Shrimp on a treadmill

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Sep 29 2013, 09:19am hrs
Two years ago, a US government-funded study was roundlyand rightlycriticised when it purported to show the impact of a shrimp trying to negotiate a treadmill. The study, which cost $3 million, was meant to measure how shrimps respond to changes in their habitat. A few months later, it was revealed that another study funded with $10 million of public money involved a number of scientists and researchers examining adult male penis sizes. The little-known study group said they were about to publish a study on penis size and its link to the risk of sexually-transmitted disease. Such studies routinely appear in the pages of newspapers where items of a lighter nature are featured, and it raises serious questions about the value of such studies, especially when it involves public money.

Just last week, Indian newspapers quoted a study which showed that the quality of fatherhood may be related to testicle size. The study, carried out by Emory University researchers, went on to say men with smaller testicles tend to be more nurturing fathers, more willing to change a diaper than their counterparts toting larger testes. What researchers played down was that they had studied a mere 70 fathers to come up with their conclusions. In fact, the list of such studies has only grown longer. With $6,66,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine paid scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someones intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer. It didnt.

Such seemingly meaningless, even frivolous, studies raise questions on how so much money goes into studies that are merely attention-grabbing as opposed to finding a cure for cancer or AIDS. Critics say this happens mainly in the developed world, where the competition for such funds is pretty fierce and hence a lot of lobbying takes place, often leading to important research projects not being funded or under-funded in favour of those that seem ludicrous in comparison. A team of researchers in Melbourne, Australia, have been following 700 children for five years now, from the time they were infants, in order to discover whether young children who were breastfed as infants scored higher on intelligence tests than bottle-fed ones. The study is still incomplete, but it has already cost millions of dollars and fails to take into account other factors that may have had an impact on levels of intelligenceschool, homework, parenting, teachers, etc.

A similar Australian study, published in the journal Pediatrics, examined the issue of pre-school-age children who stutter. The researchers have been following more than 1,600 children since they were eight months old. The relevance, or lack of it, is diluted by the fact that the study was published in a credible journal. The truth is such journals are also tempted to publish headline-grabbing items, no matter how serious or non-serious the subject. In other cases, the list of sponsors may hold the key as to the focus of the study. A recent one in the UK surveyed 2,000 parents and published their findings which said that only one in three British parents play with their own children since the others were too exhausted. It was sponsored by a company that owns a chain of fitness centres that advertise themselves as the best way to boost energy levels. The other method is to play on the obsession that people have with such sensational-sounding surveys. One such found that football fans ate more junk food following defeats and decreased following victories. Such items make for great conversation in social gatherings. Like a new study, funded by the American National Institute of Health for measuring nicotine exposure in toenail clippings. Such expenditure in a time of economic crisis only serves to underline the woeful lack of priority in such areas.

The French, however, may have taken the cake, and eaten it too. A recent study in Paris found that women whose names end with an a have more sexual partners in life than those whose names dont. Leading the hit parade of sexually productive names is Laura (average of 9.7 partners), Tania (9.6) and Lola (9.5). By contrast, women named Therese averaged 1.1 lovers, just behind 1.2 for Francoise. The probable reason for the libidinous powers of a was not provided but it hardly mattered. The headline was enough and it was, predictably, front-page news.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express