Making Scientifically-Informed Consumer Decisions

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Before you buy you next product and service you should read up on whether or not it really works. But don't trust everything you read, even scientific stuff! This lesson gives you a quick run-down of how to make more informed consumer decisions using science.

Making Choices

You'd be surprised, or maybe not, but even some of the most highly educated people in the world sometimes make the most basic of mistakes and erroneous of judgements. So how are we supposed to ensure we make the right choices in life if even the experts get it wrong? Well, there is one better way. Instead of believing one 'expert', like one doctor or one scientists, get a consensus view of things. In other words, if you had to solve a problem today, would it be better to get help from one person, or many? In most cases, many.

You can use this and other simple techniques to your advantage to help make scientifically informed consumer decisions with ease. An informed consumer is a person who has taken direct action to preemptively and thoroughly investigate and learn about a product or service prior to its use. This lesson gives you some scientific pointers on how best to do this.

Who Is Giving The Information?

Nowadays, scientific studies are coming out faster than we know what to do with. More data is not more knowledge. In fact, it's kind of hard to sift through all that data and make sense of it. So how can you make a better decision using science?

First, you can start off by critically analyzing what it is that you are reading. Ask yourself: who is giving me this advice? Is it uneducated Uncle Joe, just one scientist, or a collection of experts? A collection of experts advising the same thing, especially if in a clear majority compared to their peers, indicates a stronger likelihood for truth. This doesn't mean that an article written by one person is false, not at all. But if it is just one author, make sure to find other authors that back up the first one's claims.

Next, find out if the information is provided by a for-profit entity or an independent organization. If a pharmaceutical company is touting that the drug they've invented, Panacea, is going to help cure everything but an independent organization cries foul, then there's a high chance that the company is touting exaggerated claims to generate revenue. Don't trust the source of the service or product for information alone. Find the other sides of the die through due diligence (research).

Has The Information Been Tested?

If, while doing that research, you come across a study that claims Panacea is just snake oil, be careful. Maybe it's not. Ask yourself: who funded this study? Dig deep to find out. If it was independently funded, that's one thing. In fact, the independently funded study is less likely to be biased either way with respect to the claims surrounding Panacea and should, all else equal, be given more weight. If the study was funded by an opposing drug company, then perhaps there's a conflict of interest of sorts, and the study shouldn't be used as the sole source of information.

Speaking of studies, one study means almost nothing. In fact, it means pretty much nothing. A lot of studies are actually false. So what should you believe then? Beyond what was already described, make sure that the study has been verified using other studies. Meaning, if the results have not been reproduced independently by another research team, then take the study's findings with a grain of salt. It could be just a false positive. Real science involves reproducible results, but unfortunately, in the real world, it doesn't pay to verify another person's claims nearly as much as discovering something (potentially false, too). This means that a lot of studies are left unverified.

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