Wednesday, 4 April 2018

How reliable is research?

Read the full article here

When you add the tag 'research states that...' or 'evidence shows that...' it doesn't actually mean that the claims are genuine. Education is now being subjected to a new wave of 'knowledge' that uses 'research kite marks' to authenticate approaches, resources and techniques. But are these claims believable?

As we enter the Easter holidays, it might be a good idea to draw a comparison with the 'research' that has informed the debate about whether chocolate is good for you or not.

Who is funding it?
Chocolate manufacturers have poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years.

For example, studies published last year found:
In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.
Most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but this isn't highlighted.

“Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” - M Nestle NYU.

Are meta analyses based on fair reports & research?
The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. 

“It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

How are control groups set up?
Unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

Lessons to learn?
  • Be sure you know who funded the research
  • Check that meta studies are based on balanced views
  • What methodology was used to get the results

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