Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The One-Percenters, The Science Edition: One reason we're stuck with breast-is-best

Recent studies clog parenting websites, traditional news media, magazines and blogs. Tantalizing discoveries litter my homepage. Science news feeds spit out hundreds of fresh studies each week into my inbox. New journals cropping up every year. Traditional publishers bumping up their content with online bits and pieces. It's no secret the annual number of published studies popping up in traditional journals has increased over the past decades. Over two million papers get published every year now. It's easy to get the impression everybody's doing it. A lot. Getting published.

But a new report found 99% of scientists don't publish papers on a regular, that is annual basis - even with a plethora of journals and an endless supply of cheap labor (i.e. grad students).

Less than 1% of scientists get a paper published every year. 

I know, who cares?

You and I don't have to deal with this crowd in our daily lives. They won't be drinking too much warm beer and scaring the kids at the block party this weekend. They won't be heckling the pitcher at your son's baseball team. They probably won't even be asking too many questions and thus holding up the organic cheese maker's line at the local farmer's market either. They're too busy micro-managing research labs with million and millions of grant money (i.e. our tax dollars) and sticking their names atop every manuscript in their purview.

So why bother with this scientific elite at all?
...these 150,608 scientists dominate the research journals, having their names on 41% of all papers. Among the most highly cited work, this elite group can be found among the co-authors of 87% of papers. ScienceMag.org
Just like their economic counterparts, the scientific elite hog publication resources. Now I realize that 150, 608 scientist seems like a small, exclusive crowd, it's certainly too large to fit into a quaint college quad or wrangle into a stadium. But remember millions of papers are published each year now in scientific journals (not arts/humanities) and the elites, the one-percenters have produced or at least gotten their names on an average of 41% over the past decade and a half.

In 2011, the super publishers accounted for only 34% (vs 41%) but take a look at these stats:

2, 352, 087 - papers published by everybody and their overworked, underpaid grad student
    807, 146 - papers published by the elite scientists (i.e. super publishers)

This means it is quite hard for younger or less-well established researchers to get their findings to the scientific community much less the general public. It's got to be more difficult to publish findings that qualify or challenge  prevailing ideologies, ahem, say breast-is-best. So that lowly associate professor (God forbid the one without tenure) sitting on data showing breastfed babies aren't any healthier than formula babies, well, she doesn't have much of a chance. No wonder we haven't heard from her.

NOTE: The study, conducted by John Ioannidis, aka he of Published-Research-Stinks fame, appears this month in PLOS ONE.  

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Really Boring Children's Health Studies

Many studies are not fabulous. Most are not dramatic. Most never see the media spotlight for good reason. I enjoy reading the daily research feeds but I wouldn't dream of foisting the grand majority of findings on you. The media does a pretty good job spiffing them up but most are either small, limited in scope, rigor or application, or pretty dull basic research that a mere decade or so ago nobody would see on their homepage.

Most published studies never make it to even the science news distributors. On any given day the ones that do get included in research updates aren't terribly important or ground-breaking.

Consider these fascinating discoveries (not!) over the past week:

MRI scans reveal how the brain tells the body to pee

Movement disorders in young people related to ADHD

Addiction starts with an overcorrection in brain, study shows

Lead in kids' blood linked with behavioral, emotional problems

Gene type confers 26 percent chance of early celiac sign by age 5

First pediatric autism study conducted entirely online

The pee study obviously got thrown in so the summer intern could write pee. None are highly newsworthy. Sure the the last one, the first online autism study (oh my!) can play the first card but as for the actual results? Nothing special.

And so it goes day after day on the science feeds and yet the media must make news.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dr. Oz's Magic Pills: Debunking worth a hill of beans?

Even Harvard-educated heart surgeons indulge in pseudoscience from time to time. Sometimes they get away with it and sometimes they don't. Just ask Dr. Mehmet Oz, the 2014 Emmy Award-winning talk show host and sometimes heart surgeon who recently testified before a Senate subcommittee on dietary supplements - "magic beans" and "lightning in a bottle" to Dr. Oz and fans. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) implored Oz to explain how a man of science could justify touting the benefits of "miracle" pills without any relevant scientific evidence.

Good question.

How could a famous, telegenic, charismatic, well-connected, Emmy-award winning New York doctor of impeccable academic and professional credentials with a beautiful family and enormous national audience shill suspect diet pills? 

Because he cares about you. He loves you. He wants the best for you:
"My job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience, and when they don't think they have hope, when they don't think they can make it happen, I want to look, and I do look everywhere, including in alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them," Oz said. via CNN
Cue the media. The LA Times. CNN. ABC. The Atlantic. HuffPo. Gawker. John Oliver....

