A celebration (and mocking) of ridiculously useless research

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's Not Just Bad For the Children - It's Bad for Mother Earth Too!

It's really too bad that we here at Duh!scoveries obviously have so much else going on in our lives that we stick to such a pathetic posting schedule. It's not for lack of material that this blog goes idle for months - we're just busy!

But we recently had such an egregiously bad study fall into our laps that even we were forced out of our TV-induced torpor to write about it. Honestly, the writer's strike's effects on television had nothing to do with it!

But back to the Duh!scovery at hand. Just when you were starting to think that divorce had finally shed its down-market image as ruiner of children's lives and started being hip again, now it turns out it's bad for the environment!

Writing in the Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Eunice Yu and Jianguo Liu of the Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife found:

Divorce is increasingly common around the world. Its causes, dynamics, and socioeconomic impacts have been widely studied, but little research has addressed its environmental impacts. We found that average household size (number of people in a household) in divorced households (households with divorced heads) was 27–41% smaller than married households (households with married heads) in 12 countries across the world around the year 2000 (between 1998 and 2002). If divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries. Meanwhile, the number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33–95% greater than in married households. In the United States (U.S.) in 2005, divorced households spent 46% and 56% more on electricity and water per person than married households.

Wow. Post-divorce households are smaller than pre-divorce households? Let's sit and reflect on that one a minute. You're saying that if a family of four living under one roof suddenly splits into two families, one with an overworked single mom with two kids and the other with a lonely, bitter ex-husband, that the size of those households (at 3 people and 1 person) is smaller than the original household (of 4 people)? Those are some mad math skillz! It took us at least 12 seconds to figure out that the average household size of that one was... 50% smaller!

And with two households, energy use skyrockets! Both homes need to be heated, and lit, and cooled, and... well, you get the drift. Even if you were really frugal and tried to have half as many rooms in each place, you'd still need two kitchens, at least two bathrooms and probably two living rooms (unless bitter old ex-hubby moves into a studio - or does the right thing and just offs himself).

"Turning on the light uses the same energy whether there are two people or four people in the room," said lead author Jianguo Liu, an ecologist at Michigan State University.

No kidding?

Of course, if being divorced causes energy use to go up, then other, more alternative, lifestyles might make it go down! Hey all you free-lovers out there, you're environmentally friendly (as long as you cohabitate). Why stop with shacking up with just one life partner - the more the merrier. It's all about saving Gaia - you don't have a problem with that, do you?

Other potential solutions include polygamy, communal living or roommates.

"I'm just a scientist trying to present the facts," Liu said. "I'm not promoting one way or another."

We dunno - polygamy sounds a lot more fun than living in a commune, but maybe we're just picturing the wrong communes...

Now, we could make fun of the obviousness of this Duh!scovery all day, but we couldn't help but notice that this article was actually edited by someone pretty famous - Paul Ehrlich! He of the book the Population Bomb, a MacArthur Prize Fellow and a reputation ruining bet with Julian Simon. Now he's down to editing Duh!scovery-worthy articles from the Fisheries Department of Michigan State. I guess that's what happens when you predict that starvation is going to wipe out 2/3rds of the planet's population (including England!) during your lifetime - I guess that obesity epidemic really blindsided him. Better not let him know about Morgan Spurlock!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

And The Governator Is The Most Attractive Of All

My, what a long time it's been since last we posted! We will definitely need to improve the work ethic here at Duh!scoveries if we're ever going to attract any attention.

We will also, apparently, need to go on a significant program of weight lifting if we want to attract a female readership, as, according David Frederick of UCLA's Department of Psychology:

"Women are predisposed to prefer muscularity in men."

Yes, according to yet another social science study, we've learned that women are just as shallow as men and prefer a hottie to snuggle up to. Apparently, one Arnold is not the same as another.

Now, David does go on to say that eventually, women prefer less well-developed men as boyfriends, husbands and fathers. The steroid-enhanced aren't as attractive long-term, supposedly because:

"It makes women more suspicious about their romantic intentions."

Sure, maybe. We suppose that when faced with a lifetime of hot, steamy love from their brawny hunks of man-flesh, women start wondering whether that nerdy guy next door might make for a better husband or father. But maybe it's because of other reasons.

At least we can be sure that Mr. Frederick wasn't just trying to toot his own horn.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Basic Division, 101

There are times, Gentle Readers, where even the brain trust here at Duh!scoveries Central are simply gobsmacked by the stupidity of so-called "scientists".

Apparently, for well over a decade now, the divorce rate in China has been incorrectly calculated, leading researchers around the world to marvel at the astonishingly high number of divorces in China - a traditional low-divorce society. Comparisons between China and other Asian countries saw an enormous surge in divorce in China during the 80s and 90s narrowing, and in some cases surpassing, the pre-existing differences in rates.

