Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Several times over the last two years, I’ve made comments about how claims made by various parties are untrue.  But let’s be honest – some claims, be they from the anti-vaxers or PETA, seem to be backed up with what looks like credible scientific research.

Many of these papers are not the conclusive scientific proof that their supporters claim.  But how can one tell what is good research and what is not?

So, to help with explaining with what makes for a credible piece of research versus one that is less so, here’s a few things to consider:

  • When were the studies done?
  • Who did the study?  (Is the source credible?)
  • Where was the study published?  (Is the outlet/journal credible?)
  • What are the methods?
  • Was the research done using a single-blind system (where the researcher knows who is in which pool) or a double-blind (where no one knows who is in the control group until later)?
  • Is there a control group?
  • What is the sample size?
  • Is there an alternative explanation for the results?
  • Has there been other research that agrees or contradicts the results of the study being examined?

So, let’s look at the two papers that PETA has been bandying about as their proof, and see how they stack up.  The first warning sign that should jump out at anyone is the sample size – the two studies they cite have 20 and 36 participants respectively, which is hardly a broad, representative sample.  The papers being cited are from 19 and 12 years ago, which alone shouldn’t be disturbing, since we don’t demand that scientists re-prove gravity every 10 years.  However, when you go back to the issue of sample size, there should be new questions jumping out at you: Why hasn’t there been more research since then, if the sample sizes are so small?

The answer, in PETA’s case: there has been more research since then.  There have been larger studies that have shown that GFCF diets do not help with the symptoms of Autism with one huge caveat – it does help when there are other GI issues that are aggravating the Autism, by removing those GI issues.

Personally, when someone ignores – not argues against, but ignores – research that contradicts the research that underpins their point of view, I start considering the potential for ulterior motives in the holding of the viewpoint.

In PETA’s case, their ulterior motive is wanting everyone to protect animals and go Vegan.  The fact that there is clear evidence that contradicts their point of view that  is irrelevant to them, since it undermines their argument, so they ignore it…. plus the “removing dairy helps treat Autism” angle prays on folks’ fear of Autism.  I can almost imagine some campaign from them in the near future, telling us that if you feed your kids with Autism dairy products, you’re a bad parent and responsible for their condition.  (They are that outrageous, if you’ve seen their previous campaigns.)

Be critical of scientific research.  Read any paper and consider the questions above.  If a paper doesn’t pass the sniff test (if something smells rotten, it’s probably rotten), dig deeper and figure out why it doesn’t “smell” right.

Don’t be a lemming and blindly believe everyone who presents “scientific research”.

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