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Home » Articles »

Sorting Out Scientific Studies

Father and daughter reading a newspaper

Increasingly, the news is filled with headlines that begin "Doctors claim..." or "A new study finds..." When these highlights from scientific research have to do with raising healthy children, they can induce fear in parents if something is said to be detrimental to young people's well being. Research-oriented news reports are quite popular, and journalists often relay only what will get your attention, devoting little if any consideration to the details of a particular study. Rather than presenting a thorough examination of a study — how it was done, who was involved and the implications of its findings — the fast-paced news cycle reports only a quick statistic or declaration, which may leave you feeling worried or defeated.

To counteract the way the news media tend to cover scientific studies — either too sensationally or too briefly — you can approach each report with a healthy skepticism. Remembering to be cautious about claims — even those from familiar information sources like the evening news or a morning radio show — will allow you to determine what each study means to you and your family rather than draw inaccurate conclusions. Not only is this process of questioning the meaning of a study a helpful habit for you to develop, it is a good one to pass along to your child.

5 Questions to Ask about Every Research Report

  1. Is this only a small part of a much larger study?

    Often the complete findings of a study are very different from the one or two aspects that a news outlet reports in a headline. Before accepting the news media's version as something worth believing and repeating, check out the full report or at least the executive summary, which often accompanies a newly released study. Talk to your child about how the news story was based on something, like a study or set of data charts.

    One of the best ways to convey this is by looking at original documents, which you often can find online by typing the title of the report into a search engine. Then you can go to the report author or organization's website and read the report yourself. Admittedly, you may not want to slog through an entire report, especially one that is technical, dense and quite lengthy. However, viewing parts of an actual document — or simply remembering that you can — will send the message that scientific research can have many layers and therefore may be more complex than it initially appeared.

  2. Who conducted the study and how was the research funded?

    Researchers often begin a study with specific goals in mind. Likewise, companies and organizations that fund particular research often have a stake in these goals as well as a vested interest in the research findings. Consequently, knowing who did the research may help you determine where the study originated and how funding might have influenced its results.

    For example, a team of university scholars supported by a grant from a government agency, a think tank that is part of an industry lobbying effort and a non-profit membership organization representing dues-paying constituents may have very different goals and ways of wielding influence. It is useful to know who stands to benefit from the research results and whether sources you consider credible have endorsed these results. Though your child may not be ready to decipher the intricacies of how funding may influence what research gets done and why, you can familiarize her with the notion that all research is done by real people and has real costs.

  3. Does the study really apply to my family and me?

    A single study is just that: one study. It may or may not be relevant to anything other than what went on in one scientist's lab or among a specific population of research subjects. A good way to determine how applicable findings from one study may be to you and your child's lives is to find out how the study was conducted and who was involved. Are the findings based on the responses of 10 people or ten thousand? Were the subjects affluent boys ages 13 –18 or girls living in urban environments? Were the research subjects selected from a wide range of experiences or did they all volunteer to be participants?

    To get your child in the habit of thinking about these kinds of questions you can wonder aloud: "I'd like to know how those scientists figured that out: Did they mail a survey to people and ask them to fill out answers to questions or did they bring people into a lab where researchers watched them and wrote down what they saw?" Both self-reporting and observation are good methods but are appropriate for different kinds of situations, which is why you want to always ask, "Do the methods fit the research claims or are they mismatched?"

    In the end, there is no one magic methodology that makes for a perfect study, but knowing how the study was performed may reveal why it does or does not apply to situations and people different from the "test group." It also will help you know what is credible and what is suspect.

  4. Did the study appear in a reputable publication?

    Where the study appeared may indicate how rigorous the research was. Each type of publication has its own conventions. Was it a respected journal reviewed by the researcher's peers or a self-published report? News articles can be based on a variety of sources; some are mini-digests culled from academic journals whereas others are based on information from press releases that groups distributed to promote their studies.

    For instance, the New York Times's Science section commonly highlights studies first printed in the journal Nature, which is a reputable magazine for science research as is Science. Help your child spot publication information, asking "What was the original source?" Also, discuss how a thorough publication indicates when a similar topic had been studied by others or includes a bibliography of related research. It has an interest in developing a "body of research" around a topic rather than pushing individual findings.

  5. Were important elements left out of the study?

    No study — even a 10-year experiment involving tens of thousands of people — can include everything in its research. Knowing what was not studied can be just as informative as knowing what was. You and your child can ask, "How does this study relate to similar research? Does it contradict what people have previously thought to be true? By honing in on one aspect of the topic did the researchers neglect to look at another part that was perhaps more important?"

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