April 4 2009
If there is one great joy to be derived from scanning the scientific literature over a week, it is the barrage of studies that challenge your beliefs and preconceptions, demonstrating the weakness of intuition: because if we knew all the answers to start with, there’d be no point in doing research.
On an abstract level, there’s a good short report in the journal Cortex, where some researchers in Bologna demonstrate the spectacular hopelessness of memory. One morning in 1980, a bomb exploded in Bologna station: 85 people died, and the clock stopped ominously showing 10.25, the time of the explosion. This image became a famous symbol for the event, but the clock was repaired soon after, and worked perfectly for the next 16 years. When it broke again in 1996, it was decided to leave the clock showing 10.25 permanently, as a memorial. The researchers asked 180 people familiar with the station, or working there, with an average age of 55, about the clock: 173 knew it was stopped, and 160 said it always had been, ever since 1980. What’s more, 127 claimed they had always seen it stuck on 10.25, ever since the explosion, including – fairly excellently – all 21 railway employees. In a similar study published last year, 40% of 150 UK participants claimed to remember seeing closed circuit television footage of the moment of the explosion on the bus in Tavistock Square on July 7th 2005. No such footage exists.
But that’s pretty abstract. How about something practical from the Journal of the American Medical Association? Longstanding homeless people with severe alcohol problems often have many medical and psychiatric problems, it’s very difficult to initiate and maintain change in their lifestyles, and people worry – perhaps selfishly – that they cost a lot of money, both for healthcare and for criminal justice issues. Society’s response is often to incarcerate them, or offer hostel accommodation where alcohol is forbidden, perhaps unrealistically. Sometimes, perhaps, you may not be able to force someone to stop drinking.
So researchers took 95 homeless people with severe alcohol problems, put them into apartments where they could drink all the alcohol they wanted, and compared them against 39 “waiting list controls”, who experienced the pre-existing services as if there was no new initiative.
Adding up the financial burdens on the state, participants had overall costs of $4066 per person per month initially, which decreased to $1492 after 6 months and $958 after 12 months in housing. Oddly, the people in the project showed substantial declines in drinking despite there being no requirement even to reduce their drinking to remain housed, and although 9 died during the study, this is consistent with what you would expect from that group. Miracles, very sadly, are hard to come by.
This kind of research is at the interface of medicine and social policy: it’s an accident of history that a few people from a science and public health background got involved in the project and did a trial, to get evidence to see if the policy hunch was correct. Robust trials on social policy could happen routinely, if politicians weren’t scientifically ignorant and unhelpfully terrified of the possibility that they might have to state – with simple, constructive honesty: “well, we tried this idea, in all good faith, but it didn’t work so we’re dropping it now”.
Or lastly, at entirely the opposite end of the rigour spectrum, you could simply commission research to bolster your preconceptions, like the new survey on Auschwitz to promote the DVD release of a film called “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”. 25% of pupils aged 11-16 did not know the purpose of Auschwitz, said the research. Only 37% knew the precise figure: 6 million were killed in the holocaust. There was an attack on children and schools for their ignorance, since the holocaust is on the National Curriculum.
Interestingly, the researchers were simply asking for specific details at the wrong time. The holocaust is indeed covered at Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum during year 9, the school year in which children turn 14. If you ask questions of children aged 11 to 16, and they don’t all know all the specific details from this horrific period in recent history, which they are taught at age 14, then that is not a reflection of stupidity in children or their teachers: it is a reflection of stupidity in the researchers.
This incompetent non-research – another nonsense survey – was not published at all, and it will not be, and with very good reason, because it tells us nothing. But it is also the only story, from the three I have mentioned today, that has received mainstream media coverage: in the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Mail, no less. That is the news.
References to papers in the links above, and as ever Gimpy was excellent on the Auschwitz survey. If you enjoy these ideas then The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert is cracking, and all about how the whole point of science is that it tests – and may therefore challenge – your assumptions about the world.