Research as Politics: Shrimp on a Treadmill

A common insult to sling at your opponent is that she is “cherry picking” her data. When I hear cherry picking I think about cherries and then I think about pie, and then I’ve forgotten all about research.

Point is that when researchers pull together evidence to create a cogent argument about how some variable affects another variable, they must—by sheer necessity—limit other evidence, what researchers call “noise.”

Take for example the controversy over what causes childhood diabetes. Researchers have studied a palette-full of items that might account for the rise in diabetes, from sugary drinks to sitting on your butt watching TV. In order to scientifically test how one element affects another, sometimes you need to reduce the noise and ignore other factors, one by one. And you might be accused of cherry picking.

In my field, mass communication, we acknowledge that life is complex. One of the first things I learned in my studies is that, when it comes to influences on our beliefs and behaviors, the answer is “it depends.”

Good researchers embrace this uncertainty. In fact, it’s really hard to predict human behavior because, well, we’re humans, and outcomes depend on the circumstances, the individual, and more.

Native science attends to this complexity by examining the research landscape as a whole, rather than breaking up variables into discrete parts. The cherry picking metaphor shifts to a view of the whole picture: the fruit, the trees, the sky, the earth, the sun, the moon—you get the idea.

The task for Native science is to integrate the two worldviews into one.

I argue that cherry picking is what most Western researchers do by necessity. We need to quiet the noise in order to look at some parts of the equation without being distracted by other variables.

The real demon is the critic who looks for evidence to support personal ideological views, and chances are you can find evidence from some quarter to bolster your claims. Critics of how organizations like the National Science Foundation award grants garner headlines about what seems like silly research.

But dig deeper and there’s usually a sound reason for the research.

Science critics present only part of the story in their quest to make headlines. This is a different version of cherry-picking where only some of the facts are revealed. The critic is often a politician running for office whose argument is loaded with half-truths wrapped around a personal agenda.

Journalist Nell Greenfieldboyce offers a wonderful story on these critics of science in today’s Morning Edition on NPR. She writes about political agendas and half-truths in a story titled Shrimp on a Treadmill at http://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139852035/shrimp-on-a-treadmill-the-politics-of-silly-studies

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in authenticity, ethics, framing, health, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, science, science communication, social media, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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