If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry

This article – “Drink and drugs ‘key’ to suicide” – really annoyed me.  But, in keeping with my new resolution to look at the positive side of things, it’s inspired me to parody, not despair.  If you read the original first, my spoof will probably make more sense, plus, as zarathustra at Mental Nurse points out, you can get to enjoy the return of Check-Shirt-Man…


Plaster casts ‘cause’ broken limbs

Plaster casts are almost certainly responsible for broken legs – that’s the conclusion of a new report issued earlier today by researchers from Aethelread’s Suspiciously Contrived University (ASCU).

“We looked at the outcomes of all cases of broken legs treated in six hospitals over a three month period,” said Professor Gratuitous Freeloader, of ASCU’s Centre for Spurious Revenue Generation.  “We found that in almost 100% of cases those with a broken leg also had a plaster cast.”

Asked if plaster casts were responsible for the epidemic of broken limbs seen in Britain over the last several millennia, Professor Freeloader said, “Well, as a serious scientist I have to be cautious, but it certainly seems clear that more research is called for.  Indeed, I can announce that my institution has today applied to the QCND (Quango in Charge of Needless Disbursements) for a research grant of £87million in order to enable this vital research to continue.

“And in the light of my obvious financial interest in playing up the significance of this work, and dismissing all alternative explanations for the data we’ve collected, I can confidently say that, yes, plaster casts almost certainly cause broken legs.”

The head of the Official College of Really Respected Leg-Menders (OCRRL), Lord Irresponsible of Rapidly Approaching Retirement, said “This is certainly a radical challenge to established practice in this area.  We shall give this report the most scrupulous attention, instead of dismissing it outright as the load of old codswallop it clearly is.”

Commenting on the findings, Sir I M A Rapacious-Capitalist, director general of the CEE (Confederation of Exploitative Employers), said, “Hundreds of man-hours are lost every week to British business as a result of employees suffering so-called ‘broken legs.’  And now we find that this is all the result of deliberate acts of cast-wearing, and that furthermore these casts are actually provided free by the government through their wasteful and unnecessary ‘Accident & Emergency’ departments in hospitals.  The government has got to get tough on this issue, and has to stop subsidising skivers.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for UP-OWL (the Union of Postmen and Other Workers with Legs), Mr Deluded ExCommunist, said, “Our members are sick and tired of this government’s lack of interest in the causes of basic limb dysfunction, which is costing workers thousands of pounds in lost overtime every year.”

Ms Alison Kneejerk-Reaction, junior minister in the Department for Skeletal Affairs (DepSkaf), said that the government took the report very seriously.  She stated that ministers would be coming forward with a suite of proposals for a variety of leg-centred approaches in the next few weeks.  “We need to encourage broken legs away from their traditional reliance on casts, which can actually make their disability worse, and towards the modern agenda of our New Deal for the Fractured,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the opposition, Dame Opportunistic Bandwagon-Jumper, said, “The government are clearly on the run over this issue,” and then looked disappointed when everyone said that was a really weak punch line.


Ok, to be serious for a while, the proper article really got my goat.

It compared rates of alcohol and drug usage and suicide in England and Scotland.  It identified that rates of all three were higher in Scotland, therefore establishing a statistical correlation between rates of drug and alcohol use and suicide rates (just like there’s a statistical correlation between broken legs and plaster casts).  It went on to state that drug and alcohol use were therefore likely causes of suicide.  In the same way that plaster casts are not the cause of broken legs, alcohol and drugs are not necessarily the cause of suicide, but the article failed to acknowledge the whole variety of reasons why the conclusion might be invalid.

It didn’t acknowledge that there was no evidence whatsoever of any kind of causal link between alcohol and drug use and suicide.  It didn’t acknowledge that suicide and drug/alcohol use may both be symptoms of an underlying mental illness.  It didn’t acknowledge that use of drugs and alcohol may be failed attempts at self-medication by the mentally ill, who then go on to kill themselves.  It didn’t acknowledge that, by considering such a limited range of variables, the report ran a serious risk of creating a false impression – if suicide is caused by something other than alcohol and drug use, then the apparent relationship with drugs and alcohol is in fact a complete coincidence.

Without a proven causal link between alcohol and drug use and suicide, this theory can only be regarded as an unproven hypothesis.  Given that the data that is marshalled in support of the hypothesis can so obviously be interpreted in different ways, it’s a very dubious unproven hypothesis.  It’s pretty clear that no reliable conclusions can be drawn from it, and that certainly no recommendations for action should be based upon it.  The BBC article could have been more accurately headlined, “Scientists unsure why suicide more common in Scotland.  Suggested link between alcohol, drugs, and suicide utterly unproven.”

This laziness of thinking irritates me at the best of times.  I hate the way medical research of all kinds, but especially research relating to mental health, is routinely reported as though evidence of a statistical association is proof of cause.  The net effect of this story is to reinforce the idea that the suicidal are responsible for their own desperation, that they “brought it on themselves” by doing drugs, or drinking too much. 

At least Brian Taylor (BBC Scotland’s political editor, apparently) has the good sense to call the research into question.  As he says, surely it’s got to be a better approach to address the underlying problems that cause people to drink too much, or take drugs, or kill themselves, than focus attention on drug and alcohol dependence at the expense of everything else?

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6 Responses to If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry

  1. Are you familiar with Ben Goldacre’s website http://www.badscience.net? He has a similar dislike of statistically challenged journos. Your spoof article is very funny btw.

  2. The Chuckle says:

    Heh heh…great post in response to a pretty awful bit of ‘research’. I can’t believe they can publish something with such a lack of in-depth research/analysis. Surely you wouldn’t even get away with that for a piece of GCSE coursework?

  3. Chouette says:


    Yes, I agree with you. I didn’t get the impression from the article though that they wanted to focus attention on drug and alcohol dependence at the expense of everything else. They say “early follow-up after hospital discharge and improved mental health services for young people”, which seems like more of a general effort to help people before they start self-medicating.

    Having said that, I’m a young person who’s had suicidal thoughts, and quite frankly I’m teetotal and don’t even smoke cigarettes. I note only half the suicides they looked at were alcohol-related.

  4. colouredmind says:

    I agree with you, the article wasnt worth the paper it was written on.

  5. J. Wibble says:

    Drugs and alcohol cause suicide? And cannabis causes schizophrenia. The only one of my vices I took up before being mental was playing the violin (like gambling, its great if you can do it well, but very hazardous if you don’t as it significantly increases your chances of being garotted with your own E string), I suppose playing bowed strings causes anxiety and depression – though that’s a bad example as it can, but usually in the listeners rather than the player. ;)

    In the spirit of this article I also propose that masturbation causes puberty, the Pope causes Catholicism and laziness causes Chinese takeaways. Can I have a research grant now?

  6. Mariah says:

    “90% of headache sufferers ingest Ibruprofen. Therefore, Ibruprofen is the cause of headaches.”

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