditional deodorant?  Hawking products is always a red flag that a source isn’t reliable and may have a conflict of interest that means it cannot be trusted.  See here for how to spot a reputable information source.

I really cannot believe how inaccurate Summer Banks’ article is.  I hope she sees this post and either corrects the article’s blatant inaccuracies or withdraws the article entirely.  The last thing we need is misinformation being passed off as news.

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Childhood obesity, fat shaming, and the science of it all.

After all the hubbub about that Strong4Life campaign in Georgia and the talk of fat shaming, I’ve decided to finally throw my hat in the ring.  The first part of this post is a dissection of a recently poorly-written response to a study on the impact anti-obesity campaigns have on eating disorders.  The second part of the post is me tossing my hat in the ring.

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Today on Babble, Julie Miner wrote about the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.  The study looked at the impact that in-school anti-obesity campaigns had on rates of eating disorders (or behaviors indicative of them) in children 6 to 14 years of age and concluded that there may be a correlation between the campaigns and the disordered eating.

Unfortunately the actual study PDF is small (meaning it’s not a research paper), and in a font that my computer cannot read, so I’m left to rely on the press release.  The take home message from the study’s author was:

“The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem. In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved,” says David Rosen, M.D., M.P.H., Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and Chief of Teenage and Young Adult Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.

However, Rosen says, “When obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.”

“Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” says Rosen, “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.” Source.

And here’s the only figure they provide:

Source.

Seems to me like a measured conclusion based on the data.  No shrieks of “Anti-obesity campaigns cause eating disorders!” or “Teaching kids to be healthy makes them fat!” or any such nonsense.  At least not from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

For the nonsense, we need to turn to Julie Miner who apparently read the same study (although she didn’t link to it or otherwise facilitate her readers making their own determinations) and concluded, “Essentially, [the study concludes] that anti-obesity programs are scaring kids into starving themselves or over-exercising.” (Source.)  Somebody needs to bone up on her reading comprehension, and I don’t think it’s me.

Having set up this straw man, Miner proceeds to knock it down with four main points.

“1.This is one poll. There are thousands of studies that show that anti-obesity education programs effect positive behavior change.”

Well, since Miner provides not a single citation and I already have a full-time job, I’m not going to PubMed search “thousands of studies.”  However, I’m going to venture an uneducated guess that the “positive change” she’s alluding to is weight loss or decreased rates of obesity.  Fair enough.  The CS Mott study’s authors didn’t look at the efficacy of anti-obesity campaigns, only the prevalence of behaviors associated with disordered eating (ie over exercise, refusing meals, pre-occupation with food labels/calorie counts, etc.).  If the “thousands of studies” Miner mentions but fails to cite, had weight loss/obesity rate as the readout of success, there is nothing to rule out the possibility that the “positive change” was affected by such increases in disordered eating.

“2. These headlines may discourage future obesity prevention and health promotion programming in schools.”

Well, I can’t say that it won’t, although I can attest to the public being kind of slow to come around to the science, so I doubt this will happen.  That said, if these anti-obesity campaigns are having detrimental consequences for the emotional and physical well-being of school kids, then I certainly hope these programs are discouraged/discontinued. Although, like the authors of the study, I hope it isn’t a result of this study alone, since they authors draw no firm conclusion that there is a problem, just suggest that there may be a problem and it warrants further study.  (However, that measured conclusion doesn’t make for a good straw man, so it’s easier to overstate the conclusions when trying to refute them.)

“3. Childhood obesity is perhaps the most important pediatric Public Health issue this country is facing.”

I’m guessing that the authors of the CS Mott study wouldn’t argue with this- you know seeing as how they work at a children’s hospital, treating children, and studying obesity and all.  However, I’m guessing they would disagree that they should keep their scientific findings to themselves because, as Miner puts it, “That mixed messages exist about the importance of prevention education is troubling. That a lack of clarity could diminish our commitment to solving this problem is unacceptable.”  As far as I can tell, the authors of the CS Mott study think that prevention education is super important.  They would probably argue that their study points to a major need to do more research, get clarity on how best to implement prevention education, and get on with the business of educating.  Just because science doesn’t necessarily agree with the current methods being used, doesn’t mean it is at odds with the overall goal.  Miner’s argument here basically boils down to, “It doesn’t matter if our current approach isn’t working, or is having detrimental, unintended consequences.  We need to forge ahead blindly!  Ignore that science.”

