Tuesday, March 23, 2010


There is one thing you can count on: if you see a study written up in a newspaper that says adding Vitamin E to your daily health regimen has shown to be of great benefit, then shortly after you buy yourself a bottle of 500 pills another study will say that first study was flawed. When I changed medical plans a couple of times ago, my new Primary Care Physician asked me why I was taking a certain combination of pills. I told him I’d read that this would be good for me, and he laughed and said other studies indicated it was of no value.

The latest is the fish-oil scare, with claims of almost all fish-oil supplements having higher than acceptable levels of mercury, PCB’s and other toxins. My thinking is if you are trying to find an excuse to stop taking your fish-oil pills, let this be your excuse. If you and your quasi-scientific brain think your cardiovascular system needs the fish-oil more than it needs higher triglycerides, then ignore the study.

I do like to read about studies, however, but I prefer reading about studies that make me laugh. The ones that make me laugh the most are the ones that our government gives funding for, such as several thousands of dollars for someone doing a study on the average number of chin hair on a pig. (No, I haven’t actually seen that one yet, but let it represent the studies that our tax dollars are funding, whether it is something vital we need to know or not.)

For some reason, March seems to be a good month for funny studies. Last year in March the newspapers reported on a study titled, “The Spatial Distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins Within Nevada,” the Seven Deadly sins being lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. (Lest you look in the good book for them, they aren’t there named in that order but a quick read of Proverbs 6 will give you more sins than you are probably interested in knowing about). At any rate, this study was done by some Kansas State University geographers to show how quantified information could be mapped. And the information was not the issue; the mapping of the ridiculous data was.

The researchers created parameters for each sin: Wrath was calculated by comparing the total number of violent crimes as reported to the FBI per capita. Lust was calculated by compiling the number of sexually transmitted diseases reported per capita. Glutton by counting the number of fast food restaurants per capita, and so on. The maps they created were clever. The findings and the illustration of them were presented at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. All agreed this was a whole lot of fun.

This month the L. A. Times has given us another funny study. Two brothers, one a director at a university food and brand lab and the other a biblical scholar, have analyzed 52 depictions of the “Last Supper” in a quest to see if over the years the food portions served at the last supper had actually increased.

Using the size of each apostle’s head as a basis for comparison, the researchers compared the sizes of the plates in front of the diners, the food servings on those plates and the bread on the table. Assuming that men’s heads have remained fairly constant in size over the last thousand years, their study indicated that as entrĂ©e portions rose, so too did the size of the plates – by 65.6%.

This study, too, was called “fun” by other nutrition researchers, and no one is driving any kind of stake in on the deductions. But to me it is fun to read about and make wild extrapolations on.

My old college statistics professor always made sure we understood that statistics could be manipulated to give us the results that we wanted, but we certainly never had such fun playing with them as these folks have.

Now going back to the present day studies in question – Vitamin E and Fish oil: did I give them up? Do I believe the test results? Which test should I believe? Are the authors just having fun? The only thing for sure that I can say is that the fish oil pill is way too big to go down easily, and God save you from burping afterwards.

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