Right last one, the final hurdle and all that jazz. Is it good science to manipulating the data and adding participants until you find an effect? We could in a way compare this question to a picture. An artist spends their hours attempting to perfect their creation, constant tweaking, adding colours here, more shading there, all in the pursuit of creating a masterpiece. But can we really think like this for something such as research? Sure given in a context similar to that it might seem fine, but let’s look at this more closely.
I’m going revisit some themes and arguments covered in my last blog, but both blogs are related to finding significant results so I guess some things are bound to crop up more than once. Let’s use the work of Allers et al as an example of some of the dangers of manipulating data. This research discusses the use of stem cell research as a potential cure for HIV. HIV is an incredibly prominent disease within certain cultures and is responsible for the death of millions of people every year. Now this research is only in starting stages, with treatment only being given to single patients. Now if this research is progressed this could maybe one day lead to a real cure to HIV, but what if the data is manipulated? Now I understand in this case patients will need to be added so that this research can be progressed further, but manipulating the data specifically to find significant results would be beyond unethical. The results need to be 100% certain on a condition as wide spread. Even if the condition is for a handful of people, it is the job of clinicians and professions to provide the highest level of care as possible, and with that honesty is needed. The clinician needs to have 100% confidence in their claims to patients, not say “well actually, this might not be a cure, we don’t know whether it works or not because the evidence was changed.”
In that sense, if we are changing data then all we are doing is kidding ourselves and others. At some point or another the truth will come to light, so why waste others time? Ok, I guess on an individual basis it’s better to publish significant results as it reflects better on them, but how can anyone truly be that selfish when it comes to the welfare of someone’s life? We have to think about the greater good of the whole thing and with this honesty is the best policy. By all means, if a researcher believes there is something significant within their area of study, then repeat the study, but do not simply an existing one to fit for purpose. This is both unethical and deceptive. We turn towards science for truth, facts about life and the universe, from the smallest components such as atoms, to how we exist on this planet. At the very least we want to adhere to this and carry on discovering new answers, and if we manipulate data and have to wriggle our way to get what we want, then that really isn’t good science. We can have confidence in the things that just stand out, not what we dig and dig for. Right blog (or should I say rant) finished, at last there done with!
Blog time again, so let’s get this show on the road. The question presented this week is whether or not the term approaching significance is cheating. If we look at this literally, then yes it is. By saying approaching significance it’s like saying “I’m almost there” when meeting a friend, when you still haven’t bothered to get dressed. But I guess it entirely depends on the context of the research whether this is a big deal or not. Take the research of Pope, Kouri and Hudson for example. They found that there was approaching significance of there being no change in level of depression based on men’s level of testosterone. Bit of a mouthful I know, but basically meaning they can nearly conclude that level of testosterone doesn’t play a role in depression. Now presuming that something such as depression develops due to multi-casual reasons, this doesn’t have a huge impact on anyone. There are still plenty of effective routes in which clinicians can try and help patients and treat their patients, be it providing drug treatment to elevate serotonin levels, or suggest counselling to help with potential issues effecting the patient.
Put it at the other end of the spectrum however, and things can get a lot more serious. This is highlighted in Thompson, Rikard, Orcheson and Seidl’s research into mammary tumour growth. They claim that by taking flaxseed oil, there is up to a 50% reduction in mammary tumour growth. Unfortunately, this is only to an “approaching significance”. This is most definitely a very dangerous claim to make for something backed up with a very wishy washy term of approaching significance. When faced with life threatening conditions, understandably people want as much concrete evidence as they can get on their respective treatment, no one likes uncertainty. If presented with this information, patients may react in very extreme ways, be it a prolonged lease of life, an optimism of survival, or a much more daunting over-realistic belief of survival. There’s a whole ethical argument of whether people should be given false hope, but when it comes down to something that is life threatening, is it really a good idea? I always try and be an optimistic person, but I’m going to have to take quite a pessimistic stance on this, you need to be realistic and understand what’s going on with no sense of delusion, especially with something as important as this.
Coming back from this tangent though, I stand by my initial statement that using the term approaching significance is cheating, however it does depend on the context. There is a time and a place for everything, and terms like this are no exception. When the stakes are high then things need to be concrete, or this just leads to problems. (in this example, emotional turmoil?) To end by quoting Helmuth Von Moltke: First weigh the considerations, then take the risks.
As psychologists, it is our profession and duty to study the human mind and the areas surrounding it. One area in particular however is the study of human behaviour. Even since the origins of behavioural psychology, (Skinner, Pavlov, Watson and Raynor to name a few) psychologists have set out to find the causes of human behaviour. Why are we the way we are? What are the causes of both simple and complex emotions such as anger, or empathy, and ultimately reducing every behaviour to its fundamental core. Now that’s all well and good, but I have a huge bone to pick with this. It comes in the form of constructs.
Now these are a huge part in behavioural psychology. They represent ideas such as emotions that cannot be physically measured, so that they become measurable. That in itself is a ridiculous contradiction. I’m not saying that things such as emotions don’t exist, but if something isn’t physically there and is simply based off interpretation one way or another, then surely there are no accurate means of measurement? Sure things such as inter-rater reliability can be used, but at the end of the day when there are no universal standards of emotion, then how can they be truly measured? How do you define if someone is upset? Is it whether they seem to be a little down, not talk as much, or does a person have to be at the point of crying before everyone can agree that there upset? Again more problems arise from this; What if the person is hypersensitive, the severity of whatever they may be upset over, and every single individual has their own coping strategies and ways of dealing with things.
I guess the whole point of this little rant is that there are far too many different extraneous variables to even begin to consider to accurately measure emotion, and since it is simply a construct, how can it be measured? I could have been even more obscure from the start of this and simply stated that psychologists cannot measure how many dinosaurs walked the earth, but I’ll chose not to be as pedantic. Psychologists will always try their best to understand and measure human behaviour, but at the end of the day there’s only one person who can tell you how you’re feeling and why you are the way you are, and that’s you.