“Studies Show…”: Taking ‘Facts’ At Face Value

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How often have you read a newspaper or magazine article that begins a sentence with ‘studies show’ or ‘studies have found’? If you read any publicly available content then you’ve most likely come across this phrase hundreds of times. It’s often used to refer to information that is backed up by a scientific study, claiming that the results of the study give credit to whatever concept is being discussed. I now have a second question for you: how often have you read an article with this phrase and asked the fundamentally necessary question “What study?”.

Even well-educated individuals fall prey to this kind of un-referenced journalism. It’s easy to say ‘according to a study, this is the case’ but the general populace isn’t always so gullible to take it at face value. It’s something that even online journalists have a terrible, unprofessional habit of doing. They make sweeping claims and attempt to justify them with so-called ‘studies’ but never actually mention who the study was done by or provide any academic references. Of course the job of most media outlets is to get information out as efficiently as possible, and you’ll only tend to get in-depth information during live news broadcasts, but sometimes it’s no excuse for making baseless arguments. While the blame is most certainly on the source for a lack of professionalism, the blame is equally shared on the side of the consumer. Because sometimes we take articles that we believe to be academically sound at face value.

A study by Weisberg in 2008 presented some interesting results regarding the use of neuroscience information in articles given for people to read. It was found that psychological phenomena tends to be considered better when neuroscientific explanations are present, even if that information isn’t fully accurate. This led to the creation of the phrase: the seductive allure effect: it refers to how too often people consider information more valid when there’s the presence of some sort of scientific study or images of results of a study, yet the information itself might be completely wrong. The wider implication this has for the general media is that we tend to place too much trust and worth in scientific studies that we don’t think to question their validity, and sometimes the mere mention of a study being involved with an occurrence leads people to believe that it’s legitimate. We assume that if some sort of scientific experiment was conducted then the information must be true, which is a sadly naive way of looking at things. However, it doesn’t have to be this way at all.

An educated person might fall prey to such pretty words as ‘study show’ but an educated and practical person will be the first to demand sources and references. When watching TV and hearing about how a skin care product is good for you because ‘studies show’ that it has demonstrated improvements in skin quality, the pragmatic individual would want to know first what study had gained these results. As consumers we have more power than we think when it comes to choosing what to indulge in, or what to believe. With the power of the internet a simple Google search can yield thousands of results in regards to general information and scholarly articles. With the right connections or websites, you can easily find out academic, peer-reviewed studies and read about their findings. People don’t have to take facts at face value and believe that just because a news writer claims there’s some sort of study it means that there actually is one. Even scientific studies themselves are not perfect and can be falsified and revised when new scientific information is revealed. Never let someone in an argument attempt to defend their claim by citing ‘studies show’ without giving proper representation of such a study. It’s easy to be spellbound by the magical phrase but knowing how to research is key when dealing with scientific information.

In our day-to-day lives we’re bombarded with facts and figures, claims and assertions from many different outlets, be it the news, online journalists or even political propaganda.  But never take information at face value, the internet has given us the tools we need to communicate with others and demand proper referencing, and the tools to do our own research in regards to academic studies. Public libraries are also a fantastic source of fact-checking, so all it takes is a trip to one to look up scientific information, either in books or journals. Facts are not facts unless there is validity behind them, so the next time you see someone write ‘studies show’ on their article or argument, turn around and ask them: “Show me the studies”.

 

Weisberg study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2778755/ [Seductive Allure effect]

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