I’ve been thinking a lot about statistics and studies lately. I can thank Rebecca Goldin and Polly Palumbo for this, since reading their work has taught me to look at numbers and research with a more critical eye.
Case in point: a good friend texted me early in the week about the latest study linking sunscreen use to cancer. There were many exclamation points and frowny-faces in the text, as well as a link to a foreboding article about the study. This one had scared her. Granted, she literally bathes her toddler in SPF 50, but what can you do? We live in sunny LA. It’s practically child abuse not to carry California Baby Sunscreen with you at all times. Anyway, before I even glanced at the article which had spooked her so, I knew what the real story would be. Correlation. Here’s two immediate theories:
1. People who wear high-level sunscreen might have a false sense of security about their time in the sun. Maybe they don’t reapply as often as they should.
2. Very possibly, these are same people who have a higher risk of skin cancer due to family history. Why else would you spend the money (and forgo that guilt-free “breakthrough tan” possible with the lower SPFs) on SPF 50 or higher?
I wasn’t completely correct in my assumptions; there was talk of the Vitamin A in the sunscreen speeding up UV exposure, and some concern that other chemicals used in these lotion could actually cause cancer (one report I heard from our local Fox affiliate suggested that the only people who might want to heed this warning is parents of kids under 2; their skin might be more susceptible to these chemicals). But many of the doctors interviewed in the media fallout from this study did refer to similar correlation theories. Like so many of these media-touted studies, it’s imperative for us to think critically about what we hear, and not jump to the same doomsday conclusions as our media brethren.
What does all of this have to do with formula feeding? A lot, I think. When I read breastfeeding/formula studies, I don’t go into it wanting to disprove the superiority of breastmilk; to the contrary, I think that anytime Mother Nature kicks technology’s ass, it’s pretty darn cool. But I do want to separate truth from overblown claims; to see the reality in the science, the human face behind the statistics.
Statistics are like sexy bad boys. They can be thrillingly dangerous, and look so promising – if you can just tweak them a bit to make them into a better version of themselves. They make an impression. But they mislead; they can be all gloss and no substance. Sometimes, there’s a wonderful heart under a rough exterior; not all bad boys are truly bad. You just need to go into the relationship with your eyes open, and realize that there might be more than they are showing you at first.
Like I said: it’s about reading the studies critically.
Which is why I was so thrilled to find Joel Best’s book, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicans, and Activists (University of California Press, 2001). It’s a few years old, but remains as topical as ever. Consider it required reading for all FFFs. I promise you, it’s not your father’s statistics book. It’s funny, acerbic, and easy enough for someone who dropped out of math junior year in high school (ahem, moi) to understand. Don’t believe me? You can read the introduction here. If you don’t love it, you can write me and tell me to shove it. Pinky swear.