Following the money with the cancer-obesity link

Content note: this post discusses cancer, dieting and fatmisia

The latest research shows that lifestyle factors cause 37% of cancers, with the second-highest cause being “overweight or obesity”. Maybe that’s true, but I’m going to urge a few caveats in interpreting this, as a great question mark is raised by who is funding the research.

Cancer Research UK have received ten million pounds from diet company Slimming World. 

It’s a jawdropping amount of money, and if your eyebrow is raised, rightly so. Funding matters. Now, I’ve no idea of CRUK’s annual turnover, but £10million is generally considered the threshold for a gigantic charity in and of itself, so receiving this amount of money from one income source alone over five years is pretty shocking.

Funding matters. You might have heard of something called a Type A personality: those driven, ambitious individuals who are so go-getting they might give themselves a heart attack. What you might not know is the science behind that is bunk, and a lot of the research was funded by the tobacco industry--who had their own reasons to look for a cause of heart disease that could enter the public consciousness, one that wasn’t the product they’re flogging.

Funding research drives the research agenda. This is why many journals now insist you publish your funders. And it seems like Slimming World have done something rather clever here: removed themselves a step. Technically, Cancer Research UK have funded the research, and are acknowledged as funders in the published paper. It’s just that Slimming World is then, in turn, funding Cancer Research UK. It’s impossible to prove this link, which is a smart move. But that question mark must remain above our interpretation of the research.

I’ve had a read of the published paper, and its methodology is, for the most part, a good, solid systematic review. However, there are concerns about how obesity/overweight is measured and treated.

First of all, weight is looked at entirely through the lens of BMI. This is a huge problem, because BMI can’t measure body fat, and can’t measure where the body fat is, which is important to know. A high BMI can be caused by being tall or short or muscular. It’s still quite popular in research because it’s very easy to measure, but it’s not particularly meaningful as a measure of body fat, and utterly meaningless when it comes to individual health.

The other question mark is far bigger. The research is looking at lifestyle factors: as well as BMI, it looked at smoking, exposure to UV (i.e. tanning and sunbeds), dietary factors such as eating red meat or not enough fibre, alcohol, and so forth. These are changeable lifestyle factors. And then, obesity is lumped in there with it, like including a bunch of grapes in an analysis of apples.

The thing about obesity is, contrary to popular belief, it’s mostly not a lifestyle factor. It’s not just an issue of you eat too much, and if you eat less, you’ll not be fat any more. It’s a lot of things: it can be related to health issues, poverty, medication side effects, genetics, and so on and on.

But who benefits from treating obesity as a lifestyle factor you can easily change, much like smoking? Perhaps, say, somebody selling diets?

As an aside, I also am concerned about other risk factors being treated as “lifestyle factors”, such as occupational exposure and air pollution, both of which can’t really be helped–although that’s more of a problem with the reporting in the media than the research itself.

Which, finally, brings us on to the reporting and press releasing of this story. The media has, obviously, seized upon the obesity link because it is one of their pet stories: those fatties who do it to themselves, why won’t they change? Cancer Research UK’s press release helpfully supplies a toolkit for journalists to trumpet this, including featuring a case study of a woman who was obese, had uterine cancer, learning about how weight and uterine cancer were linked, and then an inspirational weight loss story–which even mentions that she joined a local slimming group! I think I sprained an eyebrow from raising it so much, there.

And meanwhile, Slimming World is falling over itself to encourage people to pay for its diet products and slimming groups.

For a sceptical mindset, it’s really important that we think about funding and its links to research–from what is researched, how it’s reported, all the way through to how it’s reported in the media. It’s healthy to question findings, and with a funding relationship like this, it’s the smart thing to do.

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In defence of the Ptolemaic Model (sort of)

Continuing with my fascination with using historical astronomy to discuss problems in science, today I will be looking at how science can believe silly things for a really long time, before finally everything clicks into place.

From antiquity until the late 16th century, the dominant belief was that everything went round the Earth. The Sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, all of it was whizzing round a completely static Earth, that doesn’t even spin on its axis. Oh, and everything zooming around the Earth is made out of a special substance called aether, embedded in spheres which are also made out of aether.