“4. There is no clear consensus on the right way to do this and these findings only muddle the issue further.”

Uh, what?  If there is no clear consensus, shouldn’t we do more research?  Isn’t the fact that this study points to a potential problem with current anti-obesity campaigns reason to do more work to understand the problem?  Why would you throw out good science that doesn’t fit with your fore-drawn conclusion if your ultimate goal was to prevent childhood obesity?  I hate to be the one to break it to Julie Miner, but that’s not how science works.  Scientists are always muddling their hypothesis- with data.  If the data muddles the hypothesis, that means you do more experiments, not ignore the results and stick to your hypothesis.  Further, clarifying the hypothesis doesn’t always mean proving it right- lots of times it means your hypothesis was wrong.  Scientists are invested in the outcome whether they are proven wrong or right (although like everyone else, they prefer to be right).  Putting one’s head in the sand so as not to upset the status quo is not a good way to make public health decisions and I’m dumbfounded as to why Miner would suggest doing so.

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Now, scientist hat off, I have some other comments on this particular Babble post, as well as Georgia’s Strong4Life campaign that’s been the focus of so much debate, see samples below.

In a recent piece for XOJane, Lesley Kinzel hit the‎ nail on the head when she wrote, “The only thing you can tell for sure by looking at a fat person is the degree of your own bias against fat people.”  So I would like to encourage you to investigate their own biases and prejudices before you address this topic, especially before addressing the science of this topic.

My main objection to Georgia’s campaign and what drives eating disorders- is SHAME. Most of these efforts to prevent obesity Miner mentions revolve around shaming overweight kids and sending a message to all kids that thinner is better. As Miner said in her Babble post, “There are a myriad reasons and correlative effects that could account for the negative behaviors noted in the [CS Mott] survey.  The most significant of which is the age of the students in question (they ranged in age from 6-14). It is precisely at this age when body image begins to affect behavior…”

These programs amount to ridicule, harassment, and shaming of overweight kids by their peers as a motivator to get them to change their ways. (If you doubt me, imagine that the posters from the Strong4Life campaign were drawn by some middle school kids and taped to some overweight kid’s locker- somebody would be going to the principal’s office.) They also plant the seeds of weight being a measure of self-worth in all kids. Even if those efforts succeed at goading kids to lose weight- is it worth the emotional and psychological toll? Are we, as a society, willing to torment kids to get them skinny?

Also, what of the skinny kid who sits at home playing video games, eating junk food, but thanks to genes and metabolism isn’t overweight? Is that kid healthy just because he/she is thin? Is weight the measure that matters most?  Nobody is taking up the banner that we find a way to shame that kid into getting outside and exercising after a healthy snack.

I agree that schools should teach about how we keep our bodies healthy- what fuels/foods are best and how exercise is beneficial, dental hygiene, sex ed, etc. What I disagree with is that the only metric that anyone seems to care about for measuring health is weight.   As Lesley Kinzel wrote, “The only thing you can tell for sure by looking at a fat person is the degree of your own bias against fat people.”   As a scientist, I know that weight is not the sole predictor of health.  As a mom, I don’t want my kids to equate their weight (or any other aspect of their outward appearance) with their self-worth.  As a fat woman, I’m sick of people thinking they know everything about me- my health status, my ability to do my job, my worthiness to be loved- based on my size.

Shame isn’t a wide-spread tool for spreading messages of public health. We are constantly trying to “remove the shame/stigma” from problems as a way of encouraging people to address them- child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc.

I propose a thought experiment.  Look at the poster above meant to “encourage” kids to lose weight and parents to help them do it.  Does that seem effective?

Now, how would you propose we reach out to teenaged girls to discourage them from having unsafe sex?  Would we mount campaigns to shame kids into not having sex?  What would that poster look like? A young girl with a caption that says, “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re a whore.”

What about domestic violence?  Would we depict battered women as objects of ridicule who need to come to their senses and make better choices?  What would that poster look like- A women with a black eye and some cuts on her face with the caption “It’s hard to be a good mom when you’re a punching bag.”

