Bacon won’t give you stomach cancer, redux

Two years ago I posted about a story that had gone viral on Facebook, in which the World Cancer Research Fund claimed bacon would cause stomach cancer. When I did actual due diligence to see where they came up with that claim, I found no evidence it was backed up with anything remotely akin to science. In fact the little bit I could discover on Google suggested that the WCRF either mostly or exclusively does meta-studies, analyzing trends in other people’s research, which is as scientifically valid as drawing theories out of a hat and proclaiming one of them true. Meta-studies are not science: they do no new research of their own, and combine the results of multiple studies which may have radically disparate methodologies, sample validity, etc.

There’s a new article today in the Mirror, a UK paper, claiming no amount of alcohol, bacon, or sausage is safe and all of them increase your cancer risk. Inside the article they also mentioned processed meats, the great hobgoblin of the WCRF’s last scare, and sure enough the WCRF was at the front and center of this piece. Once again there’s no citation of science done. This time they didn’t even bother to hint at what kinds of approaches they even took to reach this conclusion. For that I blame the Mirror, for publishing an article supposedly on a science topic but not asking for even four words to describe the methodology behind this bold, dare I say outrageously asinine (I dare), conclusion.

Any time an article tells you that supposed experts in a field came to a shocking conclusion, and doesn’t tell you how, you know two things right off the bat: The journalist utterly failed at their job of reporting the salient facts, and the “experts” probably are not experts but are more likely to be an advocacy group putting out a press release to drive a narrative.

Does the shoddy quality of this article prove the WCRF is nothing more than an advocacy group pushing junk science? No. But if they’re not, they should be furious with the author of the article for making them look that way, because holy crap do they look that way.

Real scientists want people to understand how they reached their conclusions. Real scientists lay their data and methodology bare for the world to see, and beg others to poke holes in their findings so they can refine their work and get closer to the truth. Any time a supposed scientist goes out of their way to avoid replication, bias peer reviews, or push a conclusion instead of continuing to question it, they’re not doing science. And any time a science journalist fails to spot such problems, they’re not doing journalism.

Let’s name names! The reporter behind this article is the Mirror’s health and science correspondent, Martin Bagot. Here are my questions for Mr. Bagot:

  1. What was your source for this article? Was it, as I suspect, a press release? And if so, didn’t it occur to you to question anything it said?
  2. What specific research did the WCRF site in the source material? Why was absolutely no mention of that specific research, or lack thereof, made in the article?
  3. Why does the word “study” appear nowhere in the story until a quote from the head of health of Bowel Cancer UK, and why is said study never mentioned in the article outside of that quote? (See also question 2.)
  4. Speaking of Bowel Cancer UK, why is it not disclosed or even mentioned that they are a charity group with a particular agenda? A group looking to get more funding, albeit obviously for a worthy cause, has a vested interest in calling special attention to alarmist findings, does it not? Which could also be said of the WCRF itself, could it not?
  5. As a science correspondent, isn’t it your frelling job to include basic information regarding the research in question, including its methodology, sample sizes, and so on? If there was an actual research study done, why was this information left out of the article, and did you even try to find out? Or, if this article pertains to a meta-study, the scientific equivalent of getting your horoscope from a puppet, why was that never mentioned?
  6. Why didn’t the “No amount of ____ is safe” claim not immediately peg you that this claim warranted extra skepticism? Or was that extremist wording yours, or the Mirror’s, rather than the WCRF’s?
  7. How in the world did your editor let this story through without addressing, or rendering moot through due diligence, every single one of the previous questions?

So let’s assume the WCRF’s findings here are on the up-and-up. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s the result of rigorous valid science, leaving aside that I said in my previous post that there is almost no such thing as valid science in the field of linking specific dietary items to cancer, for reasons that are obvious to scientists and those who hold the scientific method in high regard. Let’s pretend this study is beyond reproach. In that case, Martin utterly botched the story by failing to describe, in overview, how the WCRF reached its findings. I mean that’s the bare minimum he’s supposed to do in every article about a scientific finding: give us a brief glimpse of the science behind it, so we can see if it’s thoroughly backed up or if it’s suspect.

