Archive for category Unpublished research

The Telegraph’s “depraved sexual fantasies”

A couple of weeks ago, The Telegraph ran an article titled “Women’s sexual fantasies less depraved than men’s“. I didn’t see the article at the time, but it’s clearly gone on to have a big second life on social networks, remaining in the top five most read articles on the site – and with a title like that, it’s not hard to see why. After all, it hits all sorts of popular myths and memes: men are pervs, women are innocent maidens, Fifty Shades of Grey is somehow revolutionary. It’s just a shame that the article itself doesn’t back it up.

First of all, despite what the article claims, this research doesn’t seem to have been published yet. The only record I can find of it is a press release on the University of Granada website, titled “A study Shows that Men and Women Have the Same Sexual Fantasies“. That’s… well, that’s precisely the opposite of what the headline says.

Even The Telegraph admits in the article itself that:

The team said there were not “significant” differences between men’s and women’s racy thoughts, but that there were subtle differences between the sexes in the scenarios that they imagined.

Just as importantly, there’s no way of saying what’s “depraved” and what isn’t (and a Telegraph journalist would hardly be my first choice to draw the line…) Men tended to report fantasizing more frequently about group sex while women said they fantasized more about submission. Why is one more “depraved” than the other?

In fact, talking about what sound like safe, fairly common sexual fantasies in terms like “depravity” is probably just about the worst way you could report on them. As the press release says:

The University of Granada researchers point out that having sexual fantasies “favors some aspects as sexual desire and arousal”. In therapeutic terms, researchers think that it is not only the presence of lack of sexual fantasies what should be considered, but also the patient’s attitude towards them.

If  The Telegraph is calling people depraved for having what seem to be fairly common fantasies, is that really going to improve their attitude towards them?

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50 Shades of Babies

Baby boom predicted next year thanks to success of Fifty Shades of Grey books, says theDaily Mail today. It’s such nonsense that I don’t really know where to be being. Let’s have a quick rundown of the problems.

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey did not invent sex, nor did it invent porn. There have been plenty of erotic books written for women before Fifty Shades came along. People like Jilly Cooper were best sellers decades ago, and somehow these authors didn’t inspire baby booms of their own.
  2. The sort of sex Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with inspiring – again, according to the Daily Mail, quoting a poll by a dating website – is going to tend to be controlled and organised. The Twilight fanfic book does after all focus heavily on contracts between sexual partners. It stands to reason that people would be more likely to use contraception if acting out scenes from the book.
  3. There’s no real evidence that Fifty Shades of Grey has led to people having more sex – a few people posting “I had so much sex after reading this!” on Mumsnet isn’t really enough. Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t just magically materialise in people’s houses, they had to go out and buy it. Presumably most of these people would have bought a similar book if Fifty Shades was not available, especially if they were looking to “spice things up in the bedroom”.
  4. The story comes, ultimately, from one Professor Ellis Cashmore (the only professor I know of whose website has an intro video). I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but he’s professor of culture, media and sport, not demography or statistics or anything else that you might expect someone making predictions about the birth rate to be grounded in. He’s in the papers quite a lot too, for sometimes quite disconnected stories. In the past month alone, he’s explained the psychology behind penalty shootouts, the meanings of footballers tattoos, homosexuality in sport, the place of Wimbledon in British culture and the reasons Madame Tussauds is so successful. It’s not proof he’s wrong, of course, just a reason to be a bit wary that he’s suddenly leapt out of his department to give the Daily Mail a juicy story about a particularly popular book.
  5. Come on, seriously, this story is nonsense meant solely to drive traffic to the Daily Mail and boost Professor Cashmore’s profile. In 2010, 723,165 babies were born in England & Wales. To be statistically significant, you’d need the book to lead to tens of thousands of extra births – i.e., ones that were not planned. Even for a book that’s sold a million or so copies, that’s a lot of babies.

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Did GM soy cause allergies to soar? Probably not.

So, California’s planning a referendum on the labelling of genetically modified food. The Guardian has covered this not in it’s regular news pages, but in its Comment is Free section, under the title “How California’s GM food referendum may change what America eats“.

The article is mostly an opinion piece – fair enough – but there’s one statistic buried in there that leapt out at me.

While researchers have not yet found a “smoking gun”, which would prove that GM foods as a class are dangerous, there are troubling signs that they may be a factor in the recent epidemic of food allergies. Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, for example, soy allergies escalated by 50%.

