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February 2022, Volume 4, Issue 1, Page 2011-2012
 

EDITORIAL

 
Ask The Groundhog
Paul Lyons, M.D., Editor-in-Chief, Dean and President at the California University of Science and Medicine, Colton, California

Punxsutawney Phil has spoken. If you are from California where this journal is published, the only relevance that Groundhog Day has for you is probably some vague memory that Bill Murray was in a movie that referenced it. But Phil has spoken, and he declares that winter in the East will last another 6 weeks…meaning winter until mid-March.

And on the East Coast that matters, as evidenced recently by the second winter pummeling of the region in just over a week. The thought that this might be over sooner rather than later is the sort of thing that keeps residents of New York or Philly or Baltimore going this time of year. There is nothing darker and more miserable than the East Coast in February.

Which may explain the mechanics of the Punxsutawney Phil phenomenon. By tradition if Phil sees his shadow, then there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If the shadow is absent, then winter is nearly done. You see what they did there, right? In the month that is least likely to have sunshine they established the equation Sunshine = More Winter. That’s pretty clever when you think about it. Beyond that—or by way of insurance policy—the test occurs at 7:25 am. Meaning early morning when, by all rights, the sun has not yet risen to any significant extent. So really the odds are stacked for the day to bring good news. And yet…

It appears in reviewing the records that in 125ish years of recorded activity (1887-present with ten years of records missing) Phil has said winter is coming about 100 times. And Phil is undoubtedly onto something. Because here’s the thing…it’s Pennsylvania…in the first week of February…where winter lasts, almost without exception, to the middle of March. A quick check of the math on that suggests that this is about 6 weeks…

Which means we have set up a system to give us the news we want to hear. Of course, who knows whether Phil sees his shadow, right? It’s not like we can ask him directly. Which means that we are observing and interpreting the data from the system that we set up. Observational bias.

We are almost hardwired to look for patterns in random data. It probably serves a deeply protective purpose in the biologic sense. The ability to scan the world and all of its data to identify and respond to patterns that may represent a threat is certainly a trait that seems useful and protective. It would seem logical under those circumstances that across time this would become a well-preserved human trait. I don’t know that this is actually true in the biologic sense, but it seems logical.

Regardless of the explanation, there are all manner of studies that support the observation that we will find patterns in data…even when those patterns do not exist. In fact, there are studies that include presenting individuals with data that is deliberately constructed without pattern…people still see organizing patterns. We can’t help it.

Random patterns of sun or shade in February combined with semi-random patterns of winter weather combined with a strong desire on the part of observers for a particular outcome (less yucky weather) and it is not that hard to connect the dots…so to speak. Phil will see his shadow (or not) thus accurately predicting winter’s end…QED.

If it is just groundhogs in small town Pennsylvania, of course, it matters to more or less no one that this is an inherently flawed connection. But in many other aspects of our lives, it matters greatly. Do medications work? Is one car safer than another in an accident? Will walking daily improve my cardiovascular health? Will smoking diminish it? The list is endless, and the implications are potentially critical. In those settings, pattern recognition can be not just problematic it can be literally life-threatening (or life-changing).

This is why, in general, we make such judgments only after doing our best to mitigate any bias or random associations that might be found in the observations (or data) that we review. This is not just a nicety, it is essential. And it is not a conspiracy to suggest that conclusions made without such thoughtful and rigorous safeguards need to be taken with a grain of salt…so sayeth a photogenic groundhog from just east of Pittsburgh.


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Funding: None.
Conflict of Interest: Authors report no financial relationships or interests to disclose.
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