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

Alcohol increases reaction time; obese men have lower odds of getting married. A waste of research money? Not necessarily, scientists say.

May 28, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times

The sheer number of studies that get published suggests that Abrahams might be onto something. A recent paper in the journal 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 government 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 crucial 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."

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