The Herman Trend Alert
January 11, 2023
Valid Research or Misinformation?
As the result of having been taken in by the findings of a self-serving study by UnitedHealth Group, I decided it was important for me to write a Herman Trend Alert about what we all need to do in this age of overwhelming amounts of data and information---and social media---to write about how to distinguish valid research from misinformation. Especially now, with proliferating platforms for the distribution of research as well as social media, it is easier than it has ever been before to post and disseminate misinformation, including false or misleading news, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience. Misinformation can be spread intentionally, as a means manipulate public opinion or to sell products, or it can be spread unintentionally, because of misunderstanding or the lack of critical thinking skills.
Consider the Source
One way to identify valid research is to look for credible and authoritative sources. This category includes peer-reviewed journals, which are publications that are reviewed by other experts in the field before they are published, as well as other well-respected news sources, like reputable newspapers and television news programs. Another means for determining authenticity is to check the credentials of the person or the organization presenting the information. Do they have the background or expertise that gives them the needed credibility?
Once More with Feeling!
Another way to identify valid research is to look for studies that have been replicated, or repeated, by other researchers. This element is important because replication is one of the leading ways that scientists validate their findings. When a study has been duplicated and the results are consistent, it is more likely to be trustworthy.
Study Design can make a Difference, Too
Just as surveys can ask questions in ways that bias the results so can study design affect outcomes. Thus, it is also important to consider the study design when evaluating research. Some types of studies, such as randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses, are generally considered to be more reliable than others. Randomized controlled trials are experiments in which a group of people are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or intervention, while a control group receives a placebo or standard treatment. This type of study design helps to minimize bias and allows researchers to determine the effects of the treatment more accurately. Even better, if the data are available is to look at a meta-analysis---a study that combines the results of multiple reports and findings on a particular topic to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.
The Funding Organization
Another red flag to look for is research that is funded by organizations or individuals with a vested interest in the outcome. The problem with the data in my Herman Trend Alert that came from the UnitedHealth Group was that the insurance company had a significant vested interest in having the data show that Emergency Department (ED) visits could be avoided because ED visits will typically cost between $700 and $1200 USD, while the average office visit will cost between $200 and $275 USD. I am not saying that all research funded by such groups is necessarily biased, but it is important to be aware of potential conflicts of interest and to consider them when evaluating the findings.
Evaluate the Output
In addition to looking for these indications of valid research, it is also important to be critical of the findings. This assessment includes evaluating the sources of the information and considering whether they have an agenda or are presenting a biased perspective. It is also important to consider the context in which the information is presented, i.e., is it part of a presentation or a report? Another important factor is to look for corroborating evidence from other sources.
A "Shocking" Example of this Point
Has the study been peer-reviewed? In some cases, that peer review may result in failure as happened to a report by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, that is supposed to produce research to improve healthcare in America. On December 30, 2022, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported "A Study Sounds a False Alarm About America's Emergency Rooms." WSJ reported that shockingly, the AHRQ study had based its findings on one fatality in Canada in 2004. In this case, the poor statistical methodology resulted in inaccurate findings that grossly exaggerated potential harm in EDs.
Finally, it is important to be aware of our own biases and to approach information with an open mind. This operation might be difficult, because we all have biases and preconceived notions that can influence how we perceive and interpret information. However, being aware of these biases and seeking diverse perspectives can help to mitigate their influence on our judgment.
What the Future Holds
With the rapid proliferation of platforms and the exponential rate of data production, there is no doubt that there will be increasing examples of how data has been misinterpreted. However, you, dear Reader, now have a roadmap for avoiding being taken in by bad science and other misinformation. By following the guidelines in this Alert, you can become a more informed and discerning consumer of information.
Next Week's Herman Trend Alert: The 2023 Workforce-Workplace Forecast
Every year at about this time, I issue my Annual Workforce-Workplace Forecast. From Quiet Quitting to Loud Layoffs, we will talk about the coming year and years to come, including covering robotics, ChatGPT, and other fascinating developments.
Special thanks to Dr. Jay Kaplan, former president of the American College of Emergency Physicians for his help in writing this Herman Trend Alert and in correcting my previous misstatement.
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