The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 

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Sport: Inside the world of diet gurus, faith healers, power bracelets and $100 pyjamas

May 28, 2017

On Saturday 24 May 2014 it was the Champions League final between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. In the ninth minute Atlético’s star player Diego Costa limped off the field. I am a Real Madrid supporter, and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the Brazilian-born centre-forward. In particular as a sceptic, I was glad to see bullshit exposed. Because in the weeks before the final Costa, who had a thigh injury, had been seen by Marijana Kovacevic, the “miracle doctor”. She used horse placenta to miraculously cure Costa’s injury in record time. She did get him on the pitch, but it was a fleeting appearance. That ninth-minute substitution would have been really handy later in the final. Following a 93rd-minute header by Sergio Ramos, which cancelled out Diego Godín’s first-half goal, the match went into extra time. The Atlético men were mentally and physically exhausted. In extra time Real scored three more goals and a tenth European Cup was on its way to the Bernabeau trophy room.

Seven years ago Novak Djokovic was an elite tennis player. But he had never realised his full potential and was unable to really challenge Federer and Nadal. The Serbian nutritionist Igor Cetojevic tried a bizarre applied kinesiology experiment, asking Djokovic to put a slice of bread against his belly with his left hand while extending his right hand straight out and pushing up while he pressed on it from above. He discovered that with the bread against his stomach he felt noticeably weaker, unable to resist Cetojevic’s downward pressure. When the bread wasn’t there he felt no such loss of muscle strength in his arm.

Cetojevic concluded that Djokovic was sensitive to the gluten in the bread. Of course sceptics might say that how did the nutritionist know it had to be the gluten and not the yeast, salt or the other many chemicals, additives and ingredients typically found in a slice of bread? As a brief digression, what is happening with bread? We have been eating the stuff for millennia. For some reason the industrialised loaf does not seem to be doing us much good.

Djokovic decided to put his faith in this doctor, who would transform the Serb’s diet. The results were spectacular – Djokovic started to feel stronger, quicker, and fitter. He now has 12 Grand Slam victories, 11 of which have come after the change in his diet. In fact, much of the advice is actually quite good. He eats a lot of vegetables, pulses, fresh berries and nuts while eliminating biscuits, pizzas etc. from his diet. He also eats in a mindful way without looking at his mobile, watching TV or playing video games. I ought to do the same. In 2016 he opened a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo, where he now lives. Maybe he really is gluten intolerant, but I don’t recommend putting a slice of bread on your as a diagnostic tool.

In the late 1990s faith healer Eileen Drewery had a controversial partnershipship with Glenn Hoddle. Although she had no sporting qualifications, he hired her as a consultant. Her remit was to cure the players of both physical and psychological ailments. Steve McManaman, compared Hoddle’s training camps to a “cult”, accusing him of favouring those players who choose didn’t drink the kool-aid.

The 1998 World Cup was on the horizon. Ray Parlour was in the squad, but he had had tweaked his calf in training that week with Arsenal. He was going for a scan, but Hoddle wanted him to go and see Drewery first. Unsure what to expect, Parlour entered the room. Drewery closed the curtains. Parlour wondered if he was in a strip joint – was Eileen about to take her clothes off? The player was feeling apprehensive. When Drewery put her hands on the back of his head, Parlour blurted out: “Short back and sides, please.”

Drewery was the subject of much ridicule. In one of the tabloids Parlour did one of those mocked-up pictures showing Drewery with her hands on his head. Hoddle did not see the funny side. Parlour was left out of the next England squad. Arsène Wenger, who had been Hoddle’s manager at Monaco, said he would get in touch with the England manager to try and find out what the problem was. Apparently Hoddle felt that Parlour had disrespected his faith and would not be playing for England while he remained manager.

I am a big fan of the NFL. I love the cocktail of strategy, power, speed and violence. And the greatest star is undoubtedly Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. A sixth-round draft pick Brady now has five Super bowl rings and is widely considered the GOAT – the greatest of all time. He is nearly 40 years old and fresh off winning his fifth ring after helping his side come back from what had been a 28-3 deficit halfway through the third quarter. What’s more he has talked of playing until he is 45 or even beyond. This would be unprecedented.

