Facebook and Mortality: Final Post

Throughout the Facebook/mortality study published in PNAS (“Online Social Integration is Associated with Reduced Mortality Risk“), the researchers walk a fine line: they present the results as “observational” but also represent them in dramatic graphs and read unwarranted meaning into them. In other words, the patterns look much stronger in this paper than they probably are.

One of my chief complaints was that the researchers lumped all deaths together. In the last part of the study, they separate them out, so I’ll finish by looking at that. This is the “nitty-gritty” part of the study; the question is, does the “grit” actually get in the way?

They focus on death causes that are predicted relatively strongly by levels of social support: cancer, cardiovascular disease, drug overdose, and suicide. They write: “We present cause-specific estimates in order, from least expected to be predicted by social support to most expected.”

They find that “the number of online friendships is not significantly related to decreased mortality due to cancer but is for cardiovascular disease (91%; 95% CI: 87–96%) and even more so for drug overdose (78%; 95% CI: 70–87%) and suicide (73%; 95% CI: 66–80%). Moreover, when we separately analyze initiated and accepted friendships, the results suggest that accepted friendships are driving the overall relationship, as we previously showed in Fig. 1.” Here are the graphs:


I see no reason to believe that “accepted friendships are driving the overall relationship.” Rather, the three friend-related activities (friend count, friendships initiated, and friendships accepted) are clearly interrelated. The difference in the relative mortality risk is not as great as the graph makes it seem; moreover, for drug overdose and suicide, there are all sorts of confounding factors that could affect the figures (including situations where their online access was restricted).

What about the two figures below? The most important point here is that the researchers distinguish, first between statuses posted and photos received, and then among photos/messages sent, photos/messages received, and photo tags received. The authors interpret the results:

Fig. 3C shows that sent text-based communications are generally unrelated to mortality risk for these causes, but received communications tend to predict higher risk of mortality due to cancer (108%; 95% CI: 104–112%) and lower risk due to drug overdose (88%; 95% CI: 80–96%) and suicide (82%; 95% CI: 74–90%). Once again, this association suggests that social media is being used by cancer victims to broadcast updates, which elicit received messages, and the contrast between cancer (a positive relationship) and other causes (a negative relationship) may help to explain the nonlinear relationship observed with all-cause mortality in Fig. 2. Meanwhile, received photo tags, our strongest indicator of real-world social activity, are strongly inversely associated with all types of mortality except those due to cancer, and the inverse relationship is strongest with drug overdose (70%; 95% CI: 64–77%) and suicide (69%; 95% CI: 63–76%).

I realize that the researchers controlled for age; even so, I imagine photo tags are more common among younger users (where the mortality risk is lower) than among older users (who may consider the practice tacky, or who may worry about privacy). The researchers state that “received photo tags, our strongest indicator of real-world social activity, are strongly inversely associated with all types of mortality except those due to cancer, and the inverse relationship is strongest with drug overdose.” But this is just one of many possible interpretations; moreover, it’s possible that we are looking at noise.

First, I question the assertion that received photo tags are “strongly inversely associated” with deaths due to cardiovascular disease; the association looks quite small in fact. As for suicide and drug overdose, once again, I suspect the presence of confounding factors; in addition, I wonder about the sample size and the distribution over age groups.

I wonder, also, whether received photo tags really indicate “real-world social activity” and whether there isn’t a severe mismatch between tagging and suicide demographics. Suicide rates are higher for older age groups (highest for 85 or older, and next-highest for 45-64)—and tagging (I suspect) much more common for younger age groups; so, even with controls for age, there could easily be some false correlations here. (Also, a lot of tagging is automated, and many people take time to remove their name from photos. The researchers didn’t consider deletions at all.)

Enough! I have had more than my fill of this study. Thanks to Shravan Vasishth for the link to two papers he co-wrote with Bruno Nicenboim on statistical methods for linguistic research. They explain statistical issues clearly and sequentially, starting with hypothetical data and building up to analyses. Some of the errors they bring up seem especially pertinent here. For instance, on p. 29 of the first paper, they note that “multiple measures which are highly correlated … are routinely analyzed as if they were separate sources of information (von der Malsburg & Angele, 2015).”

A statistician would have been able to take one quick look at this study and see its flaws. I suspected some serious problems but needed time to see what they were. This leads to the ethical question: is one obligated to read a study from start to finish before critiquing it? No, as long as you are forthright about what you have and haven’t read, and as long as you focus on essentials, not trivial matters. Just as a poet or literary scholar can easily spot a bad poem (of a certain kind), someone with statistical knowledge and insight can tell immediately whether a study is flawed in particular ways. A promising study can take longer to assess.

On the other hand, it’s important to recognize what the researchers are trying to do. If their point is not to offer answers but rather to explore patterns, then one can read the study with appropriate caution and accept its limitations. Here it’s a mixture; the authors acknowledge the study’s “observational” and tentative nature but at the same time claim strong findings and back them up with questionable interpretations. It is up to the reader, then, to cast the study in appropriate doubt. I hope I have accomplished this here.

(For the four previous posts on this study, see here, here, here, and here. I made a few minor edits and two additions to this piece after posting it.)

Formal and Informal Research

I have been thinking a lot about formal and informal research: how both have a place, but how they shouldn’t be confused with each other. One of my longstanding objections to “action research” is that it confuses the informal and formal.

Andrew Gelman discusses this problem (from a statistician’s perspective) in an illuminating interview with Maryna Raskin on her blog Life After Baby. It’s well worth reading; Gelman explains, among other things, the concept of “forking paths,” and acknowledges the place of informal experimentation in daily life (for instance, when trying to help one’s children get to sleep). Here’s what I commented:

[Beginning of comment]

Yes, good interview. This part is important too [regarding formal and informal experimentation]:

So, sure, if the two alternatives are: (a) Try nothing until you have definitive proof, or (b) Try lots of things and see what works for you, then I’d go with option b. But, again, be open about your evidence, or lack thereof. If power pose is worth a shot, then I think people might just as well try contractive anti-power-poses as well. And then if the recommendation is to just try different things and see what works for you, that’s fine but then don’t claim you have scientific evidence one particular intervention when you don’t.

One of the biggest problems is that people take intuitive/experiential findings and then try to present them as “science.” This is especially prevalent in “action research” (in education, for instance), where, with the sanction of education departments, school districts, etc., teachers try new things in the classroom and then write up the results as “research” (which often gets published.

It’s great to try new things in the classroom. It’s often good (and possibly great) to write up your findings for the benefit of others. But there’s no need to call it science or “action research” (or the preferred phrase in education, “data-driven inquiry,” which really just means that you’re looking into what you see before you, but which sounds official and definitive). Good education research exists, but it’s rather rare; in the meantime, there’s plenty of room for informal investigation, as long as it’s presented as such.

[End of comment]

Not everything has to be research. There’s plenty of wisdom derived from experience, insight, and good thinking. But because research is glamorized and deputized in the press and numerous professions, because the phrase “research has shown” can put an end to conversation, it’s important to distinguish clearly between formal and informal (and good and bad). There are also different kinds of research for different fields; each one has its rigors and rules. Granted, research norms can also change; but overall, good research delineates clearly between the known and unknown and articulates appropriate uncertainty.

Update: See Dan Kahan’s paper on a related topic. I will write about this paper in a future post. Thanks to Andrew Gelman for bringing it up on his blog.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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