Thursday, April 20, 2017

Context is key

Statistics are ubiquitous in the media and in journals often used as verification of merit or a means of describing a particular phenomenon. It is very difficult to conceptualize molecular biology or biochemistry and utilization of numbers (i.e. fluorescence intensity, tumor volume) can be a concrete means of describing abstract processes. But life, from macroscopic to microscopic perspective is multifactoral and depends heavily upon numerous facets in the environment and heterogeneities within organisms. While numbers are a simple way of measuring events on a scale, sometimes additional information is required to tell the full story.

Take the example of Body Mass Index (BMI). Those with a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 are considered to be in the healthy range while those with values exceeding 25 are considered to be overweight. Following this metric, two of the most elite athletes in the world, Lebron James (27.5) and Aaron Rodgers (28.9) would be considered to be in an unhealthy range. Although this chart is valid in many instances, and someone who isn't a professional athlete with these BMI might need to shed a few pounds. It's hard to say, as life is truly context dependent, but perhaps the rule should be disregard BMI if you can dunk.

This same rule translates to biological papers.  Statistics can be a great way to illustrate a point but let us as scientists not blindly extrapolate a phenomenon from a simple n=3 experiment. A protein being upregulated in one cell type from a specific organism at a specific time point given a specific concentration of drug is just that, a specific occurrence. Statistics are abused and reproducibility is compromised when one finding is translated to a global phenomenon. It is up to us to attack our science from multiple angles to tell a true story.

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