Ah, Irony

In an article at I Fucking Love Science, about strange references in hundreds of scientific publications to a paper that doesn’t exist, is this sentence:

Nevertheless, it seems that the phantom reference is a symptom of wider problems within academic science publishing, such as low-quality control, careless editing, and – the real bugbear – predatory journals.

The article’s actually pretty interesting, and worth the thirty seconds it would take you to read it. But man. Low-quality control, in a sentence about low-quality editing. If you’re ever going to be really, really careful about a sentence you write, it should be the one critical of others’ editorial standards.

Going All-Out for the Finals

We’ve applied a lot of science to ritual cannibalism in this house, trust me. It started a few seasons ago when we had roast duck for dinner on the first night of the season when the Sharks hosted the Anaheim Ducks. The duck didn’t turn out as well as it might have, and the Sharks lost. In the ensuing seasons, the duck has been ever-more delicious, and the Sharks have won the season opener against the rival Ducks by ever-more comfortable margins. Last year, after stuffing the duck with orange quarters, we shut them out. Orange county, you see.

The science of ritual cannibalism is, therefore, irrefutable. We eat the duck, we beat the Ducks.

This year, as the home team has progressed through the playoffs, we (and by ‘we’ I mostly mean the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas) have explored the proper dishes required to vanquish ever-more-fearsome foes. For Nashville, whose fans throw catfish onto the ice, we ate catfish.

St. Louis was a little trickier: They are the Blues. How do you eat a musical style? We went with the color, which is slightly less tricky. We started with (yummy) Blueberry Crumble, but of course that didn’t work: we took their crumble, leaving them steadfast. We switched to a (delicious) blue cheese sauce on pork chops and never looked back.

Of course, there’s plenty of other Fan Science at work as well. Official Sweetie’s old-school Sharks t-shirt is banned from the living room at game time. When things aren’t going well, a glass of Canadian Whiskey will reverse our fortunes. The list goes on.

Pittsburgh has proven to be our greatest challenge yet. You don’t just pop down to Costco and grab a family-size tray of frozen penguin. Happily there are gummy penguins, and where there’s a will there’s a sauce.

For game one it was chicken (a flightless bird) with penguin sauce, and while it was most tasty, it was not effective. The Sharks started the game poorly, and though things stabilized after I turned to the whiskey it was too late. A heartbreak goal in the waning minutes sent our boys back to their hotel with heads bowed.

The menu for game two: Game hen with penguin sauce, with black and white rice. Really, really, tasty. Another close game; the whiskey brought the team back but they gave up a goal in overtime and were down in the series 2-0. Either game could have tilted the other direction, and while the Penguins seemed to be in charge much of the time they weren’t scoring very much. It wouldn’t take much to turn things around.

More research was required.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a darn good hockey player, is a man of ritual. On game day, he always has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Aha! we had found the chink in his armor.

And speaking of science, pork chops are a proven winner. Forget the symbolism of the flightless birds; go with what works!

For game three tonight, we pulled out all the stops for victory. Pork chops grilled outdoors with a peanut butter and jelly and melted penguin sauce. Do not cringe, my friends, it was absolutely delicious. The char from the barbecue added the perfect bitter note to work with the sweet/salty sauce. Rice and grilled green beans rounded out the meal. I wore the black t-shirt, not the gray one. Canadian Whiskey, as always, stood at the ready.

We found out not long before game time that one of the Sharks’ best young players would not be playing due to injury. Tomaš Hertl had hit the iron frame of the net three times in the game two heartbreak; had any one of those three shouts bounced the other direction the Sharks could well have won. It was going to be up to the pork chops to make up for the critical loss for San Jose.

It was a nail-biter, I have to tell you, but in the end the good guys prevailed, scoring in overtime after steadily looking more confident all game. Joonas Donskoi, or “Donkey” as we call him, slipped a shot past the Pen’s excellent net minder as the home crowd made enough noise to be heard in space.

As we celebrated at home the Official Sweetie said, “I hope we have more pork chops.”

1

Language and Perception

blueRecently I came across an article with what I thought was a ridiculous title: No one could see the color blue until modern times. What what what? Color perception is a function of physiology, right?

Or maybe not. Training may play a larger role than we (or at least I) thought. If you don’t have a word for a color, maybe you don’t learn to see it.

