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Of Avocados and Christianity
Did you know that people who read nonfiction side primarily with Christian beliefs? Or that people with the favorite color orange do not typically keep up with the news? Chances are that you were not aware of these so-called “facts”, and there is a good reason for that - they are 100% false. Yet, I can prove them to you, right now, using solid statistics.
It sounds contradictory and impossible. But the truth is, this is the same sort of scenario behind which lies behind nearly every number-related study you hear in a day. 4 out of 5 doctors do not really think that some allergy medicine is the best of the best. Coffee does not actually cure cancer. But in the mainstream media, people across the word hear these same statistics day in and day out, and slowly but surely, they begin to accept them as truth.
Now back to the original results that I mentioned, about religion, books and colors. I wasn’t lying when I said that these are legitimate results. Recently, I wrote a survey and posted it on multiple platforms, and got about 20 usable responses. The survey had 10 questions, which asked the participant about their religious and political beliefs, their favorite fruits, time spent on the internet, and a few more random and obviously unrelated facts. I then compiled these results into a long, slightly messy list, which took up a few pages of my notebook. By looking at this and twisting the results in my favor, I was able to prove a few things, some which were like the things mentioned at the beginning of this article, and others so absurd that they could not possibly be accurate (such as nobody who sides with Islamic beliefs knows any magic tricks). However, with the small sample size of twenty individuals and the fact that people who took the survey could be of any age, sex, or in any location, these statistics cannot be truly regarded as fact.
The thing is, to publish an actual scientific article which reflects the results of a sponsored trial or professionally conducted questionnaire, your survey doesn’t need to be any more “real” than mine. Sure, it has to have workers with experience and verified funding, but the final product can be as twisted as the scientists working on it want, as long as the end result can be proven to a certain extent.
On top of that, you don’t have to reveal all the important information in the press release type statement which usually accompanies a new study. See, the actual study is typically dense reading that is extremely long (and maybe a little boring). So to shorten the article and make it understandable to the average person, the summary is written in a short, one to three paragraph overview, which is what news reporters and magazines usually look at. Unfortunately, those statements rarely give the full story. First and foremost, the test subjects in most health studies are frequently not human. The majority of the time they are rats, mice, or even individual cells. However, that is not something that most of the public is aware of, similar to the sample sizes. There is a tremendous lack of information between the discoveries in a lab, and what the public hears about.
Also, most scientific tests are subject to peer review - basically another member in the same field of science as you will review your work. The truth is, though, that a lot of scientists have stated that most reviews cannot be trusted, due to either a lack of incentive or the fact that most people feel that one negative comment in a review isn’t going to make a difference, even when it could eventually end up changing the study entirely. So that whole double verification process is fatally flawed.
Finally, negative survey results are often trashed. Scientific journals want to publish a flashy title, like “The Smell Of Rubber Can Increase Life Expectancy” or “Shoes Are Bad For Your Health”. But nobody wants to read something like “No Link Between Rat Study Groups A and B in Trial For Growth Rates”. So on top of faulty results, there are few articles that show the truth when people present the data properly and honestly. Talk shows and news overviews have gotten society so accustomed to fast and interesting scientific stories, that nobody wants to hear anything else.
So in order for a lab worker to succeed in publishing an article, it needs to have big results and a new idea. That is what people are taught to strive for, and that is what we, the general public get. We hear about the Christians who read from the Dewey Decimal part of the library, and the orange lovers who are not aware of current events. We don’t see the part that says the survey was anonymously collected over the internet or the statistics that show no correlation between the color blue and avocados. And unfortunately, this is likely the way that things will be for a long time.
The best fix for this situation would be for there to be regulations on what is posted on the summary page of a scientific article, including the test subject information and what the actual trial was trying to prove in the first place. Or, there could be a central website for peer review, where multiple people can check and redo studies for increased publicity, to add incentive and legitimacy.
This is probably not going to happen. The government has little control over all of this, and scientists will likely choose not to use their limited funding to completely redo the system. Because everybody, it seems, is somehow benefitting from the status quo. Or at least they think they are.
In the end, though, is it really going to matter what you hear, if it isn’t proven to be accurate in the first place? Maybe it will give you more gossip to talk about over the dinner table. Maybe it will allow some new scientist to become well-known with a quote end quote “Groundbreaking Discovery”. But remember, if I can prove that all people who like the color black have at least three siblings, what can you believe? As Ronald Reagan’s favorite proverb goes, “trust, but verify”.