Interpreting Scientific Studies

Wolverines don’t like to be teased, researcher learns at great cost!” trumpeted one recent “scientific study”, according to Jonah Goldberg writing at

Angry Wolverine

Angry wolverine

His thesis is that media pundits descend on studies which state the obvious like a flock of buzzards on a heretofore overlooked, month-old carcass.

Lovingly culled from “The Irrational Inquirer” [1] is this groundbreaking study:

Incredible!There’s no

Osip Grunt!

A yearlong $6.5 million government study has revealed that even though a whopping 230 million people are living in the United States, there’ are certain names that not even one person has!

“It’s astounding but true,” said government researcher Norton Whole. “There are over 500 Bob Hubbaffs, thirty-odd Rance Flarths, and even three Puppy Droptunas yet there are thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of names that absolutely NO one has!”

Added the scientist: “To find out just exactly how many ‘names there are that no one has, we’ll need another $6.5 million.

Below is a list of the most common names that no one has:

  1. Micky Mantleheimer
  2. Cappy Greem
  3. Lee Duc Tranh Gumpaluna
  4. Thelmore Cleotis Wojczyk
  5. Meyer Farding
  6. Stubby Osterizer
  7. Fred-Bob Fred
  8. Debbie Hitler
  9. Vince Edwards
  10. Tawni Schleppenschlep­pen

Naturally, the watchful guardians of our tax dollars immediately pounced on this squandering of public funds:

There’s a Name forThis Tax $$$ Waste:

A. Idiot Boondoggle

It took the National Science Foundation one year and $6.5 million dollars of your hard-earned tax dollars to discover that there are no Americans who have certain names.

“This is the single most disturbing thing I ever heard of,” roared Senator Jesse Helms, who spent two months reading the 1,200-page study. “Who cares how many names no one has?”

Helms was so stunned he had to sit down. The study, conducted by National Science Foundation staff researcher Norton Whole, proves something every¬body has known for years and is of no earthly value to anyone!

“Actually, proving that no one had the names only took a couple of hours at the end of the whole study,” Whole admitted to The INQUIRER. “The really time-consuming part was finding – well, I guess you call it creating – the actual names that no one has.”

“That numbskull wasted several hundred thousand hours of valuable computer time making up stupid names,” screamed Senator William Proxmire. “Who the heck cares that there’s no one named Jim-Bob Khrushchev?!”

“I don’t see why everyone’s so worked up, ” said researcher Whole. It seems to me the study very elegantly answers a number of fundamental questions that plague Americans. And don’t forget we still don’t know how many names there are that no one has. Just the 10,000 most common ones!”

Below is the list of the top 10 names that no one has. It is completely worthless.

  1. Therri Shumper
  2. Claudette Spiderbarf
  3. Retail Washington
  4. Cyline “Frodo” Fernan­dez
  5. Haystacks Singh
  6. Ellen Ayatollah Feinblatt
  7. Richard Chamberlain
  8. Muffy Reeling Moose
  9. Bryce Mortuary Jr.
  10. Dr. Che Lovehandles

-Kenny Bunkport

I don’t know what we’d do without our stalwart congressmen to watch over the public trough public resources.

Of course, the above is all in fun – but it relates to a more serious topic – that of the tendency of our media to jump on every individual study that is published as though the given study had any value whatsoever.

Around the New Year, an article started floating around the news feeds quoting a study that indicates moderate overweight might not pose a health risk, but rather that a bit of extra weight might help people live longer instead. Unlike the LA Times, The Australian pointed out that this study by Katherine Flegal of the CDC, along with a previous study by the same researcher, may be inherently flawed. While Flegal stands by her research, her inclusion of smokers and individuals with existing illnesses may invalidate the conclusions. Anyone who has taken a research and statistics class knows that data can easily be skewed to support a pre-determined conclusion.

Whether or not the study is reliable, it is in the end a single study. Go through the medical literature and the media over the last 20 years, and you’ll find countless “butter is good! / butter is bad!”, “coffee is good!” / “coffee is bad!”, “water is good!” / “8 glasses of water a day is too much!” dichotomies. Each new study, however, offers the media a chance to spin the story into something that will get eyeballs on advertising, which, sadly, seems to be their true raison d’être, rather than providing the public with reliable information. After all, who wants to wait a couple of decades before a trustworthy body of peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-based and randomized trials yields a generally-accepted consensus?

The moral of the story is, once again, take nothing that you hear on TV, in printed media, or on the Internet without doing your own research. It’s a lot easier just to swallow what you’re spoon-fed by any number of information outlets, all of whom have obligations to contributors or vested interest in hot-button issues, but if you do that, you’re just playing into the hands of those who would profit from controlling your thoughts.


XKCD Copyright Randall Munroe.


[1] The Irrational Inquirer, parody edition ©1983 by Larry Durocher and Tony Hendra

5 responses to “Interpreting Scientific Studies

  1. Pingback: Weight Loss Lies, Redux (for the jillionth time) | Playing in the World Game

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