One of the things that I like about the Skeptical movement (if we must call it something) is the emphasis on critical thinking. The encouragement of looking past the “conclusions” of things and getting into the “concluded by who… and how… and why….” of things.
Not that is it just skeptics (self proclaimed or otherwise), who do this… but it seems that a lot of people (most?) are either too lazy or apathetic to really look past the headlines.
Not pointing fingers… a lot of us are busy and rely on trusted sources* to get information… what we forget is that headlines are there to get our attention and that asking for more details isn’t a sign of weakness or even a sign of defiance or challenge… it is a sign of wanting to be properly educated. It is something we should encourage.
How many times have you heard someone spout off a bit of info and when pressed watched them backpedal; “Well I didn’t have time to read the article, but that’s what the headline said.”
And sometime reading the article can still lead people to make blanket assertions.
I see this tendency to error on the side of blind acceptance most noticeably in the realm of science and the media. Big complicated studies involving years of research are distilled down into a sound bite that will get attention but doesn’t have to be all that in depth or even all that accurate…. Because that is, after all, what we want; quick and easily digested news that we can assimilate into our lives and regurgitate at the water cooler tomorrow.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach… I might disagree with the motives of the media that seems to be going out of its ways at times to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But in many cases giving the people what they want is fine.
Sometimes however, it is worth our time and energy to look a bit deeper.
Case in point;
The Unspun Facts:
The painful aversion to light that sends migraine sufferers into darkened rooms when their throbbing headaches start surprisingly also affects some blind people, Boston researchers report in a paper that describes a new light-sensitive pathway in the brain that is separate from visual perception.
Rami Burstein of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center led a team of researchers who studied 20 blind people who were longtime migraine sufferers. Six of them could not see light at all because their eyes or their optic nerves had been damaged or surgically removed. Light did not worsen their headaches. The 14 others could detect light, but degenerative eye diseases had left the light-sensitive rods and cones in their retinas unable to perceive images. For these people, light did intensify the pain of their migraines, leading the authors to conclude that light receptors in the eye apart from those used for vision were related to exacerbating migraines.
To test this idea, the researchers followed nerve signals in rats exposed to light during induced migraines. They found that within a second, light increased activity in parts of the brain that were firing during migraines. The signals traveled along a pathway from the retina to the brain that was separate from the rods and cones, consistent with what light-sensitive blind migraine sufferers experience.
In this example we see a headline that is pretty much on par with what the research seems to suggest. But if we put on our thinking caps we might wonder a few things;
How do they induce a migraine in a rat? Is it possible that the drug induced migraines might react differently to stimuli than naturally occurring ones?
Speaking of rats…. The difference here is in anesthetized mice versus awake humans.
Also, and perhaps the biggest red flag for me, is the issue of sample size. 6 of one group and 14 of another? Really? And they all had the exact same medical conditions? What’s that, no? hmmmm…
This leads me to the following conclusion: More research is needed. Thankfully they have been given a grant to make that happen. In this case the headline wasn’t off base…. And the issues with the research are pretty understandable and any tendency to over exaggerate the findings isn’t dangerous.
But now let’s look at a different scenario.
The Unspun Facts
Black people die from heart disease and strokes at rates higher than white people, a persistent disparity researchers have sought to explain by studying biological and societal differences. A new study points to a potential role for vitamin D. While vitamin D deficiency is common among all races, black people are less able to absorb vitamin D from sunlight because of darker skin.
Researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of California-Davis analyzed the medical records of more than 15,000 adults who participated in a government-run health survey from 1988 through 1994. By the end of 2000, 933 had died of cardiovascular causes.
When the researchers sorted people into four groups based on their vitamin D levels at the start of the study, those who had the lowest levels were 40 percent more likely to have died of cardiovascular causes. Overall, black people were 38 percent more likely to have died than white people. But for black people who had higher vitamin D levels, the risk fell to 14 percent higher than white people. For black people with both higher vitamin D and higher income, the difference disappeared.
The sample size is much better in this example the research seems better done, the results are in some way more interesting and yet the headline was all about the scare, the fear and the death. Of course that last line has me scratching my head…… And shouldn’t we talk about the ways to get vitamin D?
In this example the headline really has nothing to do with the outcome of the research. The research points to the actual following conclusion: Lower levels of vitamin D in African-Americans may partially explain the higher risk of cardiovascular death in black people compared with white people in the United States. However a retrospective study like this one can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the ways vitamin D might affect cardiovascular disease are not well understood.
What’s my point? I promise I have one in here somewhere. My point is that no matter what side of the aisle you sit on or what pew you worship or sleep in, reading the whole article is an important part of being a well informed member of society. Also, bothering to look a bit deeper at the research and asking those very important questions of “who, how, what,… and why’” is not just an exercise in critical thinking but can help save you from looking like an uneducated twit the next time you are in conversation with your fellow human beings.
*A note on trusted sources. One would hope that we all strive to live outside the echo chamber and explore other avenues of news but one must always be wary and strive to understand the bias that might be behind the source. In the examples in this blog for example the sources are The Boston Globe and Pravda news. I’ll let you figure out which one was which… but note that the Pravda article, despite or because of its sensationalistic title, was the first article listed on google for its topic.