I welcome any debunking of health and medical claims. I welcome any fact-checking. But I also have to muse at the brohaha over these lame supplements and tv doctor. 

And I'm just plain jealous. All that attention. John Oliver. Very jealous. 

What would it take for a similar take-down of children's health claims. Especially advice that might really and truly negatively impact a child or family? What's a few dollars spent on lame supplements? Dr. Oz spews all kinds of nonsense on his show and he should be held accountable but who cares about the pills if it they're really harmless, placebos even?

What about the countless claims parents encounter? 

For instance, just yesterday I got into yet another discussion with friends about early puberty, aka the notion girls get their first periods earlier than ever, a largely unsupported hypothesis that has taken root in the public and professional imagination. Yes, there is some preliminary (though limited) evidence breast development is occurring earlier than in previous decades but there is scant evidence of earlier menstruation. I've written about it here. 

What are the consequences of believing girls are menstruating at increasingly younger ages? I don't know, maybe it fuels anxiety in general, cancer fears more specifically. Maybe it increases the sale of organic milk. Can you think of other possible impacts? I suspect it doesn't help anyone to go around worrying early puberty and yet I haven't seen much debunking on that front. One reason might be that many pediatricians seem to subscribe to the earlier menstruation theory or at least that has been my sense from talking to health professionals over the years. 

So here's your summer assignment. Ask your children's pediatrician about early puberty. Do they believe it? Earlier menstruation in particular. Let me know. And if John Oliver mentions it, please tell me. I'd love to see him debunk that one. Big Tampax and all.

What would you like to see debunked this summer?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No Spoiled Kids on Father's Day?

Lenore Skenazy, aka Free Range Mom, reviewed Alfie Kohn's new book "The Myth of The Spoiled Child" in the New York Times this weekend. I had trouble understanding the logic of the op-ed he wrote a couple months ago so I haven't tackled the book yet and based on Lenore Skenazy's review I'm not sure I will.

From what I've gleaned from several articles, Kohn feels parents are overly concerned with controlling their children's lives and should be loving and affectionate. Fine, anyone disagree yet? He also argues parents are too concerned with competition. Agreed, at least for now as I'm recovering from another school year of travel sports, contests, tests, charity challenges, tournaments, prizes, awards, honor rolls, etc. but might feel differently in a month when my kids can't remember 2 + 2.

Kohn also feels it's okay that every kid gets a trophy because disappointment and failure hold no benefits and teach nothing of value. In this view, children are fragile, sensitive souls who crumble in the face of criticism and lost soccer matches without medals and other plastic made in China. Really? On Saturday my 8-year old son's soccer team lost two games in a row in the World Cup (seriously?) and while two kids came off the field in tears, the other ten didn't seem to care very much if at all. My kid didn't get a trophy and I do think he gleaned something about resilience in that brief moment if only that sometimes he will win and sometimes lose and that life goes on and he will be okay regardless of the outcome however minor or significant (though I don't know the exact mechanism, Mr. Kohn, resilience and related concepts are well-documented).

If it's not clear by now Kohn dares question grit, the golden child of twenty-first century parenting (paging Angela Duckworth). He doesn't think kids learn anything beneficial from facing disappointment? Or is disappointment in general okay as long as it doesn't come from mommy or daddy?

As much as I love a rebellious, countercultural stance, I'm not clear how a parent provides only affirmations (but not praise) while also instilling certain life skills and traits. It sounds a bit like positive discipline, great, but are there any consequences in the Kohn household? I'm not sure how Kohn plans on getting his children out the door and into their own apartments and jobs (or did he already?). Maybe that's in the book.

His comments from another article might clear it up for some people:

What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. "Good job!" is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.

 This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids "earn" it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present, "Good job!" isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, "Good job!" won’t help.

I don't see praise as the opposite of unconditional love. Nor do I see providing consequences for poor behavior as incompatible with unconditional love. Perhaps this is where Alfie and I part ways. I suppose we have different conceptions of unconditional love. You?

Surely Kohn knows that Baumeister, the psychology researcher who placed self-esteem on the pedestal also subsequently knocked it down? I'm still confused about how it all "works" in reality and by that I mean his home. Does he have older children? Does he have children who like competition? We all know kids who thrive on competition or challenge and ones who don't care a whit and I'm pretty sure these differences are present early on suggesting there's something in the DNA. David Epstein didn't address that in The Sports Gene, a great book that I bought for my husband but ended up reading myself.  Like so many parenting books and advice, I'm not sure how this one works in reality.

