No need to fear the Dirty Dozen

June 27, 2011

Another day, another scare story. The Environmental Working Group has released the Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and vegetables to avoid eating due to pesticide residue.

To learn why there is no need to fear the Dirty Dozen, check out Coming Clean on Dirty Fruit by food industry expert Sam N. Vance. Vance calculates how much of each item an adult male would have to consume in order to harm themselves via pesticide residue. For example, take celery, number two on the list. In order to consume a potentially harmful amount of pesticide, you would have to consume 133,951 servings of celery in ONE day.

In addition to these enlightening calculations, Vance leaves us with this very wise advice: When reading potential scare stories, always ask yourself, “are they giving you numbers and context?”


Has Washington State gone overboard?

June 24, 2011

You can’t make this stuff up. As ridiculous as it may seem, King County in Washington State has made it illegal to swim without a lifejacket on or in a major river – at least until October 31. As Toronto’s National Post columnist Chris Selley points out,“the Founding Fathers might take serious issue with mandatory life jacket laws for swimmers.” However, he also says, tongue in cheek (we think), that the argument to ban “free” swimming is, in terms of numbers, quite persuasive:

“By the Lifesaving Society’s count, an average of around 200 people drown every year in Canada while swimming, wading or otherwise being in water but not in a boat. (That’s not including the 10% of total drownings that occur in bath tubs, because wearing a life jacket in the tub would be silly. Uh … right?)

Those drowning victims add up to roughly four times as many people as are killed in an average year while cycling and about 50 times as many as are killed in an average year on the slopes of Canadian ski resorts.”

The numbers show that we’re more at risk from activities that we take for granted than from many of the things we worry about – or are encouraged to worry about. The logic of precaution seems inexorable: As Selley concludes, “Nobody needs to swim, after all, with or without a life jacket. Nobody swims to work. It’s pure, decadent recreation. And it’s killing us by the hundreds. For how much longer can we turn a blind eye?”

What do you think? Has Washington gone overboard or should we continue to swim blind to the risks?


Why saving lives can lead to bad statistics

June 20, 2011

By Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D. & Michael Adams

A recent statistical twist tells a story of tragedy instead of inspiration. Washington DC was reported to have the highest percentage of HIV infection in the country.  NBC reported that the infection rate is 3.2 percent, far above the national average. According to the most recent account of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence over the whole country is less than 0.5 percent.

But, while Washington has had the highest rate in the United States for several years, there is a silver lining that belies the statistics.

New studies show that new cases (the incidence, rather than the prevalence) of HIV are declining. From 2007 to 2009, the rates of new cases dropped by 50 percent.  As impressive, is the fact that people with HIV are living longer through better treatment. And it is this latter success that has contributed to the disastrous number; as people live longer with HIV, they continue to be counted as part of the infected population.  If they had died, they would have lowered the infection rate.

The headlines might have read better had they touted the reduced incidence rate and increased survivorship in a city with a history of high HIV and AIDS prevalence.


A new study finds that video games can make you…kinder?

June 17, 2011

While many studies have associated video games with increased aggression, a new study finds that relaxing video games may be associated with positive mood states and a willingness to help others.

Brad Bushman, the study co-author and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, says this is his first time looking at calming video games and their impact on behavior. The simple reason being that these types of video games never existed until recently.

The study consisted of 150 college students randomly assigned to play a video game that was relaxing, neutral or violent for 20 minutes. During the first experiment, students were asked to compete against another player by pushing a button as quickly as possible (little did the participants know that the competitor was imaginary). The winner would receive a financial reward, while the loser would be punished with a noise blast through headphones. Before each trial, participants could determine how much they would reward their competitors if they won and how strong a noise blast they would receive if they lost.

Those who played the violent video games punished their partners the most and rewarded them the least, CBS News reports. Meanwhile, those who had played relaxing video games gave the lowest levels of noise and the most amount of money.

A second experiment rated participants’ emotions after they had played their assigned video game and found those who played relaxing games were in a more positive mood. The experiment ended with one last simple test. The researchers asked the participants if they would mind helping sharpen pencils before the next participants arrived. Those who had just played relaxing games were more willing to help, CNET reports.

The research will be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.


Worth a read

June 8, 2011

Here is a blog worth reading. The New York Times recently published an article titled “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself” in which reporter Justin Gillis attempts to make a case that climate change is helping to destabilize the food system. However, according to environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr., the data presented in the article does not support his narrative.

