'Duh' science: Why researchers spend so much time proving the obvious

Jun 07, 2011 By Eryn Brown

Medical researchers have unlocked the human genome, wiped out smallpox and made great strides in the fight against AIDS.

They have also published studies revealing that:

Alcohol increases and errors during decision-making.

People who live in safe, well-lit neighborhoods are more likely to walk and get exercise.

College drinking is just as bad as researchers thought, but not worse than expected (try pondering that one after chugging a beer).

Well, duh, you might think - and you wouldn't be the first. The practice of hypothesizing, testing and publishing the seemingly obvious is widespread.

Accounts of "duh" research abound. There are studies showing that driving ability worsens in people with early Alzheimer's disease, that women who get epidurals experience less pain during than women who don't, that young men who are obese have lower odds of getting married than thinner peers, that making exercise more fun might improve fitness among teens.

These reports make eyes roll. Anti-tax crusaders fume at the thought of government money spent to "discover," once again, that stress in childhood leads to depression in adults, or that not having affects cancer survival. Last month, a report from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., lambasted the National Science Foundation for funding what he considers wasteful projects, including $2 million to figure out that people who upload pictures to the Internet from the same place at the same time are usually friends.

But there's more to duh research than meets the eye. Experts say they have to prove the obvious - and prove it 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," said Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. "There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough."

Indeed, people are still arguing about cigarettes almost 50 years after the U.S. surgeon general first linked their use to cancer and lung disease. In a recent issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, a detailed analysis painstakingly laid out a notion that most take for granted: that secondhand smoke in cars is bad for children.

Duh.

Or consider the case of Harvard sleep expert Dr. Charles Czeisler, who has spent about $3 million over the years demonstrating over and over that doctors who don't get enough sleep make mistakes on the job.

This seems painfully clear. But getting the medical establishment to start believing it - much less change the rules governing doctors' working hours - has taken Czeisler the better part of three decades. Long shifts for interns and residents are a staple of hospital culture.

When Czeisler presented evidence that workers on rotating shifts at a chemical plant suffered on disrupted sleep, the medical establishment said that doctors were different. When he published results showing that physicians' 24-hour-plus shifts contributed to car accidents and attention lapses at work, some acknowledged it might be true - but not for them.

Everyone had an anecdote. Czeisler had data. "It was dismissed out of hand," he said. "They use the same argument over and over, even when we've tested it. It drives me up the wall."

In 2008, the Institute of Medicine issued guidelines calling for limiting interns' and residents' shifts to 16 consecutive hours. Last year, authorities did cut back to 16 hours - but only for interns. Why? In part because that's who Czeisler had studied.

"I was astonished," said Czeisler, who is now researching whether residents' performance also is affected by lack of sleep. "I can't believe we have to do this extra study."

There's another reason why studies tend to confirm notions that are already widely held, said Daniele Fanelli, an expert on bias at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Instead of trying to find something new, "people want to draw attention to problems," especially when policy decisions hang in the balance, he said.

Kyle Stanford, a professor of the philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, thinks the professionalization of science has led researchers - who must win grants to pay their bills - to ask timid questions. Research that hews to established theories is more likely to be funded, even if it contributes little to knowledge.

Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes (which honor improbable research, including a study that found nose-picking was common among teens), adds that scientists get promotions only if they crank out a lot of research papers - publish or perish, as the saying goes. "It's the way the industry is set up," he said.

The sheer number of studies that get published suggests that Abrahams might be onto something. A recent paper in a journal called PLoS Medicine reported that medical journals publish the results of 75 clinical trials and 11 systematic reviews of trials every day. There is "an overload of unfiltered information," the authors wrote. It can't all be groundbreaking.

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. 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.

Iannotti of the NIH recently revealed in the Journal of Adolescent Health that victims of cyber-bullying are more depressed than the bullies who torment them.

He says the research, which cost about $6,400, was "kind of a duh, but not exactly," because it was one of the first studies characterizing cyber-bullying - and because studies on traditional bullying had shown bullies to be depressed too.

That might come as a surprise to many people. But even if initial findings seem self-evident, Iannotti said, "you still need to establish the facts. That's how science moves forward - incrementally."

Still, some wonder whether incremental is just a stand-in for inconsequential. At what point is it absurd to spend months determining that "pilots who drink and drive are at higher risk to crash planes," as a study in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention reported in 2005?

Deficit hawks worry that the governments spends too much on seemingly pointless research.

One of them is Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group that hands out the Golden Fleece Awards. The awards have exposed such follies of public expenditure as $219,592 to develop a curriculum to teach college students how to watch television and $6,000 to help explain how to buy a bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

Ellis said that funding basic research remains a critical area for the government. "But not every study is equally worthwhile," he said. "If the public sees things that appear to be ridiculous, it's going to be harder and harder to get dollars for critical research."

