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Don't Believe Everything You Read: Four Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading "Research"

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

We’ve all been there: You’re reading an article about the benefits of breastfeeding or reading to your child every night before bed or using agave nectar and it just seems off somehow. You don’t know why but something just seems too weird about it. You start to wonder about all of the mothers who physically can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed or who work nights but read to their children in the afternoons or who can’t afford agave nectar. The fact that you’re questioning these things is great! In the massive wide world of the Internet, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is the expert and to automatically assume they’re correct.

However, when you’re reading articles on parenting websites, nutrition blogs, news outlets, etc. that are referencing published peer-reviewed articles, it’s important to know that most of the time those journalists are not trained researchers. They are not necessarily professionals in that specific field. They honestly may not have any training at all. They may be completely misinterpreting the data, findings, and information found in that fancy research. Trust me, I was in grad school for two and a half years and a lot of it still goes over my head.

So, what can you do? It’s almost a Catch-22. You don’t have the time or money to go find the original research and try to understand what the researchers were saying. This is especially true since most researchers are writing for other researchers, not the public. That means that it is going to be really difficult for us to understand what they’re saying because we’re not their audience. If you can’t read the original research, that means you have to rely on the articles and blog posts found around the web written by these non-researchers. How frustrating! But there’s hope.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself while reading these articles:

1. How large was their sample size?

In other words, how many people were actually studied? There is a world of difference between a study of 25 people and a study of 2500 people. I would be a lot less likely to trust the results of a study of only 25 people but it also really depends on the purpose of the study.

2. What were the demographics of their sample?

In other words, who was being studied? If they only studied upper-middle-class white women living in the Northeast US and you’re a lower-class white woman in the Southeast US, then some parts of the results may apply to you but definitely not all as you are living in a completely different SES bracket and region!

3. What were the research questions?

This can be harder to find out in a news article but it’s worth trying to discover. If the researchers were looking to find if breastfeeding or formula feeding is more likely to affect a child’s body weight but the journalists only report on the fact that more black participants used formula than breastfed, then there’s a huge issue. First, the journalists seem to be writing from a completely biased (and racist) perspective. Second, they are completely ignoring the researcher’s questions and cherry-picking data that they can sensationalize. Finally, they are also probably ignoring the sample size and demographics of the sample.

4. Do the journalists or news outlet have an agenda they are serving?

The answer to this one is almost always yes. While researchers are often pushed to question their own biases and are held to higher standards with an ethics board reviewing their research, journalists and news outlets are not held to those standards. Every single one of us has biases and prejudices that influence how we think, react, and act. News outlets and blogs are wanting to make money and so they often have to think about their sponsors and their goals which is often to sell us something.

Obviously, these questions aren’t going to make every news article or blog post more clear. These aren’t every single question that you could be asking yourself. However, it is a way to begin looking at the world a little differently and holding others to a higher standard.

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