When reader Bruce Foutch sent me the article “Ghanaian women with big buttocks will live longer—Research“, I first thought, “Here’s a story a Bayesian can really sink his teeth into” (think about it).
What did the article say? Not much, except Ghanaian men like big butts and that Ghanaian women go out of their way to provide these.
Research by GhanaWeb reveals that people from Krobo and Akan tribe in Ghana purposely shape their daughter’s hips and butt from their childhood, in order to grow in to a desired shape.
While waist beads is also one of the common fashion tool used in Ghana put womenâ€™s butts and hips in an attractive shape, as they grow up.
Then came some words about the University of Oxford which showed big butts are correlated with big brains. No link to the study.
To the Google!
Top among the searches was GhanaCelebrities.com “Extreme Vanity Killing African Women: 20-Year-Old Ghanaian/Nigerian Girl Dies After Illegal Buttock-Enhancing Surgery“. That confirmed the Ghanaian obsession, but it said nothing about the study. I removed “Ghana” from the search.
First up was BioSpace.com, “Women With Big Butts are Smarter and Healthier, University of Oxford Study” dated 1 November 2013. No authors. Words about a “recent study.”
How about the University Herald, dated 31 October 2013? “Women With Big Butts Are Smarter And Resistant To Chronic Illnesses.” No author names, some words from “researchers.” “Researchers also found the children born to women with wider hips are intellectually superior to the children of slimmer, less curvy mothers.”
Turns out many of the sites, which suspiciously all had the same “researcher” quotes and similar bad jokes about big butts, eventually linked to an ABC story dated 12 January 2010. Yes, three years ago. “Does More Butt And Thigh Fat Make You Healthier?”
No author names again! But they did the standard journalistic trick of inserting quotes from other “experts”, people who could not (it will turn out) have read the study. ABC did say the results were in the Journal of Obesity.
Much later, a link to yet another site which claimed to have quoted the ABC story (an internal link led to original ABC site) and which gave the authors’ names. But this site, like the many, many others, all had the same quotes and bad jokes, and all implied the research was completed recently.
Finally discovered the lead author: Professor Konstantinos Manolopoulos, University of Oxford. To PubMed, where I discovered the paper “Gluteofemoral body fat as a determinant of metabolic health” in the International Journal of Obesity from, yes, 2010. June.
So what did Manolopoulos do in order to discover that big butts drive health and intelligence? Nothing.
Well, nothing themselves. They instead read 21 papers from other authors, all of whom at least something to say about fatty butts and medical outcomes.
For example, Terry (1991) discovered that higher amounts of fat in butts was associated with greater HDL and LDL in women (these are types of cholesterol; HDL is “good”, LDL “bad”). On the other hand, Ferreira (2004) found reduced “arterial stiffness”. But Snijder (2005) said “fasting in post-[oral glucose tolerance test] glucose levels in men.”
And so on and such forth, a panoply of studies with varying findings, methods, sample sizes, measurements, procedures. None that I could discover said anything about intelligence or living longer, though.
Manolopoulos’s paper was not a meta-analysis. There are, mercifully, no statistics presented. The current work was instead a leisurely chat about the 21 papers he had read and what he thought about them. Nothing in the world wrong with that.
What did he say about the papers in his sample which had findings in different directions? What about the extreme heterogeneity of his literature sampling? Well, I guess he’s saving that discussion for another paper (researchers can’t have too many).
His mild conclusion, which did not match the breathlessness of the news reports, nor did it contain as many goodies (like increased intelligence or longer lives), was that “Body fat distribution is a major determinant of metabolic health and gluteofemoral adipose tissue exerts specific functional properties that are associated with an improved metabolic and cardiovascular risk profile.” Yawn.
Maybe the extra “findings,” like about intelligence, were in some press release, now long lost.
Gist is that you can’t trust most of what you read. Surprised?
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