Spotting A Lie, Bad Data in Scientific Studies

"Drinking soda will rot your teeth at the same rate as meth."

The above line was the conclusion of a scientific study released a few years ago. While the study makes for a sensational headline, the data was deeply flawed. Spotting a sensationalized study can be difficult with so many headlines flying about today. Having the ability to spot a fake or misrepresented article doesn't have to be difficult though, and I'm going to show you some things to look for.

First off is the "too good to be true" measure. If it sounds way too good to be true, it likely is, trust that instinct and look it up. The study may very well find some amazing conclusion we never knew about, but the only way to tell is to look at the referenced article. Personally, I can usually get an idea if the study or headline is good in under 2 minutes, not a huge drain on our time.

Study Size

If the study doesn't trigger the too good to be true warning bells, there are some things we can look for. When looking at the efficacy of a study, the first thing I'm going to look for is the sample size, or how many subjects were involved in the study.

Let's take my first headline in this article as an example. Let me quote some actual headlines to reinforce my point.

"Diet Soda Erodes Teeth As Much As Meth, Crack: Case Study" - CBS News

"Soda Addiction As Bad For Your Teeth As Meth Or Crack" - Daily Mail Online

The headlines are numerous for this study, but is it true? Headlines like these may not set off your alarm bells at first, but my alarm went off and I did follow up on this study..... surprise, the study is flawed from the start.  The study size was not adequate... well that may be way understating the problem.

Dr Mohamed Bassiouny studied 3 different people, one that drank soda, one did meth, and one did crack cocaine. Already this study should be thrown out since the sample size was 3 people. The reason we never do studies this small is that a single person does not represent the general populace. Can you imagine if your performance at work was based on 3 people in the entire company? This could be good or bad, if they chose 3 really bad employee's it may not work out well for everyone else, however, if they looked at 1,000 employees, it's likely to be closer to the reality of the entire company.

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I don't drink alcohol almost at all, you likely do as most people do in the world. That fundamentally makes me different from you. In order for a study to attempt to represent the populace of a large country or the world, the sample size of participants must be as large as possible to attempt to eliminate as many factors as possible that may impact that study and are outside of the scope of study.

As an example, the conclusion of this study says that meth and crack are equal to diet soda when it came to teeth destruction. Since we are only looking at a single person, then it becomes relevant to consider other factors. Does this person brush their teeth at all, do they visit a dentist? There are so many factors that may impact their teeth that we can not conclude that soda was the one that caused this.

Most valid studies have participants in the 1000+ range. I normally will even question studies in the mid to low hundreds of participants. Sample size should be one of the first things your look for when it comes to studies like this.

Get Yourself Some Control

Control, control, control. If you've ever heard about a true scientific study, then likely you've heard about the control group. If you don't already know, the control is the group that is given nothing, or a placebo that essentially acts like nothing. Why do we do this though?

Control groups give us a baseline reading. What would happen if we did absolutely nothing? This question is answered by a control, this is where we see how the item being tested would work compared to a group (control) of things or people that have not taken the drug, or really been given nothing related to the study. We are just looking to have a set of data that shows how the item being studied is compared to what happens with no intervention.

So why use a placebo in the control?

Humans are complicated creatures, we have the ability to make ourselves feel better even if we aren't and also to feel poorly even if we're fine. In studies if you give someone a placebo, there is a chance that just because someone is taking something, they may think they are getting better... even if it's just a sugar pill. In order to account for this effect, the control group may be given a placebo. This has two purposes, first, this gives a baseline of how a drug might make people feel even if it isn't working and allows the study of the real drug to be compared against the placebo effect. Second is that it does not let the patient know if they are or are not getting the drug and allows the study to eliminate the influence of a patient on the study.

So, next time you are looking at a medical study, look for a control group too.

There are many different factors that we can examine in order to differentiate a good study from a bad one. It may be a good idea to treat all studies with a healthy dose of skepticism if you read it in the news. News organizations want viewership and often blow up the true findings of studies for a few more eyes on the article. At the end of the day, reviewing a headline a little deeper may help combat misleading articles and keep you from eating pounds of chocolate that is supposed to make us live longer.

United Launch Alliance vs. SpaceX

The night sky is dark, a stark contrast against the massive orange launch vehicle sitting on the pad, ready for liftoff. Announcing the countdown of the clock and a ball of fire rolls up the vehicle as the three massive engines ignite, throwing the vehicle up into the sky. A perfect or “nominal” performance places the parker space probe right on the trajectory it needs to be in order to speed toward the sun.

