Science as Prescription

The current edition of Newsweek is chock-full of stories that will make you happier and healthier.

Or not.

The writers have fallen victim to the false reasoning that you can apply scientific results to your own particular case.

Just because researchers find that, in some circumstances, drinking red wine is associated with fewer heart problems, you can therefore assume that you personally will benefit from drinking red wine.

That’s faulty scientific reasoning.

Sure, it’s logical to assume that the results of a scientific study on drinking wine (or eating yogurt or solving crossword puzzles) might provide you with a guidepost for healthy living, but the reality is that you can’t generalize from a correlational study and make causal inferences about what works for you.

The January 9 issue of Newsweek touts “31 ways to get smarter faster” and tips on raising your IQ. You’ll find a prescription for aiding dementia, improving memory and honing your focus. The tips are based on real studies, but whether the folks studied are just like you and me is unknown.

And just because one study found that knitting improves hand-eye coordination doesn’t mean I’m going to dust off the wooden needles. I’d argue that using chop sticks likely has the same impact and delivers more flavor.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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