You’ve probably noticed there’s more than one way to think. When I train dogs or encounter wildlife, I try to think like the other animal. It improves communication. When I’m taking X-rays at the Urgent Care sometimes I am thinking like a psychotherapist, sometimes like a nurse, and to improve empathy I try to think like the patient and focus on their difficulties.
For a few seconds before I push the button, I think like a mathematician, calculating proper radiation dosage based on the size and composition of the body part in relation to the power capacity of the machine I’m using. Did you know radiologic technologists have technique charts in their heads? It’s because every x-ray tube weakens over time. You make slight changes to the formula for obtaining an optimal image as the machine ages.
Thinking scientifically is neither easy nor ordinary. It doesn’t come naturally to focus on proven data, structure experiments to remove bias and hypothesize within small borders. Every two years I have to do some of that to renew my licenses. Technologists are given a variety of directed readings. We read peer-reviewed studies and try to analyze them accurately. If you can’t prove competency in being able to think this way, you don’t get to renew.
One of the studies I read was also the subject of national news stories. News writers look for ways to write interesting short thrillers, and a typical news cliché is “man bites dog”, where what happens is the reverse of what’s supposed to happen. The study was published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Through statistical methods limited to BMI (Body Mass Index) correlated with age at death from all causes, it reached the conclusion that being overweight in later life IMPROVES your chances of living longer. That’s an opposite conclusion to hundreds of other studies.
On the TV news outlets and in print, the media went nuts. Typical headlines included “Overweight is Good For You”, “Extra Weight Linked to Longevity”, and “The Health Benefits of Being Overweight”. Every single article along these lines missed the methodology flaws of the study. By comparison, scientists didn’t. Here are some of the problems:
BMI (Body Mass Index) correlates with weight, but not health. Think about it. Smokers, drug addicts and cancer patients have lower BMI and are thinner. They weigh less, and they will die sooner. That inaccurately makes it look like fatter means longer life expectancy. It skews the curve. The study didn’t properly factor in the effect of diseases or addictions on weight.
The study didn’t include ways of looking at the ages of the subjects. The largest increase in obesity rates over the past two decades has been in children aged 5-8. The oldest of this group are still under 30. They are sick, many have Type 2 diabetes, but they haven’t died yet because it takes awhile for diabetes to shorten your life, and heart disease and strokes from high cholesterol also come later. They will die younger than average, but because they haven’t yet it makes the total numbers look like fatter is better for your survival.
Where fat is on the body is a factor in health outcomes. It’s well documented that extra belly weight increases the likelihood of diseases, as well as injury from decreased mobility and joint pain. BMI doesn’t say where the extra weight is.
The “man bites dog” scenario is powerfully attractive. Most people would rather believe any good myth over a boring truth. The siren song of story is the basis behind religion, fine arts and politics. Science offers good stories too, if you look at the lives of the greatest scientific thinkers. But the tiny details of thinking scientifically unbalance storytelling because the method is so unabatedly rigorous. Nothing can be left to chance. Everything must be not only provable, but also repeatable. It’s hard work to do well.
By the way, I got my licenses renewed.