Said Shahtahmasebi, Ph.D.
Recently New Zealand media covered a story about a report commissioned by Family First that reported on the adverse effects on the mental development of children placed in day care (e.g. see Mums harming kids through daycare – report and daycare debate). The Media’s attempt to enlighten the public is based on its own perceptions of what the issues should be, which in turn is governed by the media’s perception of its role in society as investigators or seekers of truth.
There are two important and interesting issues that should be noted that are common to these types of investigations.
The first issue is that the media critique a social/health issue by personalising it. In other words, by personalising the issue the media (i) demonstrates public interest in the issue and thus, (ii) gets the public’s attention. In the above example two entities have been linked to harming children, namely mums and child care. For example, the headline reads: mums harming kids through day care. The author of the report provides the opportunity for a secondary personalisation, e.g. the author is referred to as “controversial” psychologist whilst an opponent is referred to “prominent” debunker (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10784082&ref=rss).
Furthermore, as noticed in the TV debate (http://tvnz.co.nz/close-up/daycare-debate-video-4714907) by personalising the discussion towards mums, i.e. shifting the focus onto mums, this has opened up a different set of social and individual issues and women’s right to work. Such debates prevent a critical assessment of the report in relation to public policy in terms of developing schemes that support mums, their children and the day care industry!
The second issue relates to a critical assessment of the report. Both the opponents and proponents of the report claim ‘peer review’ to support their arguments. Supporters of the report claimed that it was based on peer reviewed published work. The opponents of the report dismissed it while citing some other published work! The implications are that: (1) in recent times there has been a shift of emphasis in the original purpose of the peer review process, (2) peer review is not proof of validity, (3) an undue social emphasis on ‘research’, i.e. research is definitive and must be believed, (4) social forgetfulness about the purpose of research to stimulate debate, (5) a social failing (by scientists) to understand the role of scientific research.
Certainly, the main keywords such as research, scientific, peer review, systematic review have become more commonplace in the public domain and are used arbitrary and uncritically. In the public domain, to capture the public mind and therefore influence behaviour, it is common to hear phrases such as ‘research shows that…’, ‘science proves that…’, ‘it is scientifically developed…’, or, ‘it is scientifically shown that…’, to suggest the ultimate proof of a statement.
In the scientific community there is a lack of critical approach to studying issues of human behaviour. Despite a peer reviewed process most published research has flaws and limitations that are commonly related to design, methodology, sampling, analytical methodology, and interpretation of results.
Most experienced researchers should be familiar with these issues, however, it seems that the familiarity only begins when criticising a research report that they disagree with and ends with their own research.
The net effect is not therefore on health and social policy to find a solution that will support mums while eliminating any negative health effects of day care, whilst at the same time supporting the day care industry. The net effect of the uncritical use of research to give credence to any statement is the exact opposite through the devaluation and erosion of the social standing of research and science in the public mindset. The public (and decision makers) has become desensitised to research and use it when it suits a purpose, a statement, or, a lack of action. The politicisation of research/science has led to politically-based as opposed to evidence-based decision making. Suicide prevention is one of the many examples of political-based decision making.