For your weekend entertainment, I offer you Melinda Beck’s funny and provocative Wall Street Journal column of last Tuesday in which she muses about starting two of her own scholarly medical journals: Duh! (“for findings that never seemed to be in doubt in the first place”) and Huh? (“for those whose usefulness remains obscure, at least to lay readers”).
Duh!’s first issue could include findings such as these, which ran in prestigious journals or were presented at scientific conferences recently:
• Toddlers become irritable when prevented from napping.
• Cats make humans do what they want by purring.
• TV crime dramas inaccurately portray violent crime in America.
• People with high IQs make wise economic decisions.
Huh?’s first issue could contain these head-scratchers:
• Men are better than women at hammering in the dark.
• Young orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos laugh when tickled.
• Neither alcohol (in him) nor makeup (on her) affect a man’s ability to guess a woman’s age.
• The more abdominal hair, the greater the tendency to collect belly-button lint.
Of course, one person’s “I-could-have-told-you-that” study is another person’s serious scientific inquiry. (Just as one person’s “I-could-have-done-that” painting is another person’s masterpiece. If you want to pursue that topic, I recommend Yasmina Reza’s wickedly funny play Art.) “Not surprisingly,” writes Beck, “the researchers involved in each of these studies maintain that their work is neither obvious nor silly when understood in the proper context. (Having an advanced degree also helps.)”
One of Beck’s candidates for the launch issue of Duh! – the study that found violent crime is inaccurately portrayed on TV – was conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (and presented to the American Psychiatric Association in May). But, as the Mayo researchers took pains to explain to Beck, the study’s “obvious” finding actually served a secondary point:
Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry says he and the two medical students who compared the murder situations depicted on six seasons of “CSI” and “CSI: Miami” with national crime data weren’t surprised that they didn’t match. They were emphasizing the point that alcohol plays a larger role in such crimes than the public may realize.
Who decides what’s valid or not?
Although Beck doesn’t address the topic directly, her column raises a bigger issue: Are taxpayer monies being wasted on Duh! and Huh? studies? And who should decided whether research has potential value or not?
I don’t know a single research scientist who doesn’t mumble and grumble, at least under his or her breath, about the current review process for getting federal research grants. Everyone, it seems, has a tale about important research that was turned down for funding — and “silly” research that got a grant.
And, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, the current system may be awarding “safe” studies over ones that are “riskier” but that have a greater potential to result in a major medical breakthrough.
Although many scientists would like to see the current grant process improved, no researcher I know wants non-scientists — and, particularly, Congress — to begin dictating which specific studies should or shouldn’t be funded. Of course, that hasn’t stopped some politicians from trying.
A few years ago, for example, former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) (and current candidate for the Senate) offered an amendment to appropriations legislation that would have halted five research projects that had already passed the National Institutes of Health peer review selection process. As reported at the time in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute:
The projects that Toomey found objectionable addressed various aspects of sexual behavior and its relationship to HIV/AIDS, mental health, and drug abuse. …”Who thinks this stuff up? And worse, who decides to actually fund these sorts of things?” Toomey asked during debate on the amendment. He questioned the value of these grants in protecting the public’s health and pointed to competing priorities as motivation for his position: “I simply want to make the point that there are so many far more important, very real diseases that are affecting real people, and that is what this kind of money could be used for,” he said.
That amendment was narrowly defeated, but, according to one survey, it had a chilling effect on many scientists, influencing such actions as how they worded their research proposals to whether they even continued to conduct studies on politically controversial topics.
Sign me up
But back to Beck’s Duh! and Huh? publications. As she acknowledges, she certainly wouldn’t be short of articles to choose from:
As editor-in-chief, I’m thinking of tapping Gordon C.S. Smith, a University of Cambridge obstetrician, who wrote a classic paper in the British Medical Journal in 2003 noting that he could find no randomized controlled trials testing whether parachutes prevent death and injuries in response to “gravitational challenge” — i.e., jumping out of aircraft.
Sounds like a great read! How do I subscribe?