I was listening to a conversation this morning at breakfast, and I must admit, it made me cringe…uh, think. The young men were talking about a scientific study they had seen posted on Facebook, and what it meant. They were very earnest, and taking this very seriously, and I thought, oh, how nice, they’re interested in science. Actually, no, I didn’t. My thought process was quite a bit more complex, so it my take me a little work to move through the stages of the things going through my head.
First, let’s start with sourcing. Scientific studies are not posted on Facebook. They are published in the scientific literature. You may see references to them on Facebook, and in the news, and in the magazines, and on TV and Twitter and…the list of media sources goes on and on, doesn’t it? But these are not where you should be looking for the science. You need to go to the original study before you go spilling the beans to everyone you know about this new wonderful (or awful) scientific finding. Why?
Most science journalists, even if they are trained in science, are looking for sensation. They will post the most flamboyant, most outrageous finding, and the editors will put the largest click-bait type headline on it they can. Newspaper editors have long been subject to the “if it bleeds, it leads” and our new media sources are no different. So the wild headline proclaiming “New study shows coffee cures cancer” or “Studies show women want their men to be brutes” might be just a tad misleading…if not outright wrong. And the real story is likely buried in the “boring” details of the study that never see the light of day. Coffee does not cure cancer…but what did the researchers really find? Enquiring minds want to know…except they don’t.
Another thing to keep in mind is that science is rarely that simple. Very little can be explained in bumper sticker language or a tweet…and Facebook is not noted for profundity and nuance, either. Understanding what the science really says about something may require a bit of hard work and slogging through dense material, including graphs, charts, and tables of data, before you can hope to understand. Don’t take the easy road, because sometimes these things we hear on the Internet or television may actually be bad for us, and we’re being told they’re good. Do 9 out of 10 doctors really recommend sticking jade eggs up your vagina? No, of course not. In fact, most doctors (all reputable doctors) would advise you very quickly against that. It’s not good for you and can lead to serious problems. So go to the experts…I know, I know, it’s so 1950s to suggest experts might know their own field better than the person who just wandered in off the street, but sometimes it’s better to be unhip than dead or maimed.
In addition, scientific studies, even published ones, don’t always get it right. There is the need to examine what was done, how it was done, and what the findings really showed. I have read published studies where the conclusion was in direct opposition to the actual data, and it still got published. I have evaluated studies that were poorly done, lack of controls, inadequate sample size, poor statistical analyses, poor experimental design, or simply interpreting findings in a preferred way rather than recognizing three or four other possible interpretations of the data. This is the sort of evaluation that takes work, and it takes study. You have to be able to recognize all the factors that make up a good study, and be able to notice their absence in a bad study. This is where expertise comes in handy, but it is possible to acquire this expertise without years of college…it often requires years of self-study, so you don’t get off that easily. In cases where you do not have the necessary expertise to evaluate the study, well, maybe it’s best to hold off assuming it’s true. That’s especially the case if you actually agree with what it says, because you are more prone to ignore weaknesses if it is “on your side”, so to speak.
So let’s see what these young men were so pumped about. It seems that this study showed that in America, we tend to use active voice where a lot of other countries may use passive voice. In other words, we might say “I broke my arm” and someone else might say “the arm is broken”. The conclusion was that Americans tend to be more selfish than people in other parts of the world, and tend to see ourselves as the center of everything. Now, I have no problem with that conclusion in general, but I suspect this study didn’t actually show that. In reality, this is a quirk of language, the use of passive vs active voice, and translation from one language to the other is rarely perfect. The differences in languages are complex and challenging, and many people study linguistics for many years to be able to evaluate that. I don’t have expertise in that field, so I won’t try to go there. I will say, though, that just from what I heard of the study (which is filtered through the consciousness of another human being and may not be reported accurately), it would seem that you could also draw the conclusion that it could mean that Americans (or English speakers, which would be more accurate than the young man’s Americans) have a heightened sense of responsibility, assuming responsibility even for actions that may have been out of their control. Or it could mean something else altogether. Without the actual study in hand, I don’t know how they arrived at their conclusion, or why.
So, yes, consider what the science says. Take science seriously – your life could depend on it. But don’t….don’t…please don’t…assume that any old “scientific study” you see reported on Facebook…Twitter…CNN…New York Times…is going to be accurate or important. Do the hard work…or if you’re one of the lazy ones, wait until you can find a practicing scientist (in the appropriate field – see my disclaimer above re: linguistics and me) to help you sort out the details.