Shannon was kind enough to forward me a link to Jezebel’s post highlighting a recent study done in Scotland that purports to show a benefit for kids who face their parents in their strollers. I’m not one to care a whole hell of a lot about things like this, but for some reason, this piqued my interest enough to go looking for the original study, bu a Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, and I have to say, I managed to stumble upon one huge, steaming pile of meconium (that’s newborn baby shit for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure).

(It’s here I’ll reveal that my alarm bells first went off when I was only able to find the research on the National Literacy Trust website and not in a peer-reviewed journal; that sort of thing is usually the initial sign that the research couldn’t pass peer-review muster.)

One of the biggest reported findings of this research is that kids who are facing their parents are far more likely to be sleeping (which Zeedyk reports has “tentatively been interpreted as an indicator of stress levels”). The problem is that Zeedyk doesn’t look at that number in light of the ages of the kids she observed, and realities about behaviors of children at those ages. So let’s do that, starting with the numbers.

In her second research results table, Zeedyk reported 386 total children who were observed to be sleeping. In the same table, she reported 828 total children who they estimated to be under a year of age, 35% of whom were sleeping, for a total of 290 children under the age of one and sleeping. That means that 75% of the sleeping children were under the age of one. A reasonable researcher might stop here and ask herself: is there anything about children less than one year of age that might explain increased sleep other than stroller choice? Apparently, Zeedyk didn’t think so and plowed onward, not considering the simple fact that infants sleep more than toddlers no matter what the variable. (Seriously, it’s one of the cardinal three behaviors of an infant: eat, poop, and sleep — I say this both as a parent and a pediatrician. A quick persual of tables of sleep duration by age, in anything from Ferber’s book to childhood neuroscience texts, shows that infants sleep on the order of a few hours more a day than toddlers, who sleep more than school-age kids.)

Now let’s go onward with Zeedyk, looking at her eighth research results table, the one in which she “shows” that stroller direction affected rates of sleeping in the youngest age group. I literally cannot explain her results in this table; the numbers just don’t make any sense. In it, she claims to have 392 total observations of whether or not a child was sleeping (287 sleeping, 195 awake) — but she has 766 observations of stroller direction (492 facing away from the parent, 274 towards). How the hell does this make any sense? There’s no possible way for those numbers to be unequal without you throwing away those 374 missing observations of whether the kid was sleeping; this is literally crap science, something that would be laughed out of the most basic clinical research class. (Nevermind that in her prior table 2, Zeedyk recorded 828 observations of children under 1, out of whom roughly 538 were not sleeping — but in this table, she only shows 105 children in this age group not sleeping. Again, I can make absolutely no sense out of this.)

Another thing: Zeedyk openly admits that she has no clue if the adult in an observed child/adult paring was a parent (versus a grandparent, a nanny, an aunt, or whomever), but then dismisses this with, “Because there is no way of making such distinctions, for the purposes of this study we have treated all adults in the sample as parents. The conclusions that will be drawn from this study, regarding the extent to which infants are experiencing interactions with adults during outdoor journeys, are in no way compromised by this decision.” Ummm, huh?!? Does she try to justify this immense logic leap at all? Nope.

I could go on and on with this — it’s actually sort of fun, a way to use all my critical-research-reading skills for parenting purposes — but I’ll just leave it at that. If you’re a parent who’s considering turning your dear kiddo around to face you just because of Dr. Zeedyk’s “study,” I’d suggest that there’s probably more evidence of a cellphone in Africa causing cancer in your child than the direction of his or her stroller affecting jack shit.

And now, because I can’t resist, a few little things:

  • There are all kinds of places where even Zeedyk’s simple numbers don’t match up. For example, her tables show that she had more observations for what the one to two year-old kids were doing (980) than she had observations of how the one to two year-olds were being transported (978) — why is that? Are we to believe that there were any cases in which she was able to figure out if the kid was awake or asleep but unable to tell whether the kid was in a forward-facing or rearward-facing stroller? This is just weird. Similarly, in the table comparing stroller direction to child activity, she shows 1,659 observations of the stroller facing away; in the table comparing stroller direction to age, she only has 1,650 observations of the stroller facing away. What happened to those other nine kids? Including them in one evaluation while excluding them from the other doesn’t make much sense.
  • Zeedyk is very loose with her rationalizations that she uses to rebut potential weaknesses in the study. For example, she posits that the incredibly brief time in which she observed any parent/child grouping might be a weakness in her conclusions about whether or not the parents and children were talking to each other, and then dismisses it with this: “The fact that the observation was made at a random point in each pair’s journey means that we have adequately sampled trends for the sample as a whole. Statistical logic allows us to predict that, if talking behaviour was random, we should have observed parents talking as often as we observed them not talking.” Not quite, Dr. Zeedyk — that’s only true if the talking behavior were both random and equally likely to be occurring as not occurring, or in other words, if the chance of the parents and kids talking at any point in time were 50%. If instead we were to posit that that chance is 10%, then she’d have to observe 10 parent/child groupings to see one of them having a conversation, which would be reflected very different in her findings.

