Ah, the phrase that makes everything OK. We make decisions in our lives many times based on those two words. Is that a good idea?
Just about everyday, I read an article that bolsters the credibility of an idea by citing some new research. I also frequently hear about a workshop where research made the presentation “sexy.” I mean come on, a good info graphic is the new centerfold. But,a trouble lurks inside all this new-found “knowledge.”
Let me say right here, I’m not against research. I’m a fan. I have two earned doctorates. If I was against research it would be akin to a physical trainer who was against exercise. Well designed, executed and communicated research is a thing of beauty, no doubt. There is, however, a problem when research moves too quickly from “the lab” or “the field” to the headlines.
Let’s name this problem, premature confirmation syndrome.
Take running for example.
Remember those funny looking “non-shoes” that came out a number of years ago? They were going to transform us into primal runners following in the footsteps (literally) of our barefoot-running ancestors. Research and history supported this funny looking non-shoe; so slam dunk! That is, until research no longer supported this funny looking non-shoe. Oops. You can read about the 40 million dollar debacle right here.
Premature confirmation syndrome.
How about the popular 90’s research-based idea that we only use 10% of our brain. Heck, an entire industry formed around that one. I remember reading a book that was going to help me bump up my percentage points of usable brain. It think once I made it to 15%. Turns out, that was wrong. Take a look at this article from Scientific American. In fact, this idea was so wrong, most of us now know it was wrong. It died a quick death; even though from time to time it does still emerge from the grave.
Premature confirmation syndrome.
Not long ago, I read an article, wait for it..about research that supports the idea that overtaxing your brain can make you more creative. Here’s the article. As I read it, I wondered if 5 years from now I will read a study that debunks this research. That future research will prove that “chilling” is the way to creativity. Oh wait, I think that research already exists.
To be fair to scientists, they have research checks and balances that determine validity and reliability. Researchers think about how they can prove research is valid and reliable, or not. For example, how do you know what you witnessed in your research wasn’t a fluke? Can it be repeated in diverse settings —not just with undergraduate students. And just how much research is “out there” on this? One study is well, one study.
Premature confirmation—buying into research before it has time to prove itself— seems, at one level to happen because today we can disseminate information to a lot of people in short order. A study is published today in what was once a relatively obscure journal, and tomorrow it’s on Huff Post, Zite, NPR or other media outlets. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Shouldn’t we get important information out to the masses as quick as possible? Yes we should. But, the trouble is this: in the big old digital-media world out there, we don’t yet have good identifiers that reveal what stage of evolution any given piece of research is currently in.
I propose some sort of levels of validity and reliability. Media outlets could work with scientists to devise a set of colors or words that convey the stage of any given research.
Red could represent an initial stage that requires a lot more study. The red-stage research could come with a warning, “use these ideas cautiously, even at your own risk.”
Orange could represent an idea that has made it through a number of studies in a variety of settings, but is still not, “take it to the bank” knowledge. The orange message could be, “this idea is really picking up speed, let’s all keep working on it. But, let’s also remain open and skeptical. And, let’s be careful not to extract hard earned money from eager adopters without warning them of the steep road yet ahead.”
Green could represent an idea that has worked so often and been confirmed so many times by different scientists in different ways, that it leads us to say, “we can be as sure as we can be on this one. Go for it” Ya know, like gravity for example.
In scientific communities, “stages of reliability and validity” already exist. However, I’m not seeing that same caution in the reporting of research. And, in a meme-driven, viral-centric world that is ours, we need some clear ways to discern the difference between “a good idea in waiting” and “a good idea whose time has come.”