It's certainly true that we sometimes have to study things just to prove what we know intuitively. Not every study generates surprising or groundbreaking results; in fact, most do not. Most studies collect data methodically, analyze the data with care... and come up with exactly the results we expected all along. But now we have hard data behind what we "knew", and we have a paper to cite when we delve into the topic further.
Sometimes, though, I do have to wonder what the researchers were thinking. What did they expect to accomplish? Did they really need a provable result, or would intuition have done as well, in that case? Maybe it's creating a baseline for the next phase. Or maybe it just kept a couple of grad students busy with a little grant money.
Today's example of a study with a low "wow" factor comes reported by Associated Press. Diplomats and their staffs, from other countries, amass parking tickets — chiefly in New York City (UN headquarters) and Washington, DC (the embassies) — which, owing to diplomatic immunity, they don't have to pay. Nevertheless, those from some countries do settle up voluntarily, while those from others don't. According to the Associated Press article:
The study was conducted by economists from Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, who were hoping to uncover why officials from some countries frequently abused their diplomatic immunity by parking illegally, while others played by the rules.
The rather obvious result, after examination of "tens of thousands of parking tickets issued to United Nations diplomats", was that the top two explanations for abuse are that they come from a country where government corruption is rampant — that is, they probably don't pay them at home either — and that, well, they just don't like us very much.
"This finding suggests that cultural or social norms related to corruption are quite persistent," the professors wrote. "Even when stationed thousands of miles away, diplomats behave in a manner highly reminiscent of officials in the home country."Mm. Yes, I suppose so, and would have supposed so before I read that.
OK, now, all that said, there are other things to note. First, these news reports always give such a cursory look at the study and focus so much on a few quotable bits that they're useless for really understanding the study's value. We'd have to read the paper to get a proper view. Second, even from that cursory look I can see indications that what the study really discovered is what things don't correlate to parking-ticket deadbeatism, though one might expect them to:
The professors looked at per-capita income in each nation and the average salaries of government bureaucrats. While they couldn't conclusively rule out income as a factor in paying the tickets, they said the weight of the evidence was against it.
So, while I've mostly seemed flippantly dismissive of this study, I really do think it's likely that a full reading of the paper would be interesting, and that, in the end, it was probably worth studying. And the National Bureau of Economic Research looks to be producing an interesting batch of papers. (Here's a link to get the full paper, but they appear to want USD 5 for downloading it, so I think I'll give it a miss.)
Update: see my next entry for an update, after I've read the full paper.