Sunday, January 25, 2009

Car 54 Where Are Ewe?

OK, a ewe is a sheep and not a goat, but I couldn't resist.

Nigerian police recently arrested a goat in an armed robbery. A vigilante group was unable to find the alleged armed robber but they did see a goat. As anyone would, they assumed it was the criminal who had transformed himself into an animal using witchcraft.

Upon questioning the goat had no comment.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Keeping Abreast of Pseudoscience Part II

As I promised in the previous one, here is the second of a perfect pair of beautiful, shapely blog posts. Earlier I commented on the red flags of pseudoscience waving in the ad for Easy Curves breast enhancing exercise equipment, but mentioned that research methods of the supposed study or studies presented in the commercial could make up it's own post.

Let's assume that Easy Curves arrived at their "facts and figures" that in just 5 minutes a day increased the average bust line from 36.4 inches to 37.2 inches as well as increased firmness by 30% in 30 days," through a formal study. What are some points to consider in assessing the validity of the study?

Number of Subjects
What was the sample size in the study? The the larger the number of subjects (N), the greater the chance that a difference that is found is meaningful. N also influences whether a result is statistically significant, something else we don't know about the study.

Study design
A repeated measures design looks at the same subjects before and after the intervention (in this case use of Easy Curves for 30 days). It may or may not have a control group who is also tested before and after the intervention. Compared to a cross-sectional design, that is, finding a group of people who have used Easy Curves for 30 days vs. a group of people who have not and then comparing them, a repeated measures design helps to reduce the extra variance that occurs when comparing two groups made from two different sets of people.

Controls
The commercial did not mention any comparison groups. The study may have done a repeated measures design with only one group but an even stronger design would have also used a control group. This is because there are possible reasons firmness or breast size may have increased over time other than use of the Easy Curves. For example, the tendency of all Americans to gain weight over time might have been the reason for increased size. Perhaps people more likely to do exercises to increase their chest muscles would be more likely to volunteer for a study advertised as looking at methods to increase breast size and firmness. In that case, the additional exercises these people did may have been the cause and not the Easy Curves.

Randomization
If two groups were compared, one of people told to use Easy Curves and the other told not to, were they assigned to these two groups randomly? Although unlikely, if people were not randomized, the more athletic, healthy people who eat well may choose to be in the Easy Curves group while the people who don't like to exercise may choose be in the control group.

Reliability
Who measured the firmness and size? If it was the same person for all participants and both before and after, did their measuring techniques have test-restst reliability? I.e, can the testing method reliably produce the same result multiple times if used by the same person? (Um, who gets to rate the firmness?!)

If multiple testers were used to measure firmness and size, was there inter-rater reliability? That is the ability of a test to be used by different people and produce the same result. This can of course be influenced by how well trained the raters are, but some tests will inherently have greater inter-rater reliability than others.

Blinding

Was the person who did the measurements of firmness and size blinded? If the rater is blinded, he or she does not know if the person they are measuring is receiving the intervention or not. Sometimes knowing what group the subject is in can influence the rater.

These are some basic points to consider when confronted with the results of a scientific study; by no means is "the study shows" or "statistical significance" the end of the story. In the case of Easy Curves we just don't have enough information to judge the validity the studies that may lend support for Easy Curves. If only the information we were given were a little more "filled out."

Please comment with any corrections or additions to this post. This is solely based from my college applied stats courses I took over 10 years ago. :)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Keeping Abreast of Pseudoscience Part I

At the New Year's Eve party I attended, we saw an eye catching commercial on the Sci-Fi Channel. Women's breasts expanding and pulsating kept appearing on the screen. In just minutes a day, they claimed, all women could have a more heaving bosom by heaving away with their new exercise equipment, Easy Curves.





This commercial presents, "facts and figures" supporting the effectiveness of their product, yet if one pays attention to it, it has several hallmarks of possible pseudoscience. Pseudoscience was perhaps best described by Richard Feynman as "cargo cult science." That is to say, it imitates science without really getting at the heart of what really makes science science. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid has made a great list of red flags of pseudoscience.

What are some of the red flags of the Easy Curves commercial?

A woman in a white lab coat appears while the voice over describes their scientific study. Purveyors of pseudoscience often use the image of authority to support the legitimacy of their claims and give a scientific like appearance.