I know that for the most part, if you read QDN, I’m the proverbial preacher and you’re part of the choir, but I figure I have to point out to those who peeking in the windows that the official Republican Party platform now calls for a ban on all embryonic stem cell research, public or private, derived from existing cell lines or not. This goes even further than Bush’s 2001 law that allows research on embryonic stem cells that weren’t created expressly for the purpose of research (e.g., unwanted IVF clinic embryos that are going to be discarded), and turns its back on an amazing amount of promise. It’s quite a stunning change; the scientist and cancer researcher in me is aghast that this alone might still not be enough to drive folks from the arms of the GOP in droves.

(As a related sidenote, how does this principled stand on the part of the GOP not mean that the party should also be strongly and firmly against in-vitro fertilization? The process generally involves creating more than one embryo, and likewise generally does not involve transferring all of them, meaning that there are left-over embryos that are put into liquid nitrogen tanks and saved. After some amount of time, a significant number of these remaining embryos never get used, and end up being discarded by the families and IVF clinics — how is this somehow better than doing research on their stem cells?)

Yesterday’s Times Freakonomics column was a great one. A Missouri engineer and his daughter did a seven-month study collecting the weather forecasts of their local television stations (and NOAA) and compared them to the actual weather — and as experience might have helped you guess, found that you can pretty much only rely on the next-day forecast, with everything else more or less being a random guess. (Of note, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time; I’m glad that someone finally did it!) The column is a long-ish read, but well worth it if you’ve ever even given a moment’s thought to looking at the weekend forecast mid-week…

Well, this is disappointing: James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, gave a somewhat jaw-dropping interview to London’s Sunday Times in which he declared that African people and their descendants have inherently lower intelligence than caucasians.

The 79-year-old geneticist said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.”. He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

Of course, this is scandalous to me only because I appear to not be familiar with some of the other things that Watson has hypothesized in the past, such as the thought that potential homosexuality should form the basis of decisions about aborting fetuses and the intuition of a link between skin color and sex drive. I guess he’s an example of someone who made a fundamental contribution to science in spite of his insane beliefs, rather than as a result of them.

I’m not sure how I’ve not stumbled across Benford’s Law before, but I haven’t — it sure seems like the kind of mathematical trivia that’s right in my happy place. The law states that given a list of numerical data from real-world sources (i.e., baseball statistics, street addresses, Dow Jones averages, tax return amounts), the first digit of a number in the list is more likely to be 1 than any other digit (specifically, a 30.1% probability), and there are specific probabilities for each other digit as well. The law can be used to look for fraudulent sets of data — for example, if tax return data doesn’t follow the probabilities specified by the law, it has a much higher likelihood of being falsified.

Rex Swain republished the Times article along with some enlightening charts that help illustrate the law, and of course, Wikipedia has more info. And finally, there’s a Java tool that can help you analyze your own data sets against Benford’s Law… just be forewarned that data that’s truly uniformly distributed won’t adhere to the law.

The medical scientist in me loves that the world of web interface design has entered the land of evidence-based research — it justifies the web researcher in me.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a bit of an obsession with man-made projects that are created on a scale which has to take into account things we’d never, ever need to worry about on a daily basis. For example, I’ve been fascinated by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge ever since I learned that its builders had to take into account the curvature of the earth when they built it; as a result, the tops of the bridge’s two towers are nearly two inches further apart than the bases. (Could you imagine if every homebuilder and roadworker had to worry about the curvature of the earth in their projects?) It’s because of this obsession that I’m amazed I never knew that GPS has to take into account the theory of relativity in about a half-dozen different ways in order to function correctly — and if the engineers who designed it had failed to account for both general and special relativity, the locations given by our GPS receivers would be off by dozens of miles, and would get worse every day. That’s just damn cool.

Scott LaFee wrote up a great little history of the petri dish in the San Diego Union-Tribune — it’s a fascinating piece about a piece of scientific equipment that’s so important and pervasive that pretty much every lay person out there knows its name and function. And in addition to the simple dish’s role driving science forward a million different times a day, it’s also been the palette for some pretty cool art, some mathematical theories about fractal development, and even the appearance of a major diety; there are literally a million derivatives of the petri dish, from three-dimensional ones to ones that fit on the head of a pin. Very cool indeed, especially given that it’s an invention by a scientist whose career was otherwise unremarkable.

(One note: while doing a few searches to write this post, I stumbled across this Flickr posting of a petri dish, and immediately recognized it as stolen from this scientist’s online gallery of his own petri dishes. The part of it that I find the most galling is that the Flickr user, Jack Mottram, assigned a Creative Commons license to the photo that demands that others attribute any reuse of the image back to him, as if he has any rights to the photo to begin with. That’s severely broken.) Update: he appears to have added a credit for the photo and removed the CC license… but I’d argue that it’s still not kosher to have the image in his Flickr photostream at all.

