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Science Idle

Why We Have So Much "Duh" Science 299

Posted by samzenpus
from the taking-nothing-for-granted dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Eryn Brown writes in the LA Times that accounts of 'duh' research abound as studies show that driving ability worsens in people with early Alzheimer's disease, that women who get epidurals experience less pain during childbirth than women who don't, that young men who are obese have lower odds of getting married than thinner peers, and that making exercise more fun might improve fitness among teens. But there's more to duh research than meets the eye writes Brown as experts say they have to prove the obvious again and again to influence perceptions and policy. 'Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,' says Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. 'There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.' Kyle Stanford, a professor of the philosophy of science at UC Irvine, thinks the professionalization of science has led researchers — who must win grants to pay their bills — to ask timid questions and research that hews to established theories is more likely to be funded, even if it contributes little to knowledge. Perhaps most important, sometimes a study that seems poised to affirm the conventional wisdom produces a surprise. 'Many have taken the value of popular programs like DARE — in which police warn kids about the dangers of drug use — as an article of faith,' writes Brown. 'But Dennis Rosenbaum of the University of Illinois at Chicago and other researchers have shown that the program has been ineffective and may even increase drug use in some cases.'"
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Why We Have So Much "Duh" Science

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  • Because... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:32PM (#36312910)

    We have too much Duh the population.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:36PM (#36312954)

    My undergrad is in psychology and I helped professors with research many time. One issue is what qualifies as "Duh" or "Everyone knows that".

    For example, studies have been done that show a group of people working together on a project instead of having one person in charge can make it better. "Duh" you say? Kinda like Open Source? Well studies have also shown having one person in power calling the shots can make, think Apple and Steve Jobs. Also a "Duh" you say

    They are both valid.

    Also I don't have the article handy but many things people think of as "Duh" turn out not to be true.

  • by rgmoore (133276) <glandauer@charter.net> on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:36PM (#36312960) Homepage

    The biggest reason to run "duh" studies is because you really do have to test the obvious. If you assume something is true without testing it, any theory you build on that assumption is on shaky ground. Showing that your basic assumptions is correct is a vital step before you can do anything more complicate.

  • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:39PM (#36312996)

    Real science is quantitative analysis of, for example, exactly how much worse drivers get with age. The specific mechanics of what things they get worse at, etc.

    The media takes that, and takes the conclusion: they get worse with age/disease, and leave out the details. The details are for, well, people who actually build cars, or systems or the like. The researcher usually isn't trying to prove a 'duh' point, they're trying to quantify a 'duh' point.

    Beautiful women are distracting. Ok. By how much? How do you quantify that? How do you study that? If the presence of beautiful women reduce men's productivity by 0.5% that's very different than 25% - the trend, and effect, may be the same (assuming you can quantify to that scale) to the media. But one is good science, one isn't (and no, you can't even express good science in 2 sentences).

  • by PCM2 (4486) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:41PM (#36313036) Homepage

    From TFA:

    'Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,' says Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. 'There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.'

    This seems like a bad example, because it's not really "duh science" when you have an entire industry using its combined resources to silence your research. The tobacco industry spent decades flooding the journals with studies aimed at proving that smoking was harmless, or even beneficial. What's more, the tobacco industry was uniquely situated to get those results repeated in the press, while the studies that repeated the finding that smoking was harmful ended up sounding like "duh science" and went unreported. (If smoking is still bad for you, it's not news.)

    In many cases, the real problem is not the science, or the journals, but how to communicate the science to the lay public, who can only really comprehend what's actually told to them. If you can't guarantee that anybody will ever hear about your findings, the only way might be to repeat them over and over, as many times as you can -- because that's what industry will do.

  • by Geurilla (759701) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:42PM (#36313046)

    Most "Duh" research isn't "Duh" at all. It only sounds that way because of the atrocious state of science reporting in the popular press. Challenging, technical research has to be translated into terms regular folks can understand, and that often means making ridiculous comparisons or analogies, or just giving an explanation of the research so dumbed down that the researchers themselves would hardly recognize it.

    Another contributing factor is the political motivations of people with large audiences who don't know better. For example, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a "report" [senate.gov] making fun of a number of studies supposedly representing wasting spending on stupid research. It turns out his examples [livescience.com] are actually pretty nuanced and important after all--hardly "duh" science.

    The general population just isn't equipped to judge which research is important and worth spending money on. That is exactly why we have organizations like the NSF to evaluate grant proposals for us.

