Why Do We Test Things We Already Know?

When the results of new scientific or sociological studies are published, a common response is, “Why in the world did we waste money to study that?” Sometimes it’s because the topic seems so obscure as to have no obvious merit, though within its field it may give invaluable insight or could cast light on other problems in an unexpected way. Other times, the study is testing something that seems like common knowledge, and the results seemingly confirm what everyone knew all along. Why is it so important to perform this sort of research?

For example, it seems fairly obvious to most of us that racists and homophobes are stupid. There’s really no logical reason to hate people based on who they love or the fact that they happen to have genes that tell their skin to produce extra pigment. But is there a scientific reason that unintelligent people are more likely to be prejudiced, or do we just think they’re dumb because it allows us to feel superior? The only way to find out is to actually research the phenomenon, and fortunately people have done just that. A study published in January 2012 found that, on average, low-intelligence children grow up to become more overtly prejudiced adults, and that low-intelligence adults tend to align themselves with more conservative political ideologies. Unintelligent people are also more likely to surround themselves with people who have similar backgrounds and hold similar views, because it’s mentally taxing to deal with people who are different.

Studying the link between intelligence and intolerance is important because if we know why stupidity correlates with prejudice, we can actually try to devise ways to teach tolerance. We know that exposure to different kinds of people and different belief systems can lessen prejudice over time because people fear what they don’t know and are more likely to believe stereotypes if they don’t have any personal experience that shows them to be false. “Racists/homophobes are stupid” isn’t just an easily dismissed ad hominen attack; it’s a statement that has solid, unbiased research backing it up. It gives us an understanding that more needs to be done to reach out to children before prejudicial beliefs can take hold.

Other subjects continue to be studied long after there’s scientific consensus about them. For example, most of us can all agree that global warming and evolution are real. We don’t really need to prove them correct anymore, but we keep researching those topics so we can nail down the specifics of how they work. We look at historic climate trends so we can figure out what causes short-term temperature swings versus what leads to more lasting effects. We look at the fossil record to see how plants and animals have changed over time and to see how humans evolved from earlier hominid forms. Sometimes we learn things we didn’t expect, like the fact that billions of people have some DNA that came from Neanderthals and that early Homo sapiens may have interbred with other closely related species as well.

Perhaps the most important reason to test what we “know” is that common knowledge can be wrong. For example, ask pretty much any parent and they’ll tell you that their kids get hyper after eating sugar. However, at least twelve different studies have found that there’s no link between sugar consumption and hyperactive behavior. Rather, the belief was so ingrained that if the parents in one study were told that their child had been given a sugary drink, they rated him or her as more hyper than parents who thought their kids hadn’t had sugar (regardless of whether the kids had actually had a sugary drink or one with artificial sweetener). The myth colors our perception and makes us blame the sugar in the birthday cake when kids may actually be super excited just to be at a party. It may seem silly to study something that seems so obviously true, but it’s important to look for actual data to back up our beliefs.

Even long-established science can be overturned if new information proves it to be incorrect. Our solar system has four small rocky planets relatively close to the sun and four much larger gas giants farther away. Because they had no other information to go on, astronomers had long believed that all solar systems would be set up in a similar way. Now that new technology has allowed us to detect planets circling hundreds of other stars, we’ve realized that very few solar systems are similar to our own. As another example, most of us probably learned about plate tectonics in elementary school, but when my parents were geology majors in the early 70s, it was a relatively new theory that was by no means widely accepted yet and barely merited a couple of paragraphs in textbooks. Scientists are still trying to figure out the exact means by which plates move.

Of course, it can be frustrating when researchers keep testing well-established facts over and over. Countless studies have disproven the notion that vaccines are in any way responsible for the rise in autism diagnoses, but we keep wasting valuable resources to answer the same questions over and over. It’s especially infuriating because some people are so convinced of a link that they see every study that disproves it as a conspiracy but are willing to overlook glaring problems with the very few studies that have purported to find any sort of link. We’d be better served to spend the money on pretty much anything else, but the subject has been hijacked and so we repeatedly come to the same conclusion – that there is no difference in autism rates among children who were vaccinated and children who were not. In general, however, studying propositions that seem obviously true can be advantageous.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Test Things We Already Know?”

  1. Continued scientific research will either confirm or refute assumptions. It took centuries to disprove theories like “the earth is the center of the universe”, and “skull size and shape indicate intelligence”, and “you can make gold out of other metals”. It took a lot of development in the scientific process (and greater understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc) to make those discoveries. I can deal with science news that seems to confirm “common knowledge” (like the vaccine-autism lack of link), because I know that those studies involve a lot more than the end result.

    Even if I don’t understand every aspect of every study, because I have an English degree.

  2. I think the issue here is that people expect from science that every result is Big and Extraordinary. Things they can’t do or create themselves, and probably are ‘disappointed’ if it isn’t fancy. How else can we show that we’re part of a people that do Big and Extraordinary things if they aren’t there?
    It’s also about how science is viewed, of course. How many people have a clue about what it’s all about.

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