Sunday, March 7, 2010

Scientists Study Band-Aid Removal

Science is often misreported in the media because it doesn't work the way news is supposed to work. Scientists don't always get clear, obvious results, and even when they do, they are not supposed to draw conclusions beyond what they see. Hypothesizing is fine, but when the media reports such things, they tend to state things as cold, hard facts. The subtleties, things like the reliability of the data or the characteristics of the sample used or the caveats given by the researchers as they explain their findings, can often be ignored. An experiment should give a simple, single answer, actual science be damned!

This representation of scientific conclusions means that when the results change, or when the findings of other groups of scientists are at odds with the first, people stop believing in science. Never mind that the initial experiment may have been conducted under different conditions, or that better equipment may have come around since the first time.

And then there are the cases where the reporters say something completely different from what the scientists are saying. This tends to happen mainly when reporters try to create sensational headlines that don't match what's actually in the story.

The inspiration for this post was this silly little article: "Fast is best for Band-Aid removal". The reporter begins by stating the raw data:
A study at Queensland's James Cook University used 65 medical students who removed Band-Aids either quickly or slowly, and ranked their pain reaction from zero to 10.

Quick removal returned a pain score of 0.92 in comparison with 1.58 for those who chose the slow approach.
That sounds simple and obvious, right? But there's more to it.
Researcher Dr Carl O'Kane says the research found the cause of pain to be more of a psychological issue.
"It's fascinating that if you had a preconception that slow was going to be more painful in fact it was, so it also suggests that pain is not just what you perceive but what you think you will perceive when you get the painful stimulus," he said.
Wait, so what they really found was that it's not simply the speed of Band-aid removal that matters, but your expectations? So maybe the pain numbers really reflect the prevalence of the thinking in the sample population that faster removal is less painful. Either way, it's nowhere near as clear as the headline says. Fast is best - but maybe only if you already believed it to be.

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