I watched a Dateline special last night aboutÂ Dr. Andrew Wakefield, you know the doctor who started the whole vaccine MMR causes autism fiasco. I’m not here to pick sides on the autism debate but rather to give you all a few tips on how to look at research critically. First, always look at who funded the study. If I am a researcher who is paid by Ajax to research which cleaning agent is the best, chances are if I want to keep my funding, I’m going to make sure that Ajax comes out on top. And believe me, there are a million different ways to “lie with statistics” to make that happen. A great quote attributed to Mark Twain is “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” My second favorite is from Mr. W. Edwards Deming, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”
Second, beware of studies that “prove” anything. You can never prove anything with a hundred percent accuracy. Just because the sun has risen every single morning you’ve been alive doesn’t mean it will rise tomorrow. So when research studies say A definitely causes B, beware! And if a study says that A almost always causes B, look at the sample size. The sample size should be really big and really diverse to come to any definitive conclusions. We are not all forty year old white males or eight year old kids so if those are the majority of the subjects, the results will not apply to you.
These are just a couple tips to look at research critically, especially the kind the news likes to report, so that you aren’t fooled into buying the wrong detergent!