Goal Setting

Are Scientific Studies Reliable Research?

research“They just came out with a new study…”

If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear this. Before someone can finish that sentence, I’m already feeling frustrated, suspicious, confused and jaded—about whatever they’re going to say, and about health research in general.

Every day it seems like there’s new research that *completely debunks* previous findings. How is that even possible?! And what are we supposed to do with a constant seesaw of health advice?

Case in point: new studies revealed that extended cardio (such as marathons) causes heart scarring and other heart risks. Yet other findings suggest the risks are very slim and it still delivers the benefits we thought. So do we burn our trainers, or put cotton balls in our ears and keep on running?

To determine whether we can trust “the latest studies,” it helps to start by looking at the nature of health research (and what the media does with it!). While we can never be 100% sure—and neither can scientists—there are a couple of ways to separate the legit from the bunk and determine what is reliable research and what isn’t.

If It Sounds Too Good to be True…

You know what? Sometimes researchers make things up. In a series of surveys, about 2% of scientists admitted to falsifying, modifying or *entirely fabricating* data or results. Around 14% blew the whistle on fellow colleagues for such misconduct. And approximately 34% admitted to other questionable research practices which could affect the outcome of their studies.

To be clear, this is NOT an acceptable practice in science. When discovered, researchers often lose their jobs and reputations. But there is high pressure to be continually making new discoveries, and sometimes the bad apples take the low road to glory.

What does this mean for us? I think it means we’re safe to put a good chunk of faith in scientists, because the majority seems to be conducting research competently and honestly. But we should NOT view them as the be-all-end-all.

If a study yields wildly groundbreaking results (i.e., “people only need 4 hours of sleep”) or counterintuitive results (“ice cream is good for you”), those are red flags. If no other studies are coming up with similar results, it might be one researcher’s attempt to get a raise and a book deal.

Then again, it might be a journalist’s attempt to get a raise and a book deal, because…

The Media Selectively Reports Study Findings

The media—journalists, pundits, entertainment outlets, etc.—are crazy-guilty of tweaking findings to grab our attention. And sometimes, they just don’t have the whole story. The game ‘telephone’ comes to mind.

The reality is that most scientific studies are conducted with small groups or highly narrow circumstances. But as results get passed down the line, they get taken out of context, exaggerated and generalized. Studies can be extremely dense and confusing to read, and sometimes people translating the research just plain don’t understand it.

So if you saw a headline that said “new research proves ice cream doesn’t make us fat!”… there’s a good chance the published study looked more like this: “42 overweight middle-age women stopped eating ice cream for a month, and only 27% of them lost significant weight. However, further research is needed to test for other variables.”

And next thing we know, everyone has been given a green light to binge on Rocky Road.

Anyone Can Do a Study

How often do you hear reference to “a study” with no mention of the study author? The other day I advised my mom to buy 100% whole wheat bread, and someone chimed in: “They just did a study that white bread is just as healthy.” They who? Wonderbread?

Anyone can conduct a study. Your neighbor can survey five people and call that a study. Companies conduct studies all the time, which often conveniently demonstrate the value of their products.

If someone is reporting a legitimate study, they’ll probably mention the academic or government institution that ran it. While there is no guarantee of objectivity, as we’ve seen, it’s at least a better gamble than what you’d get from your neighbor… or Wonderbread.

Bottom line: if you’re curious about something, do your best to track down the original study. And use common sense. Resist the temptation to use “the latest study” as an excuse to eat more ice cream and swear off cardio forever. That would be a prime example of self-sabotage.

Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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