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Statistics can be misleading

Here’s a miscellaneous thought for you.

In my constant pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding of all things related to living a long healthy life, I read a lot of scientific research articles, blogs, books and papers. The more I read and learn, the more I have come to the conclusion that if we wanted to, we could twist almost any data to present almost any conclusion we want.

Often times I find an article that appears, from a quick read-through, to be intelligent, well written, lacking any obvious bias and backed up by solid references. Then I dig deeper on topics within such articles, and find all kinds of conflicting research elsewhere and then I start questioning the author, and the motive behind what has been written. We (authors) all have a ‘motive’ when we write something. It may be to find a cure for an ailment, it may be to help people lose excess weight, it may be to sell a supplement, it may be to resist the signs of ageing, it may be to sell a piece of sports equipment, it may be to oppose an opinion the author read elsewhere, it may be to convince the readers to see things the way the author sees them.

The thing is, in all matters related to health and well-being, we have to remember that few factors are ‘black and white’ for all people at all times. Hence why:

  • Some ‘fad diets’ work for some people, but not for others
  • Some people thrive as meat eaters, while others thrive as vegetarians
  • Some people thrive on dairy, many don’t
  • Some people are fine consuming gluten, many are not
  • And some people thrive lifting weights, while others thrive as endurance athletes

The point is, WE are all different, and we live in different places and are subject to different environmental factors, and so health and nutrition advice can rarely be seen as ‘all things to everyone’ but should always be taken as ‘try it out and see if it works for you’ instead.

Danger lurks in every statistic!

Anyway, I digress. Despite appearances, in the majority of cases, any author of any piece of writing or research will likely have some kind of bias, some motive for writing that article or study or post. Increasingly, I am finding that we should exercise caution reading such articles, and always look to learn as much as possible from our own life experience. Few tests can be as beneficial as life experience.

The point of this post is just to say, beware of what you read (yes, my writing included! I guess, I have to include myself too!) because statistics, facts and figures, can be twisted and presented in many ways to present whatever picture the author wants to present.

Let me give you a few examples. I could tell you:

  • Don’t drink water! Research has linked drinking water to the prevalence of every common cancer. 100% of all people who ever got cancer have all drunk water! Water clearly therefore must be the cause of cancer!
  • If you have ears, be afraid, 100% of all cancer patients ever had at least 1 ear!
  • Don’t walk! If you have legs and you walk, you might be at high risk of getting heart disease. New research suggests that 100% of all people who ever got heart disease, had at least 1 leg at least some time in their life, and 99.9% of heart disease sufferers had 2 legs their whole lives and walked often!
  • Breathing air causes diabetes! New research has shown that 100% of diabetics regular breath fresh air, therefore air MUST be the root cause of Type 2 diabetes. Save yourselves now and just stop breathing!
  • Drinking milk causes car crash fatalities. An in-depth statistical analysis of fatalities from road traffic accidents in Europe since 1964 has shown that 100% of all persons in all countries to have died in car crashes ALL consumed milk during the first year of their lives. Further research is now ongoing to understand differences between breast milk and formula milk in connection to road traffic fatalities.

You get the idea, right?

Obviously these are silly, and rather extreme examples, but they highlight the point, that ‘correlation does not imply causation

Weight loss secrets

Keep this in mind when you are reading about ‘the latest weight loss secret’ or when you are exposed to adverts for pills, potions and supplements that are seemingly backed up by scientific studies and real world results. The devil is often in the detail, the detail they don’t tell you in particular. It’s often what they don’t say that is more important than what they do say.

The adverts for diet supplements such as meal replacement shakes may show before and after pictures for 20 or 30 or 40 individuals, maybe even 100, who have enjoyed fantastic positive weight loss results, but how many people have spent 50 to 100 bucks per month on that product for 6 to 12 months in order to come up with those 100 before and after pictures? If the 100 results come from a pool of 200 customers, then that would be impressive – 50% of all customers enjoying fantastic weight loss results. But more likely, those 100 before and after pictures have been cherry-picked from a pool of 10,000 customers. Suddenly, a result rate of just 1% who gained truly great results, is far less of an impressive product endorsement, suggesting that for 99% of customers, who perhaps invested 500 to 1000 bucks over a year, results were less than impressive. Then we further see that for those who did enjoy great results, the small print says they combined the meal replacement shakes with ‘a balanced healthy diet and regular exercise’ and we might further assume that in fact, the exercise regime and cutting out junk food was largely responsible for the results those people enjoyed.

It’s the same with body building supplements – protein shakes, weight gainers and specific pills and powders designed to stimulate muscle growth. The truth is, lifting heavy weights and then getting plenty of good food and lots of sleep stimulates muscle growth. Supplements are little more than ‘the last 1%’. Again, those adverts selling protein powders all show professional models and athletes, and they show a handful of before and after pictures, often of perhaps 1 or 2 people. There is no mention of the tens of thousands of gym goers who spend hard earned cash on supplements month after month and see little or no long term results that can be solely attributed to taking those supplements.

This logic follows through to pharmaceutical drug trials, diet pills, exercise programs, workout DVD’s, gym memberships and much more.

Beware of statistics. When you read articles and posts and papers, take it all with a large dose of common sense, think about any bias the author may have to try to influence how you think (even if that bias is in no way malicious, self-serving or based in commercial profiteering) and before you wholesale believe in the message, look for alternative views, see if multiple research articles support the same conclusion, and try to test things out for yourself to see if they work for you.

Meanwhile, here at MotherNaturesDiet, I will keep trying to blog openly, honestly and without any bias. Of course, I do have some bias…I want you to like what I wrote, follow my blog, tell you friends…but hopefully my bias is not detrimental to what I write. I make no sales, no profit, from MND, not yet anyway, so for now, my only interest is in telling the truth as I find it and hoping that what I write is of some use to a few of you out there looking for better health, more energy and a longer life!

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