I realized early that, as a research writer, I shouldn’t get too attached to my favorite paradigms, or my cherished biases.
Paradigms — those commonly accepted truths — are tested all the time in my line of work. Researchers are too remorseless in their probing and prodding for the truth to allow sacred cows to roam free in the wide-open pastures of commonly accepted knowledge.
During the past weeks, I saw Penn State researchers corral in a few paradigms, some that I accepted as obvious truths.
In one study, Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology and criminology, and his colleagues examined a theory that as more women took leadership roles in businesses, more would also get involved in disreputable sides of corporate life, such as fraud and corruption. Many sociologists accepted this idea as a fact for almost a century. However, the recent study that Steffensmeier worked on didn’t find that. It showed that while women have assumed more positions in the corporate power structure, few were taking part in corporate crime.
Another Penn State researcher, who has recently graduated and moved on from the University, looked at the bystander effect, a well-recognized paradigm in sociology. The best example of the bystander effect — and I vividly remember reading about this — is the case of a murder of a woman that happened within earshot of an apartment building. According to accounts, dozens of people who lived near the crime site heard the young woman’s screams as she was attacked, but no one did anything to stop it. Michael Parks, who studied when people intervened in bar fights, said the bystander effect may be overstated. He found that third parties try to break up bar fights before they get out of hand. In fact, they tend to intervene quickly when they believe the fight could get too dangerous.
Maybe fish intelligence — or the lack thereof — isn’t really a paradigm, but I never considered that researchers could increase fish IQ, or even want to, for that matter. I mean, why does a fish need to be smart — they just swim and nibble on food all day? Not so. Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology, found that by adding a few obstacles and plants to create more of a three-dimensional environment, fish — in this case, salmon — became much smarter. The researchers even found out that the mental workouts actually changed the brains of these fish to change, something referred to as neuroplasticity. The enhanced tanks became sort of an aquatic version of Luminosity, the online brain training company.
Critics may wonder why we would spend money finding ways to make fish smarter. But, this could potentially save a lot of money — possibly millions of dollars — for commercial fish hatcheries who have to raise lots of fish because most of them are not smart enough to survive in natural conditions once they leave the safe confines of their tanks, where food is plentiful and predators are absent. With relatively minimal investment, hatcheries could raise fewer fish because more will survive in the wild.
Braithwaite’s research also gave me another hopeful thought. I used to think that my brain development was pretty much set by the time I was an adult — and depending on who you talk to, I may have yet to reach this stage. However, if a fish can turn challenges and obstacles into intellectual free weights for bigger mental muscles, could there still be help for me?
And, by the way, my request to add a giant castle and pirate ship to my office was rejected. Sadly, some paradigms are much harder to confront.