The Latest Study, Based on a Study That’s Based on a Study

Eating a hot-dog could take 36 minutes off your life, this study says.

That’s the headline of a CNN sponsored article. Who dreams these things up? Can you imagine writing the grant proposal? The title immediately reminded me of the days when America went on a salt-free craze before being told ten years later that salt was a necessary ingredient to a healthy diet.

The University of Michigan authored this?

C’mon, I’m an alum of Michigan State University and we always had an identity-crisis about the U of M, knowing how superior it was academically. All we had was Rose Bowl dominance during the Biggie Munn years when we regularly mopped up U of M on the football field.

Now, it’s where Tom Brady learned to be Tom Brady. Along with him, its alumnae include Mike Wallace, Gilda Radner, Clarence Darrow, James Earl Jones and Larry Page. Michigan State pretty much has only me.

And they stooped so low as a study on hot-dogs shortening my life?

Who hasn’t seen a ‘study’ that made them observe with wonder the most mundane curiosities of life? Here’s what Time Magazine lists as “The 10 Most Ridiculous Scientific Studies:”

    1. Study shows beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity.
    2. Study shows benefit of higher quality screening colonoscopies.
    3. Holding on to the blues: Depressed individuals may fail to decrease sadness.
    4. Quitting smoking after heart attack reduces chest pain, improves quality of life.
    5. Older workers bring valuable knowledge to the job.
    6. Being homeless is bad for your health.
    7. The more time a person lives under a democracy, the more likely she or he is to support democracy.
    8. Statistical analysis reveals Mexican drug war increased homicide rates.
    9. Middle-aged congenital heart disease survivors may need special care.
    10. Scientists Discover a Difference Between the Sexes.

Strangely, hot-dogs shortening your life fail to make Time’s list

Actually, I thought I had number ten pretty much down-pat, but seven caused me some worry. If living a long time under democracy makes you more likely to support it, then America is in far deeper trouble than I realized.

But what about hot dogs? And does it matter if they are New York or Chicago style?

I’m from Chicago but, for the uninitiated, a New York hot dog is traditionally simple, topped with a spicy brown mustard and either sauerkraut or onions sautéed with tomato paste. Disdaining simplicity, a Chicago dog is topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. Oh and don’t forget the sesame-seed bun. Gotta have that.

I mean c’mon, get real, there’s no comparison.

Back to the U of M

In their study, published this month in the journal Nature Food, researchers looked at 5,853 foods in the US diet and measured their effects in minutes of healthy life gained or lost.

Really? 5,853 foods?

We wanted to make a health-based evaluation of the beneficial and detrimental impacts of the food in the entire diet,” Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at the university and senior author of the paper, told CNN.

I can’t wait to get their opinion on what we know as an ‘English breakfast,’ consisting of two eggs, pork sausages, bacon, sauteed mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, baked-beans and a side of buttered toast.

CNN apparently swallowed Jolliet’s premise whole, and we can only speculate on how it affects life-expectancy at the news organization.

The team came up with an index that calculates the net beneficial or detrimental health burden in minutes of healthy life associated with a serving of food. It’s based on a study called the Global Burden of Disease, which measures morbidity associated with a person’s food choices.

Actually, it seems Olivier Jolliet et al didn’t come up with anything at all, merely picking and choosing from something called the Global Burden of Disease and purports to magically attach plus or minus numbers to choices in diet.

Not only picking and choosing, but swallowing-whole an unsubstantiated premise. First the U of M and then CNN. Lots of swallowing-whole going on.

And then there’s the well-chosen modifier when discussing the speeding of our date with death attributed to hot-dogs. The fatality aspects of over-eating hot-dogs explains that it could take 36 minutes off your life, carefully avoiding saying it would take or will take. But I surmise that, on that basis, eating a hotdog could as easily extend your life-span on the basis of enjoyment alone. Particularly if it’s a Chicago-style dog.

Who’s to say?

But it’s patently absurd to claim that researchers looked at 5,853 foods in the US diet and measured their effects in minutes of healthy life gained or lost. Who wrote the algorithm and why should we trust it (or them).

Such a claim is the best example I can think of for honoring Ronald Coase’s quote that “if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

Now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have a sudden urge to find and scarf-down a Chicago style hot-dog.





Image Credit: UrbanMatter

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