The link there doesn’t go to a scientific paper, but to a piece on “News. Controversy. Opinion.” site Opposing Views, and their figures seem to come, ultimately, from American Academy of Environmental Medicine, a group that has some decidedly quackish views on topics like water fluoridation, vaccines and “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity” (a scientifically unfounded belief that everything in modern society contains toxins). It’s not impossible to support some outlandish ideas while being right about things, of course, but it does ring some alarm bells.

Neither article links to any of the studies it referenced, but with a bit of digging, I found this piece at Academics Review which seems to be dealing with the same statistic. Go there if you want the full takedown, but in a nutshell, it refers to marketing information from a group called “York Nutritional Laboratories” (which sell food allergy testing kits) the rise was in people with a particular antibody, not those who reported allergies and the study didn’t find any connection (the rise simply happened at a similar time to the introduction of GM, although it actually took place before GM soy became mainstream).*

I decided to have a look on Google Scholar for papers looking in the allergenicity of GM soy. There are plenty of studies and review papers looking into this – one, two, three, four, five – and all the ones I’ve found so far suggest that genetic soybeans and GM soybeans pose exactly the same risk of allergy (though as far as I can tell, these are all animal trials. There isn’t much data on human soy allergies out there).

In this case, the claim that GM soy may be responsible for a rise in allergies seems to be simply wrong.

* For the other major claim in Opposing View’s piece, about baby rats dying from eating GM soy, see this peer review of the paper, originally from Nature Biotechnology , which expresses grave concerns about the unusually high numbers of deaths in the control group – it looks like bad care killed the rats, not the soy)

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Mobile phones and cancer. Again

(H/T @DickMandrake)

This will be all over the papers today, so here’s a quick run down of what’s actually happened.

Last year the World Health Organisation released its Interphone report (PDF) into the link between brain cancer and mobile phones. For the most part, they found “no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma [types of brain cancer] was observed with use of mobile phones”. However, for very heavy users (the top 10% of the population), there was a statistically significant increase in the odds of developing a form of brain cancer known as glioma but “but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation” – there is too much uncertainty in the data to know whether heavy mobile phone use caused cancer or whether something else was to blame. On the one hand, they found there appeared to be a connection between which side of the brain the tumour developed in and which hand users held the phone in – a sign that phones might cause cancer – but on the other hand, while extreme users experienced a big increase in brain tumours, people who used their phones even slightly less saw no change in brain cancer – a sign that mobile phones might not cause cancer.

Fast forward a year, and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has issued a press release (PDF) about an upcoming report which, based on the Interphone study and some other papers, will classify the electromagnetic (EM) fields from mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” meaning there is “limited evidence” that they may cause cancer. In other words, it’s the exact same conclusion as the Interphone report, but this time the report is focusing on the negative – heavy doses may cause cancer – rather than the positive – light doses probably don’t cause cancer.

That in itself is very reasonable – even if mobile phones carry a very slight cancer risk, the IARC still need to know what that risk is. The problem comes when the media, reporting this in the usual shades of black and white, ignore all this nuance in favour of scares:

The Mail screams “Mobile phones CAN increase risk of cancer: Doctors reveal shock results of major study into effect on the brain“, magically turning “possibly causes cancer” into “CAN cause cancer”. It’s not really a shock result either, since it came out a year ago. The Mail also brings up the recent Council of Europe draft report that suggested banning mobiles from around schools, ignoring the fact it was pseudoscientific rubbish based on research from quacks.

The Express goes for the similar “Shock cancer warning over mobile phone use“, claiming “MOBILE phones have been officially linked to cancer for the very first time by a team of world experts”. Again, the report is a year old, it’s not a shock! They also manage to get in some ridiculous guilt-by-association:

But they classified mobile phones in the same danger category as the pesticide DDT and petrol engine exhaust, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Petrol exhaust and DDT are pretty dangerous, but that’s not necessarily because they cause cancer! Nor does being in the same group as these mean it carries the same risk of cancer, either. It just means that we have the same level of evidence for a cancer risk, which isn’t the same thing. For example, DDT is now banned worldwide, with most developed countries banning it in the 70s. This means that people aren’t being exposed to it any more (a good thing, of course!), so we can’t study its effects and work out exactly how dangerous it is.

The Guardian meanwhile goes for a tenuous connection to the risks of mobile phone base stations and wi-fi, even though the exposure to EM from these is much lower than from holding a phone to your ear – and we know even then it’s only the heaviest exposures that may cause cancer.

