All too often in psychological research, researchers look at a variable and then draw conclusions about that variable, assuming they’ve held all the other variables equal. But because life is so complex and our environment is filled with so many possible alternative explanations for the results (researchers call these “confounds”), researchers are very often simply wrong in the conclusions they draw from their data.
The Washington Post’s Rick Weiss on Sunday wrote an insightful piece describing some real-life examples of how researchers got it wrong the first time around. It was only after additional research was conducted on the data, often by other researchers, where we can learn more about what the data really mean (if anything at all):
Researchers at Ohio State University garnered little attention in February when they found that youngsters who lose their virginity earlier than their peers are more likely to become juvenile delinquents. So obvious and well established was the contribution of early sex to later delinquency that the idea was already part of the required curriculum for federal “abstinence only” programs.
There was just one problem: It is probably not true. Other things being equal, a more probing study has found, youngsters who have consensual sex in their early-teen or even preteen years are, if anything, less likely to engage in delinquent behavior later on. […]
“It turns out that there was no positive relationship between age of first sex and delinquency,” Harden said.
The way to reconcile that with the previous evidence of a link is to conclude that some other factors are promoting both early sex and delinquency, she said. In an e-mail, Haynie agreed. And the Virginia study, to appear in the March 2008 issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, offers some clues.
It found that identical twins, who have the same DNA, were more similar to one another in the ages at which they lost their virginity than were fraternal twins, whose DNA patterns are 50 percent the same — an indication that genes influence the age at which a person will first have sex. Other twin studies have found the same pattern for delinquency.
Great stuff, and an example of where one field (in this case, genetics) can help illuminate the findings from another field (psychology).
Science needs more of this kind of cross-pollination between researchers. This kind of research digs deeper and doesn’t just accept the most obvious explanation or conventional wisdom as being true. Especially when there’s reason to suspect something more is going on.
It also emphasizes the continuing need for researchers to think more carefully about the conclusions they draw from their data, and explore (or at the very least, discuss) possible alternative explanations for their findings.