Tag Archives: Daily Telegraph

Lots of sexual partners is apparently good for you !

5 Nov

Even by the standards of the British media this is a very strange bit of reporting. Last week a number of usually fairly conservative parts of the British press reported on a study suggesting that having more that twenty sexual partners could reduce a males chances of developing prostate cancer !


Each of these newspaper stories is reporting a paper by Spence, Rousseau and Parent called ‘Sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, and prostate cancer risk’ published in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology.

As a teaching example, this story has two great things going for it. First, as I’ve previously written about, ‘sex’ stories are a great way of engaging undergraduate students, and second you don’t have to be a urology expert to start demolishing this story. A moments thought about what hypothesis might be being tested here is worthwhile. Initially you might imaging some sort of ‘exercise’ theory, but of course we’re not talking here about frequency of sexual intercourse, but number of sexual partners (one could have had 21 sexual partners and only had sex 21 times, or one sexual partner and sex many hundreds of times !), which leaves me to think that we might be talking about a ‘promiscuous personality’ in some way inoculates against prostate cancer. As you might imagine, what you actually find is only post-hoc theorising about causality !

When you actually delve into the paper itself two things emerge, firstly that the 19% reduction in cancer risk reported in the newspaper stories wasn’t statistically significant, and secondly that the effect reported only appeared with 20+ sexual partners, 19 partners made no difference at all.

As the wonderful NHS Choices websites speculates, you do wonder if this isn’t an example of just recycling the press release, rather than actually reading the original paper, and whether those writing these stories have and ‘science’ knowledge to back up their work. I shall try this out with my students next week, and report back on the impact !


Do tight belts give you throat cancer ?

23 Oct


On 1st October the Daily Telegraph reported that wearing tight belts increased your risk of throat cancer. Unlike much popular science reporting this looked like a very straight report of a study, in that it explains the methodology of the study , details where it was published and even quotes one of the authors.

The story gets interesting for teaching purposes it you actually go to the original journal article, as it makes no reference to throat cancer ! What the study actually reports is a link between wearing tight belts and developing acid reflux, equally importantly it was only a very small study (24 participants) that ran for only a few days. It appears that the link to cancer came from an interview with one of the lead authors where he mentioned to small increase in cancer risk that acid reflux caused.

This story seems useful in both encouraging students to read original sources, but also makes a good point about how scientists communicate about science. A scientist talking to another scientist about a tiny increase in cancer risk, will come away with the idea that it isn’t much to worry about. One suspects that a member of the public (or worse, a journalist) would come away from such a conservation just with the phrase ‘CANCER RISK’.

Cake makes you lose weight !!

30 Apr

Weird diet stories often appear in the press, and serve as a really nice way for students to deploy their rational thinking skills. This particular example from the Daily Telegraph in Feb 2012 suggests that eating chocolate cake makes you lose weight.

The reported study involves two groups, both of a calorie-limited low-carbohydrate diet, where the difference between the two groups was that one ate a 300 calorie breakfast whereas the other ate a 600 calories breakfast including the chocolate cake. The cake group lost substantially more weight that the non-cake group, even though they consumed the same number of calories in total.

Students will have undoubtedly heard the advice that eating a large breakfast means you are less hungry throughout the day, but the story treats this as being some kind of amazing scientific revelation !

It’s worth asking  students to Google this story, to see just how far such ‘news’ spreads. The story originals from the Tele Aviv University in Israel, but I’ve found it being reported in India, the USA, Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK. What’s really intriguing is that nowhere in any of these stories does the idea of a group eating a 600 calorie breakfast with cake versus a group eating a 600 calorie breakfast without cake would be an actual test of the ‘cake’ hypothesis

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