The overabundance of available information in recent times, both fact-based and otherwise, has made sifting through the weeds to determine truth a task itself. However, the pursuit required to follow the source-trail of a particular claim should be regarded as the lesser of two modern consequences induced by the age of information.

Consider a friendly dispute among two friends where one side claims to fully understand the validity of their argument while the other side is just as convinced of their own opposing viewpoint. Because contradiction rarely results in mutual conclusion, the two parties in disagreement turn to the all-knowing internet — society’s oracle of answers. This venture, though posed to debunk one party’s misinformed claim and replace it with objective findings, oftentimes muddies the waters even further. Any existing opinion — regardless of how obscure or inaccurate — is backed by mountains of supporting websites, articles and even studies proclaimed as fact by the self-declared experts who curate them.

Before people can learn to properly vet and understand what characterizes legitimate research, they first need to understand why the research process is important. They also need to understand how research, when conducted properly, impacts their daily lives.

Many fall into the trap of accepting popular research at face value. Characterized by a single source (normally the writer), and an absence of evidentiary support, these often misleading commentaries full of unsubstantiated claims should be valued only for their editorial influence.

An increasing number of tabloid propagated pop-studies not labeled as opinion can be found at every checkout stand in the country. They’re housed within the pages of respected rags like Cosmopolitan and OK! Magazine. They feature enticing headlines that promise the “real” scoop on belly fat loss or a solution to insomnia for the low price of a couple bucks.

While the majority choose to regard these publications as entertainment only, others are taken in by the material. Their acceptance is largely due to the calculated inclusion of scientific buzzwords that are only partially understood by the readership. Common examples include “randomized control group” and “double blind study.”

These phrases manipulate readers into assuming that all research efforts and their findings operate in the same sphere of influence. An ensuing mountain of poorly determined evidence and massively distributed misinformation then clouds public opinion and prevents us from accepting authentic discovery when it arrives.

In order to arm yourself with the tools needed to recognize true investigative research that properly follows the scientific method, look for the following critical attributes:

Sources

While it might be the most obvious criterion on the list, tracing genuine source material before forming a conclusive stance on a given topic is becoming increasingly rare. Many followers of the news cycle read only the headline before making up their minds. They don’t even consider the body of the article, much less bother to consider its origin.

Computer scientists from Columbia University determined that 59 percent of shared news articles on social media aren’t even opened before being shared to other users. They claimed “most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.” To be fair, not all readers are equal in their informational apathy; many do scroll to the bottom of a news article to verify existing sources. Establishing the substance of a given source should follow suit. This presents the most challenging portion of the investigative process.

The University of Wisconsin, Green Bay lists some qualifiers on its IT site that will help responsible readers establish the credibility of a source. Two important qualifiers it lists are author credentials and the presence of sources that cite their claims from scholarly articles.

Purpose

Purpose is a tricky topic when it concerns the legitimacy of research. I find critics of a particular scientific discovery reject data because they feel the scientists involved have disingenuous intentions.

When people assign a political bias to a claim without first determining its authenticity, they group years of experimentation and research with subjective ideals and personal truths. This is not to say ulterior motives pressured by financial gain or other incentives haven’t caused people to forge data in the past.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put out a telling piece in 2015 that illustrates a contemporary example of this very type of corruption. In a piece titled “Documenting the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Climate Deception,” the UCS claims data used by some major fossil fuel industry players as proof that the sun is wholly responsible for climate change comes from purportedly independent research groups that are inappropriately compensated by big oil and gas.

If true, the paper trail they used to arrive at these incriminating claims is worth scrutinizing.

Anecdotal vs. Controlled Repetition

Probably the most vital piece of information any proactive pursuer of truth needs to be aware of is the quantitative measure of successful outcomes compared to total repetitions of the test or tests administered.

This measure of quality is used by the FDA during every stage of trial pharmaceutical testing. On avergage, this process requires over six years of testing, resulting in only 25-30 percent eventually garnering the stamp of approval. Even with these decently strict requirements of worth, many drugs are eventually removed from the commercial market for safety concerns not documented during the trial period.

Considering a scenario where personal experience, gut feelings or even data reached properly without the necessary corroboration are considered fact paints an unsettling picture of human judgment. That judgement hearkens back to the days of trepanation: the drilling of holes in one’s skull to release evil spirits (among other purposes). The utilized standards and practices of any discipline that appeal to the scientific method must not be discarded for being imperfect. Plainly put, the scientific method is currently the best system available. It is an exploration of the natural world that enables us to refute what doesn’t work in an effort to get closer to what does.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

@TheChrony

 

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