A by-product of globalization? The dangers of capitalism? The end of the Mao era loosening social strictures against divorce?

Nope - apparently the Chinese can't divide. Chinese statisticians have been counting the number of divorced people, rather than the number of divorces, and dividing that by the total population. As a divorce usually results in two divorced people, the "divorce rate" calculated from that number was twice as high as it should have been.

In this article, Xu Anqi, a researcher for the Marriage and Family Institute at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has been lobbying the government since the 1990s to fix this problem.

"Based on the wrong statistics, many sensational research reports came out," she was quoted as saying.

Now that they can divide, the Chinese divorce rate has dropped from 2.76 divorces per 1,000 to 1.38.

This makes us wonder what other numbers coming out of China are fishy. How many kids does that one child per "couple" policy actually let you have? Do they truly have 1.3 billion people? Will a conga line of all the Chinese in the world really never end? Most importantly, will those lottery numbers in my fortune cookie work?

Enquiring minds want to know!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Finally, José Castro's Dreams Come True

In a nail-biter of excruciating suspense, the results of Travel Industry Association/Harris Interactive survey are in, and, in a total upset:

San Francisco was named the top "gay-friendly" destination in a new survey of gay travelers conducted by the Travel Industry Association.

No one is more surprised by this result than the authors of this blog. Indeed, one of us has visited San Francisco on many occasions (heck, he even stayed at this lovely hotel on his honeymoon) and found it to be quite "hetero-friendly". We might go so far as to say that it's just plain friendly, with a beautiful setting and perfect climate, but we wouldn't want to seem sycophantic .

We're still a little confused as to how an American city won this award, considering that the US of A is a hotbed of intolerance. Happily, San Francisco beat dark-horse write-in candidate Mashhad, Iran, which didn't succeed in its quest to burnish its tourist credentials.

José Castro was the Mexican governor of Alta (and later Baja) California prior to the American annexation. San Francisco's Castro District and Castro Street are named after him. We are sure that this Mexican nationalist is just glad the place isn't crawling with Scandinavians anymore...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Breaking News! Fat People Use More Gas!

Ah, Gentle Readers, one should never start a new blog just before taking a vacation. You take a long ride in a car, enjoy the beautiful scenery, get back in time for school to start and deal with all those transitions and, pow!, months go by without a blog post. Our apologies.

Of course, taking long car trips isn't just bad for blogging. Due to the ever-expanding waistline of the average American (caused, no doubt, by all those deep-fried Snickers), it's bad for the planet as well. According to Sheldon H. Jacobson, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, all that extra fat we're carrying (curse you, Mars Incorporated!) is causing us to burn one billion more gallons of gasoline each year than we did in 1960.

Here's Sheldon:

"The bottom line is that our hunger for food and our hunger for oil are not independent. There is a relationship between the two," said University of Illinois researcher Sheldon Jacobson, a study co-author.

"If a person reduces the weight in their car, either by removing excess baggage, carrying around less weight in their trunk, or yes, even losing weight, they will indeed see a drop in their fuel consumption."

Now, we here at Duh!scoveries are as concerned about the environment as most Americans (OK, that might sound like hardly at all, but no, really - we care), so we thank Sheldon for performing the necessary math and sounding the alarm. But, on the other hand... can somebody give us a "Duh"?

Like anyone who has taken a high school physics class, or who has noticed the disturbing pattern of 5000 pound SUVs getting worse gas mileage than 700 pound motorcycles, most of us are well aware that it takes more energy to move more mass. It doesn't require lengthy, peer-reviewed research to figure that out.

One imagines being the peer-reviewer on this paper. After having a grad student check the basic math, you can just haul out the old "Approved" rubber stamp and take the rest of the day off. Thank god for the gimmes - some of those other articles can take months to review!

We here at Duh!scoveries don't merely want to mock these studies - we long to contribute too. So, we're suggesting a follow-up study. Gasoline in cars and trucks isn't the only excess fuel being burned here - the same physics indicate that fat people themselves require more fuel (in the form of tasty fried foods and soft drinks filled with high-fructose corn syrup) to move their own excess weight. And now that more and more vehicles are being fueled with biodiesel from soybean oil and ethanol from corn, there is now a competition for those resources between the fat people needing cheap calories to be able to move their enormous bodies and the SUVs they need to buy in order to haul their enormous bodies to the local fried-food emporium.

All of which raises the question: what is the optimum number of huge biodiesel or ethanol SUVs? Build too many and fat people will start slimming down due to lack of caloric input diverted to biofuel production, which leads to fewer SUVs needed to haul their now-slender bodies, which allows those fuel stocks to be retargeted to food. A vicious cycle, so we need to figure out just how many Hummers are needed to keep Americans optimally fat (or, we suppose, fit).

