• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 07th October, 2008

The unvarnished truth in 400 words or fewer

Maybe our extravagant diet of communications—which comes to us through the Internet, phone, and broadcast and print media—has made us wary. I know it has me. Not long ago, “evidence” was a term used fairly exclusively by researchers and police detectives. Today, many of us want to strip away the “fat” in our information intake, leaving behind only what the evidence supports.So when I was offered the job of spending a year reading research articles published in scholarly journals and summarizing them for Prevention Action, I jumped at it. Sure, it sounds like drudgery. My job was to wade through the dense and often clumsy text of journal articles – text that aims to be exacting rather than exciting – harvest one or two central ideas and then replant them in a brief (300-400 words), reader-friendly summary. But it seemed like a luxury to me. I was given free rein to choose articles from my field of interest. And it allowed me to focus on the evidence – in all its admittedly dim glory. In the end, most studies don’t prove much. They simply suggest a little about what the truth might be. And, in doing so, add or subtract a voice from the choir.The structure of a journal article is designed to provide a clear and detailed account of the purposes, methods, findings, and even the limitations of a study. In other words, just the facts; nothing added to persuade or entertain. Making them more palatable to readers with a hunger for evidence, but without the time to pick and choose, was an opportunity to step back from the particulars of my own research and take a sweeping view of what was happening in education, mental and physical health, and development of children. The journal articles that now stand out most in my memory are the ones whose findings defy intuition. To me, such research best demonstrates the importance of evidence. They show that common sense is not enough. Some, for example, suggested that children are more motivated to learn when they cooperate rather than compete with their peers [Forget those power games – learn more by saving the whales], that students’ beliefs about what can be learned affects how well they do in school [Can believing beget achieving? Towards a science of faith], and that schools serving low-income kids can appear appear to be losing ground compared to schools in wealthier areas when they are actually making great strides [What you see depends on how you measure].My journal reading also gave me a healthy appreciation of the dark areas—the problems and conditions that remain poorly understood, such as autism [Considering autism in the round of family life], bullying [When adults design anti-bullying programs, bullies still win], childhood obesity Pug Parents struggle to get their kids moving, childhood depression [New Zealand reviewers downbeat about programs to prevent depression], and the effect of the Internet on children’s social and emotional development [Battling back from size double zero]. There might be plenty of ideas about the causes of these problems and even about treatments for them, but a huge lack of evidence to back up these ideas.Happily, there are bright spots too. For example, several studies clearly showed that children overcome a variety of problems better when their parents are actively involved in their lives [‘OK; so maybe I can be my brother’s keeper’] and that benefits are higher and costs lower when children get help early in life [To relieve depression – start E for early].It’s time now to end my spectatorship and start doing research again. I do so with a renewed appreciation for the importance of lighting the dark corners with more knowledge, of not ignoring intuition and common sense but also testing it, and of providing busy people who are intent on helping children with the understanding of what, exactly, the evidence is.

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