Lesson #4 | The Citizen’s Guide to Research

You can (study) dance if you want to

Last week, I saw an article by Lifehacker in my newsfeed:

The headline caught my intention: “Scientists discover…” (Remember what we discussed in Lesson #1?) Before I proceeded to check out the article, I was struck by the comment section, particularly this exchange:

If that’s a little hard to read, the gist is that a woman shared this article with her friend, and both were skeptical about the reporting of the article. So, they both went to look at the original research article. As you can see, one of the women commented, “The person [who] wrote that for Life Hacker totally twisted the reason for the original research!”

Major kudos to both of them for doing their homework! They weren’t satisfied with just the reporting by the Lifehacker writer, so they followed the source of the research.

I continued to peruse the comments, many of which asked the same questions:

  • What is the point of this research?
  • Who cares what ideal dancing is?
  • Why spend energy and funding on research like this when scientists can be solving cancer/climate change/etc.?

This kind of commentary happens a lot to researchers. It’s important to clarify that not all scientists study the same science. That may seem obvious, but it’s hard for people who aren’t in the professional research world to know who does what.

Here is the article referenced in the Lifehacker piece. (It’s open access!) It’s tagged in Scientific Reports as “human behavior” and “social behavior.” The lead researcher is Kristofer McCarty, from the Department of Psychology from Northumbria University. McCarty’s area of research likely doesn’t overlap with cancer research; from his other cited work, we can derive that his areas of research include behavior science, sexuality, and movement. Should we expect researchers like McCarty to answer all of the world’s most pressing questions?

Which leads us to ask: Is all research created equal?

There’s no definitive way to answer this question. Research is a diverse world with new disciplines emerging all the time. Researchers aren’t educated and trained to study every single scientific topic; that would be ineffective and virtually impossible. Typically, researchers like McCarty receive advanced degrees in a very, very specific area.

Instead, it’s worth asking: what makes researchers come up with research topics?

Well, these are some of the main reasons:

  • Industry demand and funding. The need to fund research can sometimes drive the topics that are researched. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; providing researchers with resources to run studies can help improve research processes and work toward breakthroughs faster. But it can prioritize some topics over others if industries intend to use particular findings for new products or developments.
  • Unexplored territory. Since researchers are experts in their fields, they know what has been researched and what still needs to be explored. Many researchers are inspired or motivated by the work of their predecessors, and base new studies off of existing questions.
  • Curiosity — and potential long-term impact. Even with expertise and a solid hypothesis in hand, researchers often can’t predict what impact their findings may have. For example, a study about female dance movements may lead to another study about the female cardiovascular system, which could lead to a new understanding of how to treat or identify diseases unique to this system… and so on. Simply leading the charge into unknown territory is partly what points researchers toward certain topics.

Many of the scientific advancements we rely on were the result of unexpected outcomes to science experiments. Check out this fascinating article in Popular Mechanics about accidents that turned into major discoveries.

That’s not to suggest that this is the inevitable outcome of all science. But science is about exploration and discovery, so it’s hard to say what is “necessary” or not. What we can all do collectively is support researchers of all disciplines, and encourage interdisciplinary study. This refers to researchers of separate disciplines — such as education and engineering — collaborating on research together.

(If you haven’t seen the movie Arrival yet, this is my official recommendation to go watch it. Not only is it a beautiful film, but it shows the importance of interdisciplinary research in a very unique way.)

This week’s lesson is a bit more theoretical than others, but it’s part of helping you think differently about research. The questions of the future will require creative problem solving, so who’s to say that a study about dance won’t unlock more secrets of the universe?

Image via Talking Humanities

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