29 June 2005

Captain Obvious

While on my commute to class this morning (which, at about 4 miles, lasts all of ten blissful minutes), I actually listened to a couple of the radio DJs who do this segment called "Captain Obvious," where they tell about research published in real scientific journals that is painfully idiotic. Today was especially funny (and painful):

From the Journal of Economics & Psychology: researchers found that those who gave considerable thought to what kind of job they would take were more likely to experience job satisfaction than those who took jobs on a whim.

From some random health journal: college students are more likely than people in other age groups to drink more alcohol than they realize

From an Internal Medicine Journal: Patients who report unusual side effects to medications are more likely to be treated for these problems.

And, my favorite, in the Journal of Psychonomics (at least, I think that's what they said), a study revealing that it's easier to identify someone standing close to you than someone standing 450 feet away.

And now that the humor is done, time for my two cents. Research is important. I like doing research, and I think that intellectual curiosity is, obviously, very important. Many of my older relatives--who came from an era when you left home at 18, got a job or joined the army, got married if you weren't already, and didn't give much thought to college--can't understand why anyone would get a doctorate. They can sort of appreciate the idea of becoming a lawyer or doctor (the physician kind), simply because they know that (1) it makes a lot of money (2) they've needed doctors and lawyers for their own needs, so the comfort level is there (to the extent any non-lawyer can be comfortable around a lawyer) and (3) it makes a lot of money. Or, maybe the money thing isn't that important, since they're all pretty well off. Maybe it's more tied to reputation. But the few times I've mentioned a PhD to anyone in my extended family, they all get this look, as if PhDs are reserved for odd eccentrics who live out their lives as half-cracked bohemians and die of starvation. I try to point out that only English PhDs wind up like this (sorry Sarah :)), but to no avail. Given that I was this close (imagine me holding thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart) to trying an Economics PhD, that I have many friends who took the plunge, and that good professors are always in short supply (my relatives seemed to ahve forgotten about this), I feel the need to defend the honor of pursuing a doctorate.

So, being intellectually curious is good, and getting a doctorate can be very good for certain people, as well as benefiting society, yada yada. However, I think the above research, while funny, is also kind of sad. Granted, I haven't read these studies (I'll have to put that on my list of things to do, definitely), and they may be marginally useful, or even highly useful in unexpected ways in the future. Everything builds on everything else, or, as my 1L Contracts prof loved to say, "it's all a seamless web" as he interlaced his fingers (just to complete the image, he reminds me a little of Paul Giamatti, but thinner and more outlandish). Still, it seems that some of the "duh" projects, like those above, could be incorporated into more substantial work. Or maybe we should just all agree that some things--especially that distance-perception thing above--are simply givens, especially in this day and age. Now, if someone wants to examine why college students don't realize how much they're drinking (I doubt the explanation is too deep), then I suppose that's more justifiable. Maybe the litmus test should be that if you can tell people who respect academic pursuits with a straight face what you're working on and not be intellectually embarrassed for yourself, then what you're doing is respectable. And in the end, I guess my biggest concern is that for every research project done like those above, the kind that elicit a smirk from the casual observer, society's view of the worth of people who devote five to ten years of their life to a single-minded pursuit will diminish. So the next time you're considering researching why fewer swimsuits are sold in northern states, or something equally compelling, perhaps take a moment and reconsider.

[This would probably be better suited to a blog whose readers are grad students, but oh well.]


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