Baby Bogus

A New Year’s BOGUS has been born! (is it just me, or did that happen awfully fast?). And let me tell you, this

New Years Baby Through Club Soda
Image by rochelle, et. al. via Flickr

one is a ten-pound whopper with a stinky diaper chock-full of…well, you get the idea. An “evolutionary biologist” published an actual paper asserting that the gender of babies is determined by what the mother eats. Apparently, good old King Henry was justified in chopping off all those wives’ heads – it wasn’t his sperm at fault. It was her breakfast.

Unfortunately, I am not joking here. To understand the destructive impact of this kind of BOGUS reporting, imagine you live in a country repressive to women (don’t feel constrained, there are lots to choose from). If you can get stoned for adultery after you were gang-raped, how damaging do you think this media-spread reversal-of-fact will be – that women are now responsible for the births (or not) of sons?

So how does someone get a paper this BOGUS (full of this much mom-blaming misinformation) published, and then widely covered in the (NPR!) media? First, here’s the way gender-selection actually works: The simple matter of an X or Y chromosome (from, exclusively, the sperm – all eggs are Xs) determines the gender of a baby. XY is a boy. XX is a girl. That’s been known, since, oh, about the time  my grandmother could  have peered into a microscope (if, that is, she hadn’t been just a eensy bit busy raising cotton, as well as seven kids).

An “evolutionary biologist” (which, BTW, seems to be code for: someone-who-says-whatever-s#*t-pops-into-his/her-head) decided to “analyze” (obviously without ever taking an advanced statistics course) factors about mothers’ lives to see what popped out as marginally significant in gender selection. Then, oh goody! let’s publish it!

Ah the curse of modern software…garbage in/garbage out.

See, the other, well-known (by those who care to know) issue here is that if you take ANY group of people, and analyze factors about them – something will pop up as marginally significant. The more factors you throw in (and there were over 130 in this study!), the more false positives you will get. This is a mathematical fact.Hence the need for both something fancy, called a “logistical regression model” which tries to dampen down this effect, and the need for something simple, called basic biologic facts (or, as may grandmother would say, “horse sense”).

Say, for example, we take all U.S. Senators and Representatives (this being Inaugural week) and we decide to analyze factors that might determine which seat they choose when Congress is in session. We make them keep food diaries, and list all the grooming products they use, their birth order, income, and number of stars in their daily horoscope. Our analysis shows that high-fiber cereal, Aqua-Net hairspray, and a horoscope stating “you will meet the man of your dreams!” are all significant factors in where a Congressional butt lands. This is great stuff, isn’t it?

So do we rush to publication, thereby boosting our chances of promotion, padding our resumes and feeling, as we give interviews to NPR, like we’re the Oprah of the pocket-protector set? Or do we, instead, pay attention to the person flapping their arms and shouting in the back of the room “You fool– those seats are ASSIGNED.”

Unfortunately, even when an offended, thoughtful scientist -way to go, Stanley Young! – tried to nip this in the bud by writing to the shameful journal that published this study – he even detailed in writing exactly how wrong this is – he only got included in the media coverage (yes, even on NPR!) as a “skeptic.” As opposed to being, say, “right.”

For this, we award to the authors and to NPR our first of 2009, special (Before Opening Gargantuan mouth, Understand Statistics – or, your choice – Babies Obviously Grow Under Stones) BOGUS Award.

What do you think? Will a woman eating an all-cereal diet undo fetal XX chromosomes? What would you over-analyze to find a BOGUS result – maybe the factors that influence the reaction time of gravity? Weigh in with the comments section below!

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