Mention of a study done by a University. Again, another use of authority to give an appearance of legitimate science but pay attention. They only say that the university study found, "You can change the shape and size of your breasts through working the underlying muscles." They then go on to say that, "using Easy Curves just 5 minutes a day increased the average bust line from 36.4 inches to 37.2 inches in 30 days." as well as increased firmness by 30%. If one is not careful, one will assume the university study is the same one showing results specific to Easy Curves. It may or may not be, they do not say.

The source of the information is selling the product. When the source of the information has a financial interest in promoting the product, therefore one must look at the claim with added skepticism.

What kind of methodology did they use in measuring visible lifting of the breasts and, "Increased firmness by 30% ?" There are so many potential problems with this I could write an entire post on it itself. Which gives me an idea...

Stay tuned for part two to complete the pair.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Predictions for 2009: Sylvia Browne Can't Lose

Hold me, I spent hours today listening to Sylvia Browne's webcast of her 2009 psychic predictions followed by her answers to dozens of videos and letter from her duped followers. And I took notes. I won't link to the video but you can find it if you want to hear the entire thing.

Sylvia Browne is a famous television psychic who has appeared frequently on Montel Williams and Larry King. In addition to answering many people's questions about their love lives, missing children or what career path they should choose, Sylvia also delves into supernatural questions. For example, she frequently answers queries about if a dead relative has passed to the other side, details about their spirit guides, and other unverifiable information about angels, heaven and the spiritual realm.

In the skeptic world, Sylvia Browne is well known for having stood up James Randi after promising to allow him to test her abilities. It's been over 5 years and Randi is still waiting.

I predict her predictions can only help her business. Not only are there lots of them, increasing the odds that at least some of them are correct, what are the chances that on December 31, 2009 she will review both her accurate and inaccurate predictions with her fans? How many of her fans will really remember any of the misses along with the hits if she does not? She only needs a few hits to appear convincing. Upon reviewing my long list of notes, I noticed that her predictions fell into several different categories:

Wishful thinking, or predictions that are crowd pleasers: The economy will improve, we will not be taken in by bad loans as much and more ma and pa businesses will sprout up. Majority of banks are safe.

The fairly obvious: Lots of brown outs and black outs in the midwest after January (this could easily be caused by ice storms and if it is a hot summer of course there will be brown outs at the very least.) Multiple small earthquakes in the coastal region of California, and the coastal regions will be hit by multiple hurricanes. Earthquakes in the far East.

The likely: Obama will start bringing troops home. Now she does mention December of 2009, the following Spring and then the following Fall specifically, but if it is a continuous withdraw then it's still a hit. Terrible weather all over the Midwest. More regulations on Wall Street and the loan industry.

So vague you can't lose: Lots of train accidents. She says the last time she made this prediction there were over 200. How many are there normally? Is this counting every person car or other local mishap that happened? There will be two plane crashes on the East Coast. Well it could be any kind of plane, couldn't it? And the East Coast is huge.

Specific but likely to be forgotten about by 2010: Bank robbers will get away with a large robbery in Las Vegas involving a Brinks truck. There will be a terrorist attack near Paris in late January.

The just plain weird: A large ocean liner will go aground sending many people into the water, but it won't be one she is on because she wouldn't get on to one of the ones that will go aground. Well if she knows which one, then why not tell us which it is? Winter will be mild in most of the East except for Boston and Philadelphia due to "polar tilt." New loan companies will spring up that are government regulated. Aren't they already?

As you can see, just from the obvious and likely categories, Sylvia is bound to generate several hits that will be remembered by her fans. And does she have fans. After listening to the predictions, I willed myself to listen to the many desperate women looking for a man and lonely people asking for the names of their spirit guides. People also asked if they should go into specific careers, what happened to the spirit of their deceased loved ones, why their leg was so swollen, and one sad woman asked for help with a severe case of agoraphobia and panic attacks. Despite all these different questions, the one I would have really have liked to see is, "Why am I asking you?"

For more information on Sylvia Browne, I recommend the site StopSylvia.com. (This site used to go by another name, but while the author was in the hospital, the domain expired, bought by someone else, and due to issues with Google rankings, I will not repeat the old name here.) This site offers recaps of the accuracy of many of Browne's predictions, questionable advice and readings that are just plain cruel. Of particular note are videos of some disturbing readings she gave to desperate families of missing persons. (In researching "polar tilt" (??!!) I found another nice critique of Browne here.)