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Information Is Power: Why We Should Care About Research
This piece was written by David Tao, Greatist’s chief research officer. The views expressed herein are his.
The single biggest funder of scientific research isn’t a multinational company or a high-powered philanthropist. It’s you, or more accurately, the collective “you,” as represented by American taxpayers. The U.S. government funds a significant portion of the research that pushes health and fitness forward, doling out grants to discover everything from new drugs to understanding how training impacts the body.
And yet, most of the findings Uncle Sam funds aren’t available to the public. Taxpayers have to pay for a range of expensive journal subscriptions, a cost that can soar into the millions for universities with full research catalogues.
Open access policies have been growing in the research community for the past two decades, and the movement is gaining steam. One group, Access2Research, has started a White House petition to make publically funded research available for free over the Internet. It’s a baby step, but it’s the first large-scale public appeal to open the research vaults to everyone. And if Access2Research gets its way, Americans will have more access than ever to the complex world of science data. However, with great data comes great responsibility. The public will need to learn how to navigate the sometimes-tricky waters surrounding scientific and clinical research.
Today, with only limited public access to studies, there’s a painful lag time between published research and reporting by mainstream media that doesn’t spike immediate mass interest. This means some breakthroughs can go unreported for years, shuffled off in favor of catchy headlines or pop science.
One such example is the vilification of dietary fats. It turns out fats likely aren’t the real culprit behind obesity. The most up to date research instead points to carbohydrates — especially refined sugar — as the real culprit, but that headline is hard to find in a wash of titles like “Burn Fat Fast for the Summer.”
Making studies available could give Americans unprecedented access to the latest findings, allowing them to pick through the studies instead of relying on the news cycle. The availability of scientific research would — and can — empower the public to search out the truth for themselves. Of course, just making the latest studies available doesn’t guarantee people will interpret them correctly, or even read in the first place. Access to research does not automatically give us the tools necessary for careful interpretation. Even without Access2Research’s advocacy, the research that is readily available — abstracts and full texts — still goes unnoticed by the average reader unless the mainstream media covers it. And that, of course, can be a dicey prospect.
Given the limited options for conducting bootstrap scientific research, the effort can seem like a lost cause. Not to fear, there are some basic steps to help you read research and articles about research. These are tips anyone can follow to get a better grasp of what’s worth paying attention to — and how to apply the findings to their everyday lives.
- Love studies, and lots of them: Research is filled with fancy jargon, but it’s not outside the grasp of most readers. Familiarizing yourself with a few key terms and concepts can go a long way toward upping your scientific literacy. The same terms tend to crop up over and over again in related studies. Even when the full text of a study isn’t available online, many abstracts and conclusions are indexed on PubMed and journal pages. These selections are often written in simpler language than the full text.
- Check the dates: The world is full of overly sensationalized headlines and “write first, ask questions later” journalism. Even modest findings can be covered in haste and blown out of proportion, leaving stories with catchy headlines and potentially false conclusions. These pieces can stick around online and pop up in search results long after more accurate reporting comes out. Keeping track of chronology is especially crucial when reading articles about studies. Don’t automatically trust the first result that pops up when searching for info about a study, even if it’s from a source you’ve trusted in the past. The results might have been reinterpreted, better summarized, or even debunked in the meantime.
- Ask a friend: No one’s an expert on everything. Need a second opinion about a study? Ask a friend (or expert) with experience or knowledge in the field (it’s what we do at Greatist!). Don’t be afraid to turn to a fitness mentor for advice — or reach out to find a new one.
- Pay attention to the subjects: Studies are often thought to be widely representative. One group of friends pulling all-nighters is not, for example, an epidemic applicable to the nation’s student body. Watch out for small sample sizes or specific testing criteria. If a study only focused on half a dozen blond Norsemen with celiac disease, chances are it’s worth waiting until the findings can be replicated elsewhere.
- Look for bias… Then look again: Beyond the government, many research facilities — including those at reputable universities — often turn to companies for funding. Unfortunately, companies often have a vested interest in research backing their products. This is precisely why people can be distrustful of scientific testing in cigarette companies, for examples. It’s beneficial to view corporation-backed studies with extra scrutiny. Always check for funding sources and be extra careful in interpreting quotes from researchers who are consultants for — aka get paychecks from — sponsoring companies.
- Trust causation over correlation: A hypothetical: lightning strikes a building while you’re drinking tea. Do you trust a study that says drinking tea causes a building to be struck by lightning? Not so much. Studies linking findings to specific chemical, biological, or physical processes are generally more robust than studies that simply point out the concurrence of two events. It’s the difference between statistics and science.
Information is one of our most important and powerful assets, and the general public may be on the verge of access to a virtual a treasure trove of scientific and clinical research. In order to take advantage of this information, however, we need be able to review it accurately and effectively. We’re already funding much of the world’s best research, but it’s also up to us to make it impactful.
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Really great post David, I'm writing a series of posts on the same topic and will definitely link to yours. I would point out in regards to your last bullet that even pointing out chemical/physical explanations for results doesn't overcome the correlation/causation issue. An enterprising scientist eager for press can come up with a plausible-sounding explanation for nearly any claimed result.