Folic Acid in the news.

Posted: July 11, 2011 in Statistics and Lies

You always know that it’s a slow news day when 680 News reports another stupid, inaccurate study to fill air time.  I guess today qualifies, with the weather and Tiger Wood’s press conference being the only headlines.

So the study reports that folic acid, which is found in spinach, helps brain cells.  Kids who eat more spinach and other foods containing folic acid were found to do better in school.  So we should eat more spinach?

Well, as is often the case with these studies thrown in for random interest, you can’t draw many conclusions when you mix experimental and correlational studies.  Undoubtedly, the statistics were obtained by comparing reported diet to school results.  Diet co-varies with intelligence.  But this could just as well mean that smarter people have a better diet.  It could also mean that something totally outside the study is impacting both results.  Maybe income explains the relationship and families with higher incomes both have a better diet and perform better in school.  True, you can compensate for things like that in your data collection, but how do you compensate for things like awareness, or the number of books in the home?

This kind of study can, at best, point to the fact that people who do better in school tend to eat certain things, and people who eat certain things tend to do better in school.  No causal relationship is warranted.  Which is fine, except that the causal relationship is always implied in the report.  “Eat more spinach and you’ll be smarter.”  It may be true but this study definitely doesn’t prove it.

Finally, when trying to look up more info on this reported story I couldn’t find anything, …not even on the radio station’s web site.  What I did find was numerous sites reporting everything from beneficial effects of folic acid on cancer and memory, to harmful effects of too much folic acid (on cancer and memory).

These little interest stories throw into the news are a disservice to public information.  They do it all the time to fill air time and because they think the public interest story adds variety.  Always view reports of these cheesy little studies with skepticism.


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