Statistics/Methods of Data Collection/Observational Studies
The most primitive method of understanding the laws of nature utilizes observational studies. Basically, a researcher goes out into the world and looks for variables that are associated with one another. Notice that, unlike experiments, in an observational study the Independent Variables are not manipulated by the experimenter. The independent variable could be something like "smoking". It would be unethical and probably impossible to do an experiment where one randomly selected group is assigned to smoke and another group is assigned to the non-smoking group. Therefore, in order do determine the health effects of smoking on humans, an observational study is more appropriate than an experiment. The health of smokers and non-smokers would be compared without the experimenter assigning treatment.
Some of the foundations of modern scientific thought are based on observational research. Charles Darwin, for example, based his explanation of evolution entirely on observations he made. Case studies, where individuals are observed and questioned to determine possible causes of problems, are a form of observational research that continues to be popular today. In fact, every time you see a physician he or she is performing observational science.
There is a problem in observational science though — it cannot ever identify causal relationships because even though two variables are related both might be caused by a third, unseen, variable. Since the underlying laws of nature are assumed to be causal laws, observational findings are generally regarded as less compelling than experimental findings.
The key way to identify experimental studies is that they involve an intervention such as the administration of a drug to one group of patients and a placebo to another group. Observational studies only collect data and make comparisons.
Medicine is an intensively studied discipline, and not all phenomenon can be studied by experimentation due to obvious ethical or logistical restrictions.
- Case series: These are purely observational, consisting of reports of a series of similar medical cases. For example, a series of patients might be reported to suffer from bone abnormalities as well as immunodeficiencies. This association may not be significant, occurring purely by chance. On the other hand, the association may point to a mutation in common pathway affecting both the skeletal system and the immune system.
- Case-Control: This involves an observation of a disease state, compared to normal healthy controls. For example, patients with lung cancer could be compared with their otherwise healthy neighbors. Using neighbors limits bias introduced by demographic variation. The cancer patients and their neighbors (the control) might be asked about their exposure history (did they work in an industrial setting), or other risk factors such as smoking. Another example of a case-control study is the testing of a diagnostic procedure against the gold standard. The gold standard represents the control, while the new diagnostic procedure is the "case." This might seem to qualify as an "intervention" and thus an experiment.
- Cross-sectional: Involves many variables collected all at the same time. Used in epidemiology to estimate prevalence, or conduct other surveys.
- Cohort: A group of subjects followed over time, prospectively. Framingham study is classic example. By observing exposure and then tracking outcomes, cause and effect can be better isolated. However this type of study cannot conclusively isolate a cause and effect relationship.
- Historic Cohort: This is the same as a cohort except that researchers use an historic medical record to track patients and outcomes.