At last, a new study has confirmed what we’ve long known: We are being bombarded by studies, so much so that researchers themselves are struggling to keep up with the pace and produce quality peer-reviewed reports.
We’re confused by what studies are telling us, and the people doing the studies keep finding themselves blind-sided, and out-researched by other researchers’ findings. We are all in study hell.
Authors of the new study on studies (PDF) note a “decay” in researchers’ attention in the related work of other influential scientists, whose studies they would otherwise cite in their own work. They write that this decay in attention is worsening, “indicating that scholars ‘forget’ more easily papers now than in the past.”
The media has always benefited from disseminating scientific studies that find breakthroughs in medicine or health. They either comfort us or provoke panic, and the big ones have tremendous influence. They alter readers’ lifestyle choices and drive consumer marketing trends. All of this makes them click bait (before the Internet, people rushed to buy whatever newspaper first reported the link between, say, smoking and cancer.)
But these days, it seems, we’re completely study-obsessed.
Or perhaps the media is obsessed with driving us mad, curating each and every one—for our health, well-being, and financial worth.
In adapting to the information age, we’ve developed insatiable appetites for content and shorter attention spans. Media outlets are churning out study reports as well as features, memes, and tweets to meet demand—and beat out their competitors.
It’s no surprise then that researchers are also adjusting to today’s volume of information, along with its short shelf-life. Finnish researchers highlight an “attention economy” in the field of science, “in which those seeking attention through the production of new knowledge are rewarded by being cited by their peers, whose own standing is measured by the amount of citations they receive.”
They attribute the “decay” in researchers’ attention to “the much larger pool of papers among which attention has to be distributed…which inevitably accelerates the turnover of papers, due to the finite capacity of scholars to keep track of scientific literature.”
In short, everyone’s drowning in studies. The media traffics in them. And researchers are churning out more studies rather than devoting themselves to longer, more in-depth ones. According to this new study, their attention decay mirrors everyone else’s in the information age: They have a “limited” ability to remain focused and intrigued by their subject material.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are dizzy trying to absorb all of this contradictory data. And we also lose interest pretty quickly.
We wake up to Natalie Morales on the Today show discussing a new report on an old issue: hormone therapy helps treat symptoms of menopause, though not without some risks. Then The New York Times’ homepage greets us with a “large new study” that says a vegetarian diet may help stave off colon cancer. Across the pond, The Times of London tells us that both coffee and tea could improve heart health. And this website reports that depression is costing the U.S. $44 billion per year, according to new statistics from the World Health Organization.
That’s only a small sampling from the past two days, though they all confirm, more or less, what previous studies have shown. Many readers, having read the Times’s report, will indulge without guilt—indeed with a certain cocksure defiance—in a second or third cup of coffee this week.
Others will probably eat vegetarian dinners. Still others will likely read The Daily Beast’s story on America’s depression epidemic at their desks and, instead of doing work, will browse shrinks on ZocDoc, debating whether to book an appointment or wait out a particularly severe case of the winter blues.
The trouble with many studies today is that they either reiterate received wisdom or contradict it entirely. Stress, we’re told, isn’t good for us at all: Chronic stress may lead to depression, and workplace stress is killing us!
Excuse my cynicism and simplification of some of these studies. I was more easily seduced by them five years ago, partially because they weren’t as ubiquitous, but mostly because I was an ignorant fool. Splashy headlines won me over.
If one study said coffee was good for me, I considered it almost indisputable. Earlier studies correlating coffee consumption with premature death were evidently obsolete.
What we don’t pay attention to—as every day brings a new, terrifying or baffling statistical avalanche—and should pay attention to is the methodology and mechanics of evaluation which the researchers have employed. Why should one study supercede another?
Why on earth are people researching whether sleeping on my side makes me a better person? We are drowning in research, and fascinating statistics handily dropped into our morning news broadcasts, but to what end and purpose?
These days, between the bogus studies conducted by companies trying to promote their products and the lauded but contradictory clinical studies, between the foolish ones and the alarmist ones, I don’t trust any of them. I’m elated by their claims at one moment and anxious at the next.
Perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on studies, or an asterisk at the end of each article in reporting them, or a coda on-screen: “Believe this if you must. There will likely be another one tomorrow that refutes it.”