Why “obvious” science matters

I’ve written a number of articles on new research in a variety of medical fields. Several have demonstrated findings that might be called “common sense” or “logical.” Some people responded that the results of the research should have been obvious, implying that the research may not have needed done.

For example, I posted some research on bullying that showed that there were lingering effects on those who were bullied. The effects were still felt some forty years after the initial bullying, in some cases. Were the results logical? Yes. Did that mean that the research didn’t need done? No.

In another story, I presented information from research that showed that children can do quite well in non-traditional families. Again, to many of us, that result was plain as day. Unnecessary research? No. Why? Because, sometimes what is logical and makes common sense simply isn’t accurate.

Let me give an example from medical history that shows what should be “obvious” and correct, yet isn’t.

Until about the late 1970s, heart attack patients were treated differently than they are today. When someone had a heart attack he was treated in the hospital. Often after a long inpatient stay, he went home where all exercise was forbidden. The majority of patients were placed on bed rest. It was thought that the weakened heart muscle should be rested. Working, stair climbing, sex, sometimes even walking to the bathroom, were not permitted. Then, gradually, over a period of weeks to months, the patient was slowly allowed to become more mobile. Perhaps being allowed to use the bathroom. Then allowed to walk for a little each day. Making very gradual progress.

Over time, cardiologists, physiologists and other researchers started to look at questions about exercise post-heart attack. What began to be seen was that exercise wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. That gradually increasing levels of exercise in many patients was beneficial. Patients who exercised regularly could actually reduce their risk of having a future heart attack. And cardiac rehabilitation was born.

Magnus-Pyke-shouting-Science-smPeople who had heart attacks, stent placements for narrowed coronary arteries, patients who had coronary artery bypass grafts (CABGs) and some patients with other kinds of cardiac disease, may all benefit. If we could pluck a cardiologist (or primary care doctor, cardiac surgeon, or nurse) from the 1960s and show them patients with recent heart attacks or cardiac surgeries actively exercising, those time travelers might develop their own cardiac problems just from that sight. They’d be conflicted by their logic, telling them that the weakened heart needed lots of long-term rest, versus what their senses were telling them about these patients walking on treadmills and using exercise bicycles.* Without that research, we’d still have cardiac patients propped up in bed for weeks. So the common sense approach that “heart attack—>weakened heart—>rest” may seem logical, but it turns out to be false in many cases.

There are other examples in medicine where the logical turned out not to be true, and where common sense didn’t provide the optimal treatment.

The same holds for other research that produces results that yield an “obvious” conclusion. Let’s look at the study on bullying that I mentioned above. Many of us may know someone who was bullied and is suffering long-term effects. Perhaps he has depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. We might jump to the conclusion that everyone who was bullied suffers for decades. But some people who were bullied didn’t have persistent negative consequences. That’s important. If we can find out why they didn’t, see how they coped, perhaps we can help those who are being bullied now prevent problems in their future.

The study on children in non-traditional families also got a result that was probably obvious to many of us. We “know” that those children who are adopted by LGBT parents are loved. But we need statistics to show this to those who don’t “know” it like we do. Perhaps the data from this study won’t change the opinions of the Regnerus supporters, but it is important for those who aren’t committed to one camp or the other.

It’s important to consider the research in broader terms. For example, with the bullying research we could ask, will further work lead to new information that can improve others’ lives?
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*Cardiac rehabilitation also includes information on diet and weight management, as well as an exercise program.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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