The Telegraph also makes the ridiculous DDT comparison, but at least they quote the great Ed Yong, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, who sensibly sums up the evidence:

“The risk of brain cancer is similar in people who use mobile phones compared to those who don’t, and rates of this cancer have not gone up in recent years despite a dramatic rise in phone use during the 1980s.

“However, not enough is known to totally rule out a risk, and there has been very little research on the long-term effects of using phones.”

(They also quote a professor of Medical Physics and Director of the Mobile Operators Association, but to be honest, they seem to have gone into damage control mode before there’s been any damage to control. Pro-tip, guys – if you ever end a paragraph about the health risks of something by saying “The social and technological benefits also need to be emphasised“, then you sound like a cyberpunk bad guy, even if you truly mean it.)

Anyway, for a little perspective, there’s a great interview with Ed Yong about the news here. Read it!

Edit: There are also great pieces out there on this from Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, Cancer Research UK, Tom Chivers, Only That In You, Scientific American and Bad Astronomer. Good old blogosphere!

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Another cancer cure that’s not a cure

The Daily Express today has a piece titled “The 20p ‘sunshine pill’ helps cancer patients live longer“. That’s a bold, unambiguous claim. Taking this pill will improve cancer survival rates, right?

A British oncologist will next week tell a conference that many of his skin cancer patients have unusually low ­levels of vitamin D.

He now gives them supplements and says they often survive for longer than expected.

Although he has not yet done a clinical trial to back up his theory, he believes that vitamin D pills at just 20p a day could eventually prove as ­effective as cancer treatments that cost thousands of pounds per patient.

Oh. So it might help cancer patients live longer one day, according to a doctor who hasn’t tested his theory yet.

There is some reasonably good evidence, summarised at Wikipedia, that low levels of vitamin D (a chemical produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight which controls bone growth and the life cycle of cells) are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer and faster cancer growth, but the cause and effect aren’t clear – are low vitamin D levels causing cancer, or is cancer causing low vitamin D levels? – and, as Cancer Research UK says:

We strongly advise cancer patients to talk to their doctor if they are concerned, before considering taking supplements – especially since there’s evidence that some vitamin supplements can have unintended consequences.   Moreover, vitamin D from supplements doesn’t appear to be regulated in the body as tightly as vitamin D from the sun – and there’s still a lot of uncertainty over what the ‘best’ dose is.

And we certainly don’t recommend that patients go overboard on the beach or sunbeds to top up their vitamin D. We know that we all need a bit of sunshine in our lives.  But we also know that excessive UV exposure (from the sun or sunbeds) and  sunburn are major risk factors for melanoma.

That’s some very good advice, which makes it all the more galling that the Daily Express is encouraging cancer patients to start taking vitamin D pills without visiting their doctor.

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Hangovers, statistics and a dodgy hookup

It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. You go to a party, get completely hammered, and wake up in bed with a dodgy PR firm.

Today’s ill-advised hookup is a threesome between The Express, The Mirror and a non-alcoholic drinks company called Sweet Lady Beverages, who claim that “the average Briton will spend five years of their life with a hangover“.

Before we look at the article itself, a quick sanity check. Life expectancy in the UK is roughly 80 years, and it’s unlikely people are going to experience hangovers before the age of about 15 or so. So, at maximum, that gives the average Brit about 65 drinking years. If the Express‘s statistics are true, we spend 8% of our adult lives hung over – we would spend more time hungover than we would eating. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done.

The article goes on to say that:

[Britons] will suffer the ill effects for a whole day – usually a Sunday – at least once a week between the ages of 21 and 38.

Bear in mind that this an average. According to Sweet Lady Beverages, the average person is hung over every week until the age of 40, and those hangovers last all day. That sounds a tiny bit excessive. After all, one – much more scientific – study found that having even just one hangover per month over an extended period is linked to a major increase (around 2.36 times) in heart attack risk.* And yet somehow, we’re not dropping like flies.

As far as I can tell – there’s no information about this survey available on the web outside these two articles – Sweet Lady Beverages simply asked visitors to its site to answer some questions about hangovers. There’s no published methodology; in other words, they don’t say what questions were asked or what precautions they made to make sure they had a fair sample.

For instance, they could have asked

It would certainly explain the odd results they got.

The Sweet Lady Beverage company is quoted by the Express as saying

The message we can take from this is simple – by reducing our alcohol intake we can reduce the amount of time feeling wretched.

Oddly on-message for a company selling alcohol-free drinks, wouldn’t you say?

