Research: Truth or Fiction?

According to the latest research, at least half of average and above-average (but not below-average) people do one thing or another 90 percent of the time – with 20 percent accuracy.

What?

I read a lot and that means a lot of different studies and research, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one can make research data say just about anything you want – 51 percent or more of the time. According to my research.

I’ve read research that indicated one thing, and a different research report that indicated the exact opposite. How could that be?

I once had a job working as a chemical technician in a research lab. Of course, in scientific research there was never any leeway for data to be swayed one way or the other; it was all fact. Right? Well, except for when you knew what the result would be. Or when you hoped it would be a certain way. Eighty percent of the time that was the case. According to my research.

I recently read of a study that showed that if school children were rewarded with cash, their grades would improve. Well, kinda. This was true if they were rewarded for completing part of the process that would lead to better grades; not if they were simply given cash for a test result (which resulted in no improvement in grades). So, do the rewards help or not? And for how long? Some researchers say that cash rewards can help – in the short-term, but in the long-term they are actually detrimental.

In the early to mid-90s, I visited Australia a few times, and each time I was impressed with how aggressive they were with their road safety campaigns. I especially liked the billboards on the highway that said, “If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.” Subtle, huh? And all the research I read at the time suggested they were doing a much better job with highway safety than we were in North America. Apparently the aggressive, in your face, messaging was effective.

But having just gotten back from another trip Down-Under, I’m not sure that is the case any more. Could it be that the early results were from the shock value, but people got bored with it in the long-term? There was no indication that their highways were any safer than the ones in North America, despite signs every kilometer or so telling you to slow down, don’t drink and drive, leave a proper following distance, and so on. After a few kilometers, they all blended in.

I couldn’t help but think that there were some traffic safety experts relying on the data from the early years, when the shock value did produce a positive result, saying, “If that worked, let’s do more.” You can make data say just about anything you want it to.

Also, have you noticed how much impact saying, “according to a study by…” is? Since I read and communicate information from research all the time, this is a common statement from me.

In fact, in a study conducted by Marks, Spencer and Abercrombie (2005) at the Fitch Institute for Advanced Statistical Studies in Bath, England, everything I just said is totally fabricated (except for my observations in Australia – those are real). This followed a research study conducted by my mother in the mid-80s, coming to the same conclusion.

Okay, over the past few years I’ve cited many a research study to prove or disprove a point. Does that mean that I’ve been wrong, or misleading? I don’t know. I suppose most studies that last long enough to be cited in more than one publication have a very good chance of being accurate (at least 90 percent of the time!). But I will admit that I, like most humans, tend to favor research studies that back up what I already think. Or, interestingly, the exact opposite of what I think. I love finding some piece of research that throws me for a complete loop, turning my thinking completely around.

My point here is simply to watch what you read into studies and research. They may or may not be truly accurate – at least 75 percent of the time. That’s a performance rule. According to my research.

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