Thursday, February 26, 2009

Say Goodbye to Humanities?

Cool Article in the NYT on the decline seen in humanities:

It's not too surprising since the cost of education has dramatically increased, students have desired more return for their education. Now many don't have the luxury of studying less directly applicable areas. I also wonder if humanities degrees were artificially high in the 60s and 70s from all those hippies. haha

I agree in the article's point that Obama benefit the humanities field in multiple ways. He is a role model to many and he seems to greatly respect literature and philosophy. He also plans to make it more affordable to go to school through programs like the GI Bill and increased student aid. However, if the economy doesn't turn around, those points will probably be moot.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How Reliable is Health Advice?

Via the Health Blog:

Just 11% of more than 2,700 established heart recommendations are backed by high-quality testing, says a study in the current issue of JAMA.

The American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association jointly issue guidelines to doctors, WSJ explains. The ones thought to have the highest level of evidence are based on multiple randomized clinical trials. Those considered weakest are backed by expert opinion or case studies.

According to the JAMA paper there are three type of sources:
1. Sources based on multiple randomized clinical trials (high quality testing)
2. Sources based on a single randomized clinical trial or observational study (moderate)
3. Sources based on case studies, expert opinion - etc (poor)

As an epidemiologist, I will probably spend most of my time dealing with observational studies in the moderate category. While not "high quality", these are still important since many randomized control trials can not be conducted because of ethical, feasibility, and financial reasons. For example, we can't ethically conduct a randomized control trial on whether smoking causes lung cancer - since there is substantial evidence that we would inflecting harm in our control arm.

However, randomized clinical trials (RCTs) should be used whenever possible because they are removing many biases and confounding from the relationship of interest. A classic case of the benefit of RCTs is Hormone Replacement Theory (HRT) in women. The Nurses Health Study and others found a protective effect on mortality for HRT in several of their observational studies. Their evidence looked so convincing that hundreds of thousands of women went on the therapy. That was until randomized clinical trial results found that it can increase breast cancer and disease risk.

Getting back to the JAMA article, it's pretty scary when you think about. Heart Disease is America's biggest killer, and quite possibly the most widely studied disease. What this says is that there is a lot of work to do in the health field and that there will be a lot of reversals, ala HRT, of doctor opinion in future recommendations.

On a positive to note, I'm happy to say that we're headed in the right direction with this $1.1 billion dollar allocation to compartive effectiveness research in the stimulus package. Maybe Billy Beane had Mr. Obama's ear?

Monday, February 23, 2009

NYT: Index Funds Win Again

I am a big fan of index funds, owing shares in three of them. So I was happy to read this recent article:

Mr. Kritzman calculates that just to break even with the index fund, net of all expenses, the actively managed fund would have to outperform it by an average of 4.3 percentage points a year on a pre-expense basis. For the hedge fund, that margin would have to be 10 points a year.

The chances of finding such funds are next to zero, said Russell Wermers, a finance professor at the
University of Maryland. Consider the 452 domestic equity mutual funds in the Morningstar database that existed for the 20 years through January of this year. Morningstar reports that just 13 of those funds beat the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index by at least four percentage points a year, on average, over that period. That’s less than 3 out of every 100 funds.

We'll see with these changing market conditions whether active mutual funds can continue their success of (almost always) swindling their clients.

Measuring Fat by MRI

A striking image that won a National Geographic Picture of Year award. The images are full body MRI shots of two women: 5'6" 250 lbs on the left, 5'5" 120 lbs on the right.

Looks like there is a lot of alteration in most areas of the body except for brain and maybe the ankle area. I wonder if pictures like these could be used for the fight against obesity?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

1979 vs. 2009

The New York Times and CBS has some nice new data out on a range of controversial issues. In this PDF, they compare the data to records they have from the late 1970s.

Here are a few I found notable:


Private Enterprise: 48%
Government - All Problems: 28%
Government - Emergencies: 12%
Don't know: 12%

Private Enterprise: 32% (-16%)
Government - All Problems: 49% (+21%)
Government - Emergencies: 10% (-2%)
Don't know: 9% (-3%)


Wrong: 62%
Not Wrong: 25%

Wrong: 41% (-21%)
Not Wrong: 54% (+29%)


Yes: 27%
No: 69%

Yes: 41% (+14%)
No: 52% (-17%)


U.S. Automakers - 46%
Foreign Automakers - 26%

U.S. Automakers - 29% (-17%)
Foreign Automakers - 55% (+29%)
Hat tip to this daily kos diary

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Most Popular Big Cites

Another cool study by Pew Research Center:

I noticed, now that we're in the dead of winter, that most of the top cities are in warmer climates. I've never been to Denver (which seems to buck my observation), but maybe the air up there is just making them happy.