Friday, September 23, 2011

Rabble Rauser

FWIW, if anything, I left the following three comments in the combox of Randal Rauser's post "Patrick Chan of Triablogue defends Randal Rauser with biting satire." But at least at the time of this post, the third comment doesn't seem to have gone through.

Sorry, Randy! I know I took a great risk satirizing you like I did. Particularly since you’re an instant expert in numerous disparate fields which most of us probably know precious little about. Apparently I fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well-known is never go against an instant expert when satire is on the line! :-)

On a hopefully more serious note, it looks like there’s more evidence of Randy’s instant expert syndrome in this very combox:
I should add that about 70% of the ground beef sold in grocery stores contains fecal matter so the idea probably isn’t as crazy as you might think.
1. Of course, even if we grant (arguendo) it’s true “70% of the ground beef sold in grocery stores contains fecal matter,” this isn’t the same as making a hamburger from feces (which is what Paul’s post was satirizing). In fact, it’s quite the contrary since, for one thing, one would presume the fecal matter in the ground beef sold in grocery stores would not be present by intention unlike the Japanese poop burgers!

Nor is it obviously the same as saying the majority of a package of ground beef sold in a grocery store is made of feces. I would think this would be far more worrisome.

Also Randy doesn’t ask relevant questions like: Is this 70% figure an average among all grocery stores? How much fecal matter needs to be present in ground beef for it to be considered to contain fecal matter? Does say 0.001g of fecal matter present per 100g of ground beef constitute contamination? Are some ground beef packages sold in this or that grocery store more or less contaminated than others? Are there varying degrees of contamination? Do values vary between populations sampled? What sort of distribution should we expect given Randy’s figure? What studies were used to determine this 70%? What’s the methodological basis for these studies? How free are these studies from things like random errors, systematic errors, selection bias, etc.? What are the hard statistics underlying the “70%” percentage? And so on and so forth.

In other words, without at a minimum further context or explanation, Randy’s statement is no more than a throwaway comment with a random figure devoid of (epidemiological) significance.

Should Randy’s factoid concern public health officials? Maybe, maybe not. But Randy simply makes a single pronouncement without further elaboration so no one can tell what relevance (if any) his statement has. It’s ultimately meaningless.

2. Speaking of meaningless, this is rather ironic considering this selfsame post alleges: “Pat is unveiling how the triabloguers throw around statistics and ‘facts’ in a way that is meaningless simply so they can construct strawman that they can then knock down. People who consistently use lies to defend the ‘truth’. How sad.”

3. Likewise I could say humans house hundreds upon hundreds of different species of microorganisms including some bacteria which could cause serious diseases (which is true). These microorganisms live in places like our digestive tract, skin, saliva, parts of our eyes, etc. But this is all essentially meaningless without further context. Like, for example, the vast majority of these organisms are part of our normal human flora or biota. Part of our human microbiome. In fact, these microorganisms help us to maintain health in a lot of different ways. And they wouldn’t normally cause disease unless they’re somehow redirected to parts of our bodies where they shouldn’t be, for instance.

Randy said:
I should add that about 70% of the ground beef sold in grocery stores contains fecal matter so the idea probably isn’t as crazy as you might think.
A 1996 study by the USDA found microbes that are spread primarily by fecal matter in 78.6% of ground beef tested. (Fast Food Nation, 197).
1. Of course, the fact that microbes are spread primarily by fecal matter in 78.6% of ground beef tested is not necessarily the same as the fact that 70% of the ground beef sold in grocery stores contains fecal matter.

2. Also, a study conducted in 1996? Really? That’s 15 years ago. Isn’t there a more recent study?

Hey Randy,

It sounds like a book like Fast Food Nation underlies a good part of your ethics of eating meat.

I haven't read the book. Maybe the book is accurate on the whole.

But how accurate is it in the ground beef containing feces factoid if it's based solely on a study in 1996? Or are there other studies cited in the book?

And even if the study was accurate 15 years ago, it's not necessarily accurate today. Things could have been cleaned up since then.

While we're on the topic, it's also possible for someone to cite this or that study to support this or that statement. Plus some studies contradict other studies.

For the average Joe, or at least someone not familiar with the field in question, it's hard to tell what's true or what's false. What relevance a study might have.

That's why it's important to undertake a lit review for starters.

As far as med science and public health topics like this are concerned, a potentially helpful point of departure for lit reviews is the Cochrane Reviews. But also make sure to use a centralized repository like PubMed, which is surely the most well-known database with regard to medical science.

I take it, Randy, that you're aware of this since you've completed a PhD. If so, then it'd be nice if you alerted people to what I've just mentioned here. Especially when citing this or that seemingly random statistic based on this or that study. Otherwise, at best, it makes little sense. But, worse, it seems unfair if you're going to use a naked statistic like this to promote a particular agenda if that's what you're doing.

Oh, well, just thought I'd give people a head's up.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. :-)

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