Browsing Tag

Cognitive Bias

Failure to Plan Parenthood in Texas

By March 1, 2016 2 Comments

 The other day, I had a craving for coconut ice cream.

Stick with me here (and no, I’m not pregnant–this was just a garden variety gluttony)

I was dying for it, and in a stroke of luck I didn’t have to rush home to my kids that day, I had the chance to fully indulge myself. Of course, now that I had the opportunity to indulge, I went to four different stores looking for some and then I finally gave up. I had the motivation to drive all over creation to find it, the time and the ability to seek it out, and the money to pay for it once I found it but I STILL couldn’t get what I wanted when I wanted it.

That’s just life sometimes, and as a mother I’ve realized that’s life more often than not. But my great unfulfilled quest to find coconut ice cream made me think of a study I’d just read in the New England Journal of Medicine. Yes, I know. When you work in public health your brain never shuts off about this stuff.

Heading home without my ice cream was no big deal, but what if I’d been looking for something else instead. The only impact of me not getting my ice cream was that I was disappointed and Haagen-Dazs lost a sale. But what if I’d been looking for something of life-changing importance and I wasn’t able to get it? Let’s imagine we’re talking about birth control.

I know this seems like a stretch, but like I said, stick with me here.

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning

Ladies, Don’t Drink and Don’t Have Babies: When Public Health Messaging Fails

By and February 8, 2016 1 Comment


We strive to be evidence-based communicators here at The Scientific Parent, and sometimes we collectively wring our hands at public health messaging by our counterparts at other organizations. After all, the public health nerd core tends to be made up of nerds, and while we love nerds (seeing as how we consider ourselves members of that tribe), sometimes nerds can get lost in health data and forget that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Data may be objective in the eyes of researchers and statisticians, but in the real world and life, those numbers have context.

That’s why over the last two weeks we’ve found ourselves squirming over recent public health campaigns. For example: common sense would suggest that telling women in Texas to simply not get pregnant due to the threat of catching the Zika virus is utterly unhelpful. First, because of the lack of universal access to free contraceptives for both sexes, and also because the messaging places an undue burden on women with no equivalent advisory (i.e.: ‘don’t get anyone pregnant’) for men. Also, family planning and expansion usually doesn’t stop because viral outbreaks, as public health officials in every other country on the planet can tell you (including those in Brazil who are seeing women avoid mosquitos that carry Zika, not pregnancy).

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning

None of Us Are Above the Placebo Effect

By December 15, 2015 No Comments

This is Weber’s Vitamin E Cream.  I put this stuff on everything.  I use it on my lips, on dry skin, on minor cuts and abrasions, I use it instead of regular moisturizer on my hands and legs.  It’s only available in Canada and whenever I go home, I stock up, because I consider it a necessity.  I swear when my kids are grown and they’re reminiscing about all the weird stuff that mom used to do, Weber’s Vitamin E Cream will be at the top of the list.

Does it work better than other products on the market?  Probably not.

Is there some sort of magical ingredient?  Nope.  If you look at the ingredients, it’s essentially petroleum jelly and vitamin-E.

So why do I use it?  Because I think it works, even though there’s no evidence that it works any better or worse than anything else.  It is my placebo and I’m OK with that. 

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Categories: Faith + Beliefs, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Offended, Outraged? Parents, What are You Taking Personally?

By November 11, 2015 No Comments

Everywhere I look on the interwebs, it seems like there’s an entire group of people getting seriously offended over something, and often they’re making an enormously big deal over it. I do it too, sometimes, I mean, I am human. There are things that fire me up that in the greater scheme of things, mean very little. For example: people chewing with their mouths open. It makes me practically murderous. It makes me cringe to even write about it! I could rant for an hour, easily (and the science is still out on whether that makes me someone who has OCD or just brilliant).

More recently, there have been a few public debacles that made parts of society go from mellow to ballistic in a matter of a few hours. I’m sure each of you could name a few that hit close to home, such as the recent Starbucks Red Cup Where-Are-You-Christmas outrage, for one. From our perspective at The Scientific Parent, some of the furious feedback we get in response to the content we post on our blog, Facebook, and Twitter, for another. And the countless stories we hear about or are personally involved with surrounding politics, healthcare, crime, violence, parent-shaming, birth-shaming, in-law-shaming? The offense covers all areas, and goes on and on…and on. So much offense. So much outrage. It seems like there’s so little peace among us sometimes, doesn’t it?

