Facts and Data–the role of Intepretation: Alcohol as a case study Prologue

August 20, 2015

There’s this interesting article written by a doctor (“The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking is Healthy”) which compiles research and experiential data from around the world as well as statistics. He points out that in countries where more people drink, more people drink regularly, and often even where more people drink heavily there are paradoxically fewer accidents, illnesses, deaths and social ills related to alcohol abuse. In fact, people tend to live longer in cultures where drinking (of any kind: wine, beer or liquor) is ingrained into a social, casual atmosphere. Mr. Peele of course acknowledges the genuine threat of alcoholism and stresses that for those who can’t control their drinking–and that such folks exhibit non-subtle behavior–should indeed avoid alcohol. But Peele stresses that even here in the US, divorced from those dangerous behaviors and pathology, regular drinking even above the designated limits provides more positive health benefits than negative consequences and he even points to alcohol abstinence as a probable (and avoidable) risk factor for heart disease.

Conversely, this week the BBC published a story (then picked up by US News and World Report, etc) a with the trigger headline that there is a “Cancer risk ‘even from light drinking'”. If you read the first paragraph beyond the story, however, they quickly narrow the focus to the correlation between alcohol use and breast cancer in many women. They then state all in all,  the risk is “very low” for those that consume within the “designated limits” however. Later they mention that those limits are currently under review so we should stay tuned for updates. You can read the actual abstract complete with all numbers and details here which most news-stories fail to fully summarize. Basically, as I understand it, the actual data shows that drinking even within the suggested range for women can slightly raise the chance of developing breast cancer and that drinking even within the suggested range for men who have smoked in the past (but not significantly for men who have never smoked) slightly raises the chance of certain cancers (colorectal, prostrate). The headlines I’ve seen don’t particularly convey that nuance, however. Nor do the blanket statements made by some of the spokespersons quoted by the media on the story. The variables are so complex as well as causation can’t be established only association which at such a low link percentage is hard to completely elaborate. Many of the stories also get bogged down on the “red wine’ factor (which the first piece I linked completely debunks proving it was never about resveratrol but the alcohol itself as the benefit).

I find these stories fascinating for several reasons. Primarily I find them interesting for their use of data and their varying (often in a quite bipolar manner) interpretation of data. A new story emerges every month or two about the good or bad affects of alcohol. This ties into my recent exploration of facts, logic and context– I believe we live in a time when people “double down” on hyperbole and erroneous claims when cornered rather than admit wrong. I believe most of our current “hot button” issues could theoretically be calmly discussed and resolved using facts in context but I think that despite the wealth of information at our finger-tips we all far too often cherry-pick “facts” to suit preformed conclusions.

These alcohol studies give me pause as  I try to fit them into the conversation or at least use them as an example of the situation we find ourselves in. I wrote a blog several years ago about two conflicting alcohol use pieces–one of which is very similar to the “new” BBC piece and another that boldly proclaimed that “heavy drinkers outlive abstainers”. I read a lot of science these days, and as someone who didn’t appreciate or study science seriously until my adulthood I am playing catch up quite often but I like to think when presented with good information I am capable of comprehending most issues. When it comes to some issues, particularly if they’re in an interest area or hobby of mine I research a bit in depth just out of sheer curiosity. For example, I enjoy a cigar or two most months (though rarely in the winter). I am talking about real, hand-rolled non-additive all organic cigars not factory rolled additive laced “cigars”. I realize that tobacco consumption is not innocuous but I also know that when pipes or cigars are smoked as intended–not inhaled and not daily–they statistically pose very little risk and in some research even promote positive benefits. I also know that within my usage range my insurance providers classify me (for all intents and purposes) as a “non smoker”. I also know that a less-than-25-a-year cigar smoker often finds himself in a bracket where a lot of odd conversations and explanations have to come out because if you like me try to be honest and disclose the fact (on say a life insurance policy or to an English as a second language nurse or doctor) you have to elaborate for quite some time (and often provide blood) to not be lumped in with the 2-pack a day cigarette smokers. I mention all of this to point out that I get why this is even if I dislike it–certain forces declared war (with good reason) on the tobacco industry for a laundry list of abuses and health concerns. Couple that with the fact that most people who check off that they only smoke cigars on medical surveys in fact smoke a pack a day of factory produced additive laced “cigarillos” while inhaling and I get why neither the government or the health care industry is going out of their way to understand the varying degrees and contexts of “tobacco use”. But with alcohol almost all people in the industrialized world still use alcohol in some form or other on a somewhat regular basis. Who is aligned on what side of the alcohol impact studies and to what agenda? I’d like to think the doctor’s in all of these studies are first and foremost concerned with public health. Most probably are. If alcohol poses a risk to people even in light use then we all should be aware of that and weigh the cost-benefit of our quality of life vs potential impact on our length of life vis-a-vis alcohol consumption. But there are a lot of factors that go into play on this issue–factors not always made clear in the headlines (which are all that many people read and share). Does moderate alcohol consumption positively affect heart health but slightly increase the chance of developing breast cancer? Well, which runs in your family (if this is an issue) and what other controllable risk factors do you face? Who funds these studies and pays for ads in these stories? Are their any agendas beyond difference of opinion and competing interpretations of facts? Many have claimed so and many others have claimed those seeking hidden agendas are simply conspiracy nuts or those who want to cling to their vices by any means necessary. Obviously health is a total package–I know I exercise, eat certain foods, don’t eat other certain foods because of my health and what I believe those factors will affect. I also know I have vices or lazy traits that off-set some of the good I try to do. It’s a balancing act of trade offs as everything in life is–and none of these do and don’t psychical and diet choices can curb or prevent a shortening of life by accident, random violence, genetics or circumstance. My position in discussing this here is really not even about the issues themselves but more about how facts and data are employed and used so differently and to question what that reason might be? How can such a plethora of data and often the same studies prompt such disparate conclusions?

Some things are clear cut when data is consulted—the overwhelming majority of scientists point to the  large amount of data conclusively linking human action and fossil fuel usage to climate change. With medical research, sometimes the signifiers are just as clear and sometimes they are not. For this recent 30 year study it appears the data shows a slight (almost insignificant) increase in cancer risk for non-smoking males, a slight (and slightly larger) risk for smoking or ex-smoking males, and a slight but noticeable risk for women who drink of developing breast cancer (particularly if there is a family history). I just find the way that this information is disseminated intriguing, as well as the way it is digested and the way it is applied (or ignored). I also find it interesting when concurrent studies produce different results. All in all this, combined with a recent debate I had over issues less data driven and far more political give me pause in my hope that facts alone can settle every issue–because interpretation of facts is never as straightforward as one would think.

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