The 9 Most Pointless Scientific Studies of 2013, Plus Some That Were Just Plain Wrong

By Gabrielle Jonas on December 18, 2013 2:44 PM EST

This past year's scientific research was filled with plenty of cringe-worthy, self-evident, and pointless studies. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Some of the most prestigious universities in the world this past year engaged in studies that revealed the obvious, as well as ones that offered up conclusions that were just plain wrong. MIT, Harvard, Oxford, and others squandered mental capital as well as expensive equipment to prove their theorems.

1. Are You Sitting Down? Students are Bored In Class

Researchers found that all high school and college students experience some level of boredom, as do people reading the results of this study. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal and City University of New York collected data from 63 university students (mean age 24) and high school students (mean age of 17 years), just the age at which one would expect those students to be most bored at school. An associate at the University of Konstanz in Germany, psychologist Thomas Goetz, even discovered a new kind of boredom, called apathetic boredom, which he writes is more intense than anger or joy. He describes it in "Types of Boredom: An Experience Sampling Approach" in the journal Motivation and Emotion, probably not itself a page-turner.

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2. Tongue-Twisters Say Something Unintelligible About the Brain

Researchers at MIT think how people negotiate tongue-twisters will provide clues as to how the brain plans language. Some people stumbling over tongue-twisters say the first two sounds of successive words almost at the same time, while others say them in quick succession. Flying that theoretical banner, MIT psychologist Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel and colleagues from four other institutions, including Wellesley College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles had volunteers say, "pad kid poured curd pulled cod," many times over. Say: "Universities use monies on meaningless pursuits and pointless inquiry," five times in rapid succession.

3. Using Genome Mapping to Explain White Gorilla's Fur (Hint: Think, "Incest")

Spanish researchers mapped a Barcelona Zoo gorilla's entire genome to find out how it became albino. They found its parents shared 12 percent of their genes, consistent with DNA matching an uncle and a niece. It's good to know that genome mapping is being used to answer such a socially pressing question as why a zoo gorilla has white fur.

4. Wait, Obesity Isn't Healthy?

Researchers at the Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in Toronto wanted to see if there was such a thing as being obese, but otherwise metabolically healthy. Toward that end, they evaluated eight studies which had followed people for 10 years, flagging those whom had had cardiovascular events or died. The researchers divided the groups into normal weight, overweight and obese.

"Metabolically healthy obese individuals had increased risk for events compared with metabolically healthy normal-weight individuals," Dr. Caroline K. Kramer, of the Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes, wrote in the ensuing article, "Are Metabolically Healthy Overweight and Obesity Benign Conditions?: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis," published in the December issue of the  Annals of Internal Medicine. She and her team concluded that "compared with metabolically healthy normal-weight individuals, obese persons are at increased risk for adverse long-term outcomes even in the absence of metabolic abnormalities, suggesting that there is no healthy pattern of increased weight."

Maybe the researchers wanted to prove what the medical community already knew, but what people suffering from obesity don't want to know.

5. Paleontology, X-Rated

Proving once and for all that scientific curiosity knows no bounds, five paleontologists published an article announcing their finding of a fossil that showed two insects caught in the act of copulation. The fossil was from the Middle Jurassic period of northeastern China, making it the earliest record of mating insects ever found. The authors didn't dig it up, though: They found the insects in samples in a museum in Beijing. "They exhibit belly-to-belly mating position as preserved, with male's aedeagus inserting into the female's bursa copulatrix," lead author Shu Li, from One Key Laboratory of Insect Evolution & Environmental Changes, Capital Normal University, in Beijing, wrote in PLOS ONE. "Our findings, consistent with those of extant froghoppers, indicate froghoppers' genitalic symmetry and mating position have remained static for over 165 million years."

6. Teenagers Lie About Sex: Say it Isn't So!

Young men tend to over-report their sexual histories by one partner, and young women tend to subtract one, Ohio State University psychology professor Terri Fisher found. She surveyed 293 heterosexual female and male college students — average age 18 — about their sexual histories. Her paper, published in the journal Sex Roles, claims that when attached to a fake polygraph test, both became more truthful. At least, that's what Fisher thought, as there was no way of checking the veracity of those statements either. 

7. Nine Social People Have Different Brains Than Nine Not-As-Social People

People who have a wide circle of friends and who thrive in social situations might have more white-matter pathways in their brain. "It's unknown whether their brains were predisposed to social engagements or whether larger social networks prompted brain development," Oxford University neuroscientist Maryann Noonan said. Her research, conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute, involved scanning the brains of 18 participants and determining the size of their social network, based on the participants' versions of the number of social interactions they reported having during the previous month.

