Kids’ lives are being altered and derailed because people often misinterpret research.
I am offering here, in this article, some context and tools you can use to better interpret research. Should you choose to read this thing, you will be better equipped to avoid being fooled by sensationalist, journalistic interpretations of child development research. But, you will have to read it all the way through. I hope you do.
At least twice a week, I see some story about brain research, and the ridiculous conclusions that people make based on that research. Recently, this story about brain size and poverty has been making the usual rounds. Being a neuroscientist by training, the implications of ignorant interpretations of research scare the living hell out of me. It should scare you too.
However, while fear is useful for initially sharpening focus, it never solves anything. In that knowledge, I am writing this article to provide some “ammo” to those of you that know it is wrong to make sweeping conclusions about brain research. I am also writing this for those of you that may be latching on to what journalists say, or what your friends say, because you don’t know “any better”.
There is no shame, by the way, in “not knowing better”. That is not an insult (unless you are a developmental neuroscientist or neurologist). My father in law just corrected my conclusion about our garden bed the other day. I didn’t know any better than what I had concluded. He did. His advice saved me a lot of money and time. In that way here, I am trying to save all of us time and money.
Mostly, I am trying to save children from being pigeonholed based on faulty assumptions about research.
Others have also pointed out the potential danger here. There is also potential good in this information, provided we are knowledgeable and responsible in how we understand, interpret and apply research. Every tool is solely a tool. It matters most how we use it. We can use a hammer to kill or to build, let’s use this space here and now to facilitate the process of responsible interpretation.
Today’s example (there are many) is a recent story on the effects of poverty on children’s brains. This story discussed recent studies that show less surface area (on average) and other differences in the brains of children raised in poverty as compared to children raised in affluence.
It is certainly not reporting the results that I find problematic. It is the deficit in understanding correlation vs. causation that I know exists in the general population (including policy makers). Specifically here, I am greatly concerned about assumptions people will make about direction of causality, mediating factors, permanence of effect, and practical implications.
See, I told you. Their brains are defective. That’s why they are poor. So, they SHOULD all be working menial, low paying jobs. They aren’t worth any more than that.
I can also predict (because I have also witnessed some make conclusions like this) that some educators, never having lived in low income neighborhoods, will start making predictive conclusions.
I want to address 4 main factors we need to consider, especially in research with human subjects.
- Causality (also referred to as causation) is the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where one event is understood to be directly responsible for another. Within that, direction of causality involves answering whether event/variable 1 is causing event/variable 2, or vice versa. Are people poor because they have different brains, or do people have different brains because they are poor? We also must bear in mind that one thing can have multiple causes, and that one cause can be responsible for several different events or phenomena.
- Mediating factors. Often, with two events/variables, there are other factors present that could be influencing the connection between the two events in question. For example, in this study do we know why poverty is associated with brain differences? Is it how people feel about living in poverty? Is it environmental conditions causing toxicity? Is it lack of proper nutrition?
- Permanence of effect is yet another issue. Is this a permanent effect on the brains of kids living in poverty? Is some of the effect permanent? Or is this completely reversible?
- Effect size is a big one, too. In fact, in the original study, the scientists warn that the correlations between income level and brain size are not strong, and that the real effect is only seen at the extreme. This means a couple of things: You can’t predict brain size based on income, and that there are many other factors involved. In fact, any time you see a weak correlation, and with a small effect size – it means by definition that there are other factors involved.
The implications in how we understand these issues and limitations of research are many. How will bias combined with level of understanding influence policy and monetary decisions based on this data?
Will people say “well, see poor people are defective, no wonder they often work menial jobs”? Or will they say “This is an unfortunate consequence of poverty, we need to allocate enough resources in our society to make sure that kids aren’t starting out at a deficit just because their parents don’t make enough money”?
We can see from the current political climate that there are certainly no guarantees.
As someone who is both trained/experienced in both interpreting brain science research and in working with young people, here are my thoughts on what is likely and what we should do with it.
- This data is far from an open and shut case. To complete our knowledge, we also need to look at adult brains living in poverty, and we need longitudinal studies, intervention studies to understand the mechanisms and permanence of the effect.
- The effects (really seen at the extreme ends) are likely at least somewhat reversible. But the longer someone lives in poverty, the less reversible they will likely be. However, it is highly unlikely that any level of effect here is completely irreversible.
Kids need access to sufficient nutrition, plenty of love, guidance, appropriate freedom, opportunities to move, space to move, interesting colorful landscapes, and clean air.
What we really need to be doing is making sure people have the resources they need in their communities to raise and educate that community’s children. No, I am not restricting my solutions to “government handouts”. I am discussing an effort that should occur regardless of the mechanism. We can do this through crowd sourcing, through cooperative entrepreneurship. We can combine that with government investment, with help from faith based organizations.
I see brain research providing more and more clues. That is a good thing, a valuable thing. The danger is that so many egos, despite having no idea what they are talking about, will choose to interpret the research in grandiose ways. I am adamantly advocating for what my experience, education, and discussions have shown me is the most responsible set of interpretations. I am also advocating that we all just calm the hell down.
What are your thoughts?