Now, this might all sound rather ridiculous to our 21st century ears, but 500 years ago, this was not just what the uneducated peasants believed, but what the key scientific thinkers of the time would have used as a theoretical basis for everything astronomical. And the reason for this was because the Ptolemaic Model worked.

The way we’re usually taught the story went is that everyone believed bullshit for a long time, and the church was to blame for this, and when Copernicus came along with his model, it was only the Catholic church that really got in the way of it being immediately widely adopted, by virtue of doing shit like locking up Galileo.

However, this is only partially true, and it definitely wasn’t as linear as that.

The Ptolemaic Model seems absurd from our perspective, because it goes to almost comical backflips to explain observable phenomena which can easily be covered by “it all goes round the Sun in kind of elliptical orbits, duh.” For example, planets sometimes appear to switch direction, and start moving “backwards” across the sky (this is known as retrograde). This is pretty easy to explain if you grok that everything is moving round the Sun at different distances: we’re overtaking them, or they’re overtaking us. However, if you whack the Earth in the middle, like we did for millennia, this requires things to be moving in small circles in their bigger circle around the Earth. I want to try and explain this better, but to be quite honest, I’ve tried and tried to get my head around epicycles, equants and deferents, and I can’t. Basically, lots of circles are moving around in a really fiddly fashion.

However, here’s the thing: it worked. It worked really well at accurately predicting where everything would be in the sky. It worked so well that it took over a century from Copernicus’s publication for a heliocentric model to become dominant, because for most of what they were doing, using the old model worked just as well, and this was, after all, the model that the scientists of the day had learned from their own training.

Firstly, critiques of the Ptolemaic Model existed pretty much from the time Ptolemy’s model was developed. From pagans in Carthage proposing that Venus and Mercury went round the Sun, to the Islamic scientist ibn Al-Hatham who literally wrote a text titled Doubts on Ptolemy, there were always, well, doubts on Ptolemy. However, observations that contradicted the Ptolemaic Model were usually explained away in terms of a model which was still geocentric.

When Copernicus published his theory, the most influential astronomer of the time, Tycho Brahe, acknowledged that Ptolemy had a lot of problems, but also acknowledged that Copernicus had a whole bunch of problems, too. He therefore created the Tychonic system, which agreed with Copernicus that the Earth rotates, and the planets go round the Sun… but that the Earth is stationary and the Sun goes round the Earth. Again, with our modern sensibilities, this sounds on a par with Hollow Earther beliefs, but at the time it was quite neat, explaining many of the observations which had put holes in the Ptolemaic Model. It remained reasonably popular as a theory for another century or so, peacefully coexisting with the Copernican model, and indeed being really good for astronomers who didn’t want to get persecuted by the Vatican, and only fell out of favour when the weight of observations meant that the Earth had to be in motion around the Sun. This, by the way, was in the 18th century.

Oh, and while we’re at it, the Ptolemaic Model is still used these days for certain applications. Ever been to a planetarium? Their projectors are built with the innards resembling the Ptolemaic Model, with little circles moving round bigger circles. For an ancient theory, it was surprisingly robust.

So why did the notion that the Earth is the centre of everything persist so long? Mostly, it just made common sense. After all, it’s not like we feel the Earth moving around, when we look up at the night sky, it certainly looks like we’re in spheres within spheres. And, of course, it really does flatter our egos to think we’re the most important special snowflakes, rather than some insignificant little specks on a pale blue dot at the arse end of nowhere. It went mostly unquestioned for a long time because it was a strong theory which just so happened to also fall in with social constructs about our own significance.

Geocentric models were pretty decent, but they were also, at the end of the day, wrong.

It’s worth remembering the hardiness of the Ptolemaic Model when we look at other scientific theories which are taken for granted at present. I bang these drums a lot, but, say, for example, differences between men and women. Or, in fact, the existence of two biological sexes. Just because smart people believed in it since antiquity, doesn’t necessarily make it right.

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Shockingly bad science journalism in the Guardian

Content note: this post discusses mental illness, mentions self harm, suicide and sexual violence

It’s been a while since I’ve considered the Guardian a decent source of news, but sometimes things get egregious. Yesterday, an article entitled “Mental illness soars among young women in England – survey” was put out, and their reporting… wasn’t very good.

