Studying up on all the latest studies
Who doesn't feel an urge to run, not walk, in the opposite direction after reading still another sentence that begins, ''The latest study shows...''? And the sentences are everywhere. On the day we're writing these words, the New York Times contains no fewer than 10 articles reporting upon ''the latest study'' in one special area or another. Among the questions we find addressed in our random one-day study of studies:
Was there ''adequate security'' for the American embassy in Lebanon?
Why is the teen-age suicide rate increasing?
Is vigorous exercise beneficial or actually a ''health risk''?
Who is to blame for caribou drowning while swimming across the Caniapiscau and Kohsoak Rivers in Quebec?
Ah, the funds zealously raised, the appointments proudly confirmed, the agenda scrupulously outlined in order that the latest study on practically anything may show ... well, whatever it shows.
But surely the piece de resistance on this day must be the ''task force'' Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York has just commissioned to study nothing less than ''life and the law.'' Rightly did the editors place the announcement on the front page, although they might have composed a happier, less ambiguous headline than ''Cuomo Sets Panel on Ending of Life.''
The cosmic tone of this study - covering the span of human existence from the ''right to be born'' to the ''right to die'' - should indicate how ambitious the whole industry of the ''latest study'' has grown.
Folding up our day's worth of the ''latest studies,'' we may now review a few of the unwritten rules that govern this game:
1. Don't worry if your subject has been tracked over again and again. There's always room for one more ''latest study'' on the consequences of cholesterol in the diet or the effects of video games on the personalities of your children. You can feel free to say your study is the ''first serious study,'' a phrase that pops up in our one-day survey.
2. Be sure to get in the maximum number of statistics, whether statistics are appropriate or not. For instance, now that the country has been declared officially upbeat, one task force or another is certain to do a study on just how ''happy'' Americans are between, say, Oct. 16 and Nov. 15. Whoever undertakes this assignment will be advised to tell us that 68.4 percent of all Americans are ''happy'' 73.2 percent of the time on weekdays, 61.6 percent of the time on weekends. Never mind silly questions, like: ''What is happiness?'' Just stick to the ''facts.''
3. Give your study an air of urgency. The implication must be: If somebody doesn't do something about these shocking findings - and soon - we won't be held responsible. This has always been the way the Defense Department has gotten its budget - by the ''latest study'' of Soviet arms buildup. The alarm-bell tactic has now become general among study groups. Thus, on the day of our survey, those readers who take the ''latest study'' on child molestation less than hysterically are warned: ''By the turn of the century ... the majority of our children will become victims of a molester.'' How our prophets know this is as much of a question as one's other uncertainty: Is this the best way to call attention to a problem and secure a reasoned response?
The fact is, ''The latest study shows ...'' has become a bullying phrase, all too regularly designed to insist upon the priority of one's particular issue and , eventually, the correctness of one's recommended solution. Partisan and dogmatic positions are frequently given the status of absolute fact by the word ''scientific'' hovering next to the word ''study,'' and by the presence of ''experts'' standing behind it. Take away this aura of authority, and what ''the latest study shows'' is often either self-evident or arguable and incomplete - as the next ''latest study'' on the same subject will show. Yet would anybody nowadays dare conduct a debate on almost any subject without first supporting his opinion by what ''the latest study shows''?
People like Socrates and Confucius - you name them - used to have the boldness in the old days when there were no committees or task forces and everybody went one on one. We expect the truth came out a little truer, and a lot deeper, when the sentences began, ''I think....''
At least that's what our latest study shows.