Looking at the story of the Parker Probe, we see the makings of one of the most fascinating and interesting missions since we visited Pluto. The spacecraft was launched aboard one of the largest rockets currently available… but it seems to be a dying brand. The Delta IV heavy is an impressive, but aging launch vehicle that still has a lot of capability. Newer launch vehicles are starting to come in, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) isn’t doing much to remain competitive.

Go watch a broadcasted launch from SpaceX and then watch the Parker Probe launch, you’ll be wishing you were watching SpaceX again. SpaceX broadcasts are streaming on YouTube with dedicated hosts describing events, showing live camera footage of the vehicle in space all while piping in the audio from a crowd of cheering and excited employees who bring a dimension to the launch that ULA flights lack. If you haven’t seen the booster landings on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, go watch it, it is one of the most exhilarating and impressive things I’ve ever watched.

Now let's go watch the Parker spacecraft launch. The announcer is just a controller calling out that the vehicle is passing through Mach 1 and maximum dynamic pressure. While I went to school for this sort of thing and know what Max Q is most people need a little context… none is given. The entire launch is a single view from the ground, a controller telling everyone the vehicle is “down the middle of the track” (once again needs a little context, this means on the target path to orbit), and topped off with a lagged animation of stage separation. Little explanation of events, little excitement at all, and in stark contrast to how SpaceX handles their broadcasts. When you see the difference in the two streams, you can see almost immediately that United Launch Alliance feels stuffy, old and behind the times.

Beyond just the outright appeal of the two companies, ULA just cannot compete with SpaceX, it is struggling to remain a launch choice at all. SpaceX had a massively successful first flight of the Falcon Heavy which outclasses the Delta IV that flew the Parker space probe toward the sun. Look at the price tag though and you would be surprised to see that SpaceX blows the Delta IV heavy out of the water. You could fly three times on the Falcon Heavy ($150 million) for the price of a single flight on a Delta IV ($400+ million) and that doesn’t even account for the reduced price of reflown launch vehicles from SpaceX that would shave off millions.

While ULA is starting to make strides toward a new vehicle that is reusable, we must ask the question of whether ULA is too late to the game. We have seen little to nothing of the new design, let alone real ability to land hardware back on the ground. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is successfully launching and recovering suborbital flights with his company Blue Origin. ULA was complacent for so long that it appears they have allowed not only SpaceX to speed on by, but other start-ups are already ahead of them in the development game with more on their heels.

This may be the start of a space revolution and United Launch Alliance may be left on the side of the road.

Anti-Vaxxers, Stop! Just Stop!

If you live in the United States, then it's likely you've run across an anti-vaxxer or at least heard stories about them. Proclaiming themselves as saviors of the human race, anti-vaxxers were at one time harmless idiots that were so rare you need not worry about them. Problem is, this group has grown, and with it, the danger to society has grown as well.

Anti-Vaxx History

Since 1796 when Edward Jenner first tested the use of Cowpox as a protective measure against smallpox, we have been developing vaccines and in turn protecting the general population from a range of horrid diseases. In the short 200 year history of vaccinations, we've managed to completely eradicate smallpox, and almost completely eliminate polio, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, and other diseases. All of these diseases are preventable and for a very low cost. 

Unfortunately, we are now seeing the return of some diseases as young children and adults who were never vaccinated start to come in contact with these diseases at an increasing rate. We can trace this trend back to one person in particular, Andrew Wakefield. If you know the background of Andrew Wakefield, then you have looked upon someone who might as well be the next incarnation of the devil. 

 Astronaut Scott Kelly vaccinates himself in orbit

Astronaut Scott Kelly vaccinates himself in orbit

What makes Andrew such a deplorable human being? It's the way he started the anti-vaxxers down their ill-fated path. Andrew authored a scientific paper in the journal "The Lancet" in 1998.

Wakefield and 12 other authors proclaimed that there was a tie between certain vaccines and autism. In the publication, the authors pointed the finger at the MMR vaccine, in particular, claiming that 8 of the 12 children in the study developed autistic behaviors within 2 weeks of the MMR vaccine being administered.

Wakefield also took to the press to demand the MMR vaccine be withdrawn and this act alone was a major catalyst to the current anti-vaxx crazies that roam the streets. Wakefield had not even published the paper when he took the story to the press. Wakefield claimed to be doing this for the interest of the public. He was hiding a secret about the study though... he made up the data! 

