News flash! Scientists prove that swallowing magnets is bad for you. Stop the presses! Smoking hurts wealth as well as health. Eureka! Faraway objects can be hard to see.
Every year, serious scientists undertake detailed, rigorous studies to prove things that seem-well, painfully obvious. Why bother? We reviewed scores of unshocking discoveries and asked the researchers who conducted the work to explain their motivations. Two main themes emerged. First, scientists don't assume how the world works; they test it. Common knowledge once held that meat spontaneously generated maggots. Then, in 1668, Italian physician Francesco Redi devised a set of investigative steps-what we now call an experiment-to prove wrong what everybody thought they knew.
Aside from testing untested observations, the other good reason to undertake no-duh studies, investigators told us, is that hard numbers often inspire social change. Simply put, scientists must quantify to justify.
And so we present 10 of the most apparently self-evident studies of recent years, along with a renewed appreciation for the cornerstone of all fact, obvious or not: scientific inquiry.
1. Combining Drugs and Alcohol is Bad For You
The Study: "Differential effects of cocaine and cocaine + alcohol on neurocognitive performance," Neurology, June 2000
The Findings: Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, neuropsychologist Karen Bolla of Johns Hopkins University measured the performance of 56 cocaine and alcohol abusers on a battery of cognitive tests, gauging concentration, verbal memory and other tasks. Her team found that two drugs are indeed worse than one, because they affect different brain functions.
Why Bother? "You could say that this is a "no-brainer' sort of study," Bolla admits. Still, she says, little science actually exists on how various drug cocktails affect the brain. "This research could improve the ways we treat addiction."
2. Gun-Toting Drivers are More Prone to Road Rage
The Study: "Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage," Accident Analysis and Prevention, Jan. 2006
The Findings: After cold-calling 2,459 American adults with an anonymous questionnaire, researchers from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center discovered that directing "indecent" gestures at other motorists was significantly more common among suburbanites, binge drinkers, Northeasterners, those who think most people can't be trusted and, yes, those who admitted that they keep guns in their vehicles.
Why Bother? The paper says it best: "If someone is giving you the finger, it may be useful to have some sense of whether or not they have a gun." Co-author Mary Vriniotis adds that states have recently loosened laws allowing motorists to drive while packing heat. The implication is that if lethal weapons are more readily
accessible, hostile driving incidents could turn ugly more often. Knowing which populations are prone to road rage could help policymakers devise awareness campaigns or other strategies to help curb its frequency.
3. Too Many Meetings Make You Grumpy
The Study: "The relationship between meeting load and . . . well-being of employees," Group Dynamics, March 2005
The Findings: Ever get the feeling that you'd get more work done if you weren't constantly attending meetings to discuss all the work to be done? Two social scientists from the universities of Minnesota and North Carolina hypothesized that meetings are analogous to "hassles," defined in stress-research literature as "annoying episodes in which daily tasks become more difficult or demanding than anticipated." The psychologists analyzed diary entries from 37 meeting-prone midlevel university workers over one week. They found that days chock-full of meetings left employees feeling stressed, exhausted and burned out.
Why Bother? Employers take heed: Since beleaguered workers may perform poorly, be tardy, or quit, the authors suggest that "organizations be sensitive to the number of meetings employees are required to attend." Managers could create "formal guidelines"
for meeting necessity (presumably not drafted at a meeting).
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.