From a discussion of why scotch smells like Band-aids (hint: look at the phenols!) to a very timely exploration of the bacteria living on the vagina (am I allowed to use that word here, or will some Republican politician come at me for being vulgar?), this week has shown itself to be a particularly good one for science articles. But it was not all fun and vaginas; a few articles this week highlighted the importance of really considering alternative hypotheses.
Scientific studies are designed to find evidence that certain phenomena exist, and then to figure out the causal mechanisms behind these phenomena. Unfortunately, some things are almost impossible to test directly, and those causal mechanisms have to be inferred. For example, if you wanted to figure out if reading aloud to children leads to them performing better academically, ideally you’d take 100 random babies, raise them in identical settings with identical parents, and read to half while not reading to the other half. Taking babies from their families and putting them into years long experiments is not only expensive but highly unethical (good luck getting an Internal Review Board to accept those experimental methods), so instead researchers try to control for those variables, either when selecting the research participants or when running the statistical tests or both.
Generally speaking, when researchers work to take those factors into account, and when they are upfront about the limitations of their data and recognize valid alternative explanations for the phenomenon they’re working to understand, then very good and useful work is done. However, as a recent Time blog article by Noliwe M. Rooks shows, this does not always happen.
In the article, Rooks takes to task the bad science and unquestioned assumptions between many medical studies that point to genetic differences between black people and white people as explaining the generally more negative health outcomes for black people. As she points out, instead of researchers acknowledging that cultural, economic, and social factors may play a large role in determining health outcomes, they tend to jump quickly to genetic explanations. She points to study after study that found evidence that in some cases, such as breast cancer survival, it is in fact these cultural, economic, and social factors, not genetics, which make the difference.
In addition to just being bad science, the lack of consideration of alternative explanations can lead to perpetuating systems in which these negative health outcomes can persist. If the cultural, economic, and social factors are not acknowledged, they cannot be addressed, leading to the maintenance of health care protocol that hurts people of color. I strongly encourage you all to click the link to the article (I added it again here, just to make it easier).
And there are many other arenas in which scientific findings can have significant ethical implications. That research always demands the engagement of everyone – scientists, philosophers, people with lived experience, basically, it requires that everyone bring their expertise to the table. Recently, Nature published an article, which was reprinted in Scientific American, which is what I am linking here, about the use of fMRI technology in determining if comatose patients are truly brain-dead, or if they can respond to questions. Scientists measured these responses by taking pictures of brain activity as they asked the comatose patients questions, like if they had siblings, or to imagine themselves playing tennis. The researchers found that some patients showed some signs of response, and they are very excited to expand on the study.
The implications of the research for the treatment and care of patients previously thought to be entirely brain-dead are wide-ranging. Further care must be taken in light of concerns that fMRI studies may be overstating their findings. Acknowledging the limitations of one’s methods and research protocol is an important step in critically assessing the results and implications of one’s research. Now, the concerns about fMRIs doesn’t mean that the current work using fMRIs is useless or uninformative ““ it just means that the concerns about fMRIs must be included in a critical assessment of the research.
So there we have it. It was a good week for reading about booze and it was a good week to think about shark testosterone, and it was a really good week for thinking about engaging with scientific studies.