Speaking of parenting books....bless Lenore Skenazy, who delivered the best lines in her opening:

It is entirely possible, if you sit down on a comfy couch with a plump pillow, a good reading light and a crack pipe, that you can read a bunch of parenting books and not feel terrible.

And I say that having written one.

Enough said.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fact-Checking School Shootings: The Media Debunks Its Own News Coverage

Mark the occasion. Someone bothered to fact-check media claims involving children and teenagers. The rare debunking comes after a gun-control group released a new report on school shootings. The news giant CNN dared question news coverage of the report....faint...including its own:
After Tuesday's shooting at an Oregon high school, many media outlets, including CNN, reported that there have been 74 school shootings in the past 18 months. CNN
74 school shootings.

The figure popped up all over the media including Yahoo, Slate, Mashable and the Huffington Post.  The Washington Post's article,  Map: There have been at least 74 shootings at school since Newton, indeed, featured a dramatic national map pinpointing the locations. Not to be outdone, Jezebel warned "There's Probably Going to Be a School Shooting This Week Thanks to You."

So how did the media arrive at 74 shootings?

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, culled media reports and found 74 incidences of guns on school grounds. Their estimate includes events that most people probably don't associate with the typical school shooting in the media - ones involving drug deals, arguments, suicides and accidents. To their credit, the Washington Post and others did clarify this important point (as did Everytown) but still went with the dramatic headline and in some cases, graphic.

(BTW I am troubled by any gun on any school grounds, gun fired or not, people hurt or not. I am not neutral on this issue. I am not a friend of the NRA. I very much support gun laws. Bring them on.)

How many school shootings occurred since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary? In other words, the typical scenario of a student or adult walking into a school and opening fire.

CNN identified 15 or about 20% of the reported 74.

I can't really bash Everytown because their goal is to reduce gun violence in general and not just prevent the stereotypical school shooting scenario - and their "full" report does clarify what this figure includes and they present a somewhat detailed slicing and dicing of the school shooting statistics. Moreover, the media should scrutinize data from advocacy groups before publishing any supposed facts or figures - and in this case, most did clarify the figure, eventually.

The National Center for Education Statistics also includes many types of incidences in their school violence report (see my post):
The National Center for Educational Statistics has published a regular report - Indicators of School Crime and Violence 2011 – listing among other facts the number of school homicides each year. For example, from July 2009 through June 2010, the NCES reports 17 students were killed at school. Not all these deaths involve what we've come to call rampage or school shootings. Some might involve “legal interventions” – such as police shootings. School violence in general, including homicides, has declined after a peak in the early 1990s.Youth violence is at its lowest point since the 1960s. Profile of a Rampage Killer   
As for the incidence of school shootings over time, it's not clear whether they've increased over the past decade. An older report from the U.S Secret Service identified 37 school shootings, basically the now familiar scenario, between 1974 and 2000. I've looked for a more recent number, say from 2000 to 2014.  I wish CNN would have rooted around for that number. In fact that information is missing from the reporting on school shootings, it is the elephant in the room.

I also wish the media would do more fact-checking on suspect claims that carry more significant consequences or costs. I'm not sure of the exact cost of inaccurate or imprecise reporting on school shootings here (and the media outlets did mostly report on the wide net or definition of school shootings). I hate guns. I don't see any reason for the average person to have one let alone carry one into a Starbucks. True, parents might overestimate their child's risk.

Why bother isolating the incidence of typical school shootings? It is a valuable exercise because the high profile in the media of such events likely elevates the perceptions they are common and not the rare, isolated occurrences when in reality they are a relatively infrequent incident given the thousands, twenty, thirty thousands of people killed by a gun each year here in this country.

It's refreshing to see any sort of fact-checking, in this case, an attempt to identify and isolate what we've come to know as school shootings, though, because these events have captured so much media attention. The risk of any one child being a target in such an incidence remains extremely low even if school shootings appear to be rising.

Even if school shootings are relatively rare, this is not an argument for letting someone carry a gun into Starbucks, the grocery store or anywhere near children, adults or really any other people. 

UPDATE: To put it further into perspective, the typical mass school shooting doesn't reflect the thousands of other acts of gun violence in the United States including the 31,672 gun deaths in 2013 alone, about 60% of them suicides according to the CDC. It doesn't include kids killed by guns off of school property. Thanks to Jen Burden of World Moms Blog for fowarding this letter from a mother whose son was killed on his way home from school by a gang member. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Calling All Parenting Experts?