It's a flimsy conclusion that's drawn from comparing only nine allegedly social people with nine allegedly non-social people, and a continuum of sociality would make for even smaller samples. Moreover, how could one verify the respondents were reporting their social life accurately (see above study on misreporting of sexual social life)? How was the neurologist able to rule out the thousands of other possibilities for increased white matter in the brain? And since the white matter of the brain is composed of nerve fibers and myelin, it may just be that the social gadflies have more of the fatty sheath wrapped around nerve fibers for insulation, rather than for connectivity. Not so impressive. 

8. You Say You Want to Kill Yourself? Here, Have a Cup of Coffee!

Those who drink two or four cups of coffee a day are half as likely to commit suicide, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry. Nutritionists number-crunched 200,000 people's caffeine consumption over a period of 20-year period. Harvard researchers found was those who took in 400 milligrams of caffeine a day — roughly two to three cups of coffee — were 50 percent less likely to commit suicide than those who didn't.

"We identify caffeine as the most likely candidate of any putative protective effect of coffee," wrote lead researcher Michel Lucas, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. Coffee consumption may be linked to a lower suicide rate because caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and may also act as a mild antidepressant by increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, he wrote. Or, it could just be so enjoyable to drink that people contemplating suicide have second thoughts. Be that as it may, people shouldn't necessarily increase their coffee or caffeine intake as a result of their findings. Lucas wrote. With all the nutritional fiascos that are plaguing the contemporary corpus, isn't there a more socially relevant study with which Harvard nutritionists could have busied themselves?

9. Perhaps These Floridian Researchers Needed a Good Excuse to Hit the Slopes

A group of researchers mostly based in Florida found that skiing makes skiers happy. The looked at three factors "influencing satisfaction":  pleasure, flow and involvement, then collected data from 279 participants who enjoyed skiing and or snowboarding. "Results from bootstrap test indicated that direct and total effects from flow had the highest predictive power on satisfaction," Hyun-Woo Lee, of the Department of Sport Management, Florida State University, at Tallahassee,  wrote in the article "Rediscovering the Positive Psychology of Sport Participation: Happiness in a Ski Resort Context," adding that "in contrast, pleasure showed higher explanatory power on subjective experiences of flow and meaning, and influenced satisfaction only by indirect effects through those elements."

The article, which appeared in the journal, Applied Research in Quality of Life, concluded that, "Together, these findings support the research model synthesizing the behavioral constructs of sport participation with subjective well-being perspectives."  Lee and his colleagues might have had to ski down one more slope to conclude, "Moreover, the expanded model in a sporting context further evidences the functional roles of the orientations to happiness by results consistent with extant literature of positive psychology."

And in A Whole Category of it's Own: Less Infant Eye Contact Indicates Autism. Sorry, Make That More Eye Contact. Actually, Not Sure.

Neurologists made a sensation last month with a study they said showed that infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) show a decline in eye fixation from two to six months of age, a pattern not observed in infants who do not develop ASD. "These observations mark the earliest known indicators of social disability in infancy," Warren Jones and Ami Klin of Emory University, wrote in a letter in Nature. "These observations mark the earliest known indicators of social disability in infancy," they wrote, offering hope for an early intervention that could prevent autism from further developing. But a closer look at the study revealed there is in fact very little difference between babies who do and don't develop autism in terms of their gaze.

Jon Brock, whose research at Macquarie University in Sydney focuses on cognitive developmental disorders including autism, argues in his blog, Cracking The Enigma, the studies' own  "results show the exact opposite" of what the authors claimed, and that the study was rife with an " collection process" and  "convoluted...analysis." Wrote Dr. Brock, "When the results weren't what they wanted, that autistic children had less experiences of eye contact, they tried to claim that future autistic children tracked less. But it's unclear from their study whether some of the many different tracking incidents can't be tracked to one child."

Brock found that babies in the study who developed ASD exhibited the same amount of eye contact at age six months as babies who didn't develop ASD. More damning though, was that at two months. ASD infants actually made more eye contact. "There's a tantalizing and intriguing suggestion that ASD babies may actually begin life with excessive eye gaze," he wrote. Great Britain's National Health Service also urged skepticism when interpreting this study. "The results should be interpreted with caution though, as it took place in a highly artificial environment," the health care system noted on its website. "Eye contact was measured in response to a video of a woman and not a real, live person, and there may have been many other confounding factors that could have accounted for the results. It suggests that there is in fact very little difference between babies who do and don't develop autism in terms of their eye gaze (at least when the eyes are on a computer screen)."

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