Brady is driven, ultra professional and articulate. A brilliant decision maker on the field he is in danger of becoming professional sport’s answer to Gwynneth Paltrow off it. He’s building a lifestyle brand based on pseudoscience and magic pyjamas. In 2014, Brady opened his TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. TB12 sports is Brady’s joint venture with business partner Alex Guerrero. The fitness guru has a chequered career. He fell foul of the Federal Trade Commission for marketing a miracle cancer-curing supplement he falsely claimed he studied in 200 terminally ill patients. They also called him out and for not really being a doctor and he had to pay a $65,000 fine and was barred from referring to himself as a doctor again. He also had to stop selling Neurosafe, a concussion-protection water.

Last year the quarterback and Guerrero launched his TB12 website, with an online store where you can buy nutritional supplements, fitness gear, vegan snack bags and the $200 TB12 Nutritional Manual, featuring “89 seasonally-inspired recipes. There is also the UA Athlete Recovery Sleepwear, which has “a bio-ceramic print that harnesses infrared energy to reduce inflammation.” Brady’s eats 80% vegetables and avoids dairy products, sugar and white flour. This sounds a pretty good idea. However, he has also cut out olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplants. This is because they cause inflammation. Like Djokovic’s, Tom Brady’s diet does seem quite healthy and I’m sure many English football players could learn a lot from the utter dedication of the quarterback. Much of what Guerrero does is probably but you cannot overlook the cancer scam, Neurosafe and the overpriced pyjamas.

I haven’t mentioned the energy bracelet yet. These were supposed to improve athletic performance: “Ever since I started wearing (a Power Balance band) I noticed I was falling less,” claimed ex-NBA star Lamar Odom, a member of the 2010 champions the Los Angeles Lakers. Be on the lookout for terms like negative ions, quantum, natural, energy frequencies and the like. Why is the world of sport full of pseudoscience, bogus claims and dodgy products? I think there are a number of factors. Athletes operate in a world of small margins and are trying to eke out any possible competitive advantage. They are in an activity where luck also plays a part and they may well seek what psychologists call the illusion of control. And one should not underestimate the power of the placebo effect. The sad thing is that with the influence these stars exert on society they may promote a lot of magical thinking. Sceptics are going to be needed for the foreseeable future.


The rise of food allergies

June 5, 2016

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.

 


Brian Nosek and his shades of grey

January 31, 2016

In this blog I have featured many psychological experiments, Stanley Milgram persuaded ordinary people to administer what they thought were 450-volt electric shocks to subjects in an educational experiment. Philip Zimbardo famously had 25 Stanford students play the roles of guards and prisoners in a two-week experiment that had to be suspended in under a week. And David Rosenhan managed to get eight sane people, including himself, admitted to various psychiatric hospitals in the USA, by briefly simulating auditory hallucinations.  What proved more difficult was to get them out. All these experiments have achieved iconic status in psychology.

Here is one experiment I haven’t featured before. A study observed that political moderates were better at perceiving shades of grey accurately than left-wing or right-wing extremists. It is an amazing result, and yet it does seem to have a ring of truth about it. The researchers could, perhaps should, have stopped there. They could have sent it in a renowned psychological journal, because this result was eminently publishable. However, they decided to run the test again with a very large sample. Alas, the result didn’t show the second time. Now there hopes of publishing a paper had gone up in smoke. They couldn’t send both studies to a journal – it just wouldn’t be published. Had they just sent the first one, it would have been far more likely to have been accepted.

So, how reliable are psychological experiments? Scientific claims are not based on someone in authority saying that it is true. Reputation is not decisive. What is important is that the findings can be independently reproduced; another scientist following the same procedure will achieve the same results.

