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Torturing Data in the Name of Nonsense

Spiritualism began more than 150 years ago with the three Fox sisters: Leah, Margaret, and Kate. People who attended their séances reported that the deceased used rapping sounds to communicate with the living. (Margaret eventually admitted that the mysterious sounds were made by the sisters cracking their toe joints!) The subsequent decades have seen an amazing array of mind-over-matter tricks involving entertainers jangling tambourines, bending spoons, and abusing other props.

Nowadays, in our age of big data and big computers, peer-reviewed research is often used to demonstrate the existence of implausible mental powers. Every study of implausible mental feats that I’ve looked at—and I’ve looked at many—provides further evidence of the wisdom of Nobel-laureate Ronald Coase’s wry observation, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” I will illustrate this statistical mischief with several life-and-death examples.

Scary Days

The British Medical Journal, one of the world’s top medical journals, published a study provocatively titled, “The Hound of the Baskervilles Effect,” referring to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story in which Charles Baskerville dies of a heart attack while he is being pursued down a dark alley by a vicious dog:

The dog, incited by its master, sprang over the wicket-gate and pursued the unfortunate baronet, who fled screaming down the yew alley. In that gloomy tunnel it must indeed have been a dreadful sight to see that huge black creature, with its flaming jaws and blazing eyes, bounding after its victim. He fell dead at the end of the alley from heart disease and terror.

The study’s author argued that Japanese and Chinese Americans are similarly susceptible to heart attacks on the fourth day of every month because in Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese, the pronunciation of four and death are very similar. Four is an unlucky number for many Asian-Americans, but are they really so superstitious and fearful that the fourth day of the month—which, after all, happens every month—is as terrifying as being chased down a dark alley by a ferocious dog?

I looked at the Baskervilles study (isn’t the BS acronym tempting?) and found that the authors examined California data for Japanese and Chinese Americans who died of coronary disease. Of those deaths that occurred on the third, fourth, and fifth days of the month, I found that 33.9 percent were on day 4, which does not differ substantially or statistically from the expected 33.3 percent. So, how did the Baskervilles study come to the opposite conclusion? They tortured the data. There are dozens of categories of heart disease and they only reported results for the five categories in which more than one-third of the deaths occurred on day 4. Unsurprisingly, attempts by other researchers to replicate their results failed.

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About Skeptic

SPECIAL SECTION Skeptic’s Science Dialogues: Bill Nye in Conversation with Michael Shermer on Climate Change, Travel to Mars, Artificial Intelligence, Nuclear Power, GMOs and more… ARTICLES Miracle Water: Why Zamzam Water is Not a Valid Medical Treatment; Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Convergence of Mental Illness, Marginality, and Cyber Radicalism; Torturing Data; Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism; What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?; ET v. Earth Pathogens; Trouble in the Multiverse; Science v. Subjectivity: Football Playoff Teams Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Functional Medicine; The Gadfly: The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice REVIEWS The Stealth Determinism of Westworld—a Review of the television series Westworld; Back to the Future and Forward to the Past—a Review of Time Travel: A History; Cosmic Consciousness and the Ptolemaic Principle—a review of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters; Science International—a review of Courting Science: Securing the Foundation for a Second American Century; Conjuring Magic—two books on the history of magic: Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World and Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World JUNIOR SKEPTIC An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection