To my chagrin, I caught myself using the phrase ‘studies show…’ the other day. This innocuous and common phrase occupies a similar place in my brain to the ‘democratic we.’
If you think about it, no study can “show” a fact. A study can demonstrate correlations, it can make arguments for causations, it can show evidence, be it theoretical or empirical and combine it in a compelling story. All of these things are useful and valid, but to frame it in the language of ‘showing’ is very dangerous.
I think danger comes from a unique bit of human-ness: while we (there I go again) like to think of ourselves as thinking and skeptical, we’re hard-wired to find it cognitively easy to defer to expert opinion. These experts don’t have to be specific people – they can be the perceived wisdom of the masses, or in the case of studies – inanimate objects. The latter is especially insidious because an inanimate study is incapable of lying and is made out of science and numbers, right?
Since stories are excellent, here are two related to the point:
The first, not mine, is about history.
The second, much more mundane is about the weather. I was checking out at the grocery store three weeks ago and was talking to the cashier. She brought up the unseasonably cold weather and proclaimed ‘they’re saying that based on this weather it’s going to be a really cold winter.’ I caught my mind sliding down the easy path of agreement – ‘ah yes, they surely know more than me, and it does make sense because it gets colder in winter and it’s already cold now… wait a minute…’
‘Who is they?’ I asked her.
‘Oh. The other customers she responded.’
I have no idea what the weather this winter will bring, but I do know that I sweated a bit in a t-shirt today.