Now let’s assume the far more likely scenario, that the WCRF is relying on stupid meta-studies and putting out an alarmist press release. Martin still dropped the ball pretty heavily, by repeating the source material uncritically. As a science reporter you do not get to simply say “Experts said X” and not tell us their justification—and if you don’t know their justification, you push for details or you don’t run the story! Turning a skeptical eye to all research claims is not only his job, but the job of all scientists everywhere.

Interestingly, the one relevant thing Martin mentions in the article is that the WCRF included stomach cancer among other cancers on their list for the first time with this new report, even though two years ago I was seeing them say the exact same thing. This news is not new, even if it’s true. Maybe the change to their guidelines is a new thing, but the supposed link to stomach cancer is not. Also, this fact is trivial compared to the more serious concerns about where the conclusions came from and how; if the article was kept short to fit a certain word count, then this was the wrong information to include.

And really, this part gets my goat the worst: “No amount of ____ is safe.” That’s such a ridiculously extreme statement it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Maybe the only thing that statement might be true for is aerosolized plutonium, the deadliest substance known to man. For everything else, even tobacco, it’s flat-out wrong. Whenever you read a statement like that, if your BS detector doesn’t start screaming then you need to get a new one because yours is broken beyond repair. That’s not a statement from science, it’s a statement from someone trying to use shock to push an agenda. Whether that agenda is to push everyone into eating vegetarian or just drum up more funding for a cause or whatever, I have no idea; but whatever it is, that statement was not a conclusion someone came to through research. (For clarity’s sake, I don’t know whether that statement came from the WCRF or it’s a muddled echo dumbed down by Martin or whoever wrote the headline. But if it came from the WCRF, that’s all the more reason Martin should have been on the ball.)

Oh, I know, I know: maybe I’m being too hard on Martin. Only I’m not. If you’re a science correspondent for a major publication you owe it to your readers and your employers to get the whole story, as much as possible, every time. If your publication for some reason imposed untenable bounds on your ability to do that, shame on them, but shame on you too for letting them. And none of how he’s screwed up is malicious, but it sure is lazy. Digging for the deeper story is important, even if you’re doing something as picayune as a human interest story on a dog who sings and plays piano. This is about cancer.

And as for the WCRF, suffice it to say what I’ve seen of them across two articles and a bit of lightweight Internet sleuthing has suggested to me they’re not doing science; they’re doing meta-studies. This is only a hunch, not an accusation, but I suspect they have a bit of confirmation bias when it comes to that, where the more extraordinary a result appears to be the more they want to believe it, so they can put out press releases that bonehead science reporters will repeat, that will remind the public of their name and get more funding kicked their way. I don’t blame them for wanting to push funding or hyping extraordinary results, because cancer is serious and research is important, and I’m sure everyone in that organization has their hearts in the right place. But it’s precisely because good research is so important that if they are doing meta-studies, that crap needs to end. Either do real science or direct your research funds towards people who are.

Science is important, and so is reporting on it correctly. The whole scientific endeavor has had quite enough trouble lately as it’s come to light repeatedly that many researchers—doing or at least purporting to do actual research, not meta-studies—have had to retract their papers for serious flaws ranging from severe biases to outright scientific fraud. So why hasn’t science reporting, in major publications at least, not gotten the least bit better as we recognize just how fraught with inaccuracy, mistakes, and misinformation the discipline has become? You don’t have to have the skeptical bona fides of James Randi to realize there’s a problem with whatever was used to source the article, and try to get to the bottom of it in an objective way.

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Anatomy of a book cover

Now that my release is out, I thought I’d do a fun post to help out fellow indies looking to do their own book cover work. Here’s a rough breakdown of everything I did to put together my most recent cover and a general process you can use yourself. Continue reading

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Sequel day!

Yay! After a long wait, the release of The Well of Moments is finally here!

For only having promoted the free promo of The Affix on Reddit and Litsy, that promo is doing surprisingly well. It’s nowhere near the downloads I got for the release of Below, of course, but I just didn’t feel throwing money at the promo was right for this case. Hopefully though, enough people will read and love the first book to go on to read and love the second. Maybe some will leave reviews.

