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How Science Takes Stock

How Science Takes Stock: The Story of Meta-Analysis

Morton Hunt
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    How Science Takes Stock
    Book Description:

    Policymakers, medical practitioners, and the public alike face an increasingly bewildering flood of new and often contradictory scientific studies on almost every topic. Whether the issue is the the best treatment for breast cancer, the need for prenatal food programs to improve the health of poor infants and mothers, or the ability of women to succeed in scientific professions, the healthy growth of modern science has at times done more to stir up controversy than to establish reliable knowledge. But now scientists in several fields have developed a sophisticated new methodology called meta-analysis to address this problem. By numerically combining diverse research findings on a single question, meta-analysis can be used to identify their central tendency and reach conclusions far more reliable than those of any single investigation.

    How Science Takes Stockvividly tells the story of meta-analysis through the eyes of its architects and champions, and chronicles its history, techniques, achievements, and controversies. Noted science author Morton Hunt visits key practitioners and recounts their use of meta-analysis to resolve important scientific puzzles and longstanding debates. Does psychotherapy work, and if so what form works best? Does spending federal money on education really improve student performance? Can a single enzyme significantly decrease the risk of heart attack? Do boot camps reduce juvenile delinquency? With each account, Hunt illustrates the major components of the meta-analytic method, reveals strategies for resolving practical and theoretical problems, and discusses the impact of meta-analysis on the science and policy communities. In many cases, he demonstrates how meta-analysts have gone a step further to determine the causes of earlier discrepancies. In this way they not only identify successful approaches to the question at hand, but also clarify the conditions under which they will work best. Hunt also portrays the important but frequently controversial business of doing meta-analysis for legislators and government agencies, particularly in sensitive areas of social policy.

    How Science Takes Stockdemonstrates how the statistical techniques of meta-analysis produce more accurate data than the standard literature review or the old-fashioned process of tallying up the results of each scientific study as if they were votes in an election to decide the truth. Hunt also addresses issues of quality control in each phase of the meta-analytic process, and answers skeptics who claim that the dissimilarities between studies are often too significant for meta-analysis to be any more than an apples and oranges approach. This volume conveys the power of meta-analysis to help social policymakers and health professionals resolve their most pressing problems.How Science Takes Stockconcludes with a discussion of the future of meta-analysis that examines its potential for further refinements, its growth in the scientific literature, and exciting new possibilities for its future use. An appendix by meta-analysis expert Harris Cooper offers some finer points on the mechanics of conducting a meta-analytic investigation.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-296-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Psychology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Morton Hunt
  4. Chapter 1 Making Order of Scientific Chaos
    (pp. 1-19)

    “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke in 1675/6. In assuming this modest pose, he alluded to a fundamental assumption that our culture makes about science, namely, that it is progressive and cumulative, a corollary of which is that forays into the unknown by any researcher, however brilliant, are merely extensions of the knowledge amassed up to that time. For centuries it has been an article of faith that scientists base their research on existing information, add a modicum of new and better data to it, and...

  5. Chapter 2 Settling Doubts About Psychotherapy
    (pp. 20-53)

    By 1952, the “talking cure”—psychoanalysis and related forms of psychotherapy—was nearly six decades old, highly esteemed by the avant-garde and intelligentsia, and rapidly growing in popularity. Its healing power had been proclaimed by such distinguished intellectuals as André Breton, Thomas Mann, and Arthur Koestler and popularized by Moss Hart inLady in the Dark,a success on Broadway in 1941 and later on the screen. New forms of dynamic psychotherapy, related to psychoanalysis but briefer and less costly, appeared almost yearly, and,mirabile dictu,nearly all were said by their practitioners to benefit a high proportion of patients...

  6. Chapter 3 Clarifying Murky Issues in Education
    (pp. 54-80)

    Eric A. Hanushek, professor of economics and political science at the University of Rochester, had written technical studies on sundry public policy issues for fifteen years without making any great stir until, at age thirty-eight, he hit on a topic that made his name in the world of educational policy. In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, he wrote an article, “Throwing Money at Schools,” published in theJoumal of Policy Analysis and Management.In it, he maintained that although citizens’ and teachers’ groups constantly urge government bodies to increase school budgets, empirical studies show that more spending...

  7. Chapter 4 “Who Shall Decide, When Doctors Disagree?”
    (pp. 81-108)

    Dr. Thomas Chalmers had a serious problem. As associate director for clinical care at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s, it was incumbent on him to stay fully informed of the latest research in medicine, but he could neither keep up with the increasing flood of clinical reports—more than a thousand were being published yearly in English-language journals alone—nor reconcile the dissimilar findings that were emerging on nearly every topic.

    Chalmers, in his mid-fifties at that time, was not one to suffer such difficulties passively. Tall, lean, and patrician of feature, he was a restless,...

  8. Chapter 5 Firming Up the Shaky Social Sciences
    (pp. 109-134)

    Is it possible to accurately size up a stranger in half a minute? Surely not: We have all been told not to judge a book by its cover, and that haste makes waste; moreover, any suggestion that we ourselves could be so quickly appraised by others would strike us as demeaning and unbelievable. Yet the ability to gauge swiftly and correctly the character of strangers is manifestly so advantageous that evolution presumably should have favored it.

    A recent prize-winning meta-analysis would seem to support this deduction, furnishing evidence that human beings are able to make reasonably accurate judgments about people...

  9. Chapter 6 Lighting the Way for Makers of Social Policy
    (pp. 135-160)

    The letter on U. S. Senate stationery that arrived on Eleanor Chelimsky’s desk one July day in 1983 bore good news and bad news. Good news, because it offered an excellent opportunity for her fledgling Program Evaluation and Methodology Division (PEMD) of the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to show what it could do; bad news, because it dealt with a politically touchy issue and came from a powerful and notoriously aggressive senator. The letter, addressed to Charles Bowsher, the head of GAO, read in part:

    Dear Mr. Bowsher:

    As you know the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry...

  10. Chapter 7 Epilogue: The Future of Meta-Analysis
    (pp. 161-168)

    How will meta-analysis develop from this point on? It is a question one may well be wary of answering, for predictors of the future, particularly of social phenomena, often turn out to be embarrassingly wrong. Herbert Hoover assured Americans in 1932 that “prosperity is just around the corner”; it turned that corner fifteen years later. Hitler said that his Third Reich would last a thousand years; it lasted a dozen. As Francis Bacon tartly commented, predictions are good only for winter talk by the fireside.

    Well, yes and no. Actually, anyone can quite accurately predict the weather five minutes hence,...

  11. Appendix Some Finer Points in Meta-Analysis
    (pp. 169-182)
    Harris Cooper
  12. Notes
    (pp. 183-192)
  13. References
    (pp. 193-204)
  14. Index
    (pp. 205-210)