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Eight common mistakes when interpreting research

28 August 2015

Whether you’re writing a report, an essay or your postgraduate thesis, adopting good research habits is an integral part to a successful academic career. As well as researching effectively, it’s important to avoid these common mistakes when interpreting research:

All it took was one study to convince thousands of people that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine caused autism. Despite the study being conclusively discredited and its author stripped of his accreditations, this is one myth that isn’t going away. Make sure you can verify results before stating them as fact, or acknowledge that your information may not be conclusive.

2. Confusing ‘significant’ and ‘important’

Just because you notice a pattern, doesn’t mean that pattern is important or even worthwhile pursuing in the real world. A study into the effects of aspirin on heart attacks, for example, told us that people who were taking aspirin had a lower risk of having a heart attack. What many people overlooked was that the difference was less than one per cent! Also important: the distinction between correlation and causation.

3. Treating all research as linear

Goldilocks wasn’t a fan of porridge that was too hot or too cold – and you shouldn’t be a fan of research that focuses on one extreme or another. Whilst we all know that too much sodium can cause an increased risk of heart problems, it’s often overlooked that too little sodium can cause similar problems. The same issue can be seen with fluoride. Research isn’t always a perfectly linear scale.

4. Exhibiting confirmation bias

If you already hold a strong view, then you’re automatically more likely to search for information that confirms it. As hard as it can be, it’s important to keep an open mind to being, well, wrong! Remember to take multiple studies into consideration, and that research should initially be about finding information, not about cherry-picking the statistics or quotes that support your argument.

5. Falling for the use of scientific terms and ignoring the actual research

Think back to the ‘vaccines cause autism’ example. Many people fell for the use of scientific-sounding words and didn’t stop to think critically about other flaws in the study. Plenty of studies have been done confirming that people are more likely to trust information that’s presented to them using scientific or technical sounding jargon – even if the information is false or inaccurate.

6. Valuing the quantities more than the qualities

Just because a new drug can extend the quantity of life, doesn’t mean it can extend the quality of life – just as reducing waiting times at a doctor’s practice might not be as effective overall as providing a seating area and some magazines, if it means patients are rushed through their appointment. Many interpretations of studies get caught up in the numbers without thinking of the other details.

7. Ignoring the context

Research doesn’t exist in a non-contextual vacuum. While one study focusing on one aspect of an idea might be positive, another might show negative results. It’s possible that neither of them are wrong: the evidence around the use of bike helmets shows that they are effective in preventing or reducing head injuries to cyclists, but that mandating them may cause people to stop riding altogether – which is more beneficial for the greater public health?

8. Putting too much faith in the words “peer-reviewed”

Too many people assume that the words “peer-reviewed” mean something like “perfect, accurate, with no flaws or fallacies”, when in reality “peer-reviewed” just means the research is ready to be published, tested, confirmed and reconfirmed by the academic community. Make sure to always use critical thinking when referencing any resource, no matter where it is published, or by whom.