It pops up in the news every few years, typically when eager politicians are looking for a cause to champion and raise voter anger, and make themselves popular as “guardians of our tax dollars.” The latest version is a recent article in The Los Angeles Times about “duh” science: research that appears to confirm what people regard as everyday knowledge. They included studies that demonstrated that alcohol reduces reaction time; that obese men have a lower chance of getting married; that people who live in safe well-lit neighborhoods are more likely to walk and get exercise; and that college drinking is just as bad as we all thought, but not worse than expected. Such stories are then grabbed out of context and flogged on talk shows as examples of government waste, and become the staple of politicians from both sides of the aisle, eager to enhance their standing with voters.
In this recent incarnation, Senator Tom Coburn (R.-OK) is castigating studies funded by the National Science Foundation which seem silly or frivolous to outsiders to bolster his cred as an anti-waste, anti-tax crusader. He has repeated called for the elimination of the NSF altogether, although he has no idea where American scientists would get their funding if he did so. In past years, the charge was led by Rep. John Dingell (D.-MI), who has served in the House since 1955, the longest serving member of the current Congress. A generation ago, it was Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI), who replaced Joe McCarthy in the Senate and served for 44 years. Proxmire created the famous “Golden Fleece” awards, which publicize what he regards as useless research. Or take a recent quote from that paragon of education and science, Sarah Palin, is in the same vein: “Some of these pet projects, they don’t really make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research.”
The Palin quote, however, reveals the problem with the whole issue of outsiders criticizing science funding: ignorance of scientific research and its context. Anyone who has had any real exposure to biology (as Palin obviously has not) knows that for over a century, the fruit fly has been the model organism of genetics, since it is easy to study and breed, and its genes work wonderfully for research. Fruit flies have taught us more about genetics and evolution than studies on just about any other animal. The same problem permeates all these debates: many areas of science seem obscure to the layman, and don’t seem worthwhile, but in the context of a particular research discipline, they are important or significant.
As the article goes on to point out:
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 Assn. Journal, a detailed analysis painstakingly laid out a notion that most take for granted: that secondhand smoke in cars is bad for children.
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.
In addition, studies that seem to be confirming the obvious are not so trivial as the media and politicians portray them. Many ideas which we consider everyday wisdom turn out to be wrong—and it takes studies like these to demonstrate the falsity of commonly-held beliefs. Or just to test the hypothesis in the first place, so even if it is confirmed, it is has at least been tested, and it’s not just folk wisdom. Ideally, science should be testing any and all ideas, whether they seem to be common sense or not, because in many cases what we think is common sense turns out to be wrong once scientists have worked on it. After all, your common sense tells you that the sun moves around the earth, that the earth is flat, and that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects—all ideas which have proven false when scientists examined them. Much of science (whether relativity or quantum mechanics or molecular biology or cosmology) is so specialized and hard to explain to the lay man that they are almost impossible to render on commonsensical layman’s explanations without grossly oversimplifying.
Commonly, you will hear politicians and the media criticizing science that just seems obscure to them, often with cries for restricting funding just to practical research that can be made immediately useful to humans. But again, the layperson is in no position to judge what is good research in nuclear physics or in molecular biology, since they know little or nothing about it. Most of the time, the critics of science don’t even try to critique research in highly specialized fields like nuclear physics or molecular biology—yet they feel expert enough in fields like psychology and sociology to critique those kinds of research, even though such research is vetted just as rigorously by the peer review process as research in fields laymen have no clue about.
That’s the crucial point: unless you are qualified by specialized professional training to criticize a particular type of research, you cannot render a useful judgment over what’s good science and what’s bad science. That is the job of the scientific community itself, which polices itself using peer review to fund only the research that meets the highest standards of a given specialty. Peer review isn’t perfect, and not everything that is funded is great science, but it is the best device we have to screen out less important and worthwhile research in the judgment of scientific experts qualified in a given field. And I know from personal experience that most funding is not frivolously thrown away. In my career, I’ve gotten funding consistently from the NSF, and even flown to D.C. to be on panels that screen out the proposals and the mountains of reviews that were generated. It’s brutal. In my branch, at best about 20% of the proposals get funded. That means that 80% of the proposals (many of which are outstanding research, proposed by well-regarded scientists) get turned down just because the competition is so stiff and the funds for scientific research are so scarce. In the last cycle of Sedimentary Geology and Paleontology (my branch) only 10% were funded; 90% were turned down no matter how good they were simply because the funds were so limited. Would you want to waste months of your time and effort to write a pre-proposal, wait for the OK, and then send in proposal, knowing that the odds are only 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 that it will be funded? That’s the dilemma that faces many scientists, and yet they are under continual pressure to keep the grant funding coming, and maintain their research careers in this highly competitive atmosphere.
So keep these things in mind when you hear yet another superficial story in the media or from a politician or reporter who doesn’t really understand how science works.