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government grants and stupid studies: wasted money

10 Embarrassingly Obvious Health Studies


Some research is so elegantly simple, it is innovative. These studies are not.
By Bryce Edmonds for MSN Health & Fitness

Scientists are rational. They’re logical. They’re smart. That’s what makes all that science so readily believable, right? These folks are experts, and so we listen. But sometimes we run across a study that makes us wonder, “Why did anyone study that? It’s obvious.”

If you can see the air, don’t breathe it

Starting with the air we breathe: Scientists have proven that, yes indeed, air pollution is bad for you. In a study published in August in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers found that long-term exposure to the air in Mexico City, Mexico, is bad for children’s lungs. They concluded “long-term exposure to [air pollutants] is associated with a deficit in [lung function] growth among schoolchildren living in Mexico City.” This study follows another published in the same journal in 2000 that found pollution was bad for kids in Southern California. Good thing they double-checked.

This just in: Cigarettes cost money

Speaking of things that are bad for the lungs—although we might need more obvious studies to prove it—smoking is bad for the wallet. Yes, paying money for cigarettes means you have less money. The study, by a researcher at Ohio State University and funded largely by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was published in 2004 in Tobacco Control. He wrote, “While a causal relation cannot be proven, smokers appear to pay for tobacco expenditures out of income that is saved by non-smokers. Hence, reductions in smoking will boost wealth, especially among the poor.” Guess they aren’t giving butts away for free anymore.

The long road to health

While losing money is bad for you, losing time might be far worse. In the September Emergency Medicine Journal, researchers reported that traveling longer distances in an ambulance meant you were more likely to die before you got to the emergency room. “Patients with respiratory emergencies showed the greatest association between distance and mortality,” they wrote. Approximately 20 percent, if they had to go 12 miles or more. The British Department of Health sponsored the research, which proves: If you’re in a really bad way, use those last breaths to ask to be taken to the closest hospital.

Access to medical care

Meanwhile, it might not shock you to know that kids who are poor, minority or who lack medical insurance go to the doctor less often than other kids. However, someone thought they should study that. Published in the Journal of Early Intervention, the study found young children in the at-risk groups had fewer visits to health professionals.

These kids today, with their fast cars…

Moving up in age a bit, it’s finally beyond doubt—adolescents are too immature to drive well. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that when teens get behind the wheel, the part of the brain responsible for gauging long-term consequences is still not fully developed. Meaning: Teens have a problem with impulse control. Really? Teens are four times as likely as older drivers to be involved in an auto accident—and three times as likely to die in one, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Who’s a good dog?

Now, in the category of might not be so obvious but should be, a study that proves, it seems, you can teach an old dog new tricks. The National Institute on Aging supported research at the University of Toronto and the University of California, Irvine, among others, that found old beagles can learn new tricks just like their younger kin—if treated and fed well. The work was published in the January 2005 Neurobiology of Aging.

Let’s not take a meeting

Here’s a study that might make you pull your hair out: Meetings stress out employees. Yes, “Meetings and More Meetings: The Relationship Between Meeting Load and the Daily Well-Being of Employees” was published in the March 2005 issue of Group Dynamics journal. Working on an academic challenge grant, the researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that more meetings equaled greater fatigue and an exaggerated assessment of workload. They concluded, “In taking heed of these findings, organizations may want to be sensitive to the number of meetings employees are required to attend.” Let’s schedule a meeting to talk about stress.

Item: Cocaine, alcohol not brain food

If you’re wondering if your whiskey and cocaine habit is having an effect on the ol’ grey matter, it is. And researchers have proved it. The journal Neurology published “Differential effects of cocaine and cocaine alcohol on neurocognitive performance” in June 2000. The National Institute on Drug Abuse helped fund the study, which researchers said was important because A) “cocaine and alcohol use often go hand in hand in the real world” and B) “very little science exists on how using both drugs affects the brain.” The conclusion? “The concomitant use of cocaine and alcohol may have additive negative effects on the brain as compared to the use of only one of these two substances,” the researchers wrote.

Faraway, so close

Perhaps your vision is a little blurred—and not because of mixing substances. Maybe you’re trying to see someone far away, and—gasp!—it’s hard to see him clearly. So says a February 2005 study from Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Researchers wrote, “It is a matter of common sense that a person is easier to recognize when close than when far away.” But apparently the National Institute of Mental Health thought it was worth a grant to the University of Washington and University of California, Los Angeles team to figure out why—besides saying that it’s because, um, the person is far away.

When closing time comes

Speaking of blurry vision, you’ll be happy to know that, yes, beer goggles exist—and there’s now a formula to help you see through the haze. A researcher at the University of Manchester in England, says there’s a complex set of forces at work, all of which can add up to turning Quasimodo into Gisele. Variables include number of units of alcohol consumed, smokiness of the room, luminance of “person of interest” and Snellen visual acuity (think: eye chart). Bausch & Lomb, the maker of contact lenses, sponsored the work. Perhaps the study results can be used to develop “rose-colored” glasses.

Why bother?

Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, says while these studies might make us laugh—and possibly wonder how we can stop paying the taxes that fund them—there might be more to the story.

“Sometimes almost everybody is constrained to do the worst thing” regarding scientific funding because of the bureaucratic system in place, he says. “Something that might help break that kind of logjam is a study that steps up and says, ‘The emperor has no clothes,’ and now we can start talking about it.” In fact, he says, oftentimes everybody knows the emperor is nude, but the official record can’t reflect it until a study “proves” the obvious.

Then there might be the opposite. Perhaps the prevailing wisdom might say A is true, but it’s actually B. “Somehow, the prevailing wisdom has grown up to be wrong,” he says. And it takes a study that seems obvious in hindsight to fix the problem.

Of course, there’s also a third type—the utter junk. “There’s the extreme—the big cesspool of studies where I don’t think there’s anybody except the people who did the study who know why anybody spent a minute on it,” Abrahams says. “Some are long and detailed and have many graphs and numbers—and they mean nothing.”

He places much of the blame for at least the first two types of obviousness squarely on the shoulders of the science-funding system. “The whole system of getting grants has gotten strange and Byzantine, and sometimes you just have to do the obvious in order to get money to do research,” he says. “The big problem with science—especially in the United States—is it’s much easier to get funding for something people already know. It’s not risky.”
Old 10-05-2007, 12:07 PM
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