* I can’t find many good scientific studies of hangovers. A lot of them are rather hamstrung by the fact that surveys usually take place in university, and therefore involve university students – not very representative of the drinking habits of the wider population! Nevertheless, this paper suggests that only 15% of the population have more than hangover per month.

Edit: The Daily Mail has now picked up the story too.

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Is dodgy neuroscience in journalists’ nature or their nurture?

(Hat-tip to This Wicked Day for the link, and for pointing out that I can’t spell)

Another story exclusive to all papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Express have all churned out a story based on this morning’s Today (two parts, sound only).* The show was guest edited by Colin Firth, who decided to use this as an opportunity to commission some research into whether political views are visible in brain structure.

The results are fairly interesting – though the only place they’ve so far been published is on the Today show’s blog, which means I can’t really comment on them in any detail. As far as I can tell, this is what they found: people who self-identified as left-wing or liberal were found to generally have a thicker anterior cingulate – the part of the brain believed to deal with empathy and decision making – while people who described themselves as right-wing conservative had a larger right-hand amygdala – the structure which seems to be do with anxiety and higher emotion processing. There seems to be some confusion on the Today show blog about whether it’s a “strong correlation” or “a weak but statistically significant correlation”.

The problem is that, just as with the so-called “liberal gene“, there’s nothing here which proves that these structures actually cause people to be left or right wing. For one thing, we don’t know which way the correlation runs; in other words, whether having a larger amygdala causes people to be right wing, or whether being right wing just makes the amygdala grow – or whether there’s something else hidden in the body which affects political views and brain structure.

Secondly, again, just like with the liberal gene, it’s possible that political views are only indirectly linked to brain structure – the fact that the correlation between the two was weak would seem to back this up. For example, if people with a thick anterior cingulate are generally better at empathy, and more empathic people are generally more liberal, then there might be a small correlation between cingulate size and left wing leanings. This would not mean that one causes the other however! It would be perfectly possible for someone with a thin cingulate to be empathic, and for someone with a thick cingulate to be self-centred. Our brain structure isn’t the only thing that affects our personality – nor are our political views driven entirely by our empathy and our anxiety.

* Interestingly, the reliably right wing Mail goes for the self-deprecating headline “Tory voters found to have larger ‘primitive’ lobe in brain” while the similarly leaning Express runs with the exact opposite: “Lefty? Blame the shape of your brain“.

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Conflicts of interest

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express both have rather similiar articles today, under the headlines “Want the secret to a happy marriage? Don’t have sex before the wedding” and “The secret of a happy marriage? Save the sex for the honeymoon” respectively.

COUPLES who marry the old-fashioned way – shunning sex until after the wedding – enjoy happier marriages, a study has found.

Researchers say delaying the joy of the wedding night not only results in better relationships but also improves sex itself.

Odd, since most other studies either find no connection between sex and later relationship satisfaction or a non-causal connection (i.e. the sort of person who has sex while not married is also the sort of person who would prefer to get a divorce rather than remain in a loveless relationship, but the two are not directly related); it’s interesting that The Express and The Mail never publish articles about these studies.

The paper itself has not yet been published, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the science, apart from that by only asking married people about their sex lives – as opposed to people who cohabit or people who don’t want a long term relationship – it would seem to be impossible to tell whether there is legitimately a cause-and-effect connection between premarital sex and happiness, or whether couples who are happy and unmarried are simply more likely to remain unmarried than couples who are unhappy and looking to recapture their “spark”.*

More interesting though is the background. The research was carried out at Brigham Young University, a Latter Day Saints university with notoriously strict rules regarding the sex lives of its students, and was led by Professor Dean Busby, co-founder of the RELATE Institute specialising in marital advice, and author of a book called “Pathways to Marriage”. There are quite a few conflicts of interest of there.

Busby is, and should be, free to carry out research as he sees fit (within ethical limits, of course), just as any academic can – I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone banned from performing research because of their religious or personal views – but it would have been nice to see an acknowledgement from either paper that a university which places an absolute ban on extramarital sex and all same-sex relationships is going have a vested interest in proving that marriage is the “best” state for a relationship.

* Presumably the researchers did not ask same-sex couples at all – Brigham Young University is in Utah, where same sex marriage and civil partnerships are not just unrecognised, but specifically banned in their constitution. While this doesn’t disprove their research, it does limit its validity somewhat.

Edit: It turns out that Brigham Young University can prohibit staff from making any statement thatcontradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy” , as well anything deemed “unchaste” – and has used this power to dismiss staff who’ve come out in favour of same sex marriage – which puts validity of this research under more strain.

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