I’m not writing about a disease this week. I know this, you don’t have to comment and chide on me about it. It’s not because I’ve run out of diseases to write about, but because my brain doesn’t work in a particularly directed kind of way sometimes. This is what it came up with this week.
I was reading my feed the other day and an article called “Having oral sex increases likelihood of intercourse among teens” came up. Naturally, the first thing that came to mind was “No shit”. The second was “How could someone get paid for researching this? With people dying everyday from both curable and incurable diseases, how can you justifiably look at what teenagers do with their private bits, then publish the completely obvious results?”.
The study showed that teenagers who engaged in oral sex by year 10 had a 50% chance of losing their virginity by the end of year 11, compared to 16% of teens who didn’t have oral sex by year 10; an obvious conclusion to anyone who went to high-school.
This study isn’t alone in the obviousness of its results (Thanks to NCBI ROFL for making compilation of this list easier):
“Spouses with identical residential addresses before marriage: an indicator of pre-marital cohabitation.“, showing that the majority of English and Welsh newly-weds live together before marriage;
“Don’t want to show fellow students my naughty bits: medical students’ anxieties about peer examination of intimate body regions at six schools across UK, Australasia and Far-East Asia”, showing that first year med students don’t like their classmates formally examining their genitals and breasts.
“Determinants and consequences of female attractiveness and sexiness: realistic tests with restaurant waitresses.“, showing that more attractive waitresses get more tips.
Scientists usually take their money from taxpayers to do their research. So, do these studies that show ridiculously obvious conclusions deserve your money?
You could find most of this information out just by asking your friends. Well, that’s basically what these studies are doing; only instead of asking your 50 friends, they ask hundreds or thousands of people’s friends. This confirms that the conclusions are not just some crazy facts that only affect you and your strange companions, but actually a more generalised phenomenon.
Another complaint is that the information gathered from these studies has no value. However, in many cases, there just is no way of predicting what impact a study might have. Who would have imagined that Einstein’s theory of general relativity would make GPS possible?
Also, even the most obvious assumptions are exactly that – assumptions – until they are formally investigated. A theory can fall apart on one faulty assumption, so testing these “obvious facts” is necessary for rigor in science. Historically, testing of these established assumptions has led to surprising results from big things like the disproving the humoural theory of disease (where diseases were blamed on an imbalance of the 4 bodily humours) and Newtonian mechanics down to “Chew on this: No support for facilitating effects of gum on spatial task performance.“.
In short, intuition can only drive you so far. The world is weird. We are living on a giant ball of dirt spinning incomprehensibly quickly around a ball of hydrogen burning at a million degrees. Most of the cells in our body are bacterial. The compaction of the DNA in each of your cells is like stuffing 10000 miles of spaghetti into a basketball. These aren’t things that could have been imagined in ancient times. It was the testing of our foundational assumptions that have eventually led to this information. These studies can be as important as our huge Large Hadron Collider-type experiments.
Song, A., & Halpern-Felsher, B. (2010). Predictive Relationship Between Adolescent Oral and Vaginal Sex: Results From a Prospective, Longitudinal Study Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.214