The Case for Really Reliable Research

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Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine has a 99.2% correlation with the amount of margarine consumed in the state, and that the revenue generated by arcade games has a 98.5% correlation with the amount of computer science doctorates awarded in the US?

correlation between margarine and divorce in Maine
Data sources: National Vital Statistics Reports and U.S. Department of Agriculture

Correlation does not equal causation. Margarine doesn’t cause divorce in Maine, and arcade revenue has very little to do with computer science degrees in the US. These are all examples of why researchers shouldn’t use correlation to determine causation.

Research

When I was in high school, my English teacher assigned our class an argumentative research paper. These were usually our biggest assignments of the year. We had to take a stance on a topic and defend it with sources.

The first step to a research paper is the actual research. So, the school library directed me to a few databases they said would lead me to “reliable sources” for any topic. Naturally, I wanted to write about agriculture.

When I logged on to the database, I was appalled to find that the top result in all of my searches was not from a “reliable source” but from PETA, a known animal activist group with the goal of destroying all animal agriculture. How could this be the case? How could this false and biased information be on a database referred to as “reputable” and “reliable”?

Unreliable Resources

Although I found reliable resources for my paper, I dug through several pages of unreliable sources and biased research before I found anything I could use.

Sure, my teacher had discussed how to avoid websites with childish graphics, excess ads and poor design because they were likely unreliable. However, my classmates and I received no information about how to find reliable research as opposed to biased research.

Qualities of Reputable Academic Research

Here are some things to look for that demonstrate high quality, unbiased research:

  1. A clear statement about the methods used to test what is being studied
  2. A clear list of questions the researcher wants to answer
  3. A definition of the subject being studied. Does the definition match what is accepted in general society?
  4. A list of the processes including controls or instruments (like tests or surveys) used to study the subject
  5. The study should be easy to replicate. Research is replicated too demonstrate that the results are more than just outliers.

Additionally, these are some general characteristics of biased, unreliable research:

  1. Research looks for something that is not there
  2. Plagiarism
  3. Falsifying data or misrepresenting data to prove a point (i.e. claiming correlation equals causation)

Research needs to be reliable

If someone told you that Nicolas Cage movies caused people to drown by falling into their pools, you’d tell that person that they were crazy. But when it comes to the food we eat, correlation is often accepted as causation, when in fact, claiming that correlation equals causation in any case, is just as ridiculous as the correlations in this blog post.

correlation between Nicolas Cage movies and Pool Drownings
Data sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Internet Movie Database

Why is it so hard to find reliable research for Ag?

We live in the information age. Most people can become partially educated on any subject through a quick Google search and 10-12 minutes of scrolling. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get accurate information about agriculture on the internet.

This may seem strange, but think of it this way: less than two percent of the population in the US are directly involved with agriculture, and less than one percent are involved with animal agriculture. That’s less than 3,272,000 people who are responsible for feeding 100% of the population. That’s the equivalent of Los Angeles being responsible for producing food for our country and the world. So, it makes sense that it can be difficult to get accurate information out there, especially while most of that small percentage of people are busy producing food 365 days a year.

So, next time you see a statistic or a claim, look into how the research was done before you make conclusions based on numbers. And if you have specific questions about agriculture, consider asking a farmer before you start Googling!

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