Sometimes you find yourself stumbling across little titbits of surprising information. Those moments that stop and make you go “Huh”. Some of these moments are more surprising than others. So today, for your blog enjoyment, I present you with a carefully curated series of things I learned this week. Things that I came across that made me stop and go “Huh”. I might even spend a bit of a time telling you more about what made them interesting, and what I’ve learned.
(1) Potatoes Are Responsible For Human Mortality*
While perusing my twitter feed, I came across this irresistible caption and article preview:
“All those people hoping to live forever better avoid chips”
(Courtesy of @AdamRutherford – if anyone wants a regular supply of interesting and enjoyable tweets).
THE PART THAT MADE ME GO “HUH”
Well – It’s not often that the certainty of eventual death is questioned. This title seems to suggest not only is it questionable – it is preventable! All it might take is choosing the baked potato side over chips next time you order that steak. I got a little bit excited at the possibility that you could join the ranks of Logan, the elves from LOTR and Dorian Gray (although, “The Potato Sides of Dorian Gray” isn’t really as catchy). It turns out that more specifically…
“Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that people who eat chips – or any other similar fried potato product – two or more times each week have twice the chance of dying compared to those who don’t eat any.” (read the full article here)
Well that settles it. If I just keep my chip habit down to under two times a week – I might be around for an awful long time. Huh indeed.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
Obviously, this headline really isn’t suggesting that people wouldn’t die at all if it weren’t for the humble potato chip. It’s actually referencing this study, that followed 4440 people over 8 years, and found that people who ate fried potatoes 2 or more times a week were 3 times more likely to die during that eight-year period. This was based on 236 deaths that occurred in the cohort during that time.
This funny example got me reflecting on a few things. A lot of our information comes from bite size chunks of information – we are used to seeing headlines, and 140 character streams of information. Sometimes it is difficult to fit a lot of key information into short, bite sized pieces. As a reader/consumer of this information – context (the bigger picture) matters. It’s easy to remember that when you see a headline as striking as this one. It’s immediately clear that the title’s face reading and it’s intended/actual meaning are completely different beasts. It’s probably easier to neglect the bigger picture when the attention-grabbing title is more in line with our prior expectations.
Writing isn’t an easy business either. Especially short form writing – trying to fit a nuanced and complex narrative into a sentence or less is a real skill (I’m still working on that one). Headlines like this get me jotting little mental notes to aim for clarity and precision in my writing. A lot of meaning can be taken from a really small amount of text and trying to be clear and understandable is important (excuse me while I go and write that on a blackboard 100 times).
Learning point 1: context matters.
Learning point 2: work on being more precise and clear in my writing.
(2) When I Want To Increase My Sociability By 200%, I Can Lure A Second Person To My Office*
(I have @KarenHodgePodge to thank for bringing this one to my attention.)
While sitting chatting about misleading headlines, a friend of mine shared the Nature valley ad below:
There is a lot going on here. First – you must assume that the suggestion is that they have doubled the quantity of the bars in a pack (so they used to have one delicious bar in a pack then decided to add a second bar of deliciousness) rather than having started off selling a (probably deliciously fragrant) empty wrapper.
Once I had satisfied myself that this was true, I had a jarring ‘huh’ moment where questioned some of my understanding of percent increases (the one where you look at the increase in quantity from some starting point – in this case the increase from 1 bar to 2 bars. So – the one where you add 100% of a second bar to the existing bar. Or, increase the bars by… 100%).
WHAT I LEARNED
Well – there must be some underlying reason behind this poor (erm – wrong?) use of numbers in a widely public forum. Depending on how cynical you’re feeling you might take one of the following two points away from this experience:
Learning point 1: There’s a surprising lack of editing/checking in paper advertising
Learning point 1: Style trumps substance in the world of paper advertising.
On a less funny note – it was also a reminder of how numbers can be misused and misleading. And indeed how misused and misleading numbers can be easily disguised. Here, it’s pretty amusing. Sometimes it can be a lot more problematic
Learning point2: Numbers used for public promotion can be misleading (and just plain wrong!)
Moral of this story:
Don’t be fooled – Nature Valley have only increased their deliciousness by 100%!
(3) I Work In The ‘Funest Place Ever’.
Last Friday, instead of business as usual (straight to the desk, with the occasional walk as far as the kettle), we hosted an MRC science festival at the SGDP. From 10am till 4pm, there was a busy stream of school kids, their teachers and parents, and anyone else from around the area who fancied seeing a little bit of science in action. A huge range of research that we do at the centre was showcased in some really fun and interactive ways.
Everyone got to play with mobile EEG (electroencephalogram – using electrodes to detect electrical activity in your brain!) which enabled you to use the signal measured from your brain to levitate a ball in a tube – or even race a car around a track!
There was a stall where you could extract DNA from strawberries!
You could learn about how the combined influence of many different genes that you inherit from your mum and dad, and environmental factors can contribute to traits, and about how we can understand a lot about heritability by comparing how similar identical twins are compared to non-identical twins (we had a lot of twins too!)
Kids and adults alike took part in some classic experimental psychology tasks and got to explore and understand why they were used and what they were trying to help us understand (Like…how we learn about things that might make us anxious, or less anxious anyone?).
There was poetry, model building and learning about the brain and its structures and functions – and I could keep going on (but I’ll try leave a little mystery for the next one…).
WHAT MADE ME GO “HUH”.
It’s easy to forget how much innovation and discovery are happening in so many different fields all around us. To see such a breadth of research, and all communicated in such a fun, interactive and interesting way was a wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to spend all day ‘doing the science’.
WHAT I LEARNED
I suppose this shouldn’t really count as surprising; but it is easy to forget the big picture of what you, and people around you, are doing when you’re usually so heavily involved in the minutiae.
This wasn’t just an excuse to write about a really fun, interesting day. It was also a day that was slightly out of the ordinary – that took some weeks of thinking about what we really do, and how to communicate that effectively, to anyone.
Learning point 1: It’s important (and enjoyable – though not always easy) to be able to talk about your work in an approachable, understandable way.
Learning point 2: I am very lucky to get to work in a centre surrounded by such a breadth of interesting and important reasearch.
And so ends this brief curated tour of some surprising things that I came across this week. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the dangers of the potato chip, exactly how much deliciousness you can expect from a Nature Valley bar, and of course – where to look if you’re after the ‘Funest place ever’.
* The learning implied by this headline is questionable. Please do not try this at home.