A recent offer has banished all but my remaining shreds of naivety about how the parenting media operates. Not that I was so innocent or impressionable before but now I've seen everything. Here's the invitation I received this week from a casting company that works on a number of reality and talk shows you likely know:

We are currently casting for a Parenting Expert, its currently a project in development.

Furthermore, the show will be cutting edge, with no nonsense parenting skills.  The ideal candidate will be observing how parents are struggling through certain situations: Whether it be in the home, on vacation, at relatives - friends homes, at restaurants, etc..  and how they offer and deliver suggestions to correct the issues.

Cutting edge. No nonsense parenting. No mention of credentials. No grammar or typo check.

I am so tempted to play the role of parenting expert.

I would love to develop a personna and have an excuse to buy a great wig then go out and observe and record the ridiculousness of the parenting media, exploring the possibility someone who is not an expert can play one on tv. Kind of like the journalist who became a prison guard at Sing Sing. True, I do offer advice to friends and family when they ask but it's mostly based on my own parenting experiences. It's quite another thing to present myself as an authority and tell complete strangers how to get their kids to behave in the airport or Disneyland. There are great child psychologists out there but I'm not one of them.

From time to time I'm invited to participate in professional opportunities as a parenting expert of sorts. My favorite until now, I once was solicited to appear as an expert on a parenting App being developed by some Beverly Hills child psychologist. For better or worse (think of the sheer hilarity!) you won't be able to download my two cents on potty training any time soon. The grand majority of the time I pass on the no doubt enriching experience. As a general rule I don't provide my opinion on ADHD, education, transition to motherhood or other timely issues when contacted by journalists looking for expert comments. For the record, I've never offered that kind of parenting advice anyhow.

Now if someone asked for my opinion on the suspect advice of the parenting experts or on suspect parenting experts, well, I might take the bait. But the topic rarely if ever seems to come up in the media.

Maybe it's time I get that wig and go undercover. Which role should I play? Perky? Earnest? Practical?  Reassuring? Serious? An expert on discipline? Food aversions? Sibling rivalry? So many roles, so little time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bullying on the Decrease?

Excuse my end-of-year rush but I don't want to forget about Harvard's Shorenstein Center's recap of recent bullying studies. Anyhow, it gives me a chance to assign some Summer Reading. If you haven't done so before, check out the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy. They gather up recent research and do mini-reviews on timely topics but before you get too excited most are not in-depth. Think of them as a quick update, the empirical equivalent of a snack-size Kit Kat.

Back to the bullying. So the reason I mention it, the results of a new study surprised me. Sure, the data was pulled from a national adolescent health survey from the WHO and that doesn't always make stellar methodology but here are the findings:

There was a steady decrease in the proportion of students who reported they were bullied at least twice per month, from 13.7% in 1998 to 10.2% in 2010. 

Physical fighting decreased between the years 1998, when 23.4% of students reported fighting, and 2006, when 18.4% reported fighting. There was no change between 2006 and 2010. 

So bullying and fighting decreased. Here's the bad news, carrying weapons to school is on the rise at least among White students. I didn't read the actual study but I'm curious about online bullying. I find it hard to believe it's decreased so I wonder how or if it was captured here. I suspect it wasn't specifically accessed. I'm emailing the authors to find out for sure and to get a copy of the paper.

Part of the reduction may be due to a narrow definition of bullying. According to the Shorenstein report the authors defined it as "hurtful taunting, intentional exclusion from social activities, verbal or physical aggression, spreading false rumors and sexual harassment." 

“[It] is not bullying when two students of about the same strength or power argue or fight. It is also not bullying when a student is teased in a friendly and playful way.” (the study definition)

So although psychologists and academics often define bullying in this manner, if a study is a self-report survey that asks students if they are bullied, they might perceive a greater number of encounters and behavior as bullying and report higher levels. I've never thought of sexual harassment as bullying mainly because it has its own legal definition and academic literature.

Another meta-analysis showed anti-bullying programs appear to reduce bullying by about 20%. So that's reassuring but it almost seems to good to be true. Is anyone else surprised school programs have taken a good whack out of bad behavior? I'd know more but I don't feel like shelling out $39.95 to read the whole study.

I could download Season 3 of Revenge for the same amount of money.

Or I could buy 4 copies of Emily Bazelon's book on bullying and pass it out to my friends or the school administrators.

Or I could vaccinate 2 kids for polio, measles, pneumonia and diarrhea at Shot At Life.

What should I do?