Enter Brian Nosek a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, the man behind the study about the shades of grey. Nosek, a social psychologist and the co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science, was able to persuade 270 of his peers to take part in a study repeating 100 published psychological experiments that had been published in prestigious psychology journals in 2008 to see if they could get the same results a second time around. The Reproducibility Project, which began in 2011, was supposed to take between six and nine months. In reality it would last three years. The project was a curious enterprise. There were no eureka moments. This was not cutting-edge research that would lead to fame and glory. Nevertheless, it is vital that it be carried out.

The results were finally published in the prestigious Science magazine last summer. 97% of the 100 studies originally reported statistically significant results. This is what you’d expect. Many experiments fail to produce meaningful results, and they are not generally published. This is what is known as publication bias. It is also sometimes known as the “file drawer effect” – results that do not support their hypotheses will stay in the researchers’ file drawers. In the new study just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. This needs to be analysed; just because something fails to replicate doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some of these failures could be down to luck, or poor execution, or an inability to reproduce the conditions needed to show the effect. Nevertheless the results were not good.

What is going on is probably not fraud. The problems are more subtle than that. We must stop treating single studies as unassailable versions of the truth. There is a pressure to publish. It is novel findings that are sought, and there is little incentive for attempts at replicating findings, such as those carried out in the Reproducibility Project.  I also think that many of the studies should be true. There is something seductive about them. I remember reading one experiment that showed that if you hear that if you are holding something warm, such as a cup of coffee, you are more likely to perceive someone else as emotionally “warm”, and you are more likely to behave in a friendly, generous way. This may well be true but I would like to know whether or not it has been replicated.

And I fear that this lack of reproducibility is confined to psychology. Another study found that around $28 billion worth of research per year in medical fields is non-reproducible. Discoveries should be thoroughly examined and repeatedly observed before they are universally accepted. Published and true are not synonyms. Scepticism is what makes science so powerful.  We are now seeing reforms and they need to continue. There should be more transparent reporting, a clear hypothesis before any data is analysed, and sharing of the results so that they may be vetted.  I look forward to more work from the Center for Open Science in the future. There may not be much glory in it, but the researchers who do it, will be making the world a better place


When social interventions go wrong

November 15, 2015

The other day I was listening to the Start the Week podcast, when I heard them talking about an Oscar-winning documentary I remembered seeing in the late 1970s. In one chapter of his new book, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success Matthew Syed analyses Scared Straight, a 1978 documentary which showed a group of seventeen troubled teenagers with convictions for shoplifting, theft, assault possession and selling of drugs, to Rahway Penitentiary in New Jersey. There they would meet convicts who had been sentenced to at least 25 years for crimes such as homicide, rape, armed robbery, and drug dealing. The crime-reduction programme “Scared Straight”, which had been an idea of the prisoners themselves, had already been running for two years when the documentary was made. The idea was to shock the kids into giving up their criminal ways by giving them a glimpse of what life was really like inside a maximum security prison.

I remember being impressed by the programme. Directed by Arnold Shapiro and narrated by Peter Falk, the documentary was broadcast uncensored, which was rather surprising. We were just not used to hearing the f-word on TV. The mores of the 1970s were very different from now. There was no Channel 4 in the UK, and I’d never heard of HBO, although it had actually been founded in 1972.

Initially, the teens come across as cocky – they are not going to let themselves be intimidated. But the meeting is designed to intimidate them. Walking through the metal detector at the entrance of the prison, the youngsters experience their first taste of harsh prison life. As well as a lot of swearing, the kids hear tales of murder and rape. There are a number of kids who were picked on by the prisoners. The kids are inside Rahway for just three hours, but it feels much longer. They have seen the reality of prison and are determined never to go back.

In 1979 Scared Straight won the Oscar for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards. There was then a celebratory 20th anniversary programme – Scared Straight! 20 Years Later, fronted by Danny Glover. It revisited the 17 subjects from the original film. As they talked about their new lives, almost all said that the 3-hour visit to Rahway two decades earlier as having turned their lives around. A&E, an American cable and satellite channel, introduced Beyond Scared Straight, a new series, in 2011. It ran for eight seasons.

