Sorry, There’s Nothing Magical About Breakfast

Few randomized controlled trials exist. Those that do, although methodologically weak like most nutrition studies, don’t support the necessity of breakfast.

Further confusing the field is a 2014 study (with more financial conflicts of interest than I thought possible) that found that getting breakfast skippers to eat breakfast, and getting breakfast eaters to skip breakfast, made no difference with respect to weight loss. But a 1992 trial that did the same thing found that both groups lost weight. A balanced perspective would acknowledge that we have no idea what’s going on.

Many of the studies are funded by the food industry, which has a clear bias.

Aaron E. Carroll, New York Times, May 23, 2016

Heads or tails? Are you smarter than your MP?

Are you clever enough to be an MP? To find out, simply answer the following question: if you toss a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads? (I know we’re talking about MPs here, but you can assume that no skulduggery is afoot and both coin tosses are fair.)

A 2012 study conducted by the Royal Statistical Society found that just 40% of MPs surveyed gave the correct answer. Worryingly, 45% of MPs thought that the correct answer was 0.5 (ie 50% or evens) – ie the same as the probability of getting heads on a single toss.

Finally, if you did get the question right, then perhaps you would feel more at home in the Conservative rather than the Labour party. Caution is needed here, of course, as the survey was small and not necessarily representative; but of the 41 Tory MPs surveyed, 22 (53%) got the correct answer, as opposed to just 10 out of 44 Labour MPs (23%).

Answer The probability of getting two heads is 0.25 (ie 25% – or 1 in 4). Since you have a 0.5 chance of getting heads on a single toss, the probability of getting two heads is 0.5 x 0.5.

Ben Ambridge, The Guardian, April 24, 2016

Will it rain or not?

Skymet would be discounted in trading decisions, as since it was wrong only last year.

Quite reliable

Not so, the IMD. I admire Indian statisticians and meteorologists. They are competent, have a good reputation globally, and do difficult jobs with politicians and senior bureaucrats always sniping at them. When I was their minister I considered it a privilege to defend them in Parliament.

Yoginder Kalagh,, April 17, 2016

Tool helps scientists attach probability values to climate change uncertainty

The work, carried out by researcher at Princeton University and collaborators, has been published in journal Nature Climate Change and is effectively a consolidation of climate models and the range of opinions that leading scientists have about each of them into a single and consistent set of probabilities about sea level increase in the future. While the study has concentrated on sea-level rise, researchers say that the techniques they have used can be applied to other climate change related issues with high uncertainty.

Ravi Mandalia, Dispatch Tribunal, April 28, 2016

Drake Equation Revision Hugely Ups Odds Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life Exists: A new study revises the famous Drake equation, and gives optimists some more support.

The Drake Equation, which takes into account various factors like the rate of star formation, the fraction of stars that could form planetary systems, the number habitable planets in those systems, and so on, is now 55 years old. It doesn’t reflect the new information SETI researchers have collected since the 1960s.

Estimates derived by projects running under NASA’s Kepler satellite and a few other instruments suggest the 2 x 10^22 stars in the universe, 20 percent have planets that reside in habitable zones that have temperatures, atmospheres, and other traits that could support life. So that takes care of one uncertainty.

That leaves two other questions:

1) How often would life evolve? 2) How long could those civilizations survive for?

That being said, optimism for finding alien life has never been higher. After all, three famous names just started a multi-million dollar project to look for aliens in Alpha Centauri — the closest star system to the Earth — and some prominent scientists think there’s a good chance we’ll find something special. There’s certainly never been a time to be an E.T. optimist.

Neel V. Patel, Inverse.,com, April 28, 2016

The disturbing reason some African American patients may be undertreated for pain

African Americans are routinely under-treated for their pain compared with whites, according to research. A study released Monday sheds some disturbing light on why that might be the case.

Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many believed inaccurate and at times “fantastical” differences about the two races — for example, that blacks have less sensitive nerve endings than whites or that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly. They found that fully half thought at least one of the false statements presented was possibly, probably or definitely true.

Moreover, those who held false beliefs often rated black patients’ pain as lower than that of white patients and made less appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated.

Sandhya Somashekhar, Washington Post, April 4, 2016

As the climate changes, risks to human health will accelerate, White House warns

More deaths from extreme heat. Longer allergy seasons. Increasingly polluted air and water. Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks spreading farther and faster. Those are among the health risks that could be exacerbated by global warming coming decades, the Obama administration warned in a new report Monday.

Brady Dennis, Washington Post, April 4, 2016

Website Seeks to Make Government Data Easier to Sift Through

For years, the federal government, states and some cities have enthusiastically made vast troves of data open to the public. Acres of paper records on demographics, public health, traffic patterns, energy consumption, family incomes and many other topics have been digitized and posted on the web.

This abundance of data can be a gold mine for discovery and insights, but finding the nuggets can be arduous, requiring special skills.

A project coming out of the M.I.T. Media Lab on Monday seeks to ease that challenge and to make the value of government data available to a wider audience. The project, called Data USA, bills itself as “the most comprehensive visualization of U.S. public data.” It is free, and its software code is open source, meaning that developers can build custom applications by adding other data.

Steve Lohr, New York Times, April 4, 2016

Satellite Images Can Pinpoint Poverty Where Surveys Can’t

It is very difficult to randomly sample people in the rural areas of Bihar in India or in a slum like Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, where even just mapping the streets is its own project.

These challenges make new kinds of data — information that can be gathered indirectly using algorithms and novel sources — particularly valuable. Google searches and Twitter and Facebook posts, which are very useful in the United States, are unlikely to help us in Kibera or Dhaka, Bangladesh. But the core idea behind these sources of data — measuring without asking people directly — can be enormously helpful.

Nighttime luminosity tells us not just about electrification but also about economic activity more broadly, and statistical work shows it reliably correlates with economic performance. North Korea is not the only country where satellite photos tell a story that differs from the one told by official data. A seminal paper in the American Economic Review found estimates of income growth in many places that differed from official data by as much as three percentage points annually.

Sendihil Mullainathan, New York Times, April 1, 2016