Want a Nobel Prize? Eat Chocolate

A study published in the NEJM last month(1) seems to show a pretty convincing positive trend that those countries who consume more chocolate per capita also receive more Nobel Prizes.

The author of the study, Dr. Franz Messerli, continues to associate this trend with one of the key active ingredients in chocolate (flavonol’s). Flavonol’s have previously been implicated in increased brain performance and brain related anti-ageing effects. OK so I’m willing to accept these points are loosely connected (maybe I just want to eat more chocolate…) but are there any problems with the method?

Having looked at the study there are a few surprising issues. First off, Wikipedia is used as a reference for the number of Nobel Laureates per capita in each country. Wikipedia is great for casual use, but it is famously unreliable for scientific use due to it’s open-source nature. That’s a big no-no straight away (especially when records of Nobel Laureates are pretty much open-access).

Hmm… The largest positive outlier is the country that gives out the Nobel Prize? Hmm…
Taken from the reference below.

Anything else? Well it could be said that the data shows a large bias to European countries. Approximately half of all countries containing Nobel Laureates are not European. Yet in a study which compares only 23 (of 71) countries, only six are non-European. Couple this with the idea that Dr. Messerli’s chocolate eating records come from three European organisations and you get the idea that adding other non-European countries may skew the results against his hypothesis. What could be seen as even worse is the omission of the top three countries for Nobel Laureates per capita, two of which are European!

That said Dr. Messerli does criticise his own data thoroughly, mentioning that correlation may not = causation. His theories concerning plausible causation’s are also fairly amusing, including the flavonol argument above and the idea that Scientists from certain countries may be particularly sensitive to these chemicals (late night chocolate binge?).

In the end the paper isn’t really all that trustworthy. But to credit Dr. Messerli, I’m pretty sure he’s taking the piss and therefore probably didn’t put a whole lot of time into this project. So what are Dr. Messerli’s lasting recommendations? Dark Lindt chocolate apparently. Although he has yet to win a Nobel Prize himself.

To accentuate the actual point of this post: This is a classical example of why you should always critically analyse a paper instead of just taking it at face value. And leads me on to a topic I’m going to try and cover in my pages. Hopefully they will pop up some time soon!

References:

(1)http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMon1211064

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5 Comments

  1. patriciasucher

     /  04/11/2012

    This is a classic case of why correlation does not equal causation. From a personal angle, I prefer Cadbury milk chocolate to Lindt dark chocolate, and consume a lot of the former. However, I strongly suspect I am not in the running to get a Nobel prize. Therefore, at a minimum, maybe the good Doctor needs to finesse how he defines chocolate to support his thesis…

    Reply
  2. Rogier

     /  01/01/2013

    Ths paper is clearry satire, meant to illustrate the distinction between causality and causation, and illustrating that you can have very nice and clear patterns even for patently ridiculous ‘relationships’. However, I’ve seen it discussed seriously all over the place, so I think it kind of backfired……

    Reply
    • I haven’t seen it discussed seriously anywhere yet (I haven’t been looking). Admittedly this post is semi-serious, but mainly to highlight the point Messerli is, hopefully, trying to make. However the paper does read like a serious article, I do think that most people who aren’t used to reading academic papers won’t realise that it’s actually satire.

      A bit like the Chinese and The Onion: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/27/china-kim-jong-un

      Reply
  1. Want a Nobel Prize? Eat Chocolate | Psychology and Brain News | Scoop.it
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