Here is a government program which actually works. For a relatively small outlay it is possible to get a significant reduction in crime. The “Scared Straight” programme was rolled out to a number of other states. Indeed it was even adopted abroad – Canada, the UK, Australia, and Norway have all tried it out. According to the evidence of those who ran these crime production programmes, between 80% and 90% of people who attended the program went straight. If this were true, we would be looking at an unprecedented success.

Enter James Finckenauer, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, who decided to test Scared Straight. Was the evidence supporting these programmes solid? Digging a little deeper, Finckenauer discovered that it was based on a questionnaire sent to the parents or guardians of children who had visited Rahway. There were four yes-or-no questions:

  1. Have you noticed a marked change in your child’s conduct since their visit to the prison?
  2. Has there been a slight change in their behaviour since their visit to prison?
  3. Do you think another visit is necessary for your son/daughter?
  4. Are there any specific areas you think we might be of some assistance to you, or your son or daughter?

What you may notice is that these questions are rather subjective. What do marked and slight mean? Then, many of the kids who visited Rahway had not been delinquents in the first place. If they had no apparent criminal tendencies, then it is not a great success that they didn’t go on to commit crimes. Moreover, the parents often received the letters within weeks of the visit, far too early to make a solid evaluation.

Another fundamental flaw he unearthed was that only those who responded to the questionnaire were included in the statistics. This seems a rather basic error. Imagine if your kid was mixed up in crime, you probably wouldn’t feel too enthusiastic about replying. You might well have felt embarrassed. This must surely have skewed the results. It reminds me of a TV programme here called Madrileños por el Mundo, which looks at people from Madrid who have gone to live and work abroad. Curiously the people they interview are all incredibly successful. If they are not running the Vienna Opera House, they are working for NASA. You never see the ones who are in badly-paid jobs or who ended up leaving. This is known as selection bias.

Ultimately, you need to know what would have happened if they hadn’t been taken to the prison. They might have done even better. There may have been another reason for them not committing crimes. This is where the randomised control trial comes in. you need to study one group which received the intervention and another that didn’t. This type of rigour generally seems to be missing from this kind of government initiative.

Finckenauer did exactly this and showed that the children who attended Rahway were more likely to commit crimes than those who did not. This is a bit counterintuitive. I watched the documentary and the sequel again on YouTube and it was just so convincing. Why wouldn’t it work? The idea that kids can be turned around with tough love is seductive. But we need to be aware of the danger of panaceas. The causes of juvenile crime are complex and to expect a three-hour visit to prison to be the solution is a bit naïve.  Finckenauer wrote:

The intentions of the inmates were genuine: they really wanted the kids to go straight. But the program was having unintended consequences. The experience of being shouted at seemed to be brutalizing the youngsters. Many seemed to be going out and committing crime just to prove to themselves and their peers that they weren’t really scared.

There is another amazing twist to this story. On January 1, 1982 a 19-year-old called Michele Mika was murdered in her bedroom; she was found with a 20-cm carving knife in her back After killing Mika, the criminal sexually assaulted for several hours. Not until more than 25 years had passed was anyone arrested. It was a 45-year-old Hackensack resident, Angelo Speziale, one of the 17 youngsters from the documentary. He had also appeared in the follow-up programme, where we see him with his wife and three kids. He claimed that the visit to Rahway had transformed his life:

“If I didn’t go to Rahway, I think I would have done hard time. I might not have my family. And my family to me right now is everything; it is the most beautiful experience in the world.”

Speziale, who had a job tiling floors, was caught by pure chance. After being arrested for shoplifting, the place obtained his DNA, which proved to be a match for the DNA of the sperm found in Michele Mika’s body. They had been neighbours in a duplex in the New Jersey city in 1982.

In this case I wouldn’t criticise the documentary. It is true that he did stab his victim. In the prison visit he had been made to read a newspaper article aloud about a prisoner who had been stabbed to death in his cell. You hear a frightened kid reading:

He was stabbed about a dozen times in the neck, chest, head and back. Robinson was pronounced dead on arrival at Rahway General Hospital.”