Andrew Wakefield had performed the study after he was hired by a lawyer. The lawyer was preparing a lawsuit against MMR vaccine producers and wanted a link between the vaccine and side effects in an effort to make their suit more powerful. This major conflict of interest alone should have been enough to call into question the findings of the study. Wakefield took things a step further though and changed the data in the study to fit what the desired outcome was.

In 2010, the journal retracted the study and Wakefield lost his license. Charges against Wakefield included the following:

  • He was paid for the results of the study to match lawyers desires
  • Ordering medical tests not indicated by patient history and without approval
  • Withheld how patients were recruited into the study
  • Paid for children's blood samples at his son's birthday party
  • Showed disregard for distress or pain of children in the study
  • Did not gain ethics approval for the study

7 years after Wakefield lost his license, we are still battling an anti-vaccine movement based completely on myth and a made up study.

The New Anti-Vaxxer

Now anti-vaxxers have expanded their excuses for deciding not to vaccinate their children and they are all just as flawed as the original study that sparked this craze.

One of the top excuses I've heard floated is that current vaccines have mercury in them and that causes autism. 

This flawed logic likely stems from the fact that mercury causes neurological disorders, but completely ignores the fact that there is no mercury in modern vaccines. What anti-vaxxers have glommed on to is that in the past, vaccines have used thimerosal to prevent to growth of bacteria and fungus within the vaccine itself. Mercury is one of a long line of atoms that makes up thimerosal. 

The chemical makeup for thimerosal is C9H9HgNaO2S, as you can see Mercury (Hg) is only one part of the makeup of this compound. Having mercury as part of a compound does not automatically give the compound the same health effects of the atoms that make up the compound. A great example is Chlorine, in gaseous form Chlorine is very toxic to breath in, but bind it with sodium and you create table salt. Salt is harmless in most applications and when eaten in small doses. 

Anti-vaxxers position on thimerosal gets even worse when you realize that the CDC had thimerosal removed from all vaccines in 1999 as an additional precaution in case it was harmful. So every vaccine administered since 1999 has contained no mercury at all. 

More information can be found on the CDC website here.  

Vaccine to Autism Rates

Locking down the rates of autism claimed by vaccine detractors is a difficult number to find since scientific articles and studies do not support this idea. However, even if it was true that vaccines caused autism, then it would still be worth administering vaccines. 

When accounting for all of the deadly or disabling diseases we vaccinate against, current autism rates would not justify us eliminating vaccines. Since the link isn't actually true, we should not give the idea any thought. 

Community Protection

Anti-vaxxers often focus on a single made up figure, autism rates. When this is your sole focus, you are going to miss the bigger picture. Vaccines are not just protecting the individual that it is administered to, there is such thing as herd immunity. 

Throughout the world there are people who are unable to receive vaccines. Such cases are often the result of individual allergies to either the vaccine, or the person could be immunocomprimised.

People that are unable to receive a vaccine must rely on this herd immunity concept. Protection for such people is completely reliant on as many people in society being vaccinated as possible. If society is immune, then the disease has little chance to be carried to a person unable to be vaccinated. Here in lies a large flaw in the anti-vaxxers position. By not taking a vaccine, you are not just putting yourself or kids at risk, but you can now act as a carrier to those unable to receive a vaccine. 

 Growth in Autism Numbers

If there is no link between autism and vaccines, where is the increased number of autism cases coming from?  

There really is a simple answer for this. Over the last few decades, autism has gained more publicity and better detection methods. Prior to being called autism, many cases likely were misdiagnosed or just written off under a colloquial term. As detection methods became more accurate, and as autism knowledge became more widespread, the more cases were diagnosed. This really is a case of a disease being better defined and easier to diagnose. 

Studies 

Knowledge is power. If you want to read the studies that back up what I've said in this article, here is a list of studies you can read, and please, for everyone's safety, get yourself and your kids vaccinated. 

Study Disproving a Link Between Vaccines and Psychological Disorders in the First Year of Life

Study Finds No Link Between MMR Vaccine and Autism

Webpage with Index of Studies on Vaccine and Negative Effects

Driving for Uber has Jaded Me

Uber is a powerhouse in the arena of ride sharing, and I took pleasure in deleting my app. After being rocked by scandal after scandal, Uber just seems to be on a downward slide, and they just can't seem to get their shit together.

