Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Bad Science (BS) Leads To Bad Public Policy.

In the current issue of NEWSWEEK, science columnist Sharon Begley proposes that K-12 science education should be devoted to teaching kids how to “detect Bad Science—BS, if you will.”

She cites in support a new book by Ben Goldacre of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine called Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks.

To both Begley and Goldacre, a big part of the problem is observational studies, “in which people who happen to behave one way (eating a lot of olive oil, drinking in moderation) have one health outcome, while people who choose to behave the opposite way have a different health outcome.”

What’s wrong with that? As Begley writes, “Unless people are randomly assigned to drink or not drink, those health outcomes are just as likely to reflect something inherent in the drinkers and teetotalers rather than the behavior.”

Which brings us back to the subject of yesterday’s post, and the Bad Science (BS) lurking behind the efforts of two Chicago aldermen, and politicians in many other jurisdictions, to ban drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine. According to yesterday’s press release, “medical experts say such controversial drinks can be hazardous because the caffeine may mask the effects of alcohol making it hard for young adults to realize how intoxicated they have become.”

This claim, repeated almost verbatim in every criticism of these products, appears to be based on a 2006 study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University. Here is what those researchers wrote about the limits of their own study:

“This study used cross-sectional data, which limits our ability to assess causal relationships. In addition, the relationships between consumption of alcohol mixed with energy drinks, and high-risk drinking, and alcohol-related consequences may be a result of selection effects; specifically, sensation seeking individuals may be drawn to energy drinks, heavy alcohol consumption, and risky behaviors. This investigation was limited to college students from a specific geographic area, limiting its generalizability. Data were obtained by self-report; it is possible that survey respondents may have under- or overestimated their alcohol use and its consequences.”

So this big medical claim is based on some kids who drank alcohol and caffeine together, which they did because they believed that combination would allow them to drink more before they felt drunk. Then afterwards they reported that they thought it worked.

That’s medical evidence?

The aldermen could easily have provided references to the science on which their proposal relies, so why didn’t they? Because the anti-alcohol activists who spoon feed this junk to the politicians don’t give it to them, the politicians don’t ask for it, and that’s how public policy is made.

The fraud, of course, it that next year when they run for reelection these aldermen will brag about how they “fought to protect kids from beverage companies who put profits ahead of the health and safety of Chicago families.” What they are really doing is encouraging risky behaviors by giving credence to the myths on which those behaviors are based. Shame on them.


T Comp said...

Isn't it amazing how in spite of all the advances in civilization, education and communication this phenomena of Bad Science (or BS!) and bad public policy persists and still spreads like the plague. Wasting no time, there is news today that the Michigan Liquor Control Commission has passed a decision to ban 55 alcohol/caffeine drinks.What's next witchcraft trials, bloodletting or just more of a return to prohibition? We also had the BS pronouncement this week that alcohol is the most dangerous drug on the planet! Oh sigh for the human condition...makes a man want to have a really big pour of whiskey.

dutch05 said...

And just to prove how broad the BS has become, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission just banned the alcoholic energy drinks.

Nathan said...

Of course, anybody can manipulate our elected officials in the same way. How many states legalized craft distilling on the premise that it would create jobs?

Frankly, it's amazing to me how much of our public policy is in fact based on sound science. The upside of bureaucratic inertia is that civil servants are mostly insulated from knee-jerk public opinion and can do their jobs based on critical analysis instead of voter's whims. If the general public is given too much direct control of policy, you end up with a dysfunctional, bankrupt government, like California's.

Unknown said...

While the reaction of the representatives is sad, there actually is a problem.

Alcohol energy drinks, such as Four Loko are sold in 23.5 ounce cans, at 12% ABV. That means there's 2.8 ounces of pure alcohol in every can. Drinking one can is equal to 5.5 one ounce shots of 100 proof alcohol. So when college kids consume three of four of them in a night, you can imagine how much alcohol they've consumed, and for some people that's a killing quantity. Considering that they're sold in an array of kid loving flavors and some of the deaths have involved kids aged 18-20 (under the legal drinking age!), you can see why the "adults" get in a tizzy when they find out what their children were doing at college.

I'm against banning them, but college kids need to be aware of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption in any product, but especially like these.