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Take studies, statistics with a grain of salt

Dear Mr. Dad: Like you, I enjoy reading about new research findings in health and parenting. But I get really frustrated when what’s in the headlines isn’t always what’s in the actual research. How can I find the truth?

A: You’ve hit on one of my biggest pet peeves. As Mark Twain said about 100 years ago, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” You can find a study to support just about anything you believe. And if you can’t, statistics are easy to manipulate, massage, shoehorn, and just plain distort. Here are a few examples.

• Almost every year a new study compares men’s and women’s workload at home. And almost without fail, the conclusion is something like, “Men are doing more, but it’s still only a fraction of what women do.” Unfortunately, these studies tend to be selective in how they define “work.” They count stereotypically “female” tasks like shopping, cooking and doing laundry but don’t count stereotypically “male” tasks like cleaning the garage, painting, taking out the garbage and time spent playing with the kids or helping with homework. The studies rarely take into consideration that men working full-time put in an average of 7 hours per week more than full-time women. Men also tend to work farther from their home, meaning they spend more time commuting. When you count the total time men and women put in supporting their family, the numbers are nearly identical.

• The media recently touted a study by Pew Research that found that the rate of single-father households with minor children had risen faster than single-mother households. In 1960, single-father homes were only 1 percent of all households with minor children, but by 2011, they were 9 percent – an 800 percent increase. Wow. I was thrilled to see that more dads are getting involved, but the statistics were completely meaningless. Yes, single-father homes enjoyed an eightfold increase. But since single-mother homes started at 99 percent, they couldn’t possibly increase eight times. The real news was the sheer number – not the percentage – of single-dad and single-mom households. Single-dad households increased by 2.3 million (from 300,000 in 1960 to 2.6 million in 2011); single-mom households increased by 6.7 million (from 1.9 million to 8.6 million).

• A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics reveals that U.S. adolescents get more exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer sweets. And while the average teen’s body mass index rose steadily from 2001 to 2006, there was no significant change in BMI from 2006 to 2010. With those numbers, it’s tempting to declare the obesity epidemic over – as many media outlets did. But while overall obesity rates have leveled off, the rates of severe obesity continue to rise. According to the researchers, “Severe obesity is an emerging problem with enormous medical, public health and economic consequences.” And according to the American Council on Science and Health, “All the negative health consequences that are correlated with obesity in adults – such as diabetes and heart disease – will occur in these youngsters, but at an earlier age. In turn, this will mean more medical expenditures, a possible decrease in life expectancy and a decrease in the quality of life.” A very different story than “the obesity epidemic is over.”

Bottom line? The best way to separate the headlines from the truth is to read the full study, always be skeptical – especially when you hear phrases like, “the fastest-growing segment” – get second opinions, and do your own math.

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