Academics is rife with research that's bizarre but fun to read

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Sometimes the research is well-intentioned, though the conclusions leave one gobsmacked. Case in point: a 2007 study found that Viagra cures jetlag hamsters. (Representational image: Bonnie Kittle via Unsplash)

If you are dying to dive-deep into the details of how the 1857 revolt against the East India Company panned out in Devi Patan Mandal, help is at hand. In 2008, a researcher at the Dr Rammanohar Lohia Avadh University, Faizabad, did a PhD on the subject titled “1857 Ke Vidhroh Me Devi Patan Mandal Ka Yogdan”.

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No doubt the issue is of historical significance and full marks to the student and the guide for wading into such an esoteric topic.

But the world of research is also littered with studies where the real question at the end is who wants to know? Two recent reports highlight the importance and sometimes the irrelevance of such research. One study study, by a team of researchers at the University of Bath, concluded, to everyone’s utter surprise, that a week off social media reduces depression and anxiety. The other is more generic. For years, research claiming that nature helps mental health has become a cause celebrated in books and magazines. Sadly, it seems such studies were a bit dodgy in their constructs. University of Vermont researchers have found that participants in such studies were overwhelmingly white, and that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities were strongly underrepresented. Ergo, nature helps mental health, but that of largely white and rich people.

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Sometimes the research is well-intentioned, though the conclusions leave one gobsmacked. In 2007, researchers at the National University of Quilmes in Buenos Aires carried out a study to prove that Viagra cures hamster jetlag. Nor was the exercise done in jest. Nature magazine reported that the researchers injected hamsters with sildenafil (a class of medications called phosphodiesterase [PDE] inhibitors used to treat erectile dysfunction) and then pushed the animals’ light/dark schedule ahead by six hours, roughly the equivalent of putting them on a plane from New York to Paris. Hamsters who’d had a dose of sildenafil adjusted their busy wheel-running schedules to the new light regime 50 percent faster. Sure, the effort might have been to see if the same would work with human beings as well. But jetsetting hamsters and humans don’t appear to have too much in common.

Medical News Today also reported a 1994 study in which researchers found that women who take birth control pills blink more often than those who do not. In fact, they nailed it down very precisely, concluding that on average, women on birth control pills blink about 32 percent more than women who shunned this method of contraception.

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But nothing beats Time magazine’s list of ‘The 10 Most Ridiculous Scientific Studies’, topped by my personal favorite “Study shows beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity”. To think we didn’t know this little hack even as we sweltered in 45 degrees centigrade temperatures!

That little gem is far overshadowed by another one on the list – being homeless is bad for your health. Is it now? And here we were brought up to believe that homes, those things that protect us from the heat, the cold, the rain and the sun, are critical to human existence. No sir.

So why do people do these bizarre studies? Indian universities abound with many such intriguing scholastic works. Sample these: English for engineers – a needs analysis with special reference to REC Trichy; English spoken by educated Panjabi speakers in India a phonological study.

Sure, getting a PhD is a major objective and the uniqueness of the proposed topic may have something to do with its acceptance, though where on earth do people find the guides who can assess the worth of the research on such topics.

Many such studies are done by people who just want to be in the news. Perhaps they have an eye on the prestigious Ig Nobel Prize, the satiric award given every year since 1991 to celebrate 10 unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. Quite fittingly, for 2021, the Ig Nobel Prize for economics was awarded to Pavlo Blavatskyy for his study on obesity levels among the cabinet ministers of 15 post-Soviet countries and the level of corruption in those countries.

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