21 February 2015

Science Non-Denial

As I sit down to write, it’s snowing once again. If this is a surprise to you, please remove your head from the orifice in which it has been inserted. And as for that previous comment, yes, I know I’ve always said that I write a family-safe column. At this point in this winter, I just don’t care anymore.

Normally at this time of year, I’m elated that we’ve blown through the eighty-percent mark on the Sixty Day Challenge and that my definition of Spring is just days away. This year, I’m fighting off the feeling of being beaten. My soul says, “Never Surrender!” but my body has had quite enough. Never before have I succumbed to the terrors of the treadmill to the extent of these past few weeks.

Today I took a zero on a Saturday, an event exceedingly rare. With a forecast of four degrees at eight AM, not unprecedented for running but just not attractive, I passed on the club’s donut run. Then, after several hours on a ladder whacking ice off the roof (a rather futile enterprise but it made me feel I’d done something to stave off the coming melt disaster) and emerging thoroughly chilled, the thought of getting out for a few miles in the afternoon, after the snow started falling, seemed, well, cold. Really, really cold. And with a race tomorrow – not the planned Hyannis relay which was cancelled due to snow-clogged roads, but an alternate race that I cannot for the life of me figure out why I was stupid enough to sign up for – staying inside and laying low seemed attractive.

Perhaps worse than the weather has been listening to the science deniers who proclaim that all of this snow and bone-chilling arctic air disprove the theory of human-induced climate change. It’s a core tenet of climate science that overall warming does not mean warming everywhere. It means increased volatility and changes to established patterns. One aspect of current thinking is that with the warming of the Arctic and subsequent loss of polar sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar and mid latitudes has diminished, which has weakened the jet stream, which has allowed more meanders in the atmosphere (think a slow, meandering river compared to a fast-running stream), which allows air masses to dive northward or southward more than in typical years, which results in pretty much exactly what we’re seeing.

Unlike certain politicians who recently have been afraid to admit their stances on basic sciences like evolution (seriously? didn’t we settle that one long ago?), I have confidence in the scientific process and the resulting knowledge that enhances our lives daily. Science debate is healthy. Science denial is ignorance. Ignorance of the process by which scientific knowledge is created, ignorance of the science we live by every day, and ignorance of the consequences that such denial can bring, especially if that denier is in a position of political influence. Go ahead, just ask that denier how they got to the rally they’re speaking at, and when they hold up their cell phone with the GPS app, ask them how it works – and how mankind figured out how to make it work. Science.

Which brings us to the news of last week, the much ballyhooed (I’ve been waiting years to use that word!) story paraded through the media of how running too much or too fast will kill us. (Yes, this column is about running; we do have to return to that topic.) Said study, published in the American College of Cardiologists journal, reported on the findings of the Copenhagen (Denmark) City Heart Study, and concluded, not unexpectedly, that “People who are physically active have at least a 30% lower risk of death during follow-up compared with those who are inactive.” So far, so good.

But then it gets interesting, and we get to the part where the media, always ripe for an angle and an argument to drive twenty-four hour coverage, tried to pick a fight. And I’ll admit they succeeded. I joined the fight, posting some rather pointed comments on various social media sites. But it’s worth stepping back a bit and looking at the whole story.

The second sentence in the abstract of the study (full disclosure: all I’ve seen is the abstract, since I’m not interested in paying to gain access to the whole study, so correct me if you’ve got the whole thing and I misspeak) states clearly, “However, the ideal dose of exercise for improving longevity is uncertain.” That too, would seem a reasonable statement. Every perspective is relative. Couch potatoes think light joggers are extremists. Light joggers view typical runners who actually race as hard-core. Typical runners see die-hard fossils like yours truly as a bit daft. And die-hards look at anyone who’s considered the Western States 100-Miler as a bit off their boat. It’s a given that at some level, too much of anything will kill you, so the authors’ statement is not unreasonable, no matter how much any one of you thinks you exercise an optimal amount.

