Studies Can’t Show

To my chagrin, I caught myself using the phrase ‘studies show…’ the other day. This innocuous and common phrase occupies a similar place in my brain to the ‘democratic we.

 If you think about it, no study can “show” a fact.  A study can demonstrate correlations, it can make arguments for causations, it can show evidence, be it theoretical or empirical and combine it in a compelling story. All of these things are useful and valid, but to frame it in the language of ‘showing’ is very dangerous.

 I think danger comes from a unique bit of human-ness: while we (there I go again) like to think of ourselves as thinking and skeptical, we’re hard-wired to find it cognitively easy to defer to expert opinion. These experts don’t have to be specific people – they can be the perceived wisdom of the masses, or in the case of studies – inanimate objects. The latter is especially insidious because an inanimate study is incapable of lying and is made out of science and numbers, right?

Since stories are excellent, here are two related to the point:

The first, not mine, is about history.

The second, much more mundane is about the weather. I was checking out at the grocery store three weeks ago and was talking to the cashier. She brought up the unseasonably cold weather and proclaimed ‘they’re saying that based on this weather it’s going to be a really cold winter.’ I caught my mind sliding down the easy path of agreement – ‘ah yes, they surely know more than me, and it does make sense because it gets colder in winter and it’s already cold now… wait a minute…’

 ‘Who is they?’ I asked her.

 ‘Oh. The other customers she responded.’

 I have no idea what the weather this winter will bring, but I do know that I sweated a bit in a t-shirt today.

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3 thoughts on “Studies Can’t Show

  1. Thankyou for the link! My pet story of this kind is from the journey home from a conference in the US a few years ago, when that Icelandic volcano of renown was sounding off. There was some doubt in Chicago O’Hare as to whether our plane would be able to get home as a result, and this was made much worse by the CNN broadcasts on television throughout the terminal showing dramatic maps of ash-clouds and saying that the Atlantic was already closed. Nonetheless, though one plane down the hall was delayed by four hours (and we could all hear the cheer when they finally boarded) mostly nothing was showing more than an hour or so and certainly there was no official announcement of anything.

    In this situation I found the best source of information to be observation. I watched the plane and saw that they were loading the luggage, and I said to myself, aha, they certainly don’t think it’ll be cancelled then. And then I watched the crew board and thought, aha, no-one’s told the crew they’re not going yet, then. But I was apparently alone in this, because what many other people were doing, in default of any announcement, was wandering down the hall till they found someone who was ready to guess as if he knew and then reporting back that `a bloke down there says everything’s stopped and that we won’t be able to go till tomorrow’ or the like. I wanted to stand on a seat and deliver an impromptu lecture about use of evidence, but it’s probably as well that I didn’t. After all, they all shortly found out that said bloke was wrong when we boarded.

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