from Nature.com, Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims


Bias is rife. Experimental design or measuring devices may produce atypical results in a given direction. For example, determining voting behaviour by asking people on the street, at home or through the Internet will sample different proportions of the population, and all may give different results. Because studies that report ‘statistically significant’ results are more likely to be written up and published, the scientific literature tends to give an exaggerated picture of the magnitude of problems or the effectiveness of solutions. An experiment might be biased by expectations: participants provided with a treatment might assume that they will experience a difference and so might behave differently or report an effect. Researchers collecting the results can be influenced by knowing who received treatment. The ideal experiment is double-blind: neither the participants nor those collecting the data know who received what. This might be straightforward in drug trials, but it is impossible for many social studies. Confirmation bias arises when scientists find evidence for a favoured theory and then become insufficiently critical of their own results, or cease searching for contrary evidence.

Regression to the mean can mislead. Extreme patterns in data are likely to be, at least in part, anomalies attributable to chance or error. The next count is likely to be less extreme. For example, if speed cameras are placed where there has been a spate of accidents, any reduction in the accident rate cannot be attributed to the camera; a reduction would probably have happened anyway.

Extrapolating beyond the data is risky. Patterns found within a given range do not necessarily apply outside that range. Thus, it is very difficult to predict the response of ecological systems to climate change, when the rate of change is faster than has been experienced in the evolutionary history of existing species, and when the weather extremes may be entirely new.

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