There seems to be an explosion of science circulating through dog training groups, and that is rather exciting. I started collecting studies over a decade ago. I am a huge fan of science and seem to have gotten a reputation as a go to person for links. Often I receive messages that say:
“Do you have anything that proves that…..<insert topic here>.”
The truth is that you could insert almost any topic and I probably have something. Heck, I could send you study links to “prove” that aliens exist.
Where dog studies are concerned, I have studies that show negative reinforcement is linked to stress. However, I also have studies that show no increase in cortisol – a stress hormone – in dogs trained with negative reinforcement. Pick any topic and there will likely be studies that draw very different results.
I can “prove” both sides.
Science is a lot like Lego. Each block is important. You can’t see the whole of the structure by looking at just one block. Research studies are the pieces. Together they give you a complete structure. As you stand back, you might see that some don’t fit quite right. Some pieces for whatever reason don’t work in a given spot. Sometimes you might even get one of those cheap knock off bricks that doesn’t fit anywhere at all, except perhaps the trash bin.
There are knock off studies – pay to publish. Money talks, sometimes a little too much. Not all research is free from the dilemma of who pays and why. We live in an era where corporations can hire researchers to “test” their products. How biased those studies are depends on the construction of the study.
Other times statistics pose problems. Small or pre-screened samples create a huge margin of error. Who cares if one or two pre-screened dogs act a certain way? One proverbial guinea pig is not a large scale study with blind controls and random assignment to groups. That is rather important if you want to know how the average dog behaves. That is not to say that small studies are bad. It is what it is.
Scientists question studies, trying to replicate interesting findings. If only one research team is getting a particular set of results, we should probably ask why. It’s not personal, nor is it an insult. Questions are good. Researchers do it all the time.
Let’s not forget that mistakes can happen. Media outlets reported that neutrino particles moved faster than the speed of light (apparently an amazing physics discovery). Testing and re-testing confirmed the results. Yet, other scientists kept digging into the controversial finding. Eventually it was determined that a loose cable caused faulty results. In the age of the internet, you can still Google the obsolete (2011) results. Quote it all you like, it’s wrong.
Questioning research doesn’t make one a jealous Debbie downer. The scientific process is all about throwing stones.
The question is whether we allow our own opinions and bias to determine which studies we blindly accept, and which we evaluate with a critical eye. Searching for studies is not the same as searching for truth. Validating our own choices, or heaven forbid our own business product is biased and self serving.
Don’t get me wrong, Google Scholar has a place. But it’s not really a place where we should hunt down support for our own opinions. “I knew I was right, I found an obscure abstract, skipped over the flaws and quoted one paragraph that proves my point.” Of course, no one ever phrases their findings using those words – making the practice difficult to spot.
Instead, we should be looking at all studies with the goal of ascertaining truth. If we have made an error in our thinking, we can seek to correct it, or wear blinders, plugging our fingers in our ears chanting “na na na na I can’t hear you.”
Our dogs deserve better from us. They deserve us to care enough that we look for truth. By doing so, we can see that conflicting studies just give different representations of information that might oddly fit together.
Returning to the negative reinforcement example from the beginning, there really is no controversy. We know that successful avoidance of aversives can provide temporary stress reduction. Both outcomes are possibly true under different scenarios. Conflicting results can support one another.
It’s like saying that I don’t fear spiders in my home because I bug bomb regularly. Does that make bug bombing is a good strategy in treating spider phobias? No. It can reduce my stress levels inside my home until it is time to spray again. Conflicting results have surprisingly logical explanations.
The goal should be to keep asking questions, discarding pseudo science and disproven theories. We should aim for the very elusive goal of seeking truth – ever mindful that we all carry a bias. The antidote to that bias is to kick the studies that appeal to us with just as much ferocity as those that offend us.
That goes double for studies quoted by other people. Read the studies. Read the opposing points of view. Simple truth: If you believe everything that comes with a link, you’re letting other people do your reading and thinking for you. That is an idea that I just find, unthinkable.
Feb 21st: Great blog done by another great writer – Eileen – on the subject. Has some excellent links on assessing the qualify of journals.