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A Perfect Example of the Shortcomings of "Research"

A week or so ago I was shown a news story which perfectly sums-up the traps of research and, more specifically, the dangers of taking things at face value.  The tactics employed by the journalist are exactly the same as those used in anti-smoking articles and studies: a scary, eye-catching headline, coupled with a well-worded story that actually does not support the headline.

The article in question was entitled "How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer" [1] and we are told in the beginning

"Social networking sites such as Facebook could raise your risk of serious health problems by reducing levels of face-to-face contact, a doctor claims. Emailing people rather than meeting up with them may have wide-ranging biological effects, said psychologist Dr Aric Sigman.

Increased isolation could alter the way genes work and upset immune responses, hormone levels and the function of arteries. It could also impair mental performance."

Ahh, so already we see that the headline is wrong.  What Dr. Sigman has simply shown is that isolating yourself can lead to various problems (which we already knew) and then blames social networking sites.  Now, let's be honest, no-one uses Facebook or Myspace or Twitter or any other site to replace speaking to their friends in person. No, these sites are used to keep in touch with them outside of times where we are able to physically see them - thus actually increasing our social side.  

Also, note the language in the above quote: "could" raise your risk, "may" have problems, "could" alter the way the genes work - in other words, they haven't actually proven this at all and are merely speculating.

The researchers then try to collate dates in history to prove their point, saying "Research suggested that the number of hours people spent speaking to others face-to-face had fallen dramatically since 1987 as the use of electronic media increased."  So research 'suggested' - what research? We don't know what methods they employed so we don't know, but such a quest would almost certainly employ a questionnaire to ask people how much time they spent with friends in 1987 - and who can honestly remember accurately? To ask that question also means they asked an adult now what they were like as a younger adult, not accounting for the variable of them simply getting older and obtaining "adult" responsibilities like families.  They also do not account for the factor of the simple fact that society has changed: sure, we probably do spend less time face-to-face, but in 1987 they spent less time talking face-to-face than those in 1937, who spent less time than those in 1887 and so on and so forth. When the telephone was invented people could speak without walking to someone else's house, now we can send an email or a text message. 

What Dr. Sigman has done is employ an anti-smoking technique: isolate a factor without certifying it's validity, and run away with it scaring the hell out of people.  Perhaps he has a vendetta against social-network sites because he simply doesn't have friends to add, who knows? It is interesting to see that he does not account for vitamin D levels: science has shown repeatedly that vitamin D, obtained through sunlight, fights depression and various other diseases, and staying indoors means decreased time in the sun, ergo a higher risk of various illnesses. Sigman ignores this. He also ignores that people who spend long hours at the computer invariably eat less healthily simply because of the convenience of being able to open a soft drink or a bag of crisps instead of getting up to make a healthy meal.  They also definitely exercise less, because sitting at a computer desk is sedantary in and of itself, as opposed to taking a walk with a friend or even to a friend. 

In short: Dr. Sigman has proved nothing other than his inability to conduct research.  He did not account for variables, nor did he prove anything with what he tried to assert. He merely found some signs of illness in some people and then tried blaming said illness(es) on social network sites.  The only good to come of this is that we can learn how these morons conduct research and then see how the exact same techniques are employed by Tobacco Control.