I’m not a scientist. I’m merely a dull-witted heart attack survivor who started asking questions about the fistful of cardiac drugs I now have to take each day. But I did spend 20 years of my life living with a scientist, which meant countless scintillating breakfast table conversations on topics like zinc and copper sediment in the Fraser River estuary. (Does that count at all?)
One thing I did learn from such scintillation is that there’s research – and then there’s research.
Or, as New York Times journalist Andrew C. Revkin, author of Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, reminds us:
“For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD!”
This may help to explain why we can read in breathlessly urgent news headlines that coffee causes cancer, yet the very next week we’ll read that coffee, paradoxically, prevents cancer. . Continue reading
Let’s say you’re a scientist who wants to do some research on the Tooth Fairy. You could design your study to determine if the Tooth Fairy leaves more money for a tooth left in a plastic baggie under the pillow than for a tooth wrapped in a piece of tissue (as we used to do in our family). Or you could look at the average amount of money left behind for the first baby tooth to fall out compared to the last tooth. Or perhaps you might attempt to correlate Tooth Fairy proceeds with the income of the toothless kid’s parents.
None of these would be good research, according to Dr. Harriet Hall, editor of Science-Based Medicine. She explains:
“You can get reliable data that are reproducible, consistent, and statistically significant. You think you have learned something about the Tooth Fairy. But you haven’t. Your data has another explanation, parental behaviour, that you haven’t even considered. You have deceived yourself by trying to do research on something that doesn’t exist.” Continue reading