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Breaking news is broken

On the ongoing subject of programmers who should be hit with blunt objects, I have one of the Weather Channel’s two apps on my phone—which is to say, they have two iOS apps and they encourage people to switch to the newer one, which my phone has. Both of those apps are pretty sucky, but the weather data is better than Apple’s.

A few weeks ago my phone pinged me while it was in my pocket. Not a text message, not anything important from any of the few apps that are allowed to use sound in their notifications. This was the Weather Channel’s (newer) app telling me about some event that happened halfway across the world. Breaking news.

Well that’s stupid, I thought. Who needs the Weather Channel app to tell them about things going on around the world? Either you have a regular news app for that or you don’t care. (Or to put it more mildly, you care on a strictly human level, but not on any other level and not nearly enough to allow an app to notify you.) So I found out where the app configures the things it notifies you about, and turned Breaking News off. I still want the app to alert me if, say, severe thunderstorms are gonna barrel through.

A few days later it happened again. I was sitting watching TV with the in-laws when my phone made a noise in my pocket and told me that a volcano in Hawaii was running amuck. But I had turned that off.

Sure enough, when I checked the settings again the Breaking News item was back on. So I tried some experiments, and it turns out that when I fully close the app, and open it back up, Breaking News alerts are always turned back on.

I’ve seen this exact kind of stupid before. I’ve ranted about it before on this very blog. My cable company eliminated a setting on their DVRs, then brought it back, and when they did some bonehead put in logic that said if this particular setting was off, it should be turned back on in its default state. Nowhere however did they actually account for people having turned it off on purpose. This particular setting was “DVR compensation”, a questionable concept that was implemented badly from the very beginning and never fixed, which is a whole other rant.

Same thing here. The Weather Channel obviously added this stupid Breaking News thing to their app, and wanted to set it up so it’d be on by default. That part’s not horrible; I hate the feature but maybe someone, somewhere, likes it. The bad part is that when they added the feature, they put in logic to keep turning it on.

So listen, inferior programmers, here’s how you do settings correctly. (And you morons at Microsoft, I’m especially talking to you.) Whenever a user changes a setting, it is not enough to simply have a variable or a place in a file that says what that setting currently is. You need to store something else, or store the original value in such a way as to make it clear this setting was explicitly chosen. This can be as simple as keeping a list of settings that were changed, and falling back on the defaults for anything not in that list.

Or you can keep doing it wrong, so that every time your software updates, or in a case like this every time it’s activated, it resets some or all of the settings to a default because it assumes the “off” value is the same as “no preference”.

I do hope everyone in Hawaii is okay. Doesn’t mean I want my phone to freak me out with an alert in the middle of watching Downton Abbey.

Update: They fixed it in a newer version. Finally. Credit where it’s due. But programmers of the world, let this be a lesson to you!

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HEY STUPID: Stop polling localStorage without a try/catch!

I’m going on a rant against my fellow programmers, because there are a lot of JavaScript developers out there working on commercial websites who ought to frelling know better. This also applies to older versions of the Modernizr script, although newer ones fixed that so if you’re using an old one, UPGRADE!

Here’s the deal: Some of us are careful about cookies. You might say overly paranoid, but whatever. I only allow cookies by whitelist. This can cause problems when I’m using a site for the first time, as I may have to allow cookies for a few domains, but it’s not a problem for sites where I actually have any interest in allowing cookies. And yes, I know there are extensions now that I can use that will simply delete cookies after a short time if I don’t whitelist, but again that’s not the point. Anyway it’s usually not a problem to enable cookies for the domains I care about. It’d be easier if some version of Firefox a while back hadn’t changed things so it cared about whether I’m using HTTP or HTTPS as the protocol, in which case I often have to set an exception twice.

But there are sites that handle this badly, and for absolutely no reason. One of their core scripts looks for localStorage, or sessionStorage, or indexedDB, and this throws a security error if the browser has cookies disabled. So even if the site doesn’t need to set any cookies to operate properly, it fails. And worse, many sites fail to render entirely if that one script they’re relying on throws everything into chaos, all because some STUPID STUPID STUPID JavaScript programmer didn’t use a try/catch.