I’ve thought on this long and hard while running this blog with Leslie, that it seems that everyone is really just looking for a group to belong to, for that sense of belonging that makes life okay, to do the right thing to make things turn out “right,’ and sometimes, to be part of a “right” team against a “wrong” team. I know I’ve done it. We probably all have at one point or another. As that goes, from our perspective, it seems that feeling personally offended is a natural defense mechanism to when you feel you’re being accused of being on the “wrong” side of something, or your choices are being judged as the “incorrect” ones to make. Hello, parenting 101. You will feel like this constantly, no matter what side of the mythical “right/wrong” line you’re on.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

The 3 Most Common Arguments Against the WHO’S Findings on Bacon and Cancer…and Why They’re Wrong

By November 3, 2015 No Comments


Last week, when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that processed meat should be classified as a carcinogen, the internet went crazy. From passionate vegans to bacon lovers to WHO conspiracy theorists, almost everyone had a strong reaction to this (heart) breaking news. However, the three most common responses, both pro and con, to this story aren’t supported by scientific fact at all, they’re supported by our own cognitive biases.

In scientific terms, the jury is still out as to whether or not there is a causal relationship between consuming processed meats in moderation (as the majority of us do) and cancer.  One thing is for sure, it’s generally not a good idea to eat processed meats on a daily basis over a long period of time.  But chances are, eating bacon with breakfast every once in a while, or a hot dog at the ballpark likely won’t do you any harm.

But I’m not going to get into the science or the nitty-gritty of how the IARC came to their conclusions, because that’s been discussed to death on the internet over the last week.  What I am going to discuss are the logical fallacies that both sides are using to support or tear down the WHO’s findings.

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Categories: Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Big-Ticket Political Debates Avoid Key Health Science Topics. Here’s Why.

By October 14, 2015 1 Comment


CNN’s first Democratic Presidential Debate aired on Tuesday night, reminding us here at The Scientific Parent that scientific issues that affect our health aren’t a priority in big-ticket politics.

If you caught our coverage of CNN’s Republican Presidential Debate last month, you might have seen my *ahem* slightly irate post about how Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson sidestepped acknowledging that vaccines and autism are in fact, not connected. While it was disappointing, it wasn’t surprising.

Regardless of which side of the mythical party line you stand on, there’s one thing that’s pretty obvious…politics, particularly political campaigns, aren’t heavily driven by scientific or quantitative topics (as this science literacy drinking game reminds us). Driven by the behavioral science of voting and viewing patterns, yes. But political scientific topics like vaccines and vaccine legislation, a healthcare system that focuses on maintaining good health rather than our current system that focuses on care for chronic illness, or maternity leave legislation, to name a few?


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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Science 101 + Mythbusting

There Is No Holistic Murder Conspiracy Afoot. Seriously.

By and August 3, 2015 No Comments

For weeks now, stories have been circulating the internet about five holistic health providers who were mysteriously killed or died in untimely and undisclosed ways. Of course, the stories around them have played up the “mystery” aspect, and have had corresponding articles heavily implying that it is all a part of a vast, dark conspiracy by either “big pharma,” the FDA, or both. Here at The Scientific Parent, we rolled our collective eyes at the claim, especially as we dug into the articles.

First, to entertain that these claims might be real despite the total lack of evidence, you’re going to have to suspend disbelief. You would have to believe that the alleged entity known by conspiracy theorists as “Big Pharma” with its myriad of pharmaceutical drugs at its disposal would choose to kill these providers violently and poorly dispose of their remains. You’re would also need to believe that multiple large pharmaceutical companies, which are fierce competitors with one another, would come together as the mythical super-drug-beast known as “Big Pharma” to kill five providers whose combined work would not impact their revenues at all, removing any financial motive whatsoever.

We aim to be judgment-free on this site. Though we disagree with it, we can understand why some parents are afraid to vaccinate their children, why some parents want to share a bed with their newborn, and why parents avoid discussing difficult and essential topics with their children. But how anyone could believe this conspiracy theory? We’re raising an eyebrow of judgment. Say what?

Nevertheless,  in our Scientific Parent tradition, people have asked us this question, so we’re going to dig into the stats and the individual claims to see if there’s any evidential merit to them.

