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Asian Stereotypes, Eye Color Judgments, the Dangers of Fat, and More: Junk Science Round-Up

Debbie says:

I have so many bad body-image science links, I’m not even sure where to begin. So I’ll start with the stupidest and most offensive of a remarkable lot, partly because this is the one that introduced me to the Guardian‘s “bad science” series, which is apparently a blog plus a newspaper sequence. You can email the perpetrator, Ben Goldacre, at bad.science@guardian.co.uk , and believe me, I probably will be doing so. This time around, however, he’s finding links for me.

Down syndrome used to be called Mongolism, or “Mongoloid idiocy” because people with Down Syndrome have epicanthic folds on their eyelids, as Asian people do. However, the terms had long been retired because of their absurdly racist connotations. Until now.

In a purportedly reputable journal, two idiots of unknown race (but Italian ethnicity) posit the following similarities between people with Down syndrome and Asians:

Down subjects adore having several dishes displayed on the table, and have a propensity for food which is rich in monosodium glutamate.

The tendencies of Down subjects to carry out recreative-rehabilitative activities, such as embroidery, wicker-working, ceramics, book-binding, etc., that is renowned, remind [us of] the Chinese hand-crafts, which need a notable ability, such as Chinese vases, or the use of chopsticks employed for eating by Asiatic populations.

Down persons during waiting periods, when they get tired of standing up straight, crouch, squatting down, reminding us of the ‘squatting’ position … They remain in this position for several minutes and only to rest themselves.” Amazing. “This position is the same taken by the Vietnamese, the Thai, the Cambodian, the Chinese, while they are waiting at a bus stop, for instance, or while they are chatting.

There is another pose taken by Down subjects while they are sitting on a chair: they sit with their legs crossed while they are eating, writing, watching TV, as the Oriental peoples do.

Goldacre takes this nonsense apart with flair and sensibility. He notes that he also adores having several dishes placed on the table. I say, “many of us do.” This is the kind of claptrap that should never have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. I hope the folks at Elsevier and on the journal’s board are ashamed of themselves.

In the context of that one, it’s hardly even disturbing that other so-called scientists are trying to link eye color to intelligence. Why is this one so special? Because

1) Nowhere on the Web can I even find the number of people involved in the study?
2) There may not have been a study at all, just a false-statistical counting of smart people with blue eyes, and ignoring smart people with brown eyes. The principal “investigator” admits this: “”It is just observed, rather than explained,” she said. “There’s no scientific answer yet.”
3) The researcher, whatever her eye color, is sports-clueless enough to believe that golf and cross-country running are “sports requiring structuring time” and thus blue-eyed people are good at them, while hockey, football, and rugby are about reaction time, and thus better suited to brown-eyed people. Every hockey or football game I’ve ever watched (not that many, I admit) has involved very careful calculations about plays at the end of the quarter or end of the game, but what do I know.
4) Funny, blue eyes are effectively unique to the white race. So, with that in mind, anyone want to guess which network is publicizing this nonstudy? If you guessed Fox, you guessed right. (and they got it from their Australian buddies, too).

The incisive Paul Campos has a scathing comment on experts who can’t be bothered to check their facts. (That can’t be right! It gets in the way of my theory!) In this particular case, a journalist named Raeburn used two Harvard “experts,” Drs. Willett and Stampfer, who have a grudge against Katherine Flegal, were called upon to evaluate her landmark study on obesity and longevity. They did so in especially professional and careful terms:

“It’s complete nonsense, and it’s obviously complete nonsense, and it’s very easy to explain why some people have gone astray,” Stampfer informs Raeburn. The authors’ mistake, he says, was to include smokers and chronically ill people among the lean subjects in their study.

Campos knows better.

I’m going to pay Raeburn the compliment of assuming he’s an incompetent journalist rather than, for example, someone on the take from a maker of diet drugs.

A competent journalist would have called at least one of the paper’s authors, and would have discovered Stampfer’s criticism was completely false. Flegal and her colleagues did control for smoking and pre-existing illness – they said so in their paper, and the supplemental data showing that doing so made no difference to their conclusions were published on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site at the same time as the paper itself, as Stampfer and Willett are perfectly well aware.

Lots more at the link.

And just to round out this week’s compendium, Gina Kolata, one of America’s finest science writers, takes on the “diabetes epidemic.”

To get a better idea of whether the disease is striking more people or whether more people who have the disease are receiving diagnoses, statisticians have turned to another set of federal data. It is from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a periodic survey of a representative group of Americans that not only asks whether people have been told they have diabetes but that also includes blood tests to find undiagnosed cases.

In a paper published last year in Diabetes Care, federal scientists used those data to ask what was the total proportion of the population with diabetes — diagnosed and undiagnosed.
And look, here’s the smart and reputable Katherine Flegal again! No doubt Harvard scientists are just waiting in line to smack her down for paying attention.

Their surprising conclusion, said Katherine M. Flegal, an author of the paper and an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, was that the overall age-adjusted proportion of the population that has diabetes had not really changed from 1988 to 2002, the most recent year for which federal data are available.

Read the article for some exceptions to the trend, and some analyses of the exceptions. It’s always difficult to evaluate statistical analyses of extant data, and more work probably needs to be done here. In the meantime I’m backing Flegal and common sense against the scare tactics of most of the American media. After all, if it doesn’t threaten your health, it doesn’t sell papers.

Jonquil led me to the first one, Oursin to the second, and Lisa Hirsch to the last. Campos I read on a regular basis–and you should too.

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3 Responses to “Asian Stereotypes, Eye Color Judgments, the Dangers of Fat, and More: Junk Science Round-Up”

  1. Kerry says:

    Ethnic stereotypes as science, what is this the 19th century? Thank you Debbie, for the links and for exposing these examples of bad science.

    I have to say that I was not surprised, but was a little annoyed that at the bottom on Compos’ column there was an advertisement for a wonder diet. Put the word “overweight” in something and anyone who reads it MUST be looking for ways to lose it! Argh!

  2. Lizzy L says:

    Hi Deb, thanks for the link to Gina Kolata’s article about diabetes. She’s always on the ball, challenging accepted assumptions.

  3. Issac Maez says:

    I am sure many people do not understand that the hidden killer is actually smoking. Smoking is actually the main cause of cancer and strokes and We need to have more people spreading the ill effects of smoking and telling them to quit smoking.

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