Tag Archives: experiment

Experimental Flaws -Uncontrolled variables

I had an interesting text message from my cousin today. He was asking, ‘What is meant when a  study is deemed to be flawed due to uncontrolled variables? i.e. what does it really Imagemean to have uncontrolled variables?’

It’s an excellent question – and one that is well addressed in a book I recently recommended here called How to Lie With Statistics.

I gave him the following answer:

‘A simple example might be someone looking back through historical data and seeing that the number of cancer cases (of all kinds) has been on the sire over the past twenty years. In terms of absolute numbers, this is true. Some people use this to raise the alarm that we have to get more aggressive in our fight against cancer because it has become a leading killer. Perhaps that’s not a bad idea either, but if someone were to look more closely at the details they would quickly see that these absolute numbers aren’t the right data to make this conclusion by. There are uncontrolled variables.

here’s some real data:

The unaltered or crude cancer death rate per 100,000 US population for the year 1970 is 162.8. Multiply this rate by the US population of that year, 203,302,031 and divide by 100,000, we obtained the total cancer deaths of that year, 330,972. Divide this number by the number of days in a year, we obtain the average number of Americans who died of cancer in 1970 at 907.

Twenty years later, the unaltered cancer death rate for the year 1990 is 505,322, the total population, 248,709,873. The cancer death rate per 100,000 population rose to 203.2. The daily cancer death rate was 1384.

( – original data:The 1970 cancer death rate was taken from p.208 of the Universal Almanac, John W.Wright, Ed., Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City and New York. The estimated 1996 cancer deaths figure was taken fromTable 2 in “Cancer Statistics” by S.L. Parker et al, in CA, Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Vol. 65, pp. 5-27, 1996.The 1970 US population was taken from the World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1993, p. 367; the estimated 1996 population was from the 1997 edition of the World Almanac and Book of Facts, p.382. The 1997 total cancer death figure was obtained from S.H. Landis et al in CA, Cancere Journal for Clinicians, Vol. 48, pp.6-30, 1998, Table 2. The US population for 1997 was obtained from The Official Statistics of the US Census Bureau released on Dec, 24, 1997)
ImageHowever, if this is the limit of the analysis, it’s useless. In 1970 the life expectancy was about 67 years for a white, non-hispanic male, while in 1990 that number was about 74.
Since cancer is a disease of the aged, it is likely that the increase in cancer is directly linked to the increase in population of the elderly.
What this means, it that in order for the study to be meaningful, the authors should look at cancer rates among a more comparable group, perhaps white, non-hispanic non-smoking males living in some certain region  that has not undergone drastic demographic changes or excessive immigration / emigration. By taking these additional steps, we reduce the number of differences in our two populations, allowing us to make a ‘more controlled comparison.’
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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


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This Week in MicroBiology Class



Instead of starting our chapter on Eukaryotic micro-organisms / parasites, we spent much of Thursday’s class discussing the second Chapter of ‘Vaccinated’. This chapter digs in and discusses how a number of vaccines were tested in the children of the Willowbrook institution in New York. We talked about how researchers must balance the (sometimes) competing interests of doing the best experiments to answer a question and looking out for the interests of those who can not look after themselves (the children of Willowbrook, in this case).

This chapter looked at the work of several investigators; Most evaluating vaccines, but one (Krugman) was also doing experiments to investigate how Hepatitis was spread. His work included the infection of a number of children with live virus, but no attempt at protecting them from infection.

This is presented as the most condemnable work of the lot as it presented no potential benefit to the children. In saying this we define the principle by which other work was done, ‘does the study do no intentional harm and does it provide at least some potential benefit to the subjects?’

This principle provides a challenge to doing the (scientifically) ideal experiment outlined below.

A basic, direct vaccine test would divide patients into two groups (vaccinated and unvaccinated) and then challenge half of each group with live virus (or whatever the vaccine is to protect against).

Ideal results:

vaccinated –> unchallenged –> 100% healthy

vaccinated –> challenged –> 100% healthy

unvaccinated –> unchallenged –> 100% healthy

unvaccinated –>challenged –> 100% sick

However, this means that the researcher would be knowingly (assume s/he is not blinded) injecting unprotected patients with live virus – an obvious ethical issue.

In looking through some old work done to investigate how hepatitis is spread, there was a mention of work conducted in just such a manner:


Bellin and Bailet J. Ped 1952

It’s unclear from this reference to a personal communication what, exactly the word ‘volunteer’ means.

I’ll bring up this paper in class the next time we discuss Vaccinated. I have an interesting person connection to it.

Instead of a experimentally controlled challenge, modern vaccine tests (as the other work described in this chapter) use much larger populations chosen because of their ‘at risk’ nature and then we wait and see if there are statistical differences between the infection rates of each group.

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Posted by on September 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


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I just found out that I can’t teach an intro to physical sciences course next semester. It turns out the college has standards. To be honest, I don’t have a background that demonstrates that I could teach the class (my degree is in Immunology, not physics), but I thought it might slide.

I’m way more bummed about this than I should be, which definitely communicates something. Perhaps I’ll use my newfound free time to spend some more time on…

In the mean time, here’s a video demonstrating the fact that gravity works on all objects the same even if one is a bullet fired parallel to the ground (perpendicular to the force of g) and the other is a bullet casing dropped down without any velocity perpendicular to g.

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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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