First, let’s go over the claims:

  • Five holistic providers have died mysteriously over a month and a half;
  • They are:
    • Jeff Bradstreet, MD, was a controversial provider who was under investigation by the FDA for treating children with autism with a dangerous and unapproved chemotherapy drug. His body was found in the Rocky Broad River in Chimney Rock, NC with an alleged self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Dr. Bradstreet was found dead shortly after authorities executed a search warrant on his offices in relation to his use of the unapproved drug on children.
    • Bruce Hedendal was a chiropractor with a small practice in Florida. He was found dead, at the age of 67 in his car, and police say that no foul play is suspected.
    • Baron Holt was a chiropractor with a local practice in North Carolina. His practice was low-key and though he was young at age 33, no cause of death has been released.
    • Teresa Sievers, MD provided medical care to the transgender community but used a holistic approach. She was brutally murdered in her home and authorities say her death was not random. While there have been no arrests in the case, they allege that she knew her murderer.
    • Lisa Riley, MD was an emergency room physician in Georgia with no ties to the holistic medical community. Like Dr. Teresa Sievers, police say someone known to Dr. Riley brutally murdered her, allegedly her husband. Her husband, a former boxer, was previously charged with attempted murder of his former girlfriend by shooting her in the head.

We don’t think that doctors Riley and Sievers should be considered part of the alleged big pharma murder conspiracy, since they’re both traditional doctors with little to no connections to the holistic community. Frankly we’re not quite sure how their names were associated with the conspiracy rumors in the first place. But, we warned you, this is going to take a leap of disbelief (and an utter disregard for regression analysis) to get you over the proverbial finish line.

Does this sound like an abnormal pattern of deaths? First we’d need to establish what “normal” would be. As much of holistic medicine is unregulated, it’s difficult if not impossible to get clear statistics on how many individuals are in practice and what their attrition rate is, either by death, disability, retirement, or leaving the business. However, we do have solid statistics on those type of attrition rates for traditional doctors (MDs and DOs), so we’re going to use that as our fuzzy baseline average for the holistic realm for the purposes of this article.

It may shock you to discover that traditional doctors die from murder or suicide at a much, much higher rate than the general population. We were surprised too – it seems awful, given the level of care and healing these people aim to do. Including both MDs and DOs there are currently 904,556 active primary care and specialist physicians in the US. Of those, approximately 400 will commit suicide each year. In fact, physicians kill themselves at a rate 70% higher than non-physicians. This sadly means that eight doctors commit suicide every week.

It’s a bit harder to get statistics on physicians that are murdered each year for a number of reasons (publicity, visibility, nature of the crime, investigations, etc.). But we do know that over the span of a decade the average is that approximately 15 health care providers are killed in workplace shootings each year. That’s at least one murder a month.

Dwight Conspiracy MemeWith that said, even if we consider all five individuals named in the holistic-doctor-Big Pharma-FDA murder conspiracy plot statistically using the MD-DO statistics are our baseline, their collective death rate contribution is not an anomaly. Though individually, it’s terribly tragic and sad.

In the cases of Baron Holt and Bruce Hedendal, no cause of death has been released. Nothing abnormal there – coroners don’t typically publicly release a cause of death without the next of kin’s permission unless it’s in the public interest. So not having a publicly released cause of death falls far short of “mysterious,”and more along the lines of family privacy.

When examining the circumstances around each death it seems that only Dr. Bradstreet’s family is protesting his death as something other than what is being claimed by authorities. The whole thing sounds like a tragic and awful affair. But we can understand why Dr. Bradstreet’s family views his death as suspicious, since the practitioner spent most of his career in opposition to established medical research. Considering the implications of what Dr. Bradstreet was doing – using medication unapproved in the US and illegally obtained on the black market for use on children with autism, without approval – the investigation had the potential to not only end his career, but also put him in jail for a long time. That could potentially be enough pressure to make someone emotionally break down and consider suicide as a way out, as authorities have ruled it.

We also think that if anyone was murdered by Big Pharma, there would be more stealth and cunning, and also some sort of undetectable pharmaceutical way to do it. As conspiracies go, these data points are all too inconsistent to look like a trend.

Regardless of the circumstances for these five individuals, we feel for each of them, their families and loved ones. But ultimately, we don’t think a conspiracy is at work.


