“I Read a Research Paper on the Topic”

Sorry about the delay between posts…

I had limited internet access over the holidays.  Anyway…

If you have ever been involved in a discussion/debate (which I am sure we all have at some point), I am sure that you have heard the following statement at least once…

“Well, I have read a research paper on the topic”

The infamous “research paper” defence!

While often employed by the forces for good, the research paper defence is often used by the forces of EVIL, specifically by those promoting pseudo-science and woo.  In these circumstances the research paper defence is employed as an authoritative declaration with the intent of ending a discussion.  Thus leaving all of those involved with the sentiment that the ultimate truth on the matter has been spoken.    

Use of the research paper defence can have several different intended (or unintended) consequences.  It can be used as a means of providing information and insight into the topic at hand.  The person employing the research paper defence seeks nothing more than to add truth/facts to the discussion.  In this type of circumstance, the research paper defence is an attempt to add some truth/facts to the conversation.  On the other hand, the research paper defence can be used as a means of intentionally ending a conversation, typically with malicious intentions.  And it is this use of the research paper defence that is often employed by propagators of pseudo-science and woo.

With this in mind…

There are some important questions that one must ask when the research paper defence is employed, as not all research papers are created equal.  Instead they fall on a continuum that ranges from “utter crap” to “reliable information that represents our best current knowledge on a specific topic”.  The questions listed below will provide potential insight into the intent of the person employing them as well as the validity of the sources being quoted.   

1)      When was the paper published?

Although a seemingly unimportant question, the year of publication is actually quite important.  If someone quotes a research paper that is years or even decades old, it is possible that the information contained within that paper is no longer relevant or has been disproven.  Although the age of a research paper does automatically determine its relevance, it can provide insight into the potential validity of a paper and the information contained within. 

2)      Who published the paper?

Was the paper proving the homeopathy is more effective that conventional medicine (just for those unsure, it is not!) published by the Journal for Homeopathy that has a review panel that consists of only homeopaths?  Or was the paper published in a peer reviewed journal that proudly employs a wide variety of unbiased/objective reviewers from a variety of different relevant backgrounds that do not have a vested interest in the results of a particular paper?  Was the paper as self produced pamphlet, written and distributed by a crank that thinks that everyone is involved in a conspiracy against him that only he has uncovered?  Or was the paper published in a reputable journal that holds itself accountable to its readers and the public at large?  Determining who published a paper and information about that publisher can provide valuable insight into the validity of a paper.

3)      What type of study was run?

Was the paper reporting on a study that included 5 research participants that knew the type of treatment they were getting?  Or was the study a double blind placebo control trial?  Is the paper an opinion piece written by a lone crank or is a systematic review written by an expert in a particular field regarding a specific topic?  When assessing the validity of a paper, the type of study run is extremely important to determine.    

4)      What where the actual results/conclusion of the research paper?

This one is really important!

I have lost track of the amount of times that someone misinterprets the results of a research paper.  Whether it is intentional or unintentional the result is still the same.  It misleads the individual hearing the information and provides false data regarding a topic of discussion.  However, when done intentionally, this type of error can take on a malicious intent, and again, is a tactic often employed by propagators of pseudo-science and woo.  So when encountering the research paper defence this is a tactic that you MUST be aware of!

Though far from an exhaustive list, it is my hope that the above “questions” will serve as a good starting point to arm you in the fight against pseudo-science and woo. 

This has been the skeptical samurai

Working to serve…

Through the process of inquiry….

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