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Should I Trust Research?

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How much water should I even drink?

Simple questions should have simple answers, like how much water should a person drink. A quick Googling will give you somewhere between 6 cups to 15.5 cups and ‘it depends’. Each of these answers comes with research behind it so why don’t they match, what are we even paying them for? Like many things in life there’s not a simple answer. I rely on research to inform and shape the work that I do, to offer the best treatment I can. There are problems in modern research, pros in modern research, and strategies for approaching modern research.  

Problems in modern research

One definition of faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something. If one places full, unquestioning faith in what they understand of science there are dangers to be had.

  • James Heathers immediately approaches one major concern about modern research in a hilarious way: a lot of research isn’t even about you. For good reason, most research isn’t done on the average person. It’s done in petri dishes, test tubes, or on mice largely. Trials that move forward to human testing often are targeted towards semi-affluent caucasian males in their early 20s… because those are the college kids most likely to need beer or gas money (I’m not judging, I’ve been there). If you don’t match the sample size, the research may or may not even apply for you.
  • Being promoted from experiment-ee to experiment-er, a lot of research is done by underfunded, newer researchers that are not provided with the time to peer review other research, replicate studies to ensure accuracy, or have feasible time-tables to complete their own original research. It’s publish or perish and sometimes something is better than nothing.
  • Samuel Clemens tells us there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics. Not all research is done honestly. Even if the methods used are on the up and up, some papers are paid to be made to get the conclusion they want. If honestly mean poverty and a Ph.D.’s worth of debt, some scientists are tempted to sell out to make ends meet for their family. Research stating gazelles prefer to be eaten by lions may  have been paid by the lion lobbyists and not widely publicize the even bigger response that gazelles prefer not to be eaten at all. 
  • Which brings us back to the underfunded researcher. Publicized work leads to better positions, prestige for the institution, and money. Being a rockstar researcher is often better than not being paid well to replicate someone’s else’s studies, and you’re sure not going to be on the news for it. 

Though there are several concerns in modern research, like any project with low pay and thousands of members, some are truly passionate about casting the light of human knowledge just a little further than the day before. They play their parts with integrity and heart.

What research does well

PHD Comics beautifully lambasts the stress and frustration of academia, as well as highlighting the passion of those who continue on in academia. Vacations are spent at conferences instead of beaches, breaks are spent in the lab instead of at home, take home pay does not match effort and they still produce the best research they can. 

  • Research on popular topics provides a deep understanding. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is one of the most studied forms of interventions in mental health. We have a fairly good understanding of the many benefits and limitations of CBT for differing diagnosis. Knowing where CBT is strong we know which kind of mental health concerns do best, knowing where CBT is weak we know where improvements can be made, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which takes a good heaping of CBT and aimed improvements squarely for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). DBT studies have shown it to be on of the few effective treatments for BPD. 
  • Therapists individually and therapy as a profession grow with research. Adam Savage said the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down. Research into effective treatments of anxiety, PTSD, and depression has given surges of advocacy for the clinical use and re-scheduling (not de-scheduling) of marijuna, MDMA, and psilocybin. Each of these drugs, with the supporting therapy, show leaps and bounds in efficacy, the research showing so helps us present cases to lawmakers leading to more effective treatments for clients.
  • Research also humbles and connects us. Professionals with expensive degrees (debt to prove it) and years of experience can sometimes allow themselves to see themselves not just as experts, but as infallible. Private therapists especially can isolate themselves. Engaging with research keeps in mind you might be wrong, a good therapist looks for a community of professionals who have found differing papers and approaches to stay fresh and capable. Here’s an article which updated and made sense of a lot of mis / information I’ve had about the brain, mind, and health.
  • If done well, individual peeks into research can be eye opening and surprising. I often look at Psychology Today articles with an interest in my own body health and pointers for relationship skills. This great article gives pointers on how to get the most out of sessions with your therapist as a client.

How to approach research

Research in the modern age has its pros and cons, amplified by social media echo chambers while still serving as critical supports to society. How much water should you drink after all? The answer to that is very much like the answer to ‘can I trust research’? Look at bodies of work instead of one source you like, metaresearch / metastudies are great for this. Trust your intuition, if you’re drinking so much or little water you feel sick, that’s not the right amount. If the research you read is completely out of sorts with how you understand the world, look at critiques of it and remember it might only be calibrated to mice. 

If this resonates with you or someone you know and you’d like to explore some options for support, let us know below.