Scientific research increases our understanding of the world around us. Research finding improves our lives. So, understanding how research works is important.
Research is conducted through the process of proposing and testing claims. For example, we might propose the claim that “smoking increases a person’s chances of developing lung cancer”. We might test the claim by comparing the incidence of lung cancer among smokers with that of non-smokers. If the incidence of lung cancer is higher among smokers, we might conclude that there is a relationship between smoking and lung cancer.
However, establishing a relationship between smoking and lung cancer does not necessarily prove that smoking causes lung cancer. Proving cause and effect between smoking and lung cancer is more difficult than establishing a relationship between the two factors. Cause and effect would focus on how specific ingredients in cigarette smoke interact with lung tissue to cause abnormalities. Cause and effect evidence is considered much stronger than statistical evidence of a relationship. In complex issues like climate change, many different cause and effect studies need to be done.
One research study does not make something a fact. The results of an individual research study often just raise questions for further investigation. To establish something as a fact requires a “body of research”. Not until several studies, focused on a question from various perspectives, come to the same conclusion, do scientists conclude with reasonable confidence that something is a fact.
In this series we will focus just on “peer-reviewed” research. These are scientific research studies where other scientists (peers of the researcher) are anonymously called upon to review the research to see if it was done properly. This review doesn’t mean that the research should show a predetermined result. Rather, it means that the research followed proper “scientific methods and procedures”. If the reviewers find errors in how the research was conducted, the research study may be rejected and the reputation of the scientists who did the research may be questioned.
If the research is accepted by the reviewers and published in a research journal, other researchers will see if they can come up with the same results using different techniques or data sets. If the results cannot be replicated, the reputation of the researcher, along with that of the peer reviewers and the research journal, may be called into question.
Climate deniers often claim that climate researchers skew their research results to come up with findings that will promote themselves and increase their chances of obtaining funding for further research. But the process outlined above will cause researchers to be conservative in their findings because they do not want to suffer the consequences of being proven wrong. Climate deniers need cause and effect research to contradict the prevailing body of evidence.
Don Hofstrand is a retired agricultural economist from Iowa State University Extension. During the last few years of his work life, he focused on renewable energy and climate change. He and his wife live in Mason City.