I mean, how damn cool is it that a meteorite which landed in a Canadian lake back in 2000 is now thought to be over four and a half billion years old, dating from before our own galaxy was formed. Sort of gives you a perspective on things…

Am I really the only one who sees the irony in the fact that the company implicated in the bagged spinach E. coli outbreak is named Natural Selection? It feels like the sort of thing that, despite its seriousness, would have caused a bit of chuckling in the land o’ weblogs; in any event, it’s certainly an interesting Darwinian coincidence.

This month’s Terrific, Unbelievable, Splendiferous, Must-Read Question over at Ask Metafilter: How can I measure the weight of my head without cutting it off? As of this morning, the community hasn’t yet come up with the perfect method, but the suggestions are fantastic.

Congrats to Columbia University, the ol’ triple-alma-mater, for the receipt of a $200 million gift to create a center devoted to the study of the brain. It’s the largest private gift ever for the creation of a single institution, and will be headed by the esteemed threesome of Richard Axel (Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2004), Eric Kandel (Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000), and Thomas Jessell. I had the fortune of being taught, at various stages of my education and training, by all three men; it’s entirely unsurprising to me that they’d be the ones tapped at leading the effort to better understand the way we think and behave. (And the picture of Eric Kandel that graces his Nobel bio is the perfect representation of him — a happy, old-world guy with a passion for his work!)

Boston Dynamics, an engineering company spun off by MIT to develop robots with human-like abilities, is currently developing an engine-driven, pack mule-like robot named BigDog that you have to see in action to believe. (That link is to a Windows Media Player-format video, which plays just fine in the OS X version of WMP.) The movement of BigDog’s four legs is amazing and a bit creepy all at the same time, but the whole package works well enough that it looks like you can actually kick the robot in the side and it’ll recover and continue moving without a problem. DARPA is sponsoring the development of BigDog, which looks like it could someday be a useful military tool for carrying heavy loads alongside troops on foot.

There’s no question that I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about claims that cellphones can cause problems with airplane guidance and control systems; I’ve always seen it as existing in the same class of claims as ISPs claiming that voice-over-IP might “disrupt their networks,” claims that are as much about protecting control as they are about ensuring safety or quality. This month, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are publishing results of a study of in-flight cellphone (and GPS receiver) use that validates their continued furtive in-flight use, and reviews a sizable chunk of retrospective data about interference, and the editorial board of IEEE Spectrum has referenced the article in a call for a systematic study both of portable electronic use and interference aboard airplanes before any changes are made to the current use bans. (Sadly, as is generally the case, most news reports and weblog posts about the article aren’t doing a good job of explaining the findings; most of them either make the direct claim or appear to want readers to make the conclusion themselves that the study found clear evidence of navigation or control system interference, something the study very definitively did not do.)

Sure, my personal stake in this is that I don’t want to be on an airplane that crashes as a result of someone’s need to stay on their cellphone for the duration of the flight — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m also very interested in any finding that might prevent having someone screaming details about their personal life into their cellphone in the seat next to me.

Having recently finished the fabulous book The Victorian Internet (recommended by Rebecca, who clearly has a handle on what I might like!), I’ve spent a little bit of time obsessed with how amazing the telegraph must have been back in the mid-1800s, and imagining how surreal it must have felt to those who watched it happen. One day, communicating with family across the country might take weeks — and then a year or two later, the same messages might only take minutes to travel back and forth. Before the telegraph, businesses which shipped products and materials internationally might not know whether their shipments made it to their destinations for months; after the telegraph, the same businesses might know within hours of arrival. People had the vision to run telegraph cables along nearly every railroad track in the world, through frozen tundras, and even across seas and oceans, all in the name of making the world a little smaller. I really am in awe.

Of course, this all makes me that much sadder to learn that Friday, Western Union discontinued their telegram service, after 155 years in the telegraph business. (Just to clear up some word confusion: telegraphy is the process of sending messages using Morse code, and early on, the term “telegram” came to refer to the messages themselves.) Western Union was pretty much critical in the development of the telegraph network in the United States; it strung the first transcontinental line in 1861, introduced the first stock ticker in 1866, created elaborate schemes which allowed the secure transfer of money beginning half a decade later, and beginning in 1974, was the first company to send aloft its own batch of communications satellites (the Westar system) to handle its messaging needs. Alas, electronic mail and instant messaging dealt the telegraph system a death blow, making Western Union’s move unsurprising.

I’m heartened to see that yesterday’s elections swept eight anti-evolution candidates off of the Dover Area School Board, the board in Dover, Pennsylvania that mandated the inclusion of “intelligent design” (read: creationism) in the biology curriculum. That school board is made up of nine members, and eight of the seats were up for election yesterday; all eight were contested by candidates on each side of the evolution debate, with the eight evolution advocates (and election victors) banded together into a group named Dover C.A.R.E.S.. (Interestingly, Dover is in York County, a county that threw 64% of its votes to George Bush in the 2004 election.) As a scientist, it makes me happy to see that the Dover voters seem to want to keep religion and politics out of the classroom; as a citizen, it makes me even happier to see that the backlash I hoped for against religious conservatism in government might be taking place, and taking place at the more local, grassroots level.

This makes me laugh — and then, I realize how sad it is that such a parody has to exist in the first place, and I cry.