KSJ Tracker September 25, 2012

More on Single-Study Syndrome

Beer glasses/Wikimedia commons

In a post this week about a carefully hyped - and controlled - release of information about a French study on GM crops, I quoted New York Times blogger Andy Revkin talking about "single-study syndrome, the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking) to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be."

Revkin raised the issue in part as a cautionary one for journalists, a reminder that we do our jobs best when we write about science as a process rather than an event.  It's a very smart point and it's emphasized again, although from a different angle, at the new and fascinating blog network, BBC Future.

Specifically, the BBC Future blog Neurohacks by Tom Stafford which today looks at the single study question in the shape of a beer glass. "Can glass shape really affect how fast you drink?" is the headline on this piece which goes on to raise all kinds of good questions about how much we can really read into exactly one study on the subject.

It's worth asking those questions because, as Stafford points out, hundreds of news stories resulted from the single PLoS One paper on whether glass shape affects beer consumption. Basically, the drinkers finished faster if they were sipping lager from a curved glass rather than a straight-line design.  But as Stafford goes on to emphasize, it's difficult to draw wide conclusions from this, even if it's a meticulously done piece of research: "The reasons you can't jump to conclusions from this kind of study is because, inevitably, a single study can only test one aspect of the world, under one set of circumstances."

He illustrates by both discussing study design and then posing questions that this particular study was not designed to answer, such as: What if the test subjects were drinking of alcohol? What if they drank more than one drink? What if the test subjects were drawn from a different country or culture?

It's a smart piece, start to finish, and another really good reminder for the rest of us that even when we are covering the story-of-the-day to remember that we're still only telling one part of the story.

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