Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Science and beer

Check out this story on science and beer drinking. Here's the punchline of Carol Kaesuk Yoon's Science Times piece about research done by an enthusiastic beer drinker (and professional ornithologist) from the Czech Republic:
According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.
The piece doesn't go very far in exploring what's actually going on here:
More important, as Dr. Grim pointed out, the study documents a correlation between beer drinking and scientific performance without explaining any correlation. That leaves open the possibility that it is not beer drinking that causes poor scientific performance, but just the opposite.
Yup, it's leading to the drown-your-sorrows scenario. Now, our library subscription doesn't allow electronic access to the current year's of Oikos (an ecology journal) so I can't read the full piece right now, but here's the ref, in case you're luckier or heading to the library:
Grim, Tomáš. 2008. A possible role of social activity to explain differences in publication output among ecologists. Oikos 117, 3. 321-480.
The title already suggests what most readers will have jumped to by now: This could easily be a real correlation, but a very indirect one. The NYT article aims to sell papers, so plays up the basically impossible view that beer drinking causes scientists to be less successful or that the lack of success causes more beer drinking. We have precious little understanding of the broader correlates of beer drinking and of scientific success. "Social activity" is a natural link to look into … more/less time in the lab, for example, likely correlates with both beer consumption and scientific success.

My thirst doesn't begin to compare with Grim's, but his sentiments sound pretty good:
In spite of his study, Dr. Grim, who said he would on occasion enjoy more than 12 beers in a night, is not on a campaign to decrease beer drinking among scientists. Why not? His answer: “I like it.”
Mostly, I'm eager to hear what the Beer Drinking Scientists have to say about this.* I hope Grim gets an honorary membership or something.

*Granted, that blog hasn't had a post in almost a year, but surely they'll shake off the cobwebs and respond to this news.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Of course, Grim's success with this article -- which is already showing up as one of the most cited articles in Oikos -- will drive up his citation index massively. Will it be enough to change the correlation he worked so hard to establish? Either way, you gotta love that little irony.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, if he can knock back 12 brewskis in an evening AND publish an article this important, and if his sample is a subset of ornithologists in the Czech Republic (relatively small group, I'm assuming), this might well change the results!

Mr. Verb said...

FYI: Since this has been picked up on reddit.com, comments are accumulating here:


Mr. Verb said...

I've now read the article by Grim. Pretty straightforward about establishing the announced correlation and being a good scientist about not overstepping the conclusions he can reasonably draw.

But now I'm dying to know how it looks among linguists … plenty of famously hard-drinking yet highly productive people and teetotaling deadwood examples do spring to mind,