My Facebook feed is always being bombarded with links to controversial research articles, which always incite arguments among friends. I’ve found, though, that a little research into the research, however, usually reveals the mistaken significance of its findings. So, in an effort to combat reader ignorance–or to give you some fodder next time someone argues about the “facts” they read–here’s a crash course on how to properly interpret research studies.
- Research is driven by theory, not fact. Particularly in psychological study, fact is nonexistent. In fact (pun intended), any Intro Psych class will tell you just that. It’s rule number one, so if you see language that suggests the contrary, always be skeptical (e.g., fact, prove, confirm). Acceptable research language is more ambiguous (e.g., results suggest, the research shows) because at the end of the day theories are never fully provable.
- Avoid opinion at all costs. People are naturally susceptible to preconceived notions, so studies that quickly affirm a reader’s expectations can gain misguided approval. This can be done using a variety of biased language, but the actual killer is the quotation mark. When reporting past findings or ideas, direct quotes are typically frowned on because researchers should be writing in their own words. In opinionated writing, it’s not uncommon to see quotation marks used for sarcastic interjection (e.g., “men of science” or “the experts”), so when this tactic is used in research writing it’s easily confused as something previously studied or the all-too taboo “fact.” Be on the lookout for distasteful use of this punctuation.
- Who’s being studied? No researcher could test every subject in the world, so smaller sample sizes are used to project the research findings onto the total population. This is called external validity. If a study has poor external validity–meaning you can’t really claim the findings are significantly related to a larger population–then the findings are crap. For example, if research says Americans don’t like cheese anymore but the study only tested twenty people, that’s probably not an accurate statement.
- How old is the source? Many landmark studies were conducted decades ago, but they’ve since been recreated and improved upon. Always be wary of articles that source five- to ten-year-old research. Chances are it’s either been updated or it was never studied again. There’s a reason for the latter. Maybe it was just crap.