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“Researchers followed 30,000 women for 20 years and found that those who avoided the sunshine were twice as likely to die”
Despite the very sensational title, this is an interesting case to look it when understanding the nature and challenges of science. A simple look at the title might convince people that using sunblock or avoiding sunlight may be bad advice, however a more careful look at the study, its conclusions, and an understanding of the nature of scientific certainty should give us pause.
The study followed women in Sweden and, assuming the study was done properly, should only suggest conclusions dealing with a particular set of people: fair skinned women living in northern latitudes.
There may be a tendency to overextrapolate and think that all sunscreen is bad and all sunlight is good however that would be a premature and possibly detrimental conclusion.
Buried in the article linked below is an interesting sentence: “Women who sunbathed in the summer were also 10 per cent less likely to die from skin cancer although those who sunbathed abroad were twice as likely to die from melanoma.”
This study is not simply a study about sunlight vs. not sunlight but possibly about how much sunlight is appropriate.
Furthermore, the article states:
“The findings from Dr Lindqvist’s team are interesting, but it is possible that the women in the study who had high sun exposure differed from the women who had low sun exposure in ways that may explain their reduced cancer risk.”
Yinka Ebo, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said striking a balance was important.
“The reasons behind higher death rates in women with lower sun exposure are still unexplained, as unhealthy lifestyle choices could have played a part,” she added.
This adds to the discussion of what it takes to prove something in the natural sciences and shows how challenging it is to build a scientific consensus. This just one study on a very specific group of people and still there are variables that are unknown.
“An influential psychological theory, borne out in hundreds of experiments, may have just been debunked. How can so many scientists have been so wrong?”
“And yet, it now appears that ego depletion could be completely bogus, that its foundation might be made of rotted-out materials. That means an entire field of study—and significant portions of certain scientists’ careers—could be resting on a false premise. If something this well-established could fall apart, then what’s next? That’s not just worrying. It’s terrifying.”
“Nosek recently lead a project in which 270 scientists sought to replicate 100 different studies in psychology, all published in 2008 — 97 of which claimed to have found significant results — and in the end, two-thirds failed to replicate. Clearly, some sort of course correction is in order.”
“When they’re used well, graphs can help us intuitively grasp complex data. But as visual software has enabled more usage of graphs throughout all media, it has also made them easier to use in a careless or dishonest way — and as it turns out, there are plenty of ways graphs can mislead and outright manipulate. Lea Gaslowitz shares some things to look out for.”
The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.
People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.
- Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
- Will the findings advance medicine?
- Will it improve our national defense?
You can download his whole document here.
Science Magazine Responds
Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists
Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.
“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”
Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club
These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.
“If you eat a lot of salt — sodium chloride — you will become thirsty and drink water, diluting your blood enough to maintain the proper concentration of sodium. Ultimately you will excrete much of the excess salt and water in urine.
“The theory is intuitive and simple. And it may be completely wrong.”