February 17, 2012

The right music makes you younger.

Researchers asked 30 University of Pennsylvania undergraduate to listen to a randomly-assigned piece of music, and then to record their birth dates.

According to their birth dates, people were nearly a year-and-a-half younger
after listening to “When I’m Sixty-Four” (adjusted M = 20.1
years) rather than to “Kalimba” (adjusted M = 21.5 years),
F(1, 17) = 4.92, p = .040.

This is a randomized experiment, not just an observational study, so we can conclude that listening to the Beatles actually changes your date of birth.

The point of the paper was to show that various sorts of sloppy design and modestly dodgy reporting of statistical analyses, especially in small data sets, can lead to finding pretty much anything you want.  You can then issue a press release about it and end up in the newspapers.

Some fields of science already know about this problem and have at least attempted to introduce safeguards. Medical researchers and statisticians have put together reporting guidelines that the better medical journals insist on following. The  CONSORT guidelines for randomized trials are pretty widely accepted.  More recently, STROBE addresses observational studies, and  PRISMA (formerly QUOROM) covers systematic reviews.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »