Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 21 May 2011
Here’s no surprise: beliefs which we imagine to be rational are bound up in all kinds of other stuff. Political stances, for example, correlate with various personality features. One major review in 2003 looked at 38 different studies, containing data on 20,000 participants, and found that overall, political conservatism was associated with things like death anxiety, fear of threat and loss, intolerance of uncertainty, a lack of openness to experience, and a need for order, structure, and closure.
Beliefs can also be modified by their immediate context. One study from 2004, for example, found that when you make people think about death (“please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”) they are more likely to endorse an essay discussing how brilliant George Bush was in his reponse to 9/11.
A new study looks at intelligent design, the more superficially palatable form of creationism, promoted by various religious groups, which claims that life on earth is too complex to have arisen through evolution and natural selection. Intelligent design implies a reassuring universe, with a supernatural creator, and it turns out that if you make people think about death, they’re less likely to approve of a Dawkins essay, and more likely to rate intelligent design highly.
So that’s settled: existential angst drives us into the hands of religion. Rather excellently, after all, the effect was partially reversed when people also read a Carl Sagan essay about how great it is to find meaning in the universe for yourself using science. It’s perfect. I love this stuff. I love social science research that reinforces my prejudices. Everybody does.
But that’s where I start to fall down. If I like these results, then lots of other people will like them too, whether it’s the academic psychologists doing the research, the statisticians they collaborate with, the academic journal editors and reviewers who decide whether or not the paper gets an easy ride into print, the press officers who decide whether or not to shepherd its findings towards the public, or even, finally, the bloggers and journalists who write about it. At every step, there is room for fun results to get through, and for unwelcome results to fall off the radar.
This isn’t a criticism of any individual study. Rather, it’s the angst-inducing context that surrounds every piece of academic research that you read: a paper can be perfect, brilliantly well-conducted, and yet there’s no way of knowing how many negative findings go missing. For all we know, we’re just seeing the lucky times the coin landed heads up.
The scale of the academic universe is dizzying, after all. Our most recent estimate is that there are over 24,000 academic journals in existence, 1.3 million academic papers published every year, and over 50 million papers published since scholarship began.
And for every one of these 50 million papers there will be unknowable quantities of blind alleys, abandoned experiments, conference presentations, work in progress seminars, and more. Look at the vast number of undergraduate and masters dissertations that had an interesting finding, and got turned into finished academic papers: and then think about the even vaster number that don’t.
In medicine, where the stakes are tangible, systems have grown up to try and cope with this problem: trials are supposed registered before they begin, so we can notice the results that get left unpublished. But even here, the systems are imperfect; and pre-registration is very rarely done, even in medical research, for anything other than trials.
We are living in the age of information, and vast tracts of data are being generated around the world on every continent and every question. A £200 laptop will let you run endless statistical analyses. The most interesting questions aren’t around individual nuggets of data, but rather how we can corral it to create an information architecture which serves up the whole picture.