In the last 2 months, 9 separate executive officers have left the company, and for good reason. The CEO seems to be hell bent on not only making himself look bad, as many of us saw the YouTube video of him going at it with an Uber Black driver but also making the entire company look terrible too. Beyond arguments, CEO Travis Kalanick seems to care more about killing competitors than making a profit.

Kalanick argues in the YouTube video that they needed to lower prices to be competitive, yet Uber has never made a single dollar in profit. In fact, Uber lost $2.8 billion last year alone, and that has been a trend for many years. Can a company truly be competitive if they don't make a single dollar? Maybe the better question is, Where do we draw the line for competition? Is it competitive to purposefully not turn a profit in an effort to kill competition?

One of the biggest problems in Kalanicks approach comes right down to the drivers. I've driven for Uber in a smaller market, my current home of Greenville, SC. Greenville is a small city of only 60,000 in Greenville proper. This leads the market to be over-saturated with drivers and little demand for the service.  When I drove for Uber, my average hourly earnings consistently hovered around $9 per hour. In comparison, taking a full-time grocery position starts you off in the $10-$11 range and goes up from there. Taking another job also reduces wear and tear on the car and may even provide benefits like health care. None of which Uber provides.

Kalanick gets even worse in my and many drivers opinions. Uber's main competitor, Lyft, provides a way to tip the driver right from the app, something Uber refuses to do. Uber's position has always been the same here, that you shouldn't need to tip and that is a reasonable position to take under one circumstance, that the company pays a living wage... which Uber does not. This is completely a case of Uber being belligerent, this would be a minor feature to add, but they refuse to do so for some unknown reason... well at least an unknown and valid reason.

Aside from the driver concerns, Uber also continues to expand at a breakneck pace. Much of their losses in the past have come from expanding to new cities much faster than their competition. These losses have come with a major consequence though, company employees. Many Uber employees joined the company with incentives of stock options once the company went public... but it's been 8 years now and the company has yet to launch its IPO. The massive losses Uber suffers every year have a lot to do with that, what investor wants to put money into a company that doesn't turn a profit?

As Uber continues to lumber down the road of money loss there appears to be even more skeletons in the closet. From the top down, the appears to be a culture of in fighting, corporate espionage, and down right sketch behavior. Paying employees to ride with Lyft drivers and talk them into leaving Lyft, to accusations of sexual abuse in the work place. Uber is losing the image war and Kalanick seems to be the CEO that just doesn't get it. The only question left is, how long will Kalanick last at Uber? It might just be time to kick him out on his ass.

I'm Back and I'm Pulling No Punches

Hello, everyone, it's been quite a while since I last wrote. Life interfered and I didn't have as much time as I used to. Enough of why I left, the importance is what my plan is from here on out.

This website has gone from a photography website to a news website about travel, all the time failing to be what it really needed to be... a place where I was myself. The travel website does give a unique spin on the many airline reviews out there seeing as I am a vegetarian and review airline vegetarian meals. Outside of this niche though, the website was just another in a long line of travel news website, reiterating what a million other websites have said.

It's time I dropped the "be like everyone else" act and was myself. I'm opinionated, headstrong, and stubborn. I've got something to say on a lot of things, and many times it's a perspective you hear very few places.

Let me break this down for you. I love to travel and that will always be a huge part of my website. At the same time, I'm a rocket scientist, who lives for science and hates pseudo-science bull shit. That means if you are an anti-vaxxer, I think you are the scum of the Earth and likely should be brought up on charges of child endangerment. It also means I agree with 98% of scientist on climate change, NASA didn't hoax anything, the Earth is not flat you morons, and I am skeptical about your new miracle healing thing.

Going forward this website will no long be exclusive to just travel, though that will be a big part of the stories here. I am going to cover everything from science, to politics, to the stock market. These are no longer going to be information only sorts of stories, it's time to be me on this website, and that may mean I will piss you off sometimes, and other times tell you some pretty fun and inspiring things. 

Travel reviews will still be a thing, and there are some that have yet to be written from my trip to South Africa and Dubai in October. Stories will not exclusively be me bitching, but some weeks it may seem like that. Just be aware that I have known for a while that what I was doing was just rehashing stories. It's just taken me a while to figure out that it's time I be myself, because being like every other news site is boring. Time to light the fire and maybe be an asshole from time to time.