New study demonstrates health benefits of pacifiers

A large new study of Americans aged six months to 90 years has found that people who use a pacifier have a lower chance of dying in the next thirty years than all other subjects. Researcher Terrance Singleton, a graduate student at Flanders University in Columbus, Ohio, surveyed over 3000 Americans about their lifestyle choices and those of their close family members, and then analyzed how those choices affected their mortality over the subsequent thirty years.

"By far the most striking result," he explains, "was the correlation between pacifier use and thirty year mortality. Pacifier use was more strongly correlated with reduced mortality than exercise, taking a multi-vitamin, or drinking red wine. For some reason we can't yet explain, people who suck on pacifiers are more likely to survive over the next thirty years than, say, people who watch Fox News."

Dr. Amy Madden, a family practitioner in West Palm Beach, Florida, who has many geriatric patients, says, "I think the numbers are pretty compelling. If using a pacifier can reduce mortality over the next decades, I'm in. And I'm advising all my elderly patients to do the same."

Dr. Amy Madden greets her patients with a pacifier.

Singleton's graduate advisor, Dr. Benjamin Moscowitz, an Associate Professor of Statistics and Epidemiology at the school, says that thirty years is a long time for a graduate school study. "But it's totally worth it," he says, pointing to the groundbreaking conclusions of the study so far. "If using a pacifier can reduce the chance of dying over the next thirty years, how many people wouldn't leap at the chance?" he asks.

But despite the influential result, Dr. Moscowitz says his star student isn't quite ready to graduate yet. "There are still some big mysteries in the data. For example, while the pacifier data are quite clear, the data on diaper use is mixed. One group that wears them has a significantly lower chance of dying in thirty years, but another group has a significantly higher chance. There must be some other factor at play but we're still scratching our heads over it." Dr. Moscowitz says he'll finally grant Singleton his well-earned Ph.D. when Singleton can explain that mystifying result.

April Fools

The story above was inspired by a recent article in the Washington Post about whether the ability to do a simple exercise could predict longevity. The exercise involves balance and strength, and the article reported that people who could do it well were more likely to survive the subsequent years than people who couldn't. It also mentioned that people in their seventies and eighties weren't able to do it as well as people in their fifties. The article did not consider the possibility that younger people were both more likely to be able to do the exercise and less likely to die in subsequent years than older people. This is logically equivalent to saying that if people who bought their first recorded music on 78 rpm records are less likely to survive over the next ten years than people who bought their first music on iTunes, then iTunes must extend longevity.

Unfortunately there are many examples of health and scientific studies being reported without basic statistical literacy. The fallacy above is common: confusing correlation with causation.

We've written about the importance of basic statistical knowledge before, particularly for public officials. It's equally important for the journalists who document what those officials do. Because from vaccines to immigration to climate change, statistical illiteracy turns otherwise smart people into April Fools.

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