Next, we get into the core of how science works, and this is where everything falls down, because I’d hazard that most in the media, and indeed most in the general public, aren’t enlightened on the process. In the simplest terms, you run a study, you publish the results. But the subtle key bit is that it’s unethical not to publish your results, even if they don’t match what you want or expect to see. It’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine your methods to determine merits or correctable flaws and to try to replicate or repudiate your results based on further studies. One study doesn’t make knowledge. Replicable results do.

In keeping with proper ethics, the Copenhagen Study published their results, and they happened to show that in their study group, the lightest of the light joggers had a greater tendency not to die. (I describe them as lightest of light because the pace described only marginally exceeded a fast walk.) More average joggers had a slightly higher tendency to die. And the “strenuous” joggers (I use those dreaded double quotes because what was described as strenuous encompassed most of the runners I know, be they slow, middling, or fast) did, in fact, die most often. (Perhaps that odd wording, as none in fact died more than once, but you get the picture.) Whether they were surprised by this or not is irrelevant; they fulfilled their responsibility to publish. Reacting to the results, a researcher involved in the study was quoted as saying, "No exercise recommendations across the globe mention an upper limit for safe exercise, but perhaps there is one.”

The media, of course, had a field day. One could probably guess that most of those in the media who ran this up the flagpole rarely run the length of a flagpole, but that’s beside the point.

It’s perfectly acceptable to state that there may be a healthy upper limit for exercise. There are probably also healthy upper limits for broccoli, fish oil, and meditation.

It’s perfectly acceptable for us runner types to look at the study and guffaw at their category definitions of light, moderate, and strenuous.

It’s perfectly required of the scientific community to look at the study and determine its merits and flaws. To me, two stand out immediately. First, the sample size of strenuous joggers and the number of deaths in that tranche don’t provide enough statistical certainty to determine anything. Second, the causes of the two deaths in that group aren’t revealed, at least in the abstract. They’re labelled only as “All Causes” and for all we know, they were hit by a falling hyena in a freak zoo accident (but even if they died mid-stride, see Flaw One). The authors seem to recognize these facts, thus while they ethically report the data they found, they clearly state in their abstract that the optimal amount of exercise is uncertain.

This is one study. It is not knowledge. It is a data point to be replicated or repudiated. The media doesn’t get that. They just want news. But it brings up a good point when we go back to the weather. The media wants news, eyeballs, advertisements, revenue. They portray opposing sides of the climate change debate as having equal standing, because it makes for news. Any chink in the armor of one side grabs more headlines, sells more ads. But in this case, it’s not just one study. It is an overwhelming, nearly unanimous agreement of many, many studies and most people in the scientific community. It is knowledge. We can debate the details of how, and what to do, but it is knowledge. And it’s all of our responsibility to understand the scientific process so we understand why that is so. If we do, we can certainly question specific studies, but we can’t deny the very scientific process that brought us the technological capabilities to receive that twenty-four-hour news on the amazing device we carry in our pocket in the first place

Can one blame the public? I think I got a great education both in secondary school as well as at both of the colleges from which I graduated, yet through all those years of learning, never did anyone explain the process of peer-reviewed research. Only self-directed reading later in life lit me up on it. It’s no wonder most don’t get it, but we all need to. We’ve got to put a filter on the media, look behind the headlines, and understand the scientific process. Self-immolation through ignorance is a terrible way to go.

So at some point science might eventually tell me that all this running is folly, and if so, I can’t deny it. But at least I can enjoy the other benefits. A few days ago on a lunch-hour nine-miler, I came upon an unlucky motorist who, in an attempt to avoid an oncoming Behemoth SUV hogging the bulk of the curved, snow-covered and narrowed lane-and-a-half-wide road, ended up hung up on a massive snowbank. I can’t say that I was able to do a lot; a bit of digging, a little pushing (New England cross-training), some advice and moral support, but twenty minutes later we succeeded in freeing and sending him on his way. I ran off with a story and the satisfaction of leaving a little gratitude in my wake. That’s worth it.

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