Disabling cookies ought to prevent proper logins; I accept that. I can see other reasons it could be an issue for certain functionality. What it should not do is prevent the website from functioning entirely, or worse, reload over and over as I’ve sometimes seen. That’s astonishingly bad behavior.

What makes this worse is that web developers are cautioned to always do things in a way that fails gracefully if JavaScript itself isn’t available. Personally I find that a tad extreme, but some basic version of a site should at least be visible instead of a blank page. But here, because of one security exception thrown by the browser, the entire content of a page fails to load and I’m stuck looking at absolutely nothing.

And usually this is only happening because of some simple check early in said script to try to detect a browser or some crap. They’re not even using the capability, but checking for it when it’s not allowed WILL throw an exception which WILL cause problems if you don’t freaking catch it!

The target of this rant, by the way, is I just followed a link there only to be greeted by the Nothing.

Get your crap together, guys. You’re an embarrassment to the profession.

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It’s the final countdown!

Yep, had to go with a song lyric for that one. The excitement goes with what I’m feeling right now.

My proof copy of The Well of Moments arrived Wednesday, so I was able to approve the proof and place my order for author copies that night. They should get here before the 20th now, and a few days before that I’ll set pricing on the paperback edition so CreateSpace is good to go.

The Amazon page is up with a preorder date of May 20. (Links on the sidebar and the book page in the header menu.) The Affix is scheduled for its free promo from the 20th through the 24th.

This is my fourth published book, first proper series, and I’m over the moon. I’m really proud of this book, and excited to see where the series goes from here. But I have less than six months to get my ideas ready for the third installment, and that doesn’t feel like much at all. (I do however have a partial title, know who the lead character will be, know the time and place and weather for the setting, and have a couple of cool plot developments to pull in early. Also I want to give it a mystery feel.) The plan is to leave the series open-ended, so I can keep adding books as I like. And I think I will like, very much.

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Grill season is back!

I haven’t been to the zoo yet this year. Last year we didn’t have a spring, but this year I’ve passed up at least two beautiful potential zoo days so far—today and last week. The reason: I’m still not walking quite normally yet, and on top of that somehow I managed to hurt my other foot last week—thankfully not nearly as badly, so it healed quickly, but in a similar way. This is killing me, because there’s a good chance I’ll miss out on the zoo this year too because of this stupid injury.

But the good news is, I can grill again. My previous grill was basically falling apart, so it was time for a new one, and I decided this time I’d bite the bullet and have Lowe’s deliver it (at an upcharge) because I am not assembling one from scratch ever again. This grill was on sale, which was a nice bonus. It has three burners, making it more versatile than my last grill which had two (and the one before that, which had only one), with a bigger cooking surface. Best of all, I have a thermometer in the hood again.

So tonight to break in the new grill I made a lovely teriyaki ribeye steak, which I had marinating since late last night; mushrooms with butter, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and a couple grinds of black pepper; and for my wife (and the kitties), honey mustard chicken from Wegmans.

I’ve had other steaks so far this year, but there’s something special about what comes off my own grill. And steak marinated in Kikkoman teriyaki sauce is one of the great joys in life. There are lots of good teriyaki sauces out there, but that one is far and away my favorite.

I only ate half the steak, because it was a full pound and normally I start to fill up just past 4 oz. For a special occasion I can fit in half a pound, but honestly tonight I probably could have kept going. Probably best that I stopped when I did, though. And the leftovers will be wonderful too.

The only thing I don’t like about my new grill was that I had to wait for it. They couldn’t deliver it last week, so over the weekend when we had some really gorgeous weather (Saturday at least) I was out of luck.

Speaking of waiting, I’m still waiting on that proof copy for my next book. It shipped Thursday, the same day I put in the order, but it’s not here yet. Maybe Amazon has spoiled me, but I would think $3.50 ground shipping could have gotten it here by today. I wish CreateSpace had tracking, so I could stalk the package. I want that book in my hands already!

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