If these ideas sound like a terrible public health campaign, why then, do we do this with fat kids/people?  If you think being fat is a choice, then ask yourself two things.  1- given how derided fat people are, why would someone choose to be fat?  2- how much do you know about obesity, metabolism, and weight loss?  Then read this and stop being prejudiced against fat people and kids.

Now, I am a scientist, and I am careful never to equate anecdotes with evidence.  I may only be a sample size of one, but I have lots of fat friends and family that would back me up on this one.  Shame is not a motivator to lose weight.  I have been shamed, tormented, ridiculed and disparaged for my weight from the moment I started kindergarten.  I remember feeling fat and ugly as a kindergartener.  Having people around me want nothing more than to make me feel miserable about myself did not result in my losing weight.  Further, there were times when I felt like crap and turned to food to comfort myself.  It resulted in my having to work extra hard to maintain a sense of self-worth apart from my size.  My good grades, public service awards, scholarships, friends, family, Ivy League education- all of those things can still be negated by one teenager screaming, “F*ck you, you fat whale!” because I deigned to ride my bike in the crosswalk and he nearly hit me with his car.

If Strong4Life thinks these ads are going to make a lightbulb go off for these fat kids and they are going to get off the school bus, holding back tears so their tormenters don’t see them cry, then go home, eat a carrot, and exercise, they are deluding themselves.  If anything, those kids are going to run home (hey, at least it’s exercise!) so they can burst into tears the moment the door to their house closes, turn on the TV to try to forget the bus ride home, and eat the Chunky bar to which they were likened by the *ssholes on their school bus.  Then their attempt to forget what pieces of cr*p they are to the kids at school will be foiled by an ad from Strong4Life interspersed with their TV show to remind them that it isn’t just the kids on the bus who think they are piece of cr*p, it’s everyone.

We cannot ignore the emotional consequences of being overweight in a society that readily shames people, nor should we capitalize on it in the name of public health.  You want a public health campaign to help combat obesity?  How about we educate people how to be healthy instead of just how to be skinny?  How about we teach people that fatties aren’t just lazy, fried-twinky eating, dolts trying to drive up insurance premiums?  How about we clue people in to just how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off so that they stop blaming/shaming themselves and others for their size and just focus on being as healthy as they can be in the body they’ve got?

Further reading, posts and articles that resonated and informed me in the past few weeks:

The Fat Trap by Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times

What’s Wrong With Fat-Shaming? by Lesley Kinzel of XOJane

Leave Paula Dean Alone by S.E. Smith of XOJane

School obesity programs may promote worrisome eating behaviors and physical activity in kids by CS Mott Children’s Hospital.

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Will letting your kid ‘cry it out’ harm them for life? The answer isn’t in a blog post.

Argh.  A few days ago I saw this sensational headline on Strollerderby:  Psychology Today:  Crying-it-out Can Cause Lasting Anxiety.

I thought to myself, “Hmm, I guess a psychologist published a study comparing children whose parents allowed them to ‘cry it out’ to those who did not.”

I assure you this was only short-term neglect. I made up for it later with kisses and breast milk.

I read the Strollerderby piece and while it included an excerpt of the article, there was no mention of the study design or data collected.  However, the piece did say,

In the new issue of Psychology Today, Associate Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame, Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., writes about the dangers of letting a baby “cry it out.”…  Narvaez challenges the claims of the cry-it-out advocates with new research about how baby’s brains work. (Source)

Since the Strollerderby piece mentioned this ‘new research,’ by a bonafide PhD no less (!), in Psychology Today, I looked up what I expected to be a research article.

What did I find?  Well, first, Pyschology Today isn’t a scientific journal at all.  It’s a magazine full of news magazine type articles and blog posts!  Nothing peer reviewed about it.  According to their website:

Psychology Today is devoted exclusively to everybody’s favorite subject: ourselves. Founded in 1967, Psychology Today covers all aspects of human behavior and mental health, from the workings of the mind to the bonds between people and the larger cultural forces that drive our most intimate decisions.

Here at PsychologyToday.com we have invited the leading academics, clinicians and authors in our field to contribute their thoughts and ideas in the form of blogs — there are currently over 750 of them. The accumulated knowledge bank represents the largest archive of its kind in the world. (Source)

So, PsychologyToday.com published blog posts.  Dr. Narvaes’ blog is called “Moral Landscapes.”