Pielke writes:

 “Let me reiterate that human-caused climate change is a threat and one that we should be taking seriously. But taking climate change seriously does not mean shoehorning every global concern into that narrative, and especially conflating concerns about the future with what has been observed in the past. The risk of course of putting a carbon-centric spin on every issue is that other important dimensions are neglected.”

Check out his critique of the New York Times article here.


Is soaking up culture the key to health and happiness?

June 7, 2011

The answer may be yes, particularly if you live in Norway. A study examining 50,797 Norwegian men and women found that those who participated in cultural activities were more likely to report being satisfied with their lives and in good health.

The participants were questioned on their participation in two cultural fields. “Receptive culture” includes activities such as visiting museums and attending concerts. “Creative culture” refers to engaging in an activity, such as playing in a band or singing.

The happiness inducing activities were slightly different for men and women. Women who participated in creative cultural activities were more likely to report being in good health and satisfied with life. Meanwhile, men who participated in any receptive cultural activity were more likely to perceive themselves as being in good health.

The study found the more cultural activities, the better. 91 percent of those who participated in at least four activities reported being satisfied with their lives, TIME reports.

The Los Angeles Times points out that people with higher incomes are more likely to participate in cultural activities and those with higher incomes are more likely to be healthy; however, the researchers believe they have found an association between participation in cultural activities and health that is independent of socioeconomic status. Additional research is necessary to prove whether a causal relationship exists.

The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


Should you major in journalism only if you have a trust fund?

June 3, 2011

By Trevor Butterworth

The question of the value of a journalism degree never fails to give journalists palpitations – or at least those who have educational loans to pay off – and the latest installment of this debate comes from The Chicago Reader, the Nation, and Poynter (which neatly summarizes the previous two, and the spread of tone from anxiety to denunciation of the whole idea of a journalism degree).

Adding a cool light to the over-heated exchange, is a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which gives some (but not all) of the numeric data we need to answer the question in more than anecdotal terms.

First off, the median wage for those with an undergraduate major in journalism was $51,000 – compared to $50k for advertising and public relations majors, and communications majors. The median for mass media majors was $45k. Earnings at the 75th percentile showed journalism majors pulling ahead, with $80k to ad and pr majors $73k.

For the 22 percent who got a graduate degree in addition to their journalism major (the study didn’t specify whether this degree was in journalism or another subject), the boost to earnings was 28 percent.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t calculate those who majored in another subject but switched to journalism through a graduate degree. Nor did it calculate the relative student loan burden on earnings over time.

What it did show was that, despite 59 percent of journalism majors being female, the female median earnings were significantly less than male – $47k to $60k. The difference was less, though still considerable, for advertising and PR, where 64 percent of majors were female, but the earnings divide was $44k v $55k.

Journalism majors were 84 percent White, 7 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.

How did this compare with humanities and liberal arts majors? Overall, the median earnings were less for this group as a whole than journalism – $47,000, and the only exception when broken out by subfield was American history majors, who had median earnings of $57,000. Journalism majors did better than English majors (48k), and common foreign language majors (45k).

Humanities majors were, generally, twice as likely to get a graduate degree as journalism majors, but when they did so, got twice the earnings boost. (It’s not clear whether this means the median earnings would be even worse than journalism if the graduate degrees were factored out of the earnings for both groups.)

The gender earnings gap was less pronounced for humanities majors ($7,000 overall) with women, once again, a majority in the major group (58 percent to 42 percent for men). There wasn’t a noticeable difference in race and ethnic composition to journalism.

Obviously, earnings for journalism majors are less than for business, computing, and hard science majors, but one can argue that these majors don’t, in general, draw on the same pool. If you are majoring in journalism or English, you are unlikely to have also considered, say, chemistry or math as a major.

So the economic evidence is actually quite favorable for journalism majors, if we assume that the most likely alternative majors would have been in humanities subjects.

The surprising factor is the difference in pay for men versus women, which is more pronounced than in the other humanities, but less so for business or engineering. Of course, driving this might be the fact that women leave the workforce to have children right at the time when they are reaching senior pay scales; or, it might be that they are fired or pushed out if and when they have kids. As always, more research is needed.

(For a look at some of the other economic issues raised by this study, check out this week’s column on The Daily).


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