Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Research is starting to drive me crazy.

I have come to the realization that research is starting to drive me crazy.

I know, I know. I've been all gung-ho about research for years. Trying to find out whether programs, projects, educational interventions actually work - we must do research to find out!

Well...I'm not as enamored these days. Let me explain.

When you are doing research about something very black and white, such as - does this drug work to help a person with such and such a condition - the results of the research are (mostly) clear. Yes, the drug works, or no, it doesn't. When you are doing research about an educational program, or about a public health program that has to do with behavior change -- what we in the biz call "social and behavioral research" -- sometimes the results are less clear. The program worked for some, but not for others. The program changed behavior a bit, but not enough to make a big different. Or the program's effects didn't last very long.

What's driving me crazy these days is all that these people are doing all this research, and I just don't feel like it's helping anyone in any meaningful way. Researchers do studies, assign groups to different "treatments," have control groups, put people through whatever intervention they are studying (improve diet, increase exercise, etc.) and then gather some results. The results show: folks improved their diet - a little bit. Folks exercised more while on the program. For a while.

And then there's the whole quantitative/qualitative divide. Lots of researchers administer surveys to their participants and they end up with numbers: x percent of the participants ate 5 servings of veggies each day. Y percent of the participants were able to name three things they could do to increase their physical activity. This is quantitative research. Qualitative research (which is my preferred mode) has to do with asking the participants more open-ended questions: what did you like about this program? What worked for you? What didn't? And why? Then you end up with much richer data about participants' experiences with the program.

But in the end...does any of this make anyone healthier?

Here's a recent example: I went to a lecture yesterday about a very interesting program called Micro-Clinics presented by a very smart guy named Daniel Zoughbie that uses the power of group relationships to change behavior. You can see a short video about it here.

So he was presenting with another guy, a School of Public Health researcher, and the researcher got so involved with the numbers and figuring out how to measure whether it was exactly this thing, the micro-clinics, that was causing the effect, or was it something else? And I felt like he was missing the point entirely.

You can't separate this stuff out. It's not like medicine. Each group is different, the dynamics are different, the teachers are different. Whether the micro-clinics work or not to change behavior is something that has to do with all these different variables mixed together. Research isn't going to be able to discover the exact thing that works. This project is about relationships, and what's great is, it seems to be working.

So I left that workshop discouraged. Maybe research isn't the answer after all. Or, at least, not for everything.

No comments: