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Op-ed: Writer warns most studies ‘show whatever someone wants them to’

There seems to be an academic study for everything these days, and many seem like a total waste of time.

Take for an instance a 2016 study that delved into a “feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” Huh?

Other studies state the obvious. A Brown University researcher was awarded a $5 million grant to discover frat boys drink more than their classmates and a 2016 study found business travelers enjoy their trips more when they wait less time in line. Who would have thought?

If you’ve had enough of these studies, you’re not alone. In a recent commentary published in The Wall Street Journal, writer Andy Kessler laments the overflow of studies and our attachment to them.

“Hands down, the two most dangerous words in the English language today are ‘studies show,’ he writes.

From the article:

The world is inundated with the manipulation of flighty studies to prove some larger point about mankind in the name of behavioral science. Pop psychologists have churned out mountains of books proving some intuitive point that turns out to be wrong. It’s “sciencey,” with a whiff of (false) authenticity.

Malcolm Gladwell is the master. In his 2008 book, “Outlier,” he argues that studies show no one is born better than anyone else. Instead success comes to those who put in 10,000 hours of practice. That does sound right, but maybe Steph Curry shoots hoops for 10,000 hours because he is better than everyone at basketball in the first place. Meanwhile I watch 10,000 hours of TV. Facing criticism, Mr. Gladwell somewhat recanted: “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” News alert: Professional sports are cognitively demanding.

When reading people like Mr. Gladwell, you’re probably thinking many of the studies’ conclusions sound right but don’t really reflect your own experience. That’s probably because you’re not a hung-over grad student. Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard studied behavioral economic studies and discovered many are done by grad students observing their peers doing trivial tasks. Then researchers draw hard conclusions from this. Rather than a study of human nature, behavioral science is, Mr. Ferguson observes, “the study of college kids in psych labs.”

Kessler contends most of the studies that gain media coverage are “one-offs” and that it would be easy to dismiss them “as trivial, except millions take these studies and their conclusions seriously.”

“The world is not binary, but conclusions drawn from studies always are. These studies show whatever someone wants them to. So stay skeptical and remember: Correlation doesn’t equal causation. If only I could find a study that shows this,” he concludes.

Read the full article.

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