A celebration (and mocking) of ridiculously useless research

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...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Breaking News! Fat People Eat Bad Food!

We could probably dedicate the entire blog to diet-related studies if we wanted to. They come out like clockwork, primarily so the late evening news has something for its "Heath Beat" segment. If you actually had to walk to the curb in order to find out the latest news in the diet arena, you'd expend enough calories to be skeletally-thin in no time.

According to the latest study, fat people eat less fiber and fresh fruit than people of normal-weight.

These findings suggest that the composition of a diet, especially low dietary fiber and fruit intake, play a role in the (development) of obesity.

The composition of a diet plays a role in getting fat? That's crazy talk!

Davis' group found marked differences in the dietary habits of the two groups. The overweight and obese subjects consumed more total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and less carbohydrate, specifically dietary fiber and complex carbohydrate, than normal weight subjects.

Until this study, we had always assumed that fat people ate simple, healthy foods in moderate portions and that it was all just a glandular thing. Now we learn that it's far more likely that they're eating deep-fried Snickers and Ding Dongs (Ring Dings for you East Coasters).

Look, it's pretty simple math here. One pack of Ding Dongs has the same number of calories as about 10 oranges or three dozen figs.

Unless you spend most of your life on the porcelain throne, pounding down apples like a Right Whale goes through krill, you simply cannot eat enough fibrous foods to make you fat.

If you look like Jabba the Hutt's bigger brother, you are obviously eating crap in amounts you shouldn't be eating. You don't need a government-funded study to tell you that.

Of course, we're totally into Atkins ourselves. It's the only way we can stay away from those deep-fried Snickers...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Siblings and Twins and Clones, Oh My!

Gentle Readers,

Our first Duh!scovery comes to us from the British Isles, in the form of this news report from the BBC.

It appears that Drs. Barbara Prainsack and Tim Spector, the latter from the Twins Research Unit of St Thomas' Hospital and the author of dozens of fascinating, real-science studies on twins, have published a study that suggests a "cloned human would probably consider themselves to be an individual."

Based on interviews with identical twins (Dr. Spector has bunches of them just lying about), they've determined that genetic clones (such as identical twins) amazingly consider themselves to be distinctly separate individuals! They apparently don't have eerie telepathic powers or share custody rights to their single, DNA-bonded "soul".

All of you worried about armies of soulless, zombie clones wreaking havoc on the Republic will have to find some other, non-Star Wars-related reason to oppose cloning. The clones themselves will look, think and act just like any of the other freaks of nature we call "humans".

Judging from the news article, this study may have hit a Duh!scovery trifecta:

  • The study is a social science study, but on a "real" science topic (cloning)
  • It appears to have been done primarily to allow researchers to comment about a controversial subject within the "hard news" section, rather than in the opinion pages
  • The study is so small (17 pairs of siblings - identical twins, fraternal twins and non-twins) that it's statistically meaningless

The article is so filled with weasel words ("might", "probably", "suggests") that it seems like an op-ed anyway. It's mostly just an appeal to authority, a way to tell us that:

[T]his...reveals how we should not have any prejudiced feelings about the idea of genetically identical individuals living amongst us.

I think those of us who've ever known identical twins (not necessarily in the biblical sense, although that would be...hot!) could have told you everything revealed in this Duh!scovery. It can pretty much be summed up in eleven words:

Identical twins are clones. You aren't afraid of twins, are you?

Actually, identical twins are even "clonier" than the Dolly the Sheep-type clones the "rubes" are apparently all freaked out about. Dolly-type clones only share nuclear DNA (the type floating around the cell's nucleus). Other types of DNA (like mitochondrial), RNA and already-expressed proteins come from the egg donor, not the clonee. The clone also is raised in a completely different uterine environment - different levels of maternal hormones, antibody factors, nutrition and the like will undoubtedly make "clones" even less like each other than identical twins who shared all of the above but still look (fingerprints, irises, freckle and mole patterns) and act differently.

No matter how hard we try, we'll never be able to mass-produce copies of Jango Fett. Which is hella sweet, as it means my first edition, shrink-wrapped action figure will totally keep its value!

Welcome to Duh!scoveries

Have you ever read a newspaper or magazine article about some important new scientific finding and your immediate reaction was "Duh, who doesn't know that?" Then you've found a Duh!scovery!

Duh!scoveries can be found all over the world and in every field of science, but you'll generally find them skulking about most often in these areas:

  • The social sciences
  • Humanities
  • Economics
In many cases, this research is somewhat valid - it seeks to formalize or quantify "common" understandings about the real world that everyone intuitively knows is true but may be hard pressed to prove (half the Nobel Prizes in Economics seem to be awarded for this kind of research). In other cases, the research is new and novel, but the press releases simplify the results to such a degree that the resulting miasma of platitudes and boilerplate might make Einstein seem a simpleton.

There are also, however, plenty of papers, studies, journal articles and conference reports that are so brain-poundingly obvious that their only possible justification was to keep someone alive in the "publish or perish" tenure track at some publicly funded university. Many such studies appear to be designed simply to "educate the rubes" about some controversial topic in a way that bypasses the opinion pages and lands directly in the health or news section.

We also suspect that sometimes grant money is just too darned tempting to pass up, even if you don't have anything really clever to say. We empathize (about the clever bit).

This blog has been created as an outlet to both celebrate and ridicule this bastard step-child of science. We are quite enamored of the real stuff - Darwin rules! - but cannot stand idly by when a Nobel Prize is awarded to someone figuring out that the seller of a car knows more than buyers about the quality of his car. Asymmetric Information, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics for 2001. Look it up!

Just imagine - up until the year 2001, you could have so totally scammed your econ professor into buying your personally dedicated, signed copy of Das Kapital! Damn, the money we could've made...

As you can see, the snark level of this blog will be quite high and we will be ever vigilant in our quest to mock the "leading" researchers of our time. In our eyes, ill-gotten fame can be a cruel mistress, but we shall always endeavor to keep our postings in the vein of light-hearted jests.

Well, maybe...