A study was released finding that young women aged 16-24 are at very high risk for mental illness, with more than a quarter of the group experiencing a condition, and almost 20% screening positive for PTSD symptoms. This has all risen since 2007: not just for young women, but across genders and age groups. What, according to the Guardian’s heavy focus of the article, is to blame?

Social media, apparently.

The Guardian’s reporting focuses heavily on how social media is to blame, selectively quoting researchers mentioning social media to the extent that I would love to see what questions they were asked (my personal favourite: “There are some studies that have found those who spend time on the internet or using social media are more likely to [experience] depression, but correlation doesn’t imply causality.”)

Then there’s the case study telling her story of her experience with PTSD and triggers. She talks a lot about film and TV, and the stress of university, and yet somehow her case study is titled “Social media makes it harder to tune out things that are traumatic”. She mentions it briefly in the last paragraph–while still mostly focusing on film and TV!

Now, the reason the Guardian’s twisting of this survey for their own ends is so particularly problematic is the importance of the research. You can download the whole report here, or read a summary here.

It’s quite a well-done survey, a very robust look at mental illness in England, and laying groups who are most at risk. You know me, and how quibbly I can get about published research. This one is actually good. However, it’s worth noting something they didn’t measure in the survey: social media use. This means, of course, it’s absolutely impossible to draw conclusions from the data about social media and mental illness from this research. The survey authors mention that their young cohort is the first to come of age in the social media age, which is true to a certain extent, although I am in an older cohort and came of age in a world where I constantly chatted to friends online, whether I knew them in the meatspace or not. Again, it would be nice if they’d consistently measured online behaviour across studies.

I’ll quote one of the other key research findings here, because again it’s crucial and if you read the Guardian you’d never know about them.

Most mental disorders were more common in people living alone, in poor physical health, and not employed. Claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a benefit aimed at those unable to work due to poor health or disability, experienced particularly high rates of all the disorders assessed.

So. Let’s speculate with the results then. What else happened between 2007 and 2014 that might have had a negative impact on people, especially those who are on disability benefits.

I’ll give you a clue. It happened quite soon after 2007, and the young cohort would have come of age into this, as well as more people using Facebook.

One more clue: it rhymes with wobal winancial wisis wand wausterity.

These are young people who have grown into a world with no prospects, with a hugely gendered impact. Of course, once again, it’s just speculation, but it’s slightly more robust speculation than the Guardian’s because they measured benefit receipt and employment status.

As women, a lot of us would have chorused “no shit, Sherlock” upon seeing the results, and seeing how gendered the results are. We deal with more, and it’s even worse if we’re poor.

The Guardian has a bit of a hateboner for social media, and, unfortunately, this has completely blurred its analysis and reporting of what is an important survey that actually found some interesting trends over time, as well as a bleak snapshot of the current realities.

Do women oppose fracking because we aren’t educated in science? Fuck no.

Today in internalising misogyny for a nice fat paycheque, Professor Averil Macdonald has declared that women are more opposed to fracking than men because we just don’t understand the science behind it. Hoping to make the statement a little less misogynistic, and remembering she sits on a committee to encourage women into STEM, she adds that it’s probably due to women having less of an education in science.

First of all, let me say this: what Professor Macdonald is saying is thoroughly unsubstantiated. She cites research from the University of Nottingham into public support for fracking which does show a gender difference, although the ongoing programme of research also shows a steady decline in public support for the technique (presumably because it’s fucking terrible for the environment and we ought to stop relying on fossil fuels). Where Professor Macdonald has got it into her head that it’s to do with persuasion by scientific facts, I do not know: the Nottingham research was a descriptive survey rather than an experiment into methods of persuasion. There’s no evidence to show that gender differences in support for fracking are down to men being more swayed by scientific arguments. What’s being reported is simply Professor Macdonald’s personal feelings–and given she’s the chair of an oil company, a sceptical mind ought to consider why she may have that opinion.

However, I’m all for thought experiments, so let’s pretend that Professor Macdonald was citing some robust research showing that men are more receptive to scientific arguments in favour of fracking than women, and that the causative factor here is their better science education.

