Scientists need to study every assumption, gathering data to back up what most people think of as 'common sense'. Sometimes this data upsets conventional wisdom. Other times? Not so much.

Outside of movies, comics, and CSI, scientists generally have a tough life. Yes, they get to study a subject they love, but they also have to wade through reams of data and do tedious research to prove every little claim. There are times sifting through this sand helps scientists find gold. Even if they don't, they've done a lot of work to verify what most people assume. That doesn't change the fact that they're often stuck with publishing a handful of sand. Some weeks are especially gritty. This has been one of them.


First there were a couple of releases, by respected institutions, that laid out what seem to be tautologies. They don't establish new knowledge so much as repeating definitions. A recent study done in Sweden and published in PLoS ONE was titled, "The Influence of Personality Traits on Reported Adherence to Medication in Individuals with Chronic Disease." It was reported that the study showed that a person's personality - the regular emotional and social traits that define them - affects how well they stay on medication regimes. Looking at the actual study shows the authors slipped the word 'reported' in there, which shows that this study reflects that a human being's personality will affect how they respond to questions about their personal habits. Amazingly enough, this was not the only study that came out examining that subject this week. Another study, by the Rand Corporation, showed that depression negatively affected how chronic pain patients managed their medication. In other words, an illness that makes it hard to function - makes it hard to function.

Other science institutions turned a keen eye to child rearing. Oregon State University showed that marital instability is linked to sleep problems in young children. The Society for Research in Child Development took over from there, showing that teens erroneously believe that their peers are allowed more freedom than they are. So if the two people a young child most depends on are fighting, the kid won't be able to sleep - even if they're very young. And teens think that everyone in the world has it better than they do. (Teens may not be alone in that. Perhaps someone should conduct another study.)


There are also studies that, when looked at in-depth by people in the field, can provide helpful guidelines. But on the surface they resemble the kinds of parlor tricks that carnival psychics resort to. "You are often a social person, but you can retreat into your shell." "You enjoy a lot of excitement, but also sometimes like things to be calm." These phrases are a psychic's way of saying, "You might be something, or not, but either way, please give me money."

It's hard to prove things conclusively, and it takes many years. Scientists have to give a lot of updates and write a lot of papers on their progress, but they can't overstate their case. So science people have to hedge their bets with using 'may' a lot. Everyone's done it. But sometimes these kind of reports tip their hands a little too much, as with a recent University of North Carolina study on colon cancer screenings. They found circumstances that could make the test useful, and others that meant it wasn't. They published it in the Archives of Internal Medicine, but issued a press release under the headline, "Blood test for colon cancer screenings beneficial for some seniors, but not for many others." Now that is playing it very safe. Another paper cast a similarly wide net when they published a paper which showed that dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and their subtypes were common in women over 85. So a woman over 85 years of age might have dementia, or mild cognitive impairment, or something in between, or not. They found, in the study, that any of these symptoms was more likely as the women headed towards ninety years of age.

But to get the most delicious wording, we have to return to the Archives of Internal Medicine. They sent out a survey asking clinicians and officials what they thought of pharmaceutical companies shouldering a large portion of the burden of continuing medical education in the United States. They found that while almost ninety percent of doctors thought this caused bias in the medical world, less than half were willing to pay increased fees in education. The press release that accompanied the publication of these results: "Health Professionals Appear Concerned About Bias in Commercially-Funded Continuing Medical Education." That is either one of the most carefully worded releases to be found, or one hell of a slap, and I honestly can't figure out which.


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