Recent Study Says…..What?!? How To Read a Study
September 30, 2014
Scientific studies aren’t generally speaking super popular, but in today’s social-media-run world, it’s amazing how often they get cited and swapped. With the right salacious headline—”New Study Finally Answers: Is Organic Really Worth The Money?” or “Study Says Plastic Toys Are Killing Our Kids!”—it’s impossible not to click through.
Here’s the thing: not all studies are created equal. And not all research merits sharing said studies with family, friends, and even your preschool teacher, or making lifestyle changes based on it. The trick is knowing which studies are solid, and which to take with a hefty grain of salt. Here are a few ways to separate the good from the dubious.
- Don’t rely on media interpretation. When you can, look beyond the headline and try reading the actual study—not someone else’s write up of a study. It’s often easy to find a free online summary of a project’s results, also called an abstract, or the entire report may be available. It may surprise you! In 2012, for example, a Stanford University study produced a week of national news reports declaring there was no real difference between organic and conventional foods. But a closer read of the actual study reveals that many key nutrients were ignored by researchers and pesticide levels were underestimated and downplayed, facts overlooked by the majority of reporters. If you can’t find the study, rely on media you know and trust. A random website does not have the same caliber of reporting as, say, The New York Times.
- Look for research presented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. “Peer-reviewed” means fellow scientists found the study adhered to accepted scientific practices and standards and approved it for publication. While peer review is not an ironclad guarantee of legitimacy, studies that do not pass this basic test should be by and large ignored.
- Follow the money. It’s not always easy to do, but studies and so-called “white papers” paid for or published by corporations or others with a vested interest in their findings should be considered less reliable than research funded with no strings attached. The best studies are conducted by scientists who’ve declared that they have no competing financial interests. Look for this information in a study’s “about the authors” section.
- Find out what was actually studied. What’s the nature and extent of the evidence? Animal studies, for example, aren’t always applicable to humans. And some studies test just a handful of subjects or samples. Others have too many variables and too few controls to rule them out. Still others, like that Stanford study, are meta-studies, which means they examined evidence from multiple research projects on the same topic and may exclude important data sets. Issues like these cut to the heart of reliability and can help you determine if its conclusions are valid. If you’re not scientifically minded, give it a try anyway. The information you’re after is usually easy to pick out and comprehend.
The next time a family member sends you a link to a write up of a study saying your environmental health decisions are all wrong, or you see an article that makes you feel like you want to change everything you eat, wear, and breathe, you know what to do. Find the original source and give it the study a read. Digging a little deeper will likely give you the peace of mind you seek after reading a salacious headline.
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