Fourth step in becoming a more scientific parent: Learn how to research

In this series, I will be reviewing the basic concepts in thinking that will help you become more scientific or evidence based in their parenting. 
Many people think that being an evidence based parent means being pro-vaccine or following accepted wisdom (which may not even be scientific) about parenting decisions. I disagree, I believe that being an evidence based parent refers to applying a scientific method of thinking to your parenting decisions, that includes looking at the evidence on parenting objectively. 
This does not mean you always have to do what the science says, but accepting what the science says and considering it alongside your own personal beliefs and circumstances is essential to being an evidence-based parent.

Notice that this is the fourth part of this series and it is only now that we are talking about researching, that's because I think its not really worth learning how to read a paper or research properly if you're only going to use it to back up your own ideals. Plenty of people know how to research but still choose not to interpret stories appropriately and reject science based entirely on their own beliefs.
Eventually however you are going to want to have a niggling parenting question answered and in those cases you're going to need to do your research.

Individual study
So you have read a media synopsis of an individual study that could change your entire parenting approach. You want to know more, what do you do?
First off, find out if its been published. All media should report on whether the research is published and where but unfortunately many do not. If they do not, hop on to google scholar and look for the scientist mentioned in the story and whatever the study was about. You should be able to find a newly published paper fairly quickly.
If there is no evidence that the study has been published you are going to need to reject it until such time as it is published. If a study hasn't been published in a peer reviewed journal you can't know for certain that its findings were valid or significant. Once a study is in a peer review journal, it has t been accepted by the scientific community as significant and that is when you can accept it.
If you can find the study and get lucky you may be able to read the whole thing yourself. In which case a good guide on how to do that is here.
If all you can get to is the abstract there is still a few good things to look for.

  • See if the conclusions of the study are the same as what is reported in the abstract. Many times media stories on study findings will look at an interesting subpart of the study rather than looking at the full conclusion or they will inflate the findings above that which is reported. 
  • Look at the people on whom the study was performed. Is the age group the same as the age group you are looking at? Are they reporting on a different culture or a population that is significantly different than your own? It is not usually reasonable to expand findings beyond that of the population in which it was performed.
  • Look at the number of people who were in study and the time over which they were followed and think about whether the conclusions are reasonable under those conditions.
  • Look at the results and then their conclusion of the result and see if you think they follow. Sometimes the conclusion of an abstract is the story that the researchers want to tell but does not make sense in the context of the results.
After you have looked at the individual study have a look at what others in the field have to say about it. You can look at the 'cited by' to see what others have published about the study if it has been out for long enough. Others who are experts in the field will have some of the best criticisms of the data and you can see if it fits in well with other research in the field.

Overall research
In this case, the most important thing to do is to look for scientific consensus.
First of all, think about whether the information you have been presented has been trying to sell you an ideology in the hopes of selling you something else. You should not have to buy into a complete ideology in order to make the right decision on one aspect.
Think about whether the 'research' or 'science' they are presenting has been taken out of context or expanded beyond what is reasonable. There is a difference between being an orphan who is left alone in a crib for 23.5 hours a day and being a child who is cuddled, loved and played with but occasionally left to cry and expanding brain effects from the first to the second is completely unreasonable.
Step away from the idealistic parenting websites and look at more impartial evidence based sites. My personal favourite is Raising Children Network but Ngala and other government websites. These will present you with the current scientific consensus on most subjects as well as other matters you should think about.
If you still have questions after looking at an evidence based site jump on Google Scholar and have a quick look through the research. This should give you an idea about whether there is consensus on the subject or if there is still debate on the matter.
Be cautious of jumping to conclusions based on one or two studies however. If there is a whole body of literature that is generally going one way you should stick with the scientific consensus rather than the outcomes of one or two studies. Individual study results can vary for a lot of reasons - the population, methods used, fraud. Even a well done study can come up with a wrong result at least 20% of the time just by chance. For this reason, you should look for replicable consensus rather than the results of a small number of studies, particularly when the researchers have a vested interest.
Remember being scientific is about accepting that things can change. If something is correct there should be a large amount of information to support this, if you need to cling on to a few old studies to support your beliefs, your thinking is no longer scientifically supported.


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