Looking at Scientific Studies

In the previous article we reviewed the scientific method. This time we’ll look at how knowledge of this four-part process—observation, formulation of an hypothesis, prediction, and experimentation—can help us understand the many medical and scientific studies we hear about in the news. Let’s look at some questions you might ask about medical studies:

Why did they even bother to do that study? Isn’t the answer obvious?
Actually, no, the answer isn’t obvious. In fact, it runs counter to the scientific method for a researcher to assume that he knows the results before conducting the experiment.

The scientist “finds that he often makes mistakes himself and he must learn how to guard against them. He cannot permit himself any preconception as to what sort of results he will get, nor must he allow himself to be influenced by wishful thinking or any personal bias. All these things together give that ‘objectivity’ to science which is often thought to be the essence of the scientific method,” wrote physicist Percy W. Bridgman in “On Scientific Method” (30 Dec. 2000).

Why did they do that study? It’s already been done.
The answer to this question is one of the most important points about the scientific method: results must be repeatable . An hypothesis gains credibility when other researchers working in different laboratories get the same results. “In fact, most experiments and observations are repeated many times (certain experiments are not repeated independently but are repeated as parts of other experiments). If the original claims are not verified the origin of such discrepancies is hunted down and exhaustively studied” (Jose Wudka. “What is the ‘scientific method’?” 30 Dec. 2000).

The process of science itself is bigger than any one scientist because researchers are constantly checking and rechecking each other’s work: “the hypothesis must withstand the scrutiny of other scientists as well. They may repeat the experiment to retest the validity of the hypothesis, along with the validity of the methods used to test the hypothesis” (“The Scientific Method—Elegant Experiments.” 30 Dec. 2000).

The requirement of repeatability leads to what Wudka calls “the great advantage of the scientific method”: “it is unprejudiced: one does not have to believe a given researcher, one can redo the experiment and determine whether his/her results are true or false. The conclusions will hold irrespective of the state of mind, or the religious persuasion, or the state of consciousness of the investigator and/or the subject of the investigation.”

The requirement of repeatability also means that individuals cannot impose their will or beliefs on others: “A theory is accepted not based on the prestige or convincing powers of the proponent, but on the results obtained through observations and/or experiments which anyone can reproduce” (Wudka).

How can one research team reach one conclusion and another research team reach the opposite conclusion?
Although contradictory results can frustrate those of us who just want to know what foods we should eat to stay healthy or whether vitamins or herbal supplements will relieve what ails us, such contradictions are grist for the scientific mill:

An idea, model, or explanation that has been rigorously tested, analyzed, and accepted by the scientific community is referred to as a theory—a term used, perhaps, because most scientists believe nothing can ever be proved absolutely true. At best, they will say a theory hasn’t been proved false. The theory will continue to be an accepted explanation unless new information is uncovered—information that the scientific community agrees disproves the previous explanation. This continuous scrutiny is essential to the credibility and progress of scientific research (“The Scientific Method—Elegant Experiments”).
With all these studies, some of which contradict each other, what am I supposed to believe?
This question is really the crux of the matter for most of us. Unfortunately, the answer is that there is no definite answer. “A common misperception of science is that science defines ‘truth.’ Science does not define truth, but rather it defines a way of thought. It is a process in which experiments are used to answer questions” (Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. “SCI1.1-The Scientific Method.” 30 Dec. 2000)