Mark Weiss, division director for behavioral and cognitive sciences at the National Science Foundation, acknowledged that in a large research project, some results may seem obvious when removed from their larger context.

"Is there some research that treads old ground? Well, sure," he said. "Like Garrison Keillor says, everyone can't be above average."

Explore further: Physicist creates ice cream that changes colors as it's licked

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Odd work schedules pose risk to health

Apr 17, 2011

(AP) -- Reports of sleeping air traffic controllers highlight a long-known and often ignored hazard: Workers on night shifts can have trouble concentrating and even staying awake.

Obvious conclusions from obvious studies

Feb 02, 2010

Months of planning and hypothesizing presumably took place. Weeks of research compiled, numbers crunched, data analyzed. Days of rigorous revision to prepare for publication.

Shorter work hours are approved for rookie doctors

Sep 29, 2010

(AP) -- Rookie doctors will be getting shorter work shifts, along with stricter supervision, but a medical student group said Wednesday that the changes don't do enough to protect sleep-deprived residents and their patients.

Chronic sleep loss degrades nighttime performance

Jan 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Although the exact function of sleep remains unknown, sleep is clearly necessary for optimal cognitive performance, learning, and memory. Sufficient sleep is also important for cardiovascular, ...

Recommended for you

F1000Research brings static research figures to life

13 hours ago

F1000Research today published new research from Bjorn Brembs, professor of neurogenetics at the Institute of Zoology, Universitaet Regensburg, in Germany, with a proof-of-concept figure allowing readers and reviewers to run ...

How science can beat the flawed metric that rules it

15 hours ago

In order to improve something, we need to be able to measure its quality. This is true in public policy, in commercial industries, and also in science. Like other fields, science has a growing need for quantitative ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
not rated yet Jun 07, 2011
Ignore the money cost, 'Duh' science crowds out the green buds of science. Why take a risk when your colleague down the corridor got a grant to show the obvious?
CryX
not rated yet Jun 07, 2011
It seems ineffective, both for peer review and reception in the general public, to compete for publishing in various journals and for grants. This promotes over-specialization (aka putting on the blinds), identifying with the own research facility in a manner of us-against-them and haphazardly publishing for the sake of having published. This seems to be the practice of "inventive dwarfs for hire".
Dwarfs, that readily lock themselves in an ivory tower, prior to throwing the key to the door into a maelstrom of ludicrous market dynamics and monetary politics.
Dwarfs, that procede to shout their mantras from the tips of their towers in the general direction of the people at the bottom.
These are conditioned not to drown in said maelstrom, and yet the dwarfs keep on shouting.
Few of the dwarfs try to shout pieces of advice for how to better keeping up with the struggle, but virtually none will try to get their key back. The Inquisitors of the monetary religion would be quick to react.
paulthebassguy
4 / 5 (4) Jun 08, 2011
This article sounds like it came from the onion.
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 08, 2011
They admit that they are not concerned with science but with changing policy ie "Experts say they have to prove the obvious - and prove it again and again - to influence perceptions and policy."

Science shouldn't be involved in policy, that is the role of politicians and lobbyists. They can poke the science under the noses of those who count, over and over again if necessary, rather than the entire scientific enterprise being repeated until policy changes.
rawa1
1 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2011
Scientists are over-employed and the general lack of funding leads them to seek the cheap, trivial research. This article summarises it well

http://discoverma...t-effect

Other reasons aren't so trivial and they're following from the way, in which scientists reward their work mutually - the citations.

http://www.nature...406.html

As the result, the physicists are refuting to work on the topics, which don't play well with their existing theories and they tend to research topics, which are extending and supporting them.

http://www.wired...._pr.html
JJC
5 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2011
A lot of these "duh" studies are done to look for the non-obvious, but end up finding that what we thought all along was true. The article mentions this briefly, but also makes it seem like scientists are constantly trying to prove the obvious.

They aren't. They are looking for new things, but sometimes the new search doesn't find anything new.
Cin5456
not rated yet Jul 16, 2011
Some things need to be harranged over and over in order to impliment positive changes. Think of the safety testing that cars go through year after year. They are still working to prove that cars are unsafe in the hands of amateurs and distracted drivers. But look at how long did it took for seatbelt laws to change. And how long will it take for the public to learn that the unsafe driver on the road is themselves-every time they answer their cell phone while driving? Some things need to be stressed repeatedly for action to occur.
Callippo
not rated yet Jul 16, 2011
They are looking for new things, but sometimes the new search doesn't find anything new
At any case, it's a failure - we cannot spend all money in useless research. But there is still apparent bias, because the findings of many really new phenomena (cold fusion, antigravity beams, surface superconductivity at diamond) are ignored obstinately, just because it doesn't play well with existing theories. The existing theoretical background of science is not helping after then - it becomes a brake of the further evolution instead.