Here’s a quote attributed to Confucius, and it’s a great notion to close out the year with: “Goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue.”

As for next year, perhaps this wisdom can be employed when penciling-out New Year resolutions. This time around, in fact, there’s a medical study that might be of help. As reported in the U.S. media, a study by doctors at the University of California, Irvine, indicates that those who drink “moderate amounts” of alcohol or caffeine live longer than those who abstain.

See? Things are looking up already.

Whether imbibing these substances actually causes people to live longer, or is merely correlated with longevity, is not readily apparent.

Studies are often great conversation starters, and, as such, they can inspire us to think about things that deserve our attention.

But I don’t usually get wound up about studies one way or the other. Offhand, I can’t think of any particular study that convinced me to eat, or to not eat, or to drink, or to not drink, anything in particular. I have known people who, by contrast, are more enthusiastic about the study thing, some of whom have spent decades zig-zagging from one trend to another.

In fact, this introduces a line of inquiry worth pursuing. Has anyone studied the longevity of people who follow studies about longevity?

While we await the wisdom on that count, I’m going to hunker down in my beach chair. In order to be as useless as possible, I’m going to ponder things on an abstract plane.

Two types of studies that I’ve usually had to deal with are statistical studies (which look at data from a number of cases) and accident investigations (which look at data pertaining to one specific case). Both types seek to identify a relationship between a cause and an effect.

Our notion of cause-and-effect is based on very mechanical conception of relationships, just as our idea of logic is based on well-defined lattice of formal protocols. Of course, this makes sense in a lot of cases, but there can still be pitfalls if we’re not careful.

The term “chain of events,” which is very common in accident investigations, sees various events as discrete elements like the physical links on a chain. But who is really to say when an event begins and when it ends? It’s entirely subjective. I’ve seen a lot of so-called “events” that really began a day, or a year, or a decade before things were recognized as an “event.”

Furthermore, there is an infinite amount of factors that can potentially influence any given event (the “wings of a butterfly” factor), but only a handful of factors can be considered in a study. Since there’s no way to objectively determine that all the excluded factors are of zero relevance, this facet of studies is yet another source of subjectivity.

This was, by the way, an inspiration behind the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. As a chemistry student, Pirsig had realized that the cleanly scientific protocol of chemistry experiments had this subjective element. Pirsig changed course in order to pursue philosophy and to get a better handle on this subjective vs. objective conundrum. He found the West bereft of answers on this note. Fortunately, he had better luck when he consulted the Eastern wisdom.

Overall, looking back at the world of studies, I think it’s sensible to apply a healthy dose of judgment whenever reviewing the “facts” of any study. But applying this judgment doesn’t mean we have to go shooting off our mouths about it. In casual conversation it’s common for people to introduce a notion with the validating decree, “studies show,” and I’m happy to purse my lips in a thoughtful manner, nod my head, and let them tell me what they want to tell me.

In the meantime, for the New Year I’m penciling in a little more money for the coffee budget and I will once again avoid being a goody-goody. I’m on safe ground this time around. It’s what studies show.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.
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