The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 10, Number 3
Jun 1986

"Recent Research Shows..."
An Essay

by Ellen McCrady

Frequent revisions of the Communist party line used to be a standing joke in this country in the middle 1940s, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allies. I was at the University of Michigan at the time. My fellow students and I used to play the guitar and sing topical songs satirizing or commemorating events in the world around us, as students have always done. One of these songs, a satire I believe we found in the People's Songbook, had lyrics that ran, in part,

Now we're Red and mow we're Green,
Our line's been changed again.
Kaleidoscopic, what I mean,
Our line's been changed again.

I am frequently reminded of that song when I hear complaints of librarians, binders and manufacturers about how often they have to throw out the "old" way of doing things, which may have been the most recent thing only a few years ago, and start doing things a new way, on the basis of recent research results or a change in the consensus among certain experts. (This is aside from the changes in the advice one gets in moving from the fringes to the core of the conservation movement.)

Other things may change, but I believe those zigzags in progress, those changes in our party lime, will always be with us. About all we can do, aside from getting into research ourselves, is to become more knowledgeable critics of the work on which the consensus is based, much as the public citizen forms his own opinion of the way his town or state is governed. We certainly need more research and more standards as well, but I suspect that the problem would still be with us even if a billion dollars were funneled into research and standards over the next 10 or 20 years, because the root of the problem is our desire to make maximum use of the knowledge we have, even if it has not all been confirmed yet. Even after research has shown us how something can be done, and standards have been established so that there is no doubt about the right way to do it, we will still be asking for ways to do it better, or cheaper, or for more specialized purposes. Furthermore, there will still be big conservation problems left after 20 years of well-funded research. Our demand for knowledge will always outrun the supply, and we will want to follow better procedures as soon as we learn about them. When the "line" is changed, we will probably follow, even if we resent being made to appear inconsistent. That is what life is like in an applied field.

There may be some consolation in the realization that professionals in other fields share our experience. This type of situation--demand for knowledge outrunning the supply--exists in science and medicine as well, giving rise to quacks, fads, self-deception and immense mistakes. These aberrations are usually related to recent research, and involve not only the general public but the scientists and physicians at the forefront of the field. Sometimes an entire nation's scientists have had to wipe egg from their face after years of following a fad (e.g. research on non-existent N-rays in France, 1903-06) or accepting without question the work of a fraudulent researcher (one English psychologist managed to remain the chief authority in his specialty for 30 years, though his publications described research that had never been done).

We are all familiar too with the public's overenthusiastic adoption of recent discoveries or inventions as cure-ails or the way to Nirvana. There is a strong human tendency to over-use new things, and to under-investigate their side affects. In laymen it runs rampant because they lack the knowledge that would lead them to a more critical evaluation, but even professionals get swept along in the urge to apply recent and exciting research findings.

The example that follows is an ad for radium as a cure-all that appeared about 1924, which was 26 years after the discovery of radium.



Discovered in 1898 by the Curies [it] has created a great deal of public interest, due to the fact that it continually gives off millions of radioactive particles of matter. It gives off three rays--the alpha, beta and gamma. The alpha ray carries two units of electricity. The beta ray is more penetrating than the alpha, while the gamma ray is the most powerful of all. When properly applied those rays persistently battle against disease.

The Utah Radio-Active Mines Co. mines its own ore, from which Radium is taken and prepares its own appliances, etc., for High Blood Pressure, Goiter, Brights Disease, Dropsy, Rheumatism, Asthma, Eczema, Heart, Liver, Kidney and Stomach Troubles, etc.

Call at our office for a drink of Radio-active water and read the testimonials of many who have been cured.

The custom of drinking radioactive water continued, in Europe at least, until the Second World War.

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