Check Your Sources, People

This blog post has sort of come about by accident, meaning, I didn’t sit down to write on this today. I was fully intending to write some more about alternative therapies. But while researching this topic, I was struck by the amount of studies I found online, which at a glance, seem to support their efficacy. Then I looked a little closer…

Today’s blog post was supposed to be about acupuncture, which some of you will remember from my previous post here that acupuncture was curiously not included in the Australian government’s study on alternative therapies. No sooner had my search begun than I was hit with a slew of studies claiming to find overwhelming support for acupuncture, concluding that it was an effective treatment for everything from mild pain relief to depression. One even alleged that it could be used to help patients recover from severe strokes. I was surprised to say the least. Last time I had researched this subject, I came across extremely different results. How could this happen?

Quite easily, as it happens. The journals publishing these studies had titles like “The Journal of Alternative Medicine,” “Acupuncture in Medicine” and “Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.” First clue, these journals are biased. And that is the absolute first thing you should check when doing research; where has it come from? Recall that for years cigarette companies bankrolled and published studies that claimed smoking was perfectly safe. Follow the money, follow the motive and ask yourself, could the publisher have an agenda? In this case, the agenda was plainly obvious.

But any good researcher knows that even sources which are likely biased can have a rare moment of truth. So I gave them the benefit of the doubt and read a couple of the studies. Now I won’t bore you all with the details, suffice to say, these studies were appalling. The methodology was flawed from the outset, the variable operationalisation was and the conclusions they drew from these poorly executed pieces of research were nothing short of laughable. And I’m being kind…

My research into this topic will continue for a later blog post, but this experience reminded me of the importance of checking sources carefully so I thought I would share this all with you. The Internet is an potentially amazing source of information, but there is a lot of nonsense out there. And the worst kind of nonsense is that which attempts to mask itself as credible, by being published in a peer reviewed journal. But not all journals can be trusted, such as the examples above which have a clear agenda and are funded by the very subject on which they claim to report. The take home message here is tread carefully. Vet your sources and check their work before you include it in yours. Happy researching folks!

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