  • Re:"Duh" Studies (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:43PM (#36313058)
    It's worse than that. If TFS is accurate, it's based on stupid logic.

    'Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,'

    No, jackass. These studies went on for, what, over half a century? People haven't kept on smoking because you haven't convinced them that it's unhealthy. They understand, just like they did 20 years ago when they started. It's because they start when they're young and they know they shouldn't, and then they're addicted. It's as simple as that.

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @04:48PM (#36313122)
    Well, I guess that touches one of the main misconceptions when it comes to interpretation of scientific work. "Common sense" is not a scientific argument. It lacks rigor. And more often than not, common sense is just plain wrong.
  • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by noname444 (1182107) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @05:01PM (#36313238)

    The "duh" in the population are those who believe that "duh" science is "duh" though. More often than not the outcome of a study is the expected results. When it's not, however, it challenges our preconceptions and we have to adjust to the new facts (or do another study ;).

    Just because our intention tells us that something works a certain way it doesn't mean we can accept this as a scientific fact. This is a strength of the scientific method, rather than a weakness.

  • by John Da' Baddest (1686670) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @05:11PM (#36313338)

    It's obvious the Earth is flat, why waste Isabell's gold "proving" someone can sail West and end up back home from the East? Duh.

    It's obvious that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, that guy in Pisa must be pulling a political stunt to get tax credits or something. Duh.

    It's obvious that Saddam has secret nukes, who needs UN institutional opinions? Duh.

    It's obvious that taxes cause job losses, cell phones cause cancer, and the world ended two Saturdays ago except for you heathen boogers, and everything worth inventing was already discovered years ago. Let's close the patent office. Duh.

    Cross-discipline value judgements are a slippery slope. Science is not Technology, and we techies look pretty ridiculous by other people's criteria if you haven't noticed already.

    "News for Nerds" indeed.
    Duh.

  • Re:"Duh" Studies (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CrazyDuke (529195) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @05:51PM (#36313778)

    I think you may be attributing to deliberative action what is more frequently due to self-imposed incompetence. Seriously, the social psychology text I have OPENS with a pair of case studies done on people's reactions to differing results of studies into the health benefits of jogging. The chapter is on cognitive dissonance.

    People want to believe they are making the right choices. So, they tend to believe that those choices are still correct even in the face of contradictory evidence. They will rationalize, minimize, attack the messenger, and all other manor of mental back-flips to avoid acknowledging to themselves or even seriously considering that they are in error, which would elicit negative emotions like guilt and shame.

    You can't make people believe what they don't want to believe. If Cletus doesn't want to believe in gravity, you can push his ass off a cliff and he'll die thinking that the Debil made him fall or some such nonsense. About the best you can hope for is to appeal to people that are as of yet either undecided or don't have a lot invested in their position, turn the herd, and hope as many of the rest follow as possible.

  • Flawed Premise (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bemopolis (698691) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @06:12PM (#36313984)
    In a country where 40% [gallup.com] of the population still doesn't accept the theory of evolution, there is no such thing as "duh" science.

    Fortunately, I expect that their inability to also grasp the reality of AGW will eventually remedy the situation in a manner suitable to please this childless, atheist misanthrope.
  • by Artifakt (700173) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @07:36PM (#36314800)

    A study is not required for me to tell my children...

    Don't eat things harder than your teeth, they aren't good for you.

    The American Dental Association has determined that chocolate covered manhole covers are bad for your teeth. (Thanks to Larry Niven for pointing this out).

    Your last example (wash hands), is a great example of what isn't common sense. It's good advice because of the Germ Theory of Disease. Before Louis Pasteur and a few others developed this, the prevailing 'common sense' observation was that bad smelling air caused diseases. Bad smells could be detected, bacteria and such couldn't (yet), and common sense told people that something you could observe was a real cause, and if you didn't observe anything, there was nothing there to cause anything else. Common sense made three generations of doctors reluctant to accept that they should wash their hands after handling garbage (or sick patients, used surgical instruments, and many other sources of infection).

  • by starfishsystems (834319) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:28PM (#36315172) Homepage
    You've given a perfect example of the "duh" principle. By oversimplifying an already simplistic analysis, you've managed to pervert the original meaning beyond recognition.

    This is why it's so important to RTFA. You say that "arthroscopic knee surgery, a very common procedure, doesn't actually help." That's not, however, what the article says.

