Dr. David Rettew of the UVM Medical Center is here with some tips.
Watch the video or read the transcript below.
WCAX: We are constantly barraged by studies, especially when it comes to your health, but how can you tell what’s fact from fiction? Dr. David Rettew of the UVM Medical Center is here with some tips. We appreciate your being here.
David Rettew: Nice to be back.
WCAX: Yeah, nice to have you. Science is supposed to be absolute, so why is there so much confusion when it comes to studies?
David Rettew: The scientific method is a pretty good system. We should all be pretty skeptical if someone makes a claim that is testable but isn’t tested. That said, it’s not a perfect system and we are, after all, talking about behavior and the brain and things that are pretty complicated.
WCAX: You’re a psychiatrist, obviously we know that. What about studies in the behavioral sciences make them so prone to misunderstanding? What do you think?
David Rettew: A couple things. One is, in behavioral studies there are a lot of moving parts, there are a lot of different things to be studying. A second reason is what we’re measuring. If you’re doing a study about height, that might be a complicated study but at least measuring height is relatively straight forward. If you’re doing a study about happiness, that can be a little bit more of a challenging thing to measure, let alone trying to figure out what is causing it.
WCAX: You say assuming causation is a common pitfall.
David Rettew: Yeah. I would say that’s probably the biggest pitfall in terms of interpreting science. One of the best ways to determine causation is to randomize your subjects, but if you’re doing a study on the effects of spanking or the effect of breast feeding, there’s not too many moms and dads that are going to let a coin flip determine their parenting behavior over the next five years. You’re kind of stuck with measuring what they do anyway, and that’s where this problem can result where two things are associated with each other and you assume that they’re causally related but they’re not.
For example, the way it was explained to me once, I could do a study where I measure the weight of someone’s clothing and measure the amount of ice cream somebody eats. I’ll find that the two things are related and I’ll say, “See, it must be something about your clothing that’s determining your ice cream consumption.” If you don’t have any idea what temperature is, you’re going to miss it.
WCAX: Often times I will have you give homework to folks who are watching at home, but give me a little bit of homework, how can folks in my line of work and in the media reporting the news do a better job tackling these studies that we seem to get bombarded with?
David Rettew: Honestly I think opportunities like this are wonderful. We’re having a chance to talk right now, we have more than 10 seconds to talk about it. I think being able to have the time to talk through some of these more nuanced ideas is really important and I also think it’s important to talk the people who are doing the science. They’re the ones who can explain their results the best.
WCAX: Making sure that there’s time to really put a study into context for folks.
David Rettew: Yes.
WCAX: Talk about what scientists can do to better represent their work in the media. Flip the coin for us, what do scientists need to be doing better?
David Rettew: I think we need to change our job description a little bit. Not only do I think scientists need to be generating science, we need to do a better job of really explaining it. Honestly if you look at some of the titles of journal articles they are mind numbingly boring. We really need to do a better job of supporting good science and also refuting bad science or places where there’s no science at all.
WCAX: Give the viewer at home some homework. They’ll be on their smartphones tonight, their computers, they’ll be looking up and down Twitter and Facebook feeds. We just had a study about millennials- what is the homework for folks at home to absorb and take in a study, no matter what the topic? What do you want them to be mindful of?
David Rettew: One thing I think is really important, and this was touched upon in the earlier segment- be willing to listen to things that are not part of your worldview already, be willing to take some risks and challenge yourself. If someone is making wild claims and is not backing it up with some good science, ask yourself why that’s the case.
WCAX: Do we think sometimes … We just heard our last guest, you have your set ideas and assumptions and you stick with them before you even dig through the material?
David Rettew: We all do that. Even though this is science it’s science generated by people and we are human beings.
WCAX: All right, Dr. Rettew we so appreciate you joining us and we can’t wait to see what you’ll have us tackling next. Thanks for being here.
David Rettew: Thank you.