Angelo Speziale is now back in Rahway prison. The fact that he was responsible for a similar crime four years later may well have been a coincidence. We can’t be guided by one case. The problem with Scared Straight was the overall numbers. It was such a wonderful story, but it was be too good to be true. What you can criticise the show for is perpetuating this myth.


How chocolate can help you lose weight

June 6, 2015

Can you indulge your sweet tooth and lose weight at the same time? If it’s chocolate you crave, then the answer seems to be: yes. That is the surprising conclusion of a study by German researchers published this week in the International Archives of Medicine.

Confusion reigns in the diet world, with conflicting recommendations for diets that range from high-protein to low-carbohydrate and even high-fat. According to many nutrition researchers, the problem is that these tools are too blunt. “What is important is the specific combination of foods in your diet,” says lead author Johannes Bohannon, research director of the nonprofit Institute of Diet and Health. “Just lowering the proportion of carbohydrates is not a reliable weight loss intervention because it has different physiological effect depending on the bioactive compounds in your diet.”

Chocolate is a rich source of bioactive compounds, particularly a group of molecules called flavonoids, plant compounds associated with several positive health impacts. But teasing out the possible effects of such compounds in your diet, and how it may interact with various diet interventions, is rarely studied. It could be that simply consuming chocolate in combination with dietary interventions has no effect, or it could make such diets even more effective in the right dose.

To test the idea, the researchers divided volunteer human subjects aged 19 to 67 into three groups: One group followed a strict low-carbohydrate diet, another group followed the low-carbohydrate diet and also consumed 42 grams of dark (81%) chocolate per day, and a control group followed their status quo diet. Besides tracking their body weight and measuring blood chemistry before, during, and after the intervention, subjects filled out questionnaires to assess sleep quality and subjective well-being, a key predictor of dietary compliance.

As predicted, the low-carb group lost weight compared to the control. But surprisingly, the low-carb plus chocolate group lost 10% more weight. Not only that, but the weight loss persisted, compared to the low-carb group which saw a return of the weight after 3 weeks—a classic problem in dietary interventions known as the “yo-yo effect”. The chocolate group also reported better sleep and well-being, and their blood cholesterol levels were significantly reduced.

“To our surprise, the effect of chocolate is real,” says Bohannon. “It is not enough to just consume chocolate, but in combination with exercise and reduction in carbohydrates, our data indicate that chocolate can be a weight loss accelerator.”The researchers suggest that high-cocoa chocolate has the potential to enhance other diets as well. “The best part about this discovery,” says Bohannon, “is that you can buy chocolate everywhere, cheaply and without having to believe diet gurus or purchase expensive nutrition products over the Internet.”

Press release from The Institute of Diet and Health

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Don’t you just love this press release? It is just the kind of thing to get some newspaper editors salivating and social media users sharing online. If it sounds too good to be true, I’m afraid it actually is. The chocolate-helps-you-lose-weight hoax was the brainchild of German television reporter Peter Onneken who pitched the idea to American journalist John Bohannen. They set out to prove how easy it was to get a dodgy scientific study published. In fact, the study did take place, but as we shall see, it was deliberately shorn of any scientific value.

Some people may find this unethical, but elaborate hoaxes are a tradition among sceptics. In previous posts I have mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get a bullshit article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. The spoof piece was made up of ideas and quotations from various postmodernist philosophers and full of mathematical absurdities, which the editors failed to spot. I have also featured the magician James Randi, who coached stage performer José Alvarez to pretend he was channelling a two-thousand-year-old spirit named “Carlos”. And who can forget science writer Dr. Ben Goldacre’s dead cat, Henrietta, who became a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants after Goldacre paid $60 to the Clayton College of Natural Health?

