Someone I follow on Twitter recently shared a March 2017 New York Post article titled “Staring at boobs is just one of six easy ways men can live longer.” The article is by Andrea Downey who is a health reporter for the Sun. Her article cites some factoids about life expectancy and chromosome counts and lists “six ways a man can boost his life expectancy.” Downey’s tips include “stare at boobs”, “have lots of sex”, “get married”, “have kids”, “be responsible” and “get a ‘dad bod'”.1
Here are 4 reasons why this sciency, clickbait article is a steaming pile of shit.
The first obvious problem with the article is that it is largely lifted from a briefly-mentioned Medical Daily article published a few days prior by Lizette Borreli (I contacted Borreli about the copycat article, but she didn’t respond). The Medical Daily article is titled “5 Unusual Things That Boost Life Expectancy For Men, From Lots Of Sex To Staring At Women’s Breasts.” Borreli starts out by citing some factoids about life expectancy and chromosome counts and then lists the following longevity-increasing tips: “stare at women’s breasts”, “have lots of sex”, “get married”, “become a parent”, “assume responsibility” and “get a ‘dad bod'”. I realize I just listed 6 things, and the article advertises a list of 5, and the only explanation I can come up with is that the writer only knows how to count the fingers on one hand.2
So Downey’s article is essentially a clone.
2. inference for the sake of clickbait
My second problem with the article–actually, this applies to both articles–is the staring-at-breasts-boosts-longevity claim. Both articles cite a January 2012 Men’s Health article by Madeline Haller titled “Health Tip: Look at Breasts!” Haller’s article makes a less ambitious assertion: that, if you find boobs attractive, looking at them might improve your health.3
The Men’s Health article is based on three studies published in early 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The studies, all involving the same core group of researchers, each included two groups: patients who committed to following some sort of health protocol (the control group) and patients who committed to a similar protocol but also agreed to engage in “positive-affect interventions” and/or self-affirmations which included thinking about uplifting images (the researchers use a sunset as an example) and achievements of which they were proud (the researchers use “completing a challenging work assignment” as an example).4 5 6
The problem with the staring-at-boobs-boosts-longevity assertion (as much as I was hoping it was accurate) is that it is not made by the researchers but inferred by the Men’s Health, Medical Daily and Sun writers for the sake of clickbait headlines. Ladies, you’ve committed the motte-and-bailey logical fallacy of substituting an outlandish claim that serves your purpose for a modest one that served someone else’s. You might as well say that pedophiles who stare at playgrounds live longer.
With three writers showing such disregarding for the substance of the research on which they claimed to be reporting, I had to wonder if the studies that started all of this even claimed the positive-affect intervention at issue was even effective. Well, let’s see.
3. exaggerated results
This issue is really part of the above issue. A problem with a lot of science/health reporting is that it overstates the strength of a study’s findings–maybe because the writer doesn’t understand the findings or maybe because the actual results aren’t that interesting. What we have here, not surprisingly, is a case in point.
One study was of asthma patients, one was of hypertension patients, and one was of heart disease patients. In the asthma paper, the authors concluded that the added intervention had no measurable effect (p=.94).4 With the hypertension study, they found that the positive affirmation treatment group took their medications more consistently than the other group but that neither group’s blood pressure (read: health) improved significantly (p=.049).5 In the heart disease study, the positive-affect group showed significantly more adherence to the treatment protocol than the control group (p=.007), but the health effects of the treatment were not studied.6
So one study found no effect, another found an effect but only on behavior and not on health, and the last study found a significant effect on behavior. None of the studies actually make the claim that the positive-affect intervention resulted in healthier patients.
4. weak study design
My final problem is with the research results themselves, which, to me, seem inconclusive. My qualm is mostly with study size. Each study included a small cohort (N=252, 256, and 242, respectively). Statistics derived from such small sample sizes are generally not considered statistically significant, because as sample size decreases, margin of error increases. You can’t very well take a study of a few hundred people and generalize the results to 7.6 billion people.
The samples themselves are also problematic. Each study recruited all of its participants from the same place: New York Presbyterian Hospital. This is a convenience sample (the folks leading the research worked there) which is frowned upon in statistics circles. Small sample sizes and lack of diversity within samples are common problems in medical research. While I don’t hold it against the researchers, it means that their already meh results come with an additional asterisk.
So there you have it. The three articles we covered are all crap with each successive article slightly shittier than the one preceding it. Looking at these writers’ output, it looks like they’re having to crank out clickbait content at a fever pitch, so it’s not surprising that the substance of their work product (at least in this case) is quiet frankly shit. Maybe they should consider doing something more prosocial with their lives than spreading misinformation.
1. Downey, A. (2017, March 27). Staring at boobs is just one of six easy ways men can live longer. New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2017/03/27/staring-at-boobs-is-just-one-of-six-easy-ways-men-can-live-longer/↩
2. Borreli, L. (2017, March 15). 5 unusual things that boost life expectancy for men, from lots of sex to staring at women’s breasts. Medical Daily. Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/5-unusual-things-boost-life-expectancy-men-lots-sex-staring-womens-breasts-413544↩
3. Haller, M. (2012, January 30). Health tip: Look at breasts! Men’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.menshealth.com/health/a19516369/health-tip-look-at-breasts/↩
4. Mancuso, C.A., Choi, T.N., Westermann, H., Wenderoth, S., Hollenberg, JP.., Wells, M.T., Isen, A.M., Jobe, J.B., Allegrante, J.P., Charlson, M.E. (2012, Feb 27). Increasing physical activity in patients with asthma through positive affect and self-affirmation: a randomized trial. Arch Intern Med, 172(4):337-43. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.1316. Epub 2012 Jan 23.↩
5. Ogedegbe, G.O., Boutin-Foster, C., Wells, M.T., Allegrante, J.P., Isen, A.M., Jobe, J.B., Charlson, M.E. (2012, Feb 27). A randomized controlled trial of positive-affect intervention and medication adherence in hypertensive African Americans. Arch Intern Med, 172(4):322-6. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.1307. Epub 2012 Jan 23.↩
6. Peterson, J.C., Charlson, M.E., Hoffman, Z., Wells, M.T., Wong, S.C., Hollenberg, J.P., Jobe, J.B., Boschert, K.A., Isen, A.M., Allegrante, J.P. (2012, Feb 27). A randomized controlled trial of positive-affect induction to promote physical activity after percutaneous coronary intervention. Arch Intern Med, 172(4):329-36. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.1311. Epub 2012 Jan 23.↩