    The article cites two studies which report that certain specific arthroscopic procedures are not effective in treating osteoarthritis. The article then goes on to equate the specific procedures with arthroscopy in general, and osteoarthritis (a specific condition) with knee pain (a general symptom). The original research may be impeccable, but the article has summarized it falsely.

    Still, you've managed to make matters even worse. Thanks to your claim, arthroscopic knee surgery has been generalized as useless. Taking this foolishness to the next level, no doubt someone now is going to read your comment, turn to his wife and say. "Honey, it says here that all doctors are quacks. See, I knew it all along."

    The reason why arthroscopic surgery has become so commonplace is because it's an excellent refinement on traditional surgical procedure. If an open procedure was traditionally effective (take appendectomy for example) and it can be done arthroscopically, then it will still be as effective but will tend to be less invasive, have a lower risk of infection, and result in shorter hospitalization and faster recovery time. Knee surgery is absolutely not an exception.

    At least you linked to the article you misrepresented, which in turn cited the research it misrepresented. Still, just don't do that. You could hurt somebody.
  • by riverat1 (1048260) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:07PM (#36315390)

    The problem with that is in pure scientific research you often can't tell what is waste until after the research is done. For example, how much money has been "wasted" on fusion research? Maybe they'll never come up with a workable solution for fusion and you might consider all of it to have been wasted but we still have much better knowledge of the subject. If they ever do come up with something that works will it change to not wasted?

    Sometimes you just have to make investments that don't have assured payouts. If you don't make those kind of investments then nothing advances.

  • by recrudescence (1383489) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:55PM (#36315674)
    I could dissect most of your 'common sense' examples and find flaws. But let's not do that. Let's go for what the parent post 'actually' meant. That a lot (yes, not all) of what's considered 'good practice' based on 'common sense' invariably turns out to be wrong when scrutinized. And then, oddly enough, the new findings are then pronounced as common sense and self-evident all along. Until *they* are proven wrong in turn, etc.

    A classic case of this has been beta agonists in heart failure. The heart isn't managing to pump blood? Give it drugs that enhance contractility. It's common sense.
    Until they found out that, while output improves, mortality rates skyrocket.
    So they tried the opposite. Decrease contractility with beta-blockers, so that the struggling heart works less. After all, a candle that burns less bright, lasts longer. It's common sense.
    Until they found out that, this too, causes more problems than it solves.
    Now they're trying to figure out whether *not interfering* with contractility at all is the best you can do. After all, you shouldn't mess with an already compromised organ.
    It's common sense.

    Or what about shielding your baby from bugs? Common sense, right? Well, it was, until studies showed that this actually compromises the development of their immune system and leads to susceptibilities and allergies. So now you get parents calling round the neighbours to stick their thumb in the baby's mouth, to maximize their exposure at an early age and build a proper immune system. Of course, there's little evidence for this at the moment, but why not? It's common sense, right?

    No, I agree with the parent post. I like it best the way they said it in Freakonomics: "Common sense is little short of common nonsense."
    It is always biased and largely based on individual experiences. While some of these experiences may be useful, and to some extent universal (e.g. wash hands after trash), I would argue a lot less of the things we think is common sense is actually correct.

    Actually, I changed my mind. I'll dissect your 'common sense' nuggets after all:
    1) Consuming hard food has been shown to prevent plaque buildup. In fact, this is the primary method used in dogs.
    2) Studies have shown that people in larger cars have an inflated idea of safety and tend to be involved in more accidents. There's common sense unexamined producing obvious harm for you. Furthermore, the families of people in the larger vehicle tend to grieve for longer, as the victims are more likely to survive with a disability rather than die.
    3) As a physician myself, I completely contradict this. It's human nature, go figure, but people tend to not care when some damage has already been done.
    4) There's a number of plants deadly to animals and beneficial to humans. Medicine relies on this. That's not to say you should strive to eat all plants known to kill animals in uncontrolled amounts. But it *is* to say that relying on this as common sense and not studying the properties of these plants would have held back medicine by centuries.
    5) Manure as fertilizer, anyone?
    6) Best to hit someone you don't know, than someone who knows you and where you live.
    7) Yeah. Ok. Fine. You can have this one :p

    Honestly, if I had a dime every time a doctor in hospital tried to justify their opinion by saying "it's common sense" only to be proven wrong seconds later ...

"If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in the library?" -- Lily Tomlin

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