According to the site, “Moral Lanscapes” is a BLOG (like this one), not a journal publication, not subject to peer review.  The blogger, Dr. Narvaez says:

The Moral Landscapes blog is typically about conveying to the public research findings related to moral functioning and living a good life. Sometimes I muse on things that I puzzle about (politics). I am very concerned about how much our society doesn’t seem to know about how to raise good, healthy and happy children, so I spend a great deal of time on parenting and other issues related to moral and virtue development. I also write about things that I am working on myself–the endless quest for virtue! (Source)

OK.  So this ‘article’ cited by Strollerderby really is just a post by a psychologist on her blog where she posts muses on things and attempts to convey research findings to the public.  Not exactly the journal article I was expecting, more like the opining I would avoid.

The “new research” mentioned in the Strollerderby article, I couldn’t find it.  Other than citing her own book, which is currently in press so I can’t see what sources the book cites, the most recent source cited in the blog post “Sample References” is a piece from the World Health Organization published in 2008 (and Dr. Narvaez does not link to the source).  Not exactly up to the minute information.

So, yes, Dr. Narvaez cited some sources, perhaps some are relevant- I doubt the Strollerderby author or any of its readers (except for me?) would bother to check them.  However, from her explanation in the text she makes no reference to any study that directly compared children whose parents used ‘cry it out’ versus those who did not.  Instead, she says, “There are many longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies (e.g., Dawson et al., 2000).”

I’m certain that longterm neglect and lack of care is devastating to babies.  I don’t think that most parents’ implementation of sleep training would constitute longterm neglect.  Most parents who even know what ‘sleep training’ means are probably well-informed enough to have read up on infant sleep patterns, love their children, and are quite nurturing.

Comparing ‘cry it out’ to long-term neglect is like comparing sending a kid to bed without dinner for not eating what was served to starvation.

Letting a baby cry it out, or using the Ferber Method doesn’t equate with neglect.  Whether you think it’s a good approach to getting your kid to sleep through the night is up to you.  I didn’t write this post to debate the merits of sleep training, only to point out the flaws in the original Psychology Today blog post, and its misrepresentation by the Strollerderby piece.  Bottom line, I wouldn’t use this opinion piece to make a decision about sleep training- because while it has some “Sample References” it doesn’t include a lick of data.

I wasn’t going to bother posting about this- although the way the media misuse/misrepresent/misconstrue science is something that always irks me (see this post)- because I just couldn’t be bothered raising my blood pressure that much.  However, today, Shine had a sesational headline:  Is Crying It Out Dangerous for Kids?

What do they cite?  The Pychology Today Moral Landscape blog post.  How to they present it?  As a research article:

In an article published this week in Psychology Today, one researcher says that crying it out could be dangerous for children, leading to a lifetime of harm. (Source)

Let’s get some terminology clear.  In scientific parlance, the word ‘article’ generally refers to original research containing data that has been peer reviewed before being published.  A work that is a summary of the current literature on a topic with extensive references will be called a ‘review article’ to make it clear that it is not original research.  What Strollerderby and Shine are calling an ‘article’ is what scientists would call an ‘opinion piece’ or perhaps an ‘editorial’ or, as the author refers to it, as a ‘blog post’- but NOT an article of any sort because it contains neither data nor extensive references, and does not constitute a summary of the current literature.

Attention Media:  Please stop misleading your readership!  Please do not present blog posts or editorials or opinion pieces as vetted scientific research!

To my readers, whatever your stance is on ‘cry it out’ please don’t use any of these ‘articles’ as your source of information.

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Getting riled up over misunderstanding/misuse of science

Recently a friend posted a link to the article  “JANETTE D. SHERMAN, MD and JOSEPH MANGANO” – Is the Dramatic Increase in Baby Deaths in the US a Result of Fukushima Fallout?  Calling it an article is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s basically just a blog post.  However, because the authors are an MD and a statistician, people in the press apparently think this puts the post in the same category as an article that would appear in a medical or science journal.

Just to be clear, it’s not the same.

