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Understanding Research Headlines

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Often times in the news we read the following: “Research suggests” or “studies have proven” or “X causes Y” and most of the time these taglines are not completely true. Just because a study finds a certain result does not mean that this result is the only possible result, nor does it mean it is entirely the answer. Research is never Black and White. Ever.

At the foundation of research is what we call Null Hypothesis Significance Testing (NHST), meaning we seek to test what is called the Null Hypothesis. The null hypothesis assumes equality, it assumes no difference, no effect, no relationship, null effect…you get my point. As a researcher, we should assume that there is no statistically significant effect. But that’s not what has happened over the years. In my opinion, a lot of researchers have been pulled into the mainstream "popular opinion" research, where they focus on designing a study to show an effect, or to show a difference between groups of people or between variables. They also know that journals and publications won’t publish research unless there is a significant effect. It’s a sink or swim world, and the only way to swim is to make darn sure your research finds an effect.

So what should we be doing as researchers in our respective fields of science? We should be praising all good research, regardless of whether there’s a significant effect or not. There should be mainstream journals and media who seek out the “no effect” research. This is where we learn, grow, and construct new ideas. For example, when a researcher finds that there’s no difference in health outcomes among people who work out in the morning versus those who work out in the evening, shouldn’t this also be publishable research?


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