Did it really say that?

In a recent discussion on my other blog, the post was about abortion and the comments turned to whether or not a fetus can feel pain. The pro-abortion commenter posted a link to this, saying that this research showed that fetuses cannot feel pain. But did it really say that?

The link is to an article that appeared in JAMA in 2005, in which the researchers looked into the question of fetal pain. I read the entire article, and must say that I disagree with the conclusion. When I said that to the person who posted the link, she said that she wasn’t surprised that I didn’t like “what the evidence had to say.” I responded that I didn’t mind what the evidence said — just that the conclusion was not supported by the evidence. The way I read the article, the authors looked at all the research, which included several studies which showed that fetuses and prematurely born infants (prior to the onset of the 3rd trimester) exhibit the same response that other people exhibit when they are in pain (as far as levels of stress hormones, etc.), but the authors then concluded that despite this evidence, fetuses cannot feel pain. I will grant that (based on the research presented in the article) not every method of information-gathering showed that fetuses definitely feel pain, but I still feel that the weight of the evidence is on my side.

But this post isn’t about abortion or fetal pain — it’s about what the evidence says versus what the researchers conclude. This post goes along with the same general idea as this post and this post I wrote recently. One of the problems I have when “researching the research” is that so many studies are not available in full without a subscription. This means, that all I have to go by is the “thumbnail version” of the study. This is fine, as long as the researchers are honest and unbiased; but when the authors of the study skew their results, and twist the facts to fit their version, then it becomes extremely problematic. I will interject here that this cuts both ways — there are probably studies that I would link to favorably to “prove my point” that may not bear close scrutiny. I do my best to find accurate information, but when research is flawed, it becomes difficult to wade through the inaccurate studies to find the truth behind the statistics.

It comes as no surprise when people cite research that proves their point, or when researchers publish studies that validate positions they’ve always held. This is why some studies include a section on researcher bias, and whether or not the results could have been skewed by it. What would make studies less prone to bias would be to have researchers of opposing viewpoints on the same research team, and to agree on the results of the research prior to publication. For instance, if a researcher who was a strong proponent of circumcision teamed up with a researcher who was an equally strong proponent of leaving boys intact, and they jointly produced research which agreed on a conclusion about circumcision, then that would appear to be more free from bias than if a pro-circumcision researcher wrote an article praising circumcision. What would be an even stronger evidence of the truth of a study would be if a pro-circumcision researcher did an honest assessment of the research, and found that there was little or no actual evidence in favor of routine circumcision.

But, until such time as those studies appear (and such information about the researchers is rarely included in the actual papers, but may appear in news articles about the papers), then it is good to keep in mind that sometimes the conclusions of the researchers don’t match the actual evidence.

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