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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Parents: If You Want To Be Right, Prove Yourself Wrong

By June 2, 2015 1 Comment

Like most suburban Washington, DC neighborhoods, ours is off a small street that has become shortcut for commuters looking to avoid a congested intersection, most of whom fly down the street well above the speed limit. In this area, everybody’s neighborhood is somebody’s super secret traffic hack (DC traffic is the worst, well… almost).

Last summer we received a letter in the mail notifying us that the city was giving us options to help reduce speeding. Our options, put to an informal mail-in vote were:

  1. Speed bumps or
  2. Pay for additional police enforcement.

My husband and I groaned at the option of speed bumps. Anyone who has ever had a sleeping infant or toddler in a car knows that speed bumps are sleeping baby landmines. We both supported paying for increased police enforcement. Besides, we reasoned, speed bumps don’t slow people down, people just speed up between them, right?

Being a data nerd, before we voted I dug into the peer-reviewed research and it turns out we were absolutely wrong.

Speed bumps were far more effective in reducing risk than increased police enforcement. And I discovered that decades of study across the world showed that not only do speed bumps slow drivers down, but they reduce both car accidents and pedestrian deaths. So we changed our vote, and the speed bumps were added a few months ago.

But this isn’t about speed bumps or traffic. It’s about not being afraid to be wrong and changing your mind with new information, even if it’s inconvenient.

Our generation of parents has been trained to view actions as synonymous with character. If a parent makes a less-than-ideal decision (or hell, a benign decision that we wouldn’t make) we’ve been trained to believe they must be a bad parent. My husband and I weren’t bad parents because we initially thought speed bumps wouldn’t reduce the traffic issue. We were just wrong about that issue. When we had better information we changed our opinion.

So why do many of us persist in our current beliefs even when we’re confronted with evidence hat those beliefs are incorrect? Our brains don’t help matters. In fact the brain is hard wired to reassure us that we’re right, even when we’re wrong. Even the smartest among us are guilty of persisting in beliefs even when confronted with contradictory information. The ways in which we convince ourselves that we’re right when we’re actually wrong are called confirmation biases, and there are a few different types.

Leslie's son itching to make a run for freedom (and danger).

Leslie’s son itching to make a run for freedom (and danger).

I wanted to escape the confirmation bias trap with the speed bump issue and do what was truly safest for our toddler – who incidentally wasn’t always consistent when told that the street wasn’t for playing – so I did what I usually do in these situations: Try to prove myself wrong.

The first thing I did was to voice my opinion to others who I didn’t think would necessarily agree with me. This was an example of avoiding the confirmation bias known as the echo chamber, wherein we seek information from sources we think are likely to agree with us.

While chatting with neighbors I mentioned that we were thinking of voting for increased enforcement, to which my neighbor replied that he’d been at a meeting with a city planner who explained that speed bumps were much more effective at reducing pedestrian deaths. I was a little skeptical of what the city planner had apparently said. “Of course he’d say that,” I thought, “increased enforcement probably costs the county a ton in police overtime and he’s looking to save money.”

My dismissal of the city planner’s statement is an example of a phenomenon called motivated reasoning, first identified in the 1950s. Motivated reasoning is often subconscious, meaning that we don’t do it on purpose. In this process we often discard, or put less emphasis on evidence that contradicts our current point of view, and include or put heavy emphasis on evidence that supports it.

Motivated reasoning happens in a few ways, including only looking for information that we know supports our beliefs. For example, my neighbor’s statement was enough to make me investigate how wrong I may actually be. So I turned to the peer-reviewed literature, but I knew I had to search smartly if I wanted to get an accurate answer.

Had I been looking simply to confirm my hypothesis I could have searched for “speed bumps” ineffective traffic deaths, in JStor, in which case the results focus on citizen’s individual freedom and less on the statistical data. Instead I searched for traffic deaths “speed bumps”. I specifically kept the search terms neutral because I wanted to know what the data actually said and the resulting studies showed me that I was wrong.

When I brought the evidence to my husband and told him we were going to be changing our vote, he groaned and protested. I gave him a little while to think it over and he eventually came around acknowledging that the improvements in safety outweighed the inconvenience of the speed bumps. Not that he had any say in it, I’d already changed our vote and mailed in our ballot.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Science 101 + Mythbusting