Impact of published research on behavior and avoidable fatalities

In a paper entitled, “Impact of published research on behavior and avoidable fatalities,” Addison Kramer, Alexandra Kirk, Faizaan Easton, and Bertram Hester write:

There has long been speculation of an “informational backfire effect,” whereby the publication of questionable scientific claims can lead to behavioral changes that are counterproductive in the aggregate. Concerns of informational backfire have been raised in many fields that feature an intersection of research and policy, including education, medicine, or nutrition—but it has been difficult to study this effect empirically because of confounding of the act of publication with the effects of the research ideas in question through other pathways. In the present paper we estimate the informational backfire effect using a unique identification strategy based on the timing of publication of high-profile articles in well-regarded scientific journals. Using measures of academic citation, traditional media mentions, and social media penetration, we show, first, that published claims backed by questionable research practices receive statistically significantly wider exposure, and, second, that this exposure leads to large and statistical significant aggregate behavioral changes, as measured by a regression discontinuity analysis. The importance of this finding can be seen using a case study in the domain of alcohol consumption, where we demonstrate that publication of research papers claiming a safe daily dose is linked to increased drinking and higher rates of drunk driving injuries and fatalities, with the largest proportional increases occurring in states with the highest levels of exposure to news media science and health reporting.

I don’t know how much to believe all this, as there are the usual difficulties of studying small effects using aggregate data—the needle-in-a-haystack problem—and I’d like to see the raw data. But in any case I wanted to share this with you, as it relates to various discussions we’ve had such as here, for example. Also this relates to general questions we’ve had regarding the larger effects of scientific research on our thoughts and behaviors.

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