Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Gas Wells, Journalists, Babies, Birth Defects, and Statistics

 If you intend to do publishable scientific research, or write about the research-- you better understand statistics.

The stories coming out of a Colorado study are another clear indicator of the problems that can arise when journalists and activists do not grasp statistics. While the researchers claimed a correlation between babies who live around gas development and birth defects, in the media and within the activist camp, the correlation was taken to mean causal. The story quickly ignited and morphed into a series of headlines.

Top Google News about the Colorado Research Paper

The headlines suggest a clear lack of understanding of the statistics and/or an understanding on how to read research papers. They (reporters) chose to ignore the pages where the authors discussed the NUMEROUS limitations of the study.  (Limitations meaning- reasons why results show bias). They instead came to their own conclusions, took the story and run with it. It fitted their narrative. 

What may be hard for some to believe is the fact that there are people who live around and among gas wells who are healthy and have healthy babies. However, a story about those babies would not make the headlines, neither would it be fodder for scientists looking for research topics and funding. I think it needs to be.

Somewhere in those multitude of stories is an activist who called on women to move if they wanted healthy babies! This based on his take on the paper! This type of alarmist statement  is way out of line and extremely irresponsible. It has no basis and only causes anguish and fear. If we had to move every time we found ourself exposed to risk- we would be back in the cave, in the dark, hiding. Pregnant women have enough scary statistics to deal with as it is and really do not need these kind of loose statements unleashed on them. I personally know this, both as a mother of five and also a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness advocate.

You want to know what is real? According to the CDC, Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) while a common birth defect are on the decline - thanks to the introduction of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women. According to the March of Dimes, risk factors for NTD include family genetic history (increases your chances 4 percent), certain medications, obesity, diabetes and race. Did the researchers use this in their study to determine the cause of the NTD? No they did not. So, we have no certainty that the babies tallied had birth defects caused by being around the gas wells. None. Zilch. 

What if we interpreted the same results of the Colorado Study for the positive? What if we claimed that birth pre-maturity decreased and birth weight increased as we get closer to the gas wells? Can we argue that gas wells prevent premature births? The data shows us that. Of course, we all know (I would hope) that is ludicrous -- but thats what the data shows. Why are quick to accept other parts of the study?  

Colorado’s Head Public Health Department saw through the flaws and separated their department from the paper, twice: in the paper’s acknowledgements and also in a press release/letter. They had a totally different take on the research when compared to those Google news’ top stories.

Lets slow down, take a deep breath and bring in the epidemiologists. Enough of these confusing studies! We need answers beyond these types of inconclusive papers.  What we can agree on is that this paper has given us lively discussions and another reason for more research- it is time for someone to get it right and lay this boogeyman to rest!