Here, I would suggest that men are more likely to be influenced by whatever the hell is dressed up as scientific fact purely because of higher levels of science education. You see, a science education doesn’t necessarily teach you very useful skills. In fact, it teaches you to be uncritical regarding science. It teaches you to produce whatever your funders want to hear, and not to particularly question who’s funding what. It teaches you that shaky evidence is evidence, and therefore it’s good and build on that and continue going in the direction you’re going in, no matter how actually incorrect it is. It teaches you to appeal to authority. It teaches you not to be reflexive, to be convinced that you are being objective.

I should know. I had a science education, to a pretty high level. And I was once the sort of person to swallow with a bit of “scientific evidence” as fact.

So, Professor Macdonald is wrong. And even if she’s right, she’s still wrong.

New study says bi women are bi because they can’t get a man (and it’s probably bullshit)

Content warning: this post discusses biphobia and sapphophobia

Well well well. I have a confession to make. I only drink from the furry cup because I had a shit education and I’m ugly. I’m not being self-deprecating, there’s science behind it. There’s a study and everything!

Unfortunately, it was a conference presentation, so we don’t have very much to go on in critiquing the study, so a brief summary from what I can glean from the reporting: the study tracked men and women between adolescence and young adulthood, asking them whether they identified as “100% heterosexual”, heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or 100% homosexual at four different points. Education, physical attractiveness and delaying childbirth were all factors associated with identifying as 100% heterosexual. The author interprets her findings indicate:

“Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners.”

[…]

“I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.”

One doesn’t have to read much between the lines to see the implication that the less attractive, less educated of us have trouble getting a man so might turn towards just being gals being pals.

While I don’t have much to go on here, there’s a couple of holes in what’s reported which means I have a lot to query on this study.

The causality could go the other way. Hetero women are at an advantage. The world likes them a lot better than us scuzzy queers. Is it any wonder that straight women, therefore, are considered more physically attractive, and get better educational opportunities, and can choose when they have kids? LGBT people have poor health outcomes, which isn’t usually conducive getting an education or looking sexy. Bisexuals have the worst health of all. So, these advantages for straight women might not be because they’re lucky, but because they’re straight. It’s their straightness that causes their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices, not their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices causing their straightness. To me, it seems pretty fucking obvious that the causality would go that way round. Anyway, this is all assuming that this was all measured pretty well. You see…

Physical attractiveness is a pretty difficult thing to measure. Bluntly put, there’s two ways to measure physical attractiveness. Firstly, you ask people how attractive they think they are. Given that living under stigma in a society that tells them they’re disgusting has pretty dire consequences on self-esteem (especially if they try to hide it rather than coming out young) it wouldn’t exactly be surprising if they were reporting themselves less physically attractive than the straight women. The other way you can measure physical attractiveness is show their picture to a panel and ask the panel to rate how hot they are. This is, obviously, highly affected by the panel, and maybe things like short hair and tattoos and not meticulously depilating every inch of your body because you’re less interested in what men think might affect the judgment–in other words, because straight women only want to go for men, perhaps they’re rated as more attractive under patriarchal beauty standards because they’re more likely to have to live up to them.

Sexual orientation is also fucking difficult to measure. Just last week, we had this conversation, didn’t we? Just giving people a list of options might not exactly result in covering the diversity of their experience, their attraction, and heck, their own identity. This probably explains better why men’s sexual orientations didn’t change so much as women’s–not because men’s sexual orientation is fixed and immutable while women’s is not, but because it’s a different kind of stigma that men face, and one which does not allow for anything to change.

It’s not exactly a long time between adolescence and young adulthood. You probably don’t have it figured out just yet. I am thirty now, and I still haven’t figured myself out, except acknowledging that I am a work in progress and I probably always will be. Who knows where these people will shift to later in life: if they do shift. I’m not convinced one can draw conclusions based on a sample over a very short period of time.

It’s a conference presentation. That’s very different to a peer-reviewed paper. At conferences, what often happens is preliminary findings are presented. Sometimes they go on to be published, sometimes they don’t. In fact, a whopping 91% of the time, they don’t. So, this could be something crappy which will be stuck away in a desk drawer, maybe to be trotted out occasionally in a popular science book as though it’s proper science.

All this study does is reinforce the general quite icky stereotypes about bi women, and the reporting is downright irresponsible. It’s sad, because from the data, it looks like there’s some interesting stuff going on about shifting sexual identities: stuff that might warrant further examination if the interpretation weren’t so flawed.