For the experiment Bohannon claimed to be Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., a health researcher and lead author of the study. Onneken and his collaborator, Diana Löbl handled the logistics. They had a few thousand Euros to recruit research subjects on Facebook. They also required the services of Gunter Frank, a German doctor responsible for running the study, and Alex Droste-Haars, a financial analyst, to massage the data. The study was intentionally flawed with a ridiculously small sample size, measuring 18 variables (weight, sleep quality, and cholesterol levels among others) that naturally fluctuate in participants. The 16 subjects (5 men and 11 women, aged between 9 and 67) chosen were from Frankfurt, and were paid €150 to go on a diet for 3 weeks. They were divided into three groups – one was a low-carb. Another was low-carb plus chocolate a bar every day, and the final one was a control group who were told to follow their normal diet. The participants had to weigh themselves every day for the three weeks, and the researchers also took blood tests, measuring all the variables you can measure from a drop of blood. The subjects also filled out surveys about their sleep quality and well-being and physical complaints.

By the end of the study they had a mountain of data. The control group’s average body weight fluctuated up and down around zero. Both of the treatment groups lost an average of around 2.5 kilos over the course of the study. But the people on the low-carb diet plus chocolate lost weight 10% faster, a statistically significant result. Moreover, the chocolate group had better cholesterol results and higher scores on the well-being survey.

The amount of data was of course one of the problems with the study. If you have a small number of people and a large number of variables that you’re testing for, you’re more or less guaranteed to find something that will appear to be statistically significant. It is a tried-and-tested recipe for false positives. And If you don’t say ahead of time what exactly you’re looking for, then you can just pick up wherever random result you do get and claim that you have made an important discovery. In this case what varied was the speed at which the participants lost weigh, but the result could have just as easily been that chocolate improves sleep quality or lowers blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

Now Bohannon and Onneken wanted to share their “scientific breakthrough” with the world. They needed to get their study published ASAP. As it was such patently bad science, they had to avoid any kind of peer review. They had the perfect solution. For €600 Euros iMed.pub published it in their premier journal, the International Archives of Medicine, an open access medical journal.

What happened then? It did get picked by the German newspaper Bild and Britain’s the Daily Star. It also made it on to Cosmopolitan’s German website and both the German and Indian websites of Huffington Post. On the other hand none of Britain’s broadsheets were fooled. Nor was the New York Times. The story also failed to appear on a major national network. However, I’m sure that this kind of material does frequently get through. Just go to Ben Goldacre’s website.

Curiously, the Facebook page for the International Archives of Medicine featured a statement from Carlos Vazquez the journal’s CEO, claiming the paper was published by mistake and was only live for hours:

Disclaimer: Weeks ago a manuscript that was being reviewed in the journal “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” appeared as published by mistake. Indeed that manuscript was finally rejected, although it went online for some hours. We are sorry for the inconvenience. We are taking measures to avoid this kind of mistakes happens [sic] again.

This appears to be a terminological inexactitude as the paper appears appears to have been on a number of weeks. What’s more there is apparently this email from Vazquez:

I’m contacting to let you know your manuscript “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” has been pointed by our editors as an outstanding manuscript and could be accepted directly in our premier journal *International Archives of Medicine.

Bohannen’s hoax raises questions about scientific experiments. This has been an ongoing theme in this blog. The abovementioned Ben Goldacre is a trenchant critic of such practices by the pharmaceutical industry. In “Missing Data“, the first chapter of Bad Pharma he shows the tricks employed by Big Pharma so that clinical trials will reach conclusions favourable to the drug company. He describes publication bias, in which only tests with important results are published. If a lot of tests with inconclusive results are ignored, this will skew the results. If the trial seems to be producing negative data, it may be stopped prematurely and the results not published, or if it is producing positive data it may be stopped early so that longer-term effects are not examined.

Ultimately we have to look at the role of the journalists. If you’re reporting on a scientific study, you need to actually look at the paper. You need to talk to a source with real scientific expertise. They need to actually interview the people behind the studies, and they should seek independent researchers’ opinions. And a healthy dose of scepticism wouldn’t go amiss.


10 Greatest Hoaxes of All Time

June 6, 2015