Counting Cowboys and Cowgirls

You know the drill. A Large Effect is 4.25, a Medium is 2.50, and a Small is 1.50. So hold on to your hats for the latest on red meat and death.

the pooled hazard ratio (HR) (95% CI) of total mortality for a 1-serving-per-day increase was 1.13 (1.07-1.20) for unprocessed red meat and 1.20 (1.15-1.24) for processed red meat.

These are pooled results from two observational studies without random selection of participants or random assignment to conditions and with all the measurement errors of detailed self report behaviors like diet. And the mortality effect is 1.13 to 1.20. Less than half of a Small effect. A reasonable scientific consideration of the results would suggest that there is little to no likely relationship between eating red meat and mortality. Where’s the science beef, right?

Wrong.

Eating red meat is associated with a sharply increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease, according to a new study, and the more of it you eat, the greater the risk.

Sharply?

“When you have these numbers in front of you, it’s pretty staggering,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Frank B. Hu, a professor of medicine at Harvard.

Staggering?

And Dean Ornish observes . . .

In addition to their health benefits, the food choices we make each day affect other important areas as well. What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet . . . HEALTH CRISIS: More than 75% of the $2.6 trillion in annual US health care costs are from chronic diseases. Eating less red meat is likely to reduce morbidity from these illnesses, thereby reducing health care costs . . . GLOBAL WARMING CRISIS: Many people are surprised to learn that animal agribusiness generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.8 The livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (18% vs 13%). . . ENERGY: More than half of US grain and almost 40% of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans.

Here’s the fun part. I’m mixing quotations from the New York Times and the Archives of Internal Medicine. Can you match the quotes to the source?

Realize that the results here are not new data, but rather just a pooling of data sources from previously published studies. The Harvard crew is just milking a database and saying essentially the same thing they’ve said before in earlier publications. This is not new data.

See all the Threats to Internal and External Validity, concepts apparently foreign to both Harvard and the Archives of Internal Medicine. No one in the paper, in the comment, or in the journal raises any concerns about these limitations.

Recycled data with poor scientific control and trivial effect sizes point to death, global warming, and energy waste. The chain of reasoning here is closer to a Hollywood screenplay writer than a rational scientist.

Consider Dissonance for the main participants in this drama. The Harvard guys are smart and well trained and can recite Campbell and Stanley in Latin. They know effect sizes, randomization and control, threats to validity, and on and on. They know they are milking previously reported data and combining sets to say only what they said before. They know they are taking journal space from other research. But, they would defend this paper like it was Constantinople under siege from the Crusaders. That’s Dissonance Reduction.

All Bad Science Is Persuasive.