Why we need “duh science”

There are a lot of studies that are completed every year. The results of some seem quite obvious than others, what this article calls “duh research.” Here is why experts say these studies are still necessary:

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.”…

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 UC 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.

Here we get three possible answers as to why “duh research” takes place:

1. It takes time for studies to draw attention and become part of cultural “common sense.” One example cited in this article is cigarette smoking. One study wasn’t enough to show a relationship between smoking and negative health outcomes. Rather, it took a number of studies until there was a critical mass that the public accepted. While the suggestion here is that this is mainly about convincing the public, this also makes me think of the general process of science where numerous studies find the same thing and knowledge becomes accepted.

2. These studies could be about social problems. There are many social ills that could be deserving of attention and funding and one way to get attention is to publish more studies. The findings might already be widely accepted but the studies help keep the issue in the public view.

3. It is about the structure of science/the academy where researchers are rewarded for publications and perhaps not so much for advancing particular fields of study. “Easy” findings help scientists and researchers keep their careers moving forward. These structures could be altered to promote more innovative research.

All three of these explanations make some sense to me. I wonder how much the media plays a role in this; why do media sources cite so much “duh research” where there are other kinds of research going on as well? Could these be “easy” journalistic stories that fit particular established narratives or causes? Do universities/research labs tend to promote these studies more?

Of course, the article also notes that some of these studies can also turn out unexpected results. I would guess that there are quite a few important findings that came out of research that someone at the beginning could have easily predicted a well-established answer.

(It would be interesting to think more about the relationship between sociology and “duh research.” One frequent knock against sociology is that it is all “common sense.” Aren’t we aware of our interactions with others as well as how our culture operates? But we often don’t have time for analysis and understanding in our everyday activities and we often simply go along with prevailing norms and behaviors. It all may seem obvious until we are put in situations that challenge our understandings, like stepping into new situations or different cultures.

Additionally, sociology goes beyond the individual, anecdotal level at which many of us operate. We can often create a whole understanding of the world based on our personal experiences and what we have heard from others. Sociology looks at the structural level and works with data, looking to draw broad conclusions about human interaction.)

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