The authors look at some public data from the CDC and suggest it’s evidence that radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan is causing a 35% increase in infant mortality in the Western US.  The crux of their ‘report’ and the entirety of their evidence:

The recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that eight cities in the northwest U.S. (Boise ID, Seattle WA, Portland OR, plus the northern California cities of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Berkeley) reported the following data on deaths among those younger than one year of age:

4 weeks ending March 19, 2011 – 37 deaths (avg. 9.25 per week)
10 weeks ending May 28, 2011  – 125 deaths (avg.12.50 per week)

This amounts to an increase of 35% (the total for the entire U.S. rose about 2.3%), and is statistically significant.   Ofurther significance is that those dates include the four weeks before and the ten weeks after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster.

Where do I start?

They offer no compelling evidence, as far as I’m concerned.

To support their conclusions, they should address whether there are  similar changes in the rate at other timepoints to rule out seasonal variations, stochastic changes in rate, etc.  They present no information on their statistical analysis- just say the change is statistically significant. Details on their statistical analysis might help to rule out some of those variations, but since it is not provided, a reader cannot form an informed opinion as to the validity of their conclusion.  Also, what about data from Japan?  If the minuscule amounts of radiation in the Western US are causing such dramatic changes, their hypothesis would predict that the infant mortality rate in Japan, where the radiation levels are much higher, would be even worse than here in the US.  They make no mention of seeking or analyzing any such data.

While those numbers are scary, we MUST remember, correlation does not equal causation!! Just because it rains every time you forget your umbrella doesn’t mean that you forgetting your umbrella causes it to rain.  A friend of mine who is a professor of community psychology gives this example to demonstrate that point:  “In my class I tell [my students] that there is a positive correlation between number of churches and amount of prostitution… this is a fact… I’ve [had students suggest] the priests are pimps, prostitutes are religious, etc… Oh, the joys of teaching!  Then, they realize there is a third variable that “causes” both… as cities grow, number of churches increases, as does prostitution!”

What about the general biological feasibility of the hypothesis?  The 10 week time frame is just too tight for the cause of the increase in infant mortality to be radiation.  The radiation was released over several days/weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, then, the fallout would take several days to even reach the US- thus it wouldn’t make sense to examine infant mortality rates the week after the earthquake/tsunami.  Further, the radiation levels that have been detected in the mentioned cities are minute.  The chance that such a minuscule increase could so rapidly result in infant deaths is ridiculous.  A lot of the exposure comes from ingesting contaminated foods.  What are the chances that the Fukushima radiation entered the food chain, was eaten in by expectant moms and transmitted to their fetuses or eaten by infants in quantities sufficient to be hazardous in only 10 weeks?  Pretty slim.  This post on Boing Boing does a great job (with reputable, cited sources) of explaining the risk of fallout to the West Coast.

Blog posts aren’t peer reviewed.  That ‘publication’ isn’t peer reviewed at all, just a little news blurb on a website.  A rigorous review process, like that required for publication in scientific and medical journals, would probably point out the same issues I did with the hypothesis, methods, and conclusion.

The authors of the post pose the question, “Is the Dramatic Increase in Baby Deaths in the US a Result of Fukushima Fallout?” so I guess they aren’t really saying for sure it does.  However, they make no effort to qualify their ‘report’ to discourage readers from putting undue weight on their faulty hypothesis and their unsupported conclusions.

As one might expect of the lazy press, the ‘article’ is being cited as a “report” by other news sources- and since the author is an MD reporters are acting like this is a properly conducted, peer-reviewed scientific study.

For example:

Northwest sees 35% infant mortality spike post-Fukushima

Medical professionals publish report highlighting post-Fukushima mortality spike.

It’s not a ‘report,’ conducted by medical professionals.  It’s a blog post written by an MD and a statistician.  It’s a question/hypothesis, and a poorly founded one at that. The news article above is just a regurgitation of the blog post- no attempt to vet the source, verify the conclusion, seek a supporting/dissenting opinion.  It’s not journalism, it’s just plagiarism.

It’s irresponsible of that doctor to even write the blog post in a way that could be interpreted as factual- and not purely hypothetical.  It’s also terrible that shoddy/lazy news agencies/sources are citing that article as a scientific report!

_________________________________________________________

Edited to add:  My husband e-mailed me a link to this response from Scientific American:  Are Babies Dying in the Pacific Northwest Due to Fukushima? A Look at the Numbers by Michael Moyer.  It does a better job than I have in enumerating the flaws of Sherman and Mangano’s “report,” including plotting the data for all West Coast cities for which data were available  (not just the select few that support their forgone conclusion) showing no change in infant mortality rates.

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