If the above article is not bullshit, it would seem that ancient languages are unified in their lack of a word for the color blue. If you trace the introduction of color in ancient literature, it follows a general pattern with blue coming last. Interesting enough, but a study (you know how I love those studies) of tribesmen in Namibia, whose language still does not include “blue”, found that those who could not say blue could also not see blue.

Crazy, right?

Way back in college I participated in a classroom experiment to show the every-psych-major-knows fact that people respond to red lights faster than they react to green. I asked the professor (one of my favorite teachers ever) if the experiment had ever been conducted on people who had never seen a traffic signal or a brake light. I got the eyebrow-raised “good question” response, but not an actual answer.

And then there’s the widely-accepted fact that women perceive colors differently than men do. I have always assumed that there is something intrinsic to the Y-chromosome that allows men to see true color the way God intended, but maybe it’s just that ‘mauve’ is not part of the standard male vocabulary until it’s too late. Lacking training in mauve perception, we just never get it.

In another thousand years, what colors might people see? I’m not sure, but I suspect women will see them first.

The image above was hoisted from the referenced article. I hope they don’t mind.

2

The One Thing that will Make You Healthy

There’s a guy out there right now flogging a diet book, who, along with a few poignant anecdotes, points to scientific studies which show that foods that cause your blood sugar to spike lead to more organ fat. The one and only thing you need to do to be healthy is eat more veggies and nuts, and avoid sugar and white flour.

Another diet says (pretty much) if you eat a lot of fat, your body will learn to burn fat.

There are plenty of other diets that show that fewer carbs, or less fat, or whatever, will lead you to the better life you’ve been craving. Each of those diets will claim to be based on science, and delve into insulin, glucose, neurotransmitters, and so on.

Each diet says there’s ONE THING you have to do to be healthy. Well, mainly one thing, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt other healthy habits as well.

Some of the diets are downright contradictory, but they all claim to have science on their side. How can this be?

There’s something remarkably cool going on, right now: In the last fifteen years we’ve learned a lot of really interesting stuff about how the body responds to the food we eat and even the mechanisms that make us feel hungry in the first place. If nutrition and health is a puzzle, we are finally getting to understand what shape the pieces are. It is conceivable that in a couple more decades we’ll have a pretty good look at what the puzzle actually looks like.

In the meantime, folks with medical degrees are choosing individual pieces of that puzzle and they are selling them as a complete answer. They’re not wrong, really, but they are absolutely overselling the facts. Activity X leads to hormone Y and therefore you get fat.

A scientific survey of the experiments testing the diets, which, alas, I can no longer find the link to, discovered an interesting thread: All the diets, when carefully followed, were beneficial, and none of the diets was clearly better than any of the others.

In the end, it came down to the same thing your mother told you when you were a kid: eat more veggies, and get more exercise. You just didn’t know at the time that you mother was that far ahead of science.

The one thing you can do to be healthier? Listen to your mother.

1

Junk Science — A Telltale Sign

The other day a friend of mine posted a link to a peer-reviewed scientific study concerning the effects of a vegetarian diet. He posted an excerpt from the paper’s abstract:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

Before I even clicked the link, alarm bells were going off. Just in those two sentences, they list seven things measured. That’s not science, kids, that’s shooting dice in the alley. If you measure enough things about any group of people you’ll find something that looks interesting. Holy moly, I thought, how many things did this survey try to measure, anyway? (I believe the answer to that is eighteen.)

It’s possible that some of the correlations these guys found actually are significant, and not the result of random chance. It’s not possible to tell which ones they might be, as it’s almost certain that many of the conclusions are completely bogus.

And then there’s selection bias. I read elsewhere (link later) that in Austria, many vegetarians eat that way on Doctor’s orders, because they’re already sick. That will skew the numbers.

But the paper was peer-reviewed, right? I spent a little time trying to figure out who those peers might be, but there’s no sign of them I could find on the site where this paper is self-published. And, frankly, “peer-reviewed” doesn’t mean shit anymore. Peers are for sale all over the place. If you can’t see the credentials of the people who reviewed the work, it may as well not be peer-reviewed at all.

And none of the authors seem to have any credentials or degrees themselves. Perhaps they just didn’t feel compelled to mention them, but that strikes me as odd — especially for Europeans, who traditionally love to lay on the titles and highfalutin name decorations.

