Scientific Funding: Where do we draw the line?

Tall, Dark and Stable*, an article in the science and technology section of The Economist ed. July 14 – 20, 2012, discusses a study by David Kille, Amanda Forest, and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo, Canada. This team took 47 romantically unattached undergraduates and set half of them on a slightly unstable chair next to a slightly unstable table; the other half sat at identical, though stable, furnishings. They were then given a survey evaluating the perceived stability of various celebrity relationships. The wonky-chaired students perceived others’ relationships as less stable than the straight-chaired students did. Furthermore, the wonky-chaired students valued “stable” qualities in potential partners (like being funny or trustworthy) more than “unstable” qualities (like spontaneity and adventurousness). So, apparently, sitting on wonky furniture makes you value stability while enhancing paranoia (i.e. reducing their perception of stability)? 

I was unfortunately unable to find this study in Psychological Science, the journal it will be published in, so I can’t evaluate their scientific methods. But I CAN say that I am generally pretty skeptical of such experiments. I’m sure their data turned out exactly as they said it did, but is it repeatable with another set of students from another place? Is it repeatable with non-student volunteers? Did they balance people’s opinions out by giving the survey before and after placement on the wonky chair?

Furthermore, this article in The Economist mentions (without reference to the actual study) that people who are sitting in chairs leaning slightly to the left tend to be more receptive to liberal ideas. REALLY?! You mean Obama could rig the election by sending out his supporters on “night patrol” to break into people’s homes and sandpaper off a couple millimeters on the left of their chairs? Do right-leaning chairs make people more conservative? I see a huge scandal in the making.

In my search for Kille’s study in Psychology Today, I found another study by him: When Social Networking is Not Working (Psychological Science March 2012 vol. 23 no. 3 295-302). In this study, they were trying to determine whether social networks like Facebook were generally beneficial to people with low self-esteem–people who normally feel inhibited about providing personal information, and who therefore have unfulfilled social lives. They found that people with low self esteems generally posted comments with low positivity or high negativity, eliciting “undesirable responses.”

I found this interesting, because I have just finished a discussion about “real life” persona versus internet persona on a social network for book-lovers called LibraryThing. One of my online friends on LibraryThing is a very active member of the group and is well-liked. However, he doesn’t hide the fact that in “real life” he is anxious in society and is horribly shy. So, again, I have to wonder about the study…how meaningful is it? Certainly, I can see how the study’s conclusions would be true of some people, and not of others…but how much should we really trust psychology studies like this? Do they really add something helpful our sociological table? How much of our tax money is going in to paying for these studies?

The House has passed an amendment to cut the NSF funding to political science because they feel that political scientists are generally unsuccessful in predicting huge political changes in the world. (There’s a  recent New York Times opinion article by Jacqueline Stevens on this subject.) And I’m sort of starting to agree…perhaps we DO need to be a little more careful about what kind of studies our tax money is going towards. Perhaps we should use some of our money to create a study to determine criteria for potentially useful areas of research, versus potential dead ends.

It hurts me to say that, because I know the pain of trying to get funding for a project that has no immediate medical value. (I DID work in hibernation research for 4 years!) And I certainly don’t think huge cuts in scientific funding is what our economy needs right now. And I TOTALLY understand that sometimes studies that don’t have much potential (as gauged by the critical eye) serendipitously stumble upon the world’s greatest breakthroughs. So where do we draw the line? I don’t know, because I’m not an economist. I’m a scientist who really WANTS everyone to be funded…but is that really for the best? 

Ah! The torture of ambivalence! 😦

*I can’t get the link to work, but you can find it on The Economist’s webpage. Just search for the title Tall, Dark and Stable.