Part-Time Einstein


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.


Filed under Communications, Thinking about thinking

8 responses to “Part-Time Einstein

  1. Interesting perspective! So many of my super healthy friends devoted to their waistlines look older and have more health issues. Maybe they can tie their shoestrings faster, but my plumpness fills out my wrinkles. Here’s to BMI! 😉

    • I’m only a part-time Einstein 🙂 And I’ve been both overweight and thin. Some health problems do make you thinner, and not everyone who’s carrying extra is unhealthy. The concern is too many who are too young being TOO fat. Even the JAMA study confirmed that BMI ratios above grade 1 obesity increase risk.

      It’s interesting trying to balance quality of life issues with overall health, and social factors like beauty concepts. Culture affects what sorts of looks and sizes are preferred. BMI is what it is – one factor among many. Since you choose to read my work and comment, you’re obviously more attractive and have better taste than the average person. Thanks for visiting!

  2. Your second to last “Most people would rather believe any good myth over a boring truth” paragraph is strong Mikey. It details for me the differences between “accepted truths” the fun “debunking” stories that follow it, and the truth that lies heavily on the side of accepted truths that, as you write, must be constantly proven over time.

    “But the tiny details of thinking scientifically unbalance storytelling because the method is so unabatedly rigorous.” This line makes me think of the show CSI versus circumstantial evidence in murder trials. The onus on the prosecution to prove guilt has always been steep, as it should be, but it seems the storytelling of CSI (and the numerous other crime dramas) has only made it unnecessarily difficult for prosecution lawyers when they face juries that want smoking guns. Overwhelming circumstantial evidence seems to be circumspect to too many people these days that always find out that the first guy is not the real killer. This mentality has made too many people “too smart” to accept the overwhelming evidence before them.

    I also think that people enjoy stories that “debunk” those accepted truths that we’ve all known about for decades, do so when it suits them. “Can I eat that seventh donut in one setting? Yes, because I want to live longer, and recent scientific evidence has shown…”

    I know some of my points here aren’t direct links to what you were writing about, but your presentation was so strong that it provoked some thoughts. Long story short, I thought this was an excellent post, and I think you should consider sending it to Psychology Today, or some other periodical that focuses on such subject matter. I look forward to these posts in the future.

    • Thank you for the complements, which I will happily accept. If my trains of thought inspired ones of your own, that is all the relevancy I desire. The main category was “thinking about thinking”, and you’ve done that justice.

      I’m a generalist both personally and professionally. Though I work in a scientific profession currently, I used to work in showbiz, and before that was a straight-up capitalist wage slave (in sales).

      I’m a high school guidance counselor’s worst nightmare, the guy who can’t and won’t (and didn’t) focus on a single area of knowledge or work. I expect it will continue after I retire in two years. Perhaps magazines will still exist in some form then…
      Thanks for reading!

  3. Mikey,
    We live in a society where we are told things like: a daily glass of red wine is beneficial for our health one day and that if you drink more than three glasses of red wine a week you will cut 20 years off your life, the next…

    If you believed everything you read you’d eat and do nothing at all and be too scared to live life!

    I think that we need to use common sense: get back to eating unrefined foods, organic if possible, in moderation… try for less sugar, less salt and spend more time going for a walk with a loved ones rather than sitting in separate rooms on computer games, social media etc.

    People often mention that our family seems to be travelling constantly, maybe we do… but whilst at home we save hard, NO gameboy, playstation, or such like, no kids on facebook or any other social media, we save hard and live as a family. What are my kids doing as I type? … on the street with neighbour kids, old squirty washing up liquid bottles and an energetic water fight, and that’s after playing the last hour on their bikes… when they come in… shower, pyjamas, books, reading together, maybe a game of cards.

    Simple entertainment, lots of fresh air and burning off energy, and later in the summer holidays, a new country to visit with Mama and Papa. Do our kids complain because of lack of gadgets? Yes sometimes, but offer them a water-fight, cycle ride or camping weekend and the technology is forgotten in an nanosecond.

    Healthy comes as a “whole” and not just as fat, thin, etc. If we can teach our children to make wiser choices than drugs, binge drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle then we hope to give them LIFE as well as “health”.

    • Ever since I got to know the details, I’ve thought you have an excellent plan for maximizing quality in life. We both know health problems aren’t entirely preventable through lifestyle choices. People have “design flaws”, and everyone has accidents. But living the way you do helps you get the best out of your time, and it grants you control over more time too. You live less on someone else’s schedule.

      I wish I had grown up that way. I do value it now.

  4. I travelled a lot as a kid but my parents were the first of the “quality time” (v’s “quantity time”) parents and we were a “family” for short compact stints of school holidays and then both parents were absent via their careers the rest of the time.
    It was rather strange being an “instant family” with people who were more or less strangers and although I have always worked full time my priority has always been my kids, my hobbies will have to wait: a kid is waiting to cuddle up and read books with me.
    Once they are grown the nest will be empty and I will have more “me” time than I probably know what to do with.
    “Health” is also making conscious decisions that you will try and make the very best of what you have been mentally and physically given, that you will look out for the needs of a stranger, a neighbour etc if you can.
    The fact that you value it now means that you can also make conscious decisions to make every day count, a friendly word or a compliment to someone, an extra place at your table, a smile when someone expected a frown, a listening ear… it all makes a difference, both to the giver and recipient 🙂

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