Acton Commentary

Are Common Sense Studies Necessary?


The United States is so wealthy that we award researchers millions of dollars per year to fund "important" studies that report nothing beyond common sense. Why does it take a research team of PhDs to create statistical tables to report findings that everyone already knows? The market for research studies continues to grow as everyone from politicians to new parents now relies on it to furnish credibility.

Among recently released studies is one containing the amazing finding that breathing clean air is better for one's health than breathing dirty air. As reported in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, a research team from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham Young University examined pollution content in 51 U.S. cities during the 1980s and 1990s and found that people living in cities where air pollution had declined enjoy increased life expectancy concomitant with increases in air quality. Wow.

The authors of the study conclude: "A reduction in exposure to ambient fine-particulate air pollution contributed to significant and measurable improvements in life expectancy in the United States."

In case that did not change your world view, try this one: Did you know that high school dropouts are much more likely to succumb to cycles of dependence rather than independence and are, overall, less productive in a global economy? According to a "groundbreaking" study conducted by The Economics Center for Education & Research at the University of Cincinnati, at the request of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools (OAPCS), on average, each student failing to graduate from high school will end up costing Ohio taxpayers $3,909 per year from age 16 to 64, or about $191,500 over a lifetime. Based on this analysis, the cost to taxpayers of the 40,000 young people who drop out of school each year in Ohio is more than $156 million annually.

Dropouts are at higher risk for unemployment, underemployment and criminal behavior resulting in expensive incarceration, according to the study. They pay less in state and local taxes and are much more dependent on public assistance such as welfare payments, housing subsidies, food stamps, unemployment benefits and Medicare and Medicaid -- in addition to the immeasurable human misery that results from dropouts' inability to participate successfully in our economy.

Are you sitting down for this one? According to a new study, virginity pledges adolescents make are not lasting. Really? Virginity pledges alone do not decrease teenagers' sexual behavior, says a report in the January issue of Pediatrics.

Health researcher Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that abstinence pledges were 10 percent less likely than non-pledgers to use a condom or any form of birth control. Using data from a 1996 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Rosenbaum compared the sexual behaviors of 289 teenagers who reported taking a verbal or written virginity pledge with 645 non-pledgers with similar religious or conservative views, according to K. Aleisha Fetters of Medill Reports. "Five years after their pledges, the two groups did not differ in rates of premarital sex, sexually transmitted infections or oral or anal sex practices."

Rosenbaum also found that five years after taking their pledges, 82 percent of pledgers denied having taken them. Public pledges, in large groups, often function like New Year's resolutions. To make matters worse, teens who took a virginity pledge and did have sex were less likely to use condoms. The real question is why people believed that a teenager making a virginity pledge, outside of broader and deeper commitments to moral virtue, would persist in his or her resolution? A teenager?

In the end, many of these researchers are given university tenure and awards for telling us things that our parents taught us--for example, toxins are toxic, education is vital for making a contribution to society and supporting oneself and one's family, and sexuality divorced from a strong moral code restricting it to marriage is aimless and damaging.

In today's meritocracy, we have traded in time-tested guidance from our elders for costly university studies. Even opinion-heads like me have come to rely on these studies for public credibility. They permit me to say, essentially, "See, I told you so." As a result, we pay for insight that we could get for free from clergy, older family members, and other sources of wisdom. In the end, these studies demonstrate, as ancient wisdom has taught us, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."