“They’ve Done Studies”

I’m sure you’ve experienced it, just as I have.  Frankly I imagine you’ve been guilty of it, just as I have.  You’re having a conversation with someone, a friendly debate, perhaps, and then they pull out the trump card.  “They’ve done studies.”  All of the sudden your momentum is lost.  Your eloquent, persuasive words die on your lips.  The heavens open up above your opponent and he receives the philosophical victory, every good point you’ve previously made now null and void.  “Why did ‘they’ have to do ‘studies’?” you cry.

In all seriousness, this is a problem in our culture.  Raising the flag of anonymous studies (that just so happen to prove your point perfectly) garners much more support than it deserves.  Or, similarly, people will often employ another tactic: the random statistic of dubious origin.  (83.476592% of statistics are made up on the spot, right?)

There are several problems with this trend, the first being that of authority.  Claiming “they’ve done studies” without giving any real information about the study is not an empirical claim.  It is an appeal to authority.  And more often than not, who are people appealing to when they cite “studies”?  Anonymous.  Boy, that anonymous sure has been right about a lot of things.  We’d better accept his opinion without any critical thinking.  It’s no different from someone saying “You should believe me because someone really smart agrees with me.”  “Who?”  “I don’t know.  Somebody smart.”

Appealing to authority without providing the authority is as ridiculous a tactic as it seems.  Let’s stop encouraging it.

The second problem I see is that we uphold these various studies because… we’ve carefully examined the parameters, metrics, assumptions, procedures, and underlying philosophies behind them and we’ve come to the conclusion that they are logically sound?  No, not so much.  Usually our reasoning is more along the lines of, “Look!  Those guys in white coats agree with us!”  And unfortunately, that’s usually where it ends.

My point in this second problem is just to say this: though most are probably valid, there are a lot of bad studies out there.  (Even among “studies” that actually exist and have taken place.)  A logical progression is only as good as the givens it starts from.  What assumptions were made at the beginning of the experiment?  Is putting this theory to the test in a laboratory setting going to affect what happens?  What about observer bias?   And on and on and on.  Scientists, unfortunately, are not infallible.  So let’s not be intimidated by the letters following their names, and let’s look into their methods.

Finally, one of my biggest complaints with this trend is this: when claiming “they’ve done studies”, common sense often goes flying out of the window.  For example: I once had a conversation in the blogosphere about the natural state of man.  Fall where you like on the issue, persuading you here is not my intent.  I mentioned the selfishness of children in this debate.  The first words out of a child’s mouth are never “Thank you”, as Tim Chaddick once pointed out.  A child has to be taught to share, but he is born knowing how to take.

My counterpart in the debate told me that I was wrong.  They’ve done studies.  (uh oh)  To his credit he found a link to an article about the study he was referencing and posted it.  That is where a lot of people stop.  Many times, I’ve probably stopped there.  “Darn.  He has a link.  It must be a valid point.”  Luckily, I went and read the parameters of the study, as reported by this article.  The scientists claimed that babies are not selfish because they showed different babies videos of other babies sharing a toy and not sharing a toy.  How did they measure selfishness from this, you may ask.  By counting the number of times the baby blinked while watching.  I kid you not.  The babies didn’t blink enough, so they’re not selfish.  That “whooshing” sound you hear is common sense being thrown out of the window.

We’ve talked about the limitations of science on this blog before (Specifically, here) and it bears repeating.  Science is not able to measure everything, much to the chagrin of reductionist materialists everywhere (that’s just fancy wording for ‘people who think that every single concept, feeling, object, and idea in the universe is explainable through and caused by subatomic particles in motion).  Science is amazing.  It has given us innumerable blessings.  It can’t explain everything.  Let’s not be so quick to part with common sense because “they’ve done studies.”  Next time someone tries to pawn this trump card off on you, ask them who performed the study, and more importantly, who funded the study?  Ask them where you can read the study yourself so you can see what measurements they took , and how they took them.  And on and on and on.  If the study is a) real and b) valid, then you’ll have learned some valuable information in your research.

You all should take my word on this.  83.476592% of people who do go on to lead better lives.  They’ve done studies.

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4 comments on ““They’ve Done Studies”

  1. Kendall says:

    What a great explanation, you are a very eloquent and thought provoking writer! I find it so interesting how people are so willing to persuade you with another’s work instead of their own thoughts and ideas. If you are willing to argue a subject, you should have the knowledge to support and strengthen your words rather than vaguely attest to a study done somewhere in the world. In all reality though, I’m sure I have done this, because who likes to be wrong?

  2. johnprecoda says:

    Referencing studies in a discussion is healthy. Empirical data that has been tested is a more sturdy base on which to build an argument than is a subjective rationalization.

    If your argument is that a discussion should not stop at the data, than you are completely correct. I would liken it to building a pyramid. You start with a sturdy base (data) and work your way up to a point (excuse the pun). Some individuals may use scientific studies inappropriately, but that is no indictment on the use of studies in discussions in general.

    • Totally! My point is just that many times it’s doubtful that the referenced study has actually taken place. If real tests have been done, certainly, talk about them. I like your pyramid analogy. I would argue that one has to examine what the pyramid is based on as well (the givens). Sometimes the data of a study will point a certain direction, but only because certain assumptions have already been taken into account.

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