Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of Scientists, Beer, and Statistics

A March 18 New York Times Science section article, For Scientists, a Beer Test Shows Results as a Litmus Test, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, says that the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher.
The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.
Oh dear, you might think. This study is rock-solid. The author of the study is Dr. Tomas Grim, an ornithologist at Palacky University in the Czech Republic. Grim's study, however, only looked at fellow ornithologists in the Czech Republic.
Some scientists suggest that biologists in the Czech Republic could prove to be an anomaly, given that the country has a special relationship to beer, boasting the highest rate of beer consumption on earth.

More important, as Dr. Grim pointed out, the study documents a correlation between beer drinking and scientific performance without explaining why they are correlated. That leaves open the possibility that it is not beer drinking that causes poor scientific performance, but just the opposite.

Or, as Dr. Mike Webster, an ornithologist and a beer enthusiast at Washington State University in Pullman, said, maybe “those with poor publication records are drowning their sorrows.”

All of this provides a classic example of how one must be careful to draw conclusions from any correlation.

Interestingly, the online article also had a sidebar link to an older (Dec. 14, 2004) article, which extolled the virtues of beer-drinking among geologists. Perhaps the poncy Czech bird-watchers are truly an anomaly.

No comments: