We’ve all read reports on medical studies that have reached significant conclusions about the consequences of certain behavior or the causes of physical or mental conditions. One question about those studies always lingers: if one of the elements of the study is self-reporting by participants, how do we know that the participants are really being truthful in what they are reporting — or, whether they are lying to the lab coats instead?
A recent discovery of misreporting by participants in a genetic study of the effects of alcohol consumption highlights the concern. Researchers determined that participants in the UK Biobank that provided the data for the study often underreported their use of alcohol and did not provide accurate information about their consumption over time. (The UK Biobank includes data from 500,000 volunteers who have, since 2006, agreed to be periodically questioned and tested about various activities and conditions.)
Even worse, the false information caused the researchers in the genetic study to reach inaccurate conclusions about alcohol use and its association with certain health conditions. When statistical analysis techniques were used to scrub the Biobank data of false information, for example, negative correlations between alcohol consumption and diseases like anemia, hypertension, and type II diabetes were significantly reduced — in some cases to near zero.
It’s not clear from the article linked above precisely how the researchers discovered the underreporting, but the fact that study participants lied to the lab coats about their use of alcohol shouldn’t surprise anyone. Human nature tells us to be dubious of the scrupulous accuracy of self-reported information on any potentially embarrassing topic — whether it’s smoking, drinking, daily exercise, amount of TV viewing, or consumption of ice cream and potato chips. The next time you read about a study that reached startling conclusions about something, take a look at how the data was generated, and if self-reporting was involved, consider whether the nature of the study might have tempted participants to fudge a bit in their reporting. And let’s hope the lab coats do likewise.