We are presented these days with a great deal of information, some of it from scientific studies, that may be useful to us as parents. This has the potential to be a very good thing. However, we are only rarely provided with much information about these studies beyond the attention-grabbbing headlines. As a result, some of the recommendations that follow from these headlines cause undue worry that we parents are doing things incorrectly. Unfortunately, it falls to us to sort it all out. So, here is a quick guide to help you evaluate whether the next bit of scientific data you read or hear about is worth your consideration.
1. What does the study itself, not the press report actually say?
It is worth clicking through a news report to the study itself and looking at the abstract – a quick summary of the study written by the authors. At the end of the abstract you will find the author’s conclusions and recommendations for further evaluation. I don’t suggest that you read the entire study if that does not interest you, but it is wise to read beyond the version presented by the popular press. You may be surprised at how often and how dramatically the study itself differs from the article you just read. It will take just a few more minutes of your time and may go a long way to ease your concerns.
2. Who performed and funded the study?
Scientific studies are funded by four main sources: government agencies, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, consumer product companies, and industry lobbies. The source of funding for a particular study is an important bit of information to have because you would, of course, value a positive study on the benefits of say, apple juice, that was funded by a company that makes apple juice differently than you would if that study were funded by a less partial source. It is certainly not the case that every industry-sponsored study is biased. However, we must remember that these are businesses and some have regrettably come to use scientific-looking studies to promote their products. So, it would be wise to read a study produced by a source with potential conflict more closely. Finding and researching the source of a study may take an extra few moments of your time, but it will go a long way to put in perspective the topic you are interested in. If you can’t find a study’s funding course easily it is not a reputable study.
3. How many subjects were studied?
This question is important in understanding how generally the study results may apply. If a study includes, say, 10 mothers and their babies, its results may be able to raise an interesting question for further study. But it will be far from high-powered enough to warrant a recommendation to the general public. There is just too much chance that coincidence could be influencing the results. In contrast, a study that includes a large and varied population of mothers and babies and finds a particular result would be more likely to apply to you and your baby.
4. Were the subjects humans or animals?
Obviously, babies are not mice. But sometimes interesting animal results are reported as though they apply to humans without the human follow up to warrant such a conclusion. This is another example of prematurely reporting preliminary data. An important animal finding may certainly be newsworthy because of the scientific achievement that it represents. It is not typically cause to alter the recommendations we make to people.
5. Is this an exploratory study or has the research been replicated?
The second or third of fourth time that an association or outcome is found is typically less exciting to the popular press than a new discovery. But any doctor would argue that replicated results are actually the most exciting. Researchers work very hard to minimize the effects of random chance on their data. But we all feel most comfortable making recommendations based on data this has been duplicated over and over again by independent teams of researchers.