Mark Young specializes in helping individuals learn to understand scientific research. He has a degree in kinesiology with a minor in psychology from McMaster University in Canada, and he has conducted graduate research in biomechanics and exercise physiology under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Phillips. Today, he’s an Ontario-based exercise and nutrition consultant.
Here are some of Young’s thoughts about how we can understand research better.
Correlation and causation are often confused. How do we clear up the confusion when informing the lay public of this misunderstanding?
Given the large amount of research presented to the lay public through the media I honestly think that everyone should be required to take at least one statistics and research design course in high school so that people might better understand the potential limitations of what is being presented.
Of course, this would only exist in my utopian society where everybody was a research geek like me.
In terms of clearing up the confusion, I think the key to understanding the difference is to know that correlation simply implies a relationship between two variables and not necessarily that one thing actually causes the other. In much the same way peanut butter and jam are quite often paired together (and thus related), one most certainly does not cause the other.
What is the role of correlation research in science?
Correlational research is very useful when it is difficult or unethical to test a hypothesis in a certain group.
For example, it might be unethical to have one group of people to smoke 4 packs of cigarettes per day while another group does not smoke at all given what we currently know about smoking. However, we could examine a group of people who already smoke and look at relationships between smoking and various health outcomes.
Correlational research is also great for generating hypotheses to later be tested in an experimental setting.
An example of this might be to look at the effects of specific diets on the health of different cultures. If a relationship between a certain diet and better health is seen, this diet can be investigated in a more controlled study to determine if this relationship actually equals causation.
What are some of the key differences between experimental and non-experimental research?
Basically, non-experimental research looks at already established groups (smokers, certain cultures, specific genders, etc) and tries to establish relationships between different variables. Experimental research, on the other hand, assigns subjects/participants to groups and attempts to control all other variables such that a causal relationship between one variable and another can be established.
Why does anecdotal evidence seem to rule supreme in many fitness circles?
I think anecdotal evidence reigns supreme in fitness circles for several reasons. First of all, I don’t think most people (even fitness professionals) know a lot about research and statistics so they can’t understand that the results of one person don’t necessarily reflect the results of a group of people. I also think it is easy to get caught up in the hype of “before and after” photos of physique transformations. We all like to believe that those people could be us. But most importantly, I think that people are most easily influenced by those they trust and if they happen to trust someone who presents anecdotal evidence then they’ll buy it… hook, line, and sinker.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Wow! That’s a curveball.
Professionally, I’d like to continue training people, but my hope is to pull back and spend less time training than in previous years. I’ve done my share of 60+ hour work weeks and now that I’ve got a family I’ve realized that I just can’t do that forever. Instead, my hope is to maintain a select group of clients while working to teach other fitness professionals and fitness enthusiasts how to acquire, read, and implement fitness research.
Personally, I see myself spending more time with my wife and daughter which is really what it is all about to me.
For more information on understanding research check out Young’s website: http://markyoungtrainingsystems.com/
Photo by Orrin Zebest, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.