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I Am Right, The Research Proves It!

posted Mar 14, 2013, 1:35 PM by Kurt Clothier   [ updated Mar 14, 2013, 1:45 PM ]
As a nurse, my wife is commonly asked what her opinion is on various procedures and methods and what the accepted research has to say about a wide variety of things. She almost always answers the same way, but a few nights ago (and for the first time ever) another nurse beat her to it by saying, "[...] they can make the research say whatever they want it to say [...]." This is an opinion shared by my wife and I, but few other people seem to realize this obvious assertion. Have you ever noticed how every side of every argument has research to back up their claims? We've heard it all, especially in CA where everyone has an opinion they want heard, but no one wants to listen to anyone else:

Energy drinks are horrible for you!                                                    No, they're actually good for you!
Circumcisions are nothing more than a cosmetic procedure.            Actually, they can prevent a wide range of problems.
Vaccinations are the leading cause of developmental issues.            No, they are necessary so we don't get sick!
Smoking pot is just as bad as cigarettes!                                            Smoking pot is actually good for your health!
Teenagers are the worst drivers.                                                        Older people account for just as many (or more) accidents.
Gun control will prevent crime.                                                          Areas (in the US) with no gun laws have the lowest crime rates.

And those are just the more common things we hear on a somewhat daily basis. My wife deals with a plethora or interesting topics at work concerning health care procedures. They can't all be right, can they? Well, yes, that is, depending on how they conduct their research. It all comes down to the selection pool. A few (hundred) years ago, surveying just the people that live in your town might have been sufficient for a scientific study, but in today's overpopulated society, there are far too many different types of people in different walks of life from different backgrounds for this to be effective. In any given major city in the United States, there are typically millions of people, but only some of them are from that area. Others moved from smaller towns or a completely different kind of metropolitan area, and others migrated from another country, continent, or (maybe some day) planet! Some are healthy; some are obese; some have children; some are single; some are in college; some have grandchildren in college; some are insane; some are insanely intelligent; some workout; some work from home; some don't work at all. I think you see where I am going with this. Every aspect of someone's life shapes their beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and even their health. Ideally, all of these variables could be used to further enhance a study - to show the differences in people of different cultures, ages, and origins, and they sometimes are - but far too often, these differences are used as a tool to skew the outcomes of a study.

As an engineer, I am no stranger to the scientific method. It was a staple of most of my education. The first step is obvious: ask a question. The second step is just as important, but often overlooked: do a bit of background research. It's the third step that really trips people up: form a hypothesis. And with that, it's game over - you have just asked the person conducting the experiment to have an opinion on the matter. Now, some people may be above such a complex, but most of us are at least somewhat prideful. Even if we don't show it in public, deep down inside, we all want to be "right." Having an opinion about something instantly turns us all into selective scientists - taking note of every little thing in our lives that might help to prove our point. It's this behavior that can all too easily slip into the formal research being conducted. Soon enough, a study is no longer about bettering humanity, but about making a statement or proving a point. Honestly, who wants to spend days, months, even years conducting research only to find out we were wrong from the start?

But then again, if someone isn't passionate about a topic, they probably aren't going to invest the time and resources to do a study in the first place. A random man on the street would probably never decide to start researching the effects of "pushing mag" on a laboring woman unless he works in that field, is close with someone who is pregnant, or had a bad experience with his own child's birth and is trying to find out what went wrong. Here is where the supposed solution would come into play: the independent research consultants. These are (unbiased) groups of people who are contracted to research a topic and present the results. But even this approach has its flaws, primarily, the paper trail. Who is asking them to do the research, and who is paying for the research to be done? If my entire research operation was being funded by a major pharmaceutical company and they asked me to conduct the effects of a new drug on the "average" human being, you better bet that on some sub-conscious level, even the most upright and unbiased researcher will have this thought lingering in the back of their mind: "I hope our results are favorable so the company doesn't pull our funding or cancel our contracts..."

Which brings me back to my original situation: the patient in the hospital asking a nurse what the research says. You would like to think that a hospital conducting research would have the patient's best interest in mind, but even those so called "non-for-profits" have a CEO who likes to make money, and there is always a chance that every study conducted has some monetary skew in place. All too often, the only reason something is done in a specific way is to save the hospital expense - not that the patient would ever see a reduction in their bill. Don't believe me? Talk to a labor nurse working at five different hospitals (not all in the same "network" of hospitals) and see what they have to say about the ancient art of child birth. Then again, maybe I'm wrong about all of this. I didn't exactly cite any research here...

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