Grad students of America, don't let this research opportunity pass you by! You may thank us when you, too, are the subject of glowing press coverage.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Spies, Damned Spies and Statistics

The "Best Student Paper" at the 15th USENIX Security Symposium is titled "Keyboards and Covert Channels". In it, we learn of the dangers of "JitterBugs" (no doubt, soon to be JitterBugsTM), devices that could bug your keyboard and send sensitive data to your most nefarious foes - like that guy in the cubicle two pods away that you're sure steals your lunch out of the common refridgerator. Bastard!

Now, while the method of transmitting the data is neat (involving statistical analysis of very specific types of delays sending keystrokes to a computer that is connected to some snooped network), the opening quote of this news article is ridiculous:
Keyboards and other devices plugged into computers could be easily bugged to covertly transmit passwords or other sensitive data, researchers warned today.
As Gaurav Shah, the student lead author of the study, says:
"This is spy stuff... Someone would need physical access to your keyboard to place a JitterBug device, but it could be quite easy to hide such a bug in plain sight among cables or even replace a keyboard with a bugged version."
Now, maybe we're just too blasé, but if someone has physical access to your keyboard and can sniff all of your network packets, your security is so hosed that the use of a JitterBugTM is the least of your worries.

The JitterBugTM protocol has an extremely low bandwidth, so it really needs to record and forward only a limited number of keystrokes - hopefully passwords and the like. But in order to "prime" the device to filter out all the other crap you're typing, the spy would need to "preprogram a JitterBug with the user name of the target as a trigger on the assumption that the following keystrokes would include the user's password."

Again, if a spy has your user name, access to your computer and hooks into your network... you are, as the geeks would say, pwnd.

And what is the great fear of Shaw's professor, Matthew Blaze?
Blaze worries about a "supply chain attack," in which a large number of JitterBugged keyboards hits the market.
Wait - how would a supply chain attack work? Nefarious Chinese manufacturers would mass produce JitterBuggedTM keyboards, get Dell and Apple to bundle them with their computers, send out bands of corporate ninjas to break in to every home and office in America to spy on clueless CEOs and heads of the local PTA to learn their user names (but not their passwords), reprogram the JitterBuggedTM keyboard, attach wires to their networks and wait for their black-hatted network geeks to inform their ChiCom masters to find out the password to their MySpace accounts?

We're not exactly quaking in our boots over that scenario. To top things off, the covert channel being used is so easily defeated (simply introduce some truly random jitter to the network stack) that a simple Microsoft Update (apt-get for you Linux types) could defeat this scheme overnight.

But we have to admit we're a little freaked out over the image of millions of Chinese ninjas peeking over our shoulders as we log into Playboy that we may just have to go back to subscribing to the paper copy. Thank God the US Postal Service has no security problems!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

And They Love Those Fruit-Flavored LifeSavers Most of All!

Today's Duh!scovery comes to us from the Applied Social Sciences department of Cornell University. According to the Associated Press:

Cookie lovers seem more likely to eat apples and other fruits than salty snacks, suggests a new study.

Fancy that - people who like sweets like sweet food! Even if it comes in the unappealing form of fresh fruit.

If true, that finding might be useful in encouraging healthier eating, according to the lead author of the study.

true? Isn't that why you had the study in the first place? Oh wait, there's that weasel word "suggests" again. Another Duh!scovery maxim - every study that "suggests" a result is really suggesting another research grant.

A group led by Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink looked at the eating habits of thousands of people and concluded the craving for something sweet spans both candy and fruit.

Hmm... a social sciences study led by a marketing professor? We smell trouble here. And look! So does the AP!

Dr. Beverly Tepper, a professor of food science at Rutgers University who does taste research, criticized the study's execution.

She said it was difficult to interpret the results since the study was vague in defining terms like "fruit lovers" or what specific salty and sweet snacks were considered. She questioned how meaningful the statistical difference was that researchers used to conclude there was a higher connection between eating sweets and fruits compared to salty snacks and fruits.

"I think it's an interesting idea," she said. "But I don't think this is the ideal approach to get at the question."

A Duh!scovery with suspect methodology? Say it ain't so!

Once again, we find ourselves looking at a study that attempts to "scientifically" validate common sense, for the higher purpose of getting people to do something they obviously don't want to do.

By better understanding how various foods, such as sweets, are linked by preference, strategies used to market such sweet snacks as candy bars, for example, could be incorporated into an educational program to increase the consumption of fruit.

The issue isn't that people who like sweets are unaware of fruit's sweet yummyness - they eat more fruit already - they simply prefer the sweet, sweet hit of pure sugar lovingly packed into candy and cookies. Compared to the mainline rush of these sucrose delivery vehicles, fruit is but a pale imitation.

We have to leave now - we're having a hard time resisting the allure of those deep-fried Snickers...