The site has 53 references to that article being mentioned in the media. Some of the places that quote this nonsense actually have “science” in their titles. Sigh. Apparently Science 2.0 is Science where you believe every press release that crosses your desk. Perhaps Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas will make number 54 — although I suspect the keepers of PLOS ONE might not want this reference promoted. But to their credit they do show the link to an article in that Bastion of Science Outside Online, where at least one journalist took a sniff before pressing the “publish” button.

Outside Online, you do science better than Science 2.0. You have my admiration.

So is this research totally useless? Actually, no. It’s possible a grad student somewhere could find ONE of the claims made in the paper interesting enough to do REAL science to improve our understanding of nutrition and health. The study might be to test the hypothesis “a vegetarian diet increases the chances of lymphoma,” or something like that. A single question, while keeping the rest of the variables as controlled as possible in a human study (which is really tough).

That work would take years to accomplish and would not show up in The Guardian or probably even Outside Online. It would be a small brick in our edifice of understanding, a structure that has been growing for hundreds of years.

So when you read about “a study” that shows many things, look at it with squinty eyes and you’ll see behind it a group of people rolling the dice, and there’s often no telling who their master is. It’s not really a study at all, but a press release with numbers.

Comparing Mileage

Today I rode past a billboard advertising a Jeep SUV of some sort, proclaiming the beast gets 39 miles per gallon. That’s not too shabby — build a carpool around that vehicle and you have decent efficiency. It made me wonder, as I pedaled along: what sort of mileage am I getting?

Strava estimates that at my rather-slow cruising speed along a straight, flat road (fair for comparing “highway mileage”) I’m putting out about 150 watts of effort (or less, but I’m rounding in favor of cars). Pessimistically I’m burning about five times that in stored food energy (my gasoline equivalent); the rest of the energy winds up as heat in my muscles. So I’m consuming about 750 watts to roll along at 15 miles per hour. That’s fifteen miles for 750 watt-hours, or 20 miles for one kilowatt-hour.

A gallon of gas has the energy equivalent of about 37 kWh, so were I running on gasoline, I’d get about 20 x 37 miles, or roughly 740 miles per gallon — let’s call it 700 to avoid any pretense of precision.

700 mpg! Not bad! If I lost a little more weight my mileage would get even better (or more likely I’d just ride faster).

Calculating Calories is Hard!

I’ve been using both MapMyRide and Strava to track my bicycle rides recently. In addition, I’ve been using the activity app on my slick new Apple Watch. Each estimates how many calories I burned on my ride, but the numbers are very different. For example, on my ride to work yesterday morning:

MapMyRide: 814 Calories
Strava: 643 Calories
Watch: 757 Calories

Dang – those are quite different numbers, especially when you consider that MapMyRide and Strava are using pretty much the same data and coming to very different conclusions. What gives? CAN I EAT THAT DONUT OR NOT?

Strava and MapMyRide use speed and (maybe) elevation change in a formula with the rider’s weight to come out with an estimate of how many calories the rider burned. Strava lets me set the weight of my bike; I don’t know what MapMyRide assumes. I’m pretty confident that neither really uses elevation changes well. And headwinds? Forget it.

Both services can come up with a better wild-ass guess if you use a special crank or pedals that directly measure how hard you are working. They directly measure the output of your muscles, so the only remaining guesswork is how many calories you burned to do that work (some people are more efficient than others). There’s a Garmin setup that will tell you if one leg is doing more work than the other. I have no such device.

The most accurate way available to measure calories burned is to measure how much carbon dioxide one exhales. Rather than measure the work you did, you’re measuring how much exhaust you produced. This is impractical on a bike ride, however.

Which brings me to the gizmo strapped to my wrist. It estimates calories based on my heart rate. I have no idea what formula it uses, but hopefully it incorporates my resting heart rate (which it measures throughout the day) and my weight (which I have to remember to tell it), and maybe even my age. The cool thing is that heart rate is directly related to carbon dioxide production. When I’m riding fifteen mph with a tail wind, I’m barely working at all. When I’m pushing against gale-force breezes at the same speed, I’m huffing and my heart is thumping. To Strava and MapMyRide, the rides look the same. The watch knows the truth.

When WatchOS 2 comes out (the “features we couldn’t get perfect in time for WatchOS 1” release), Strava will be able to access my heart data. I’m interested to see what that does to the numbers.

In the meantime, I’m listening to my watch.