Understanding Studies

Understanding Studies… and what they really mean, or don’t, to you.
“Studies Show” and “Recent Research Proves”: these are statements we hear all too often. Whether reading them in a newspaper or hearing them on television, touting some new drug or diet program, they have a sound of authority and acclaim. But what do they really mean? Unfortunately, not much. Those statements have as much honor as the people making them.
Late night TV infomercials are often transparent, and yet many of them seem to be making loads of money. Somebody out there (many somebodies) think that the product will help them in some way.
But why?
If I were to say that studies show and recent research proves that redheads are stronger, faster, smarter and cooler than non-redheads, I would hope that most (preferably all) of you would raise an eyebrow and chuckle and let it go. But the truth is that I could find a few studies that do back up the statement. In fact, I (or you) could find studies and research to back up any statement, no matter how ridiculous. Not that the redhead statement is entirely ridiculous.
The tobacco industry had known for years, if not decades, that smoking was hazardous to a person’s health, and yet they also were able to prove the opposite in court on numerous occasions. So, how do you know? Who do you trust?
Well, first of all, there are two separate problems here. One problem is the study itself. Who is running it? What is the purpose? Who paid for it? How many people are involved? Who are the people? Was the study blind or double-blind? How did they figure the parameters? Was there a control? Do you have anything real in common with the test subjects?
Here is an example: If I were to run a study to support the previous statements of redhead superiority, and I tested myself against my niece (who is 7), I could easily prove that redheads are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. (I might not be able to prove cooler, but it might be reported anyway).
Using the above study parameters, meager as they are, you could read or hear that redheads are superior to brunettes. And if it is printed in a glossy magazine or spoken by a charismatic, handsome man, who happens to be selling hair dye, it might be believed by masses.
That’s one side of the equation. Now, who is reporting the findings? Who is interpreting it? Who is telling you what the study proved? Keep in mind that an actual study, with the abstract and supporting material, is many pages (possibly hundreds) long. When it is quoted or discussed, it is boiled down to a few quotes and the rest is the writer or seller telling you what they want you to know.
Even when a study is run well, with lots of participants, a good control group, double blind, lengthy timeline, taking into account all considerations, such as age of the individuals, diets, exercise and fitness levels, what medications they may be using, are they taking supplements, mostly men or women, what part of the country or the world do they live in, do they work in industry or at home, do they have pets (this is important if the study is testing, for example, stress levels)… you get the point. There are lots of questions to ask when hearing about a study that may impact your life.
A study can state that people who smoke 2 cigarettes a day have a longer life than the control group, and not mention that the control group smokes 2 packs a day. Or a study can prove that chocolate is good for you, but leave out that it is actually a bioflavanoid which dark chocolate (as well as many other plant foods) happens to have, and that the fat content of chocolate kind of counters whatever benefit you may have received.
When real scientists perform real studies, it is dull reading. It is tedious and usually doesn’t make much sense to readers or listeners because they are unfamiliar with the jargon it is written in. And that’s how studies are made to back up any stupid statement you can possibly come up with. So, before you go out and buy that new gadget, or call that toll-free number, do yourself a favor and do your own due diligence. You may learn that two of the three doctors involved have had their licenses revoked and the third doesn’t even exist. Or that if you look more closely, it is actually, Havard and not Harvard.
Just learn how to question. Be a skeptic, but not a cynic. There are some good studies out there that get published in real peer-reviewed journals. But even then, you need to determine how it affects you, your family, and your life.