Why research is not for everyone… yet

Thursday, March 09, 2017 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

“But how can this study benefit us if it proves us wrong?” Barely holding on to consciousness as the caffeine levels in my blood started to drop, I took a weary breath after hearing the question.

It wasn’t a weird question - for that, I was grateful. But it was a very frustrating one.

In this world of perfectly-cultivated social media posts and Photoshopped pictures, nobody wants to be proven wrong, even if it means more truths realized, more money saved, or more battles won in the future.

Everybody - perhaps myself included - hates to be proven wrong.

painless researchReading this wonderful book about painless evidence-based medicine, I wondered, how could research be painless if evidence was feared?

However, in the field of research where I am very much a greenhorn, to be proven wrong is a validation of science.

I shouldn’t hate to be proven wrong. In fact, I should expect it – but what if everyone else doesn’t?


Wanting to be right versus wanting the truth

I recently accepted the role of lead researcher in a project that could save lives. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it would be worth it.

I also discovered that to many, the core tennets of research were completely foreign. The quest for truth was often addled by personal agenda – understandable, yet it should be managed properly as it would push research towards the side of bias.

In a paper studying the consequences of prejudice against the null hypothesis by Anthony Greenwald, the entire research system was exposed as being dysfunctional mainly because of its propensity to pursue and publish research only if the results rejected the null hypothesis.

Even the math agrees: The world hates to be proven wrong.


Stigma of the null hypothesis

A null hypothesis is a statement made in inferential statistics that describes a nonexistent relationship between two variables: a treatment option doesn’t lead to the desired effect, or a type of exposure isn’t related to another.

To understand how why accepting the null hypothesis inspires dread in a lot of people, let’s use a common scenario: a female driver drawing flak from males.

Imagine a sexist guy saying, “Your being a woman has everything to do with the fact that you drove your car into the ditch.” To prove his misogynistic hypothesis, this pig-headed bully hires a researcher to do the job. The researcher then proposes a study that looks into the relationship of gender and motor vehicular accidents.

The null hypothesis in the study states that there is no relationship between one’s gender and driving skills. (The alternative hypothesis is that yes, being female somehow means having an inferior ability to drive a car.)

The woman-hater fears that the study will prove the null hypothesis to be the correct one. This upsets him fierce, to the point that he decides to abandon the research. Or maybe he wants to proceed with caution: If the study works in his benefit, he publishes it.

And if it doesn’t? He keeps the research to himself.

Thus begins the burying of evidence in the world of research.


The nightmare called truth

As a noted research expert once told me, “If it isn’t published, it doesn’t exist.” Unpublished, the research findings that we fear are likely to be forgotten. In time, it would be as if our very own fears never existed.

People’s fear of the truth is natural. It is rooted in survival, as what we don’t know can harm or kill us. Managing this fear, however, helps broaden our horizons.

The tendency for studies that accept the null hypothesis to remain unpublished subtracts from the complete picture of the truth. Fear keeps us ignorant. It keeps us asleep, and only the truth will wake us up.

“The literature of social sciences contains horror stories of journal editors and others who consider a study worthwhile only if it reaches a statistically significant, positive conclusion; that is, an equally significant rejection of a hypothesis is not considered worthwhile.”

– Jeffrey Scargle, NASA astrophysicist

We always run the risk of a study not working in our favor. Should that keep us from pursuing it? Should that keep us from publishing it?

Research is not for everyone… yet. But we want it to be. We have biases we can’t let go of, conflicts of interest we don’t know to manage, and attitudes we have to cultivate before we can declare that everyone has the aptitude for research. Until then, we continue to hope by holding on to the value of truth, crossing our fingers that the quest for it is enough of a reason to research.

Even if the research proves us wrong.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!