Perhaps it is because newspapers are going through such hard times that they fill their pages with items that cost them almost nothing to report: in particular, they show ever increasing reliance on futile pieces of research carried out by often obscure academics in any corner of the globe. These people are greedy for publicity of any kind and our newspapers are only too eager to oblige. The subjects investigated include such things as the supposed effects of drinking too much or too little, or of taking too much or too little physical exercise; and they are frequently contradictory in their conclusions.
One particularly striking example of such contradictions was afforded by the much-reported finding of researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, that the more money spent on a wedding, the more likely it is to end in divorce. Spending $20,000 dollars or more on a wedding makes divorce 1.6 times more likely than expenditure of under $10,000, the researchers found. Despite the insignificance of this finding, it caused various commentators to warn that George Clooney and his new wife, Amal, had jeopardised their marital future by spending many millions on their recent four-day Venetian extravaganza.
But only in August researchers from the University of Virginia reported that the bigger the wedding — and therefore, presumably, the more expensive — the longer the marriage was likely to last. The argument went that making a commitment in front of 150 people or more made a couple much more likely to stay together than if they had 50 or fewer wedding guests. The audience for George and Amal’s nuptials was so enormous that it would therefore seem unimaginable that they could ever split up.
Last week I looked at the papers over a couple of days to see how many items of so-called academic research had been used to fill their news pages. And the papers I scoured did not include any of the red tops, which are probably full of this stuff; only the Times, the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail. In these I found more than ten such items, many of doubtful credibility and even more of evident uselessness.
The Times, for example, thought it worth reporting on its front page a finding by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel that people who put on weight on business trips do so not because they eat or drink too much but because jet lag upsets the bacteria in their guts. This may be true, and even of some minor scientific interest, but it hardly has any relevance to the crisis of obesity in the West, which is all to do with eating and drinking too much.
A finding by the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore that you need to run four miles to burn off the calories from a single bottle of Coca-Cola was balanced by research by dentists at the University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, who said it showed that too much exercise caused tooth decay. The longer athletes trained, they said, the more likely they were to need fillings. So what keep-fit enthusiasts lose in calories they gain in tooth rot. Still, it’s best in any event not to drink more than two sweet, fizzy drinks a day because, according to researchers in San Francisco, this not only makes you fat, it can make you look four years older than you are.
The thing is that we all know by now what’s bad for us — smoking, drinking, eating fast food, and so on — so, apart from supplying more superfluous new detail about the harm they do, publicity-seeking researchers like also to surprise us by finding good in our vices. Thus, Danish academics, as reported in the Daily Mail, urge us to drink red wine and eat chocolate as protection against brittle bones or osteoporosis.
Other items I found were of a blindingly obvious kind, such as the British discovery that parents who get on well together are kinder to their children than those who don’t; or of the highly improbable sort, such as one emanating from Hungary and given prominence in the Daily Telegraph, that people born in winter are less irritable than those born in summer. I was born in winter but am very irritable, especially with this sort of rubbish in the press.