Practical Relevance and Age-Related Research: Can Theory Advance Without Application?
Arthur D. Fisk Alex Kirlik Georgia Institute of Technology
Progress in a scientific field can be measured in a variety of ways. Certainly, theoretical maturity and advancement is one such measure. The ability of a scientific field to motivate and inform solutions of practical importance seems also to be a key measure. As researchers, the authors are often called upon by our students or colleagues to explain the relevance of our work to one theory or another, to defend the theoretical positions we hold, or to simply explain the theoretical advances we hope to make as we embark on a new set of experiments. Generally, such requests provide us little reason for pause. However, when we leave our academic offices we sometimes encounter less than rewarding experiences. More often than not, we feel awkward when discussing our field, say, with acquaintances at parties or during visits from our relatives. We can discuss how our research has been directly applied to the design of training systems to support skill refinement of American football quarterbacks ( "Inside the South," 1994); yet, when discussing cognition and aging, the examples are not as forthcoming.
Sometimes we are asked how our work in aging can be used to solve a specific problem such as designing a plan to make use of public transportation easier (from a navigation perspective), designing an effective interface and training program to make use of an on-line card catalog system easy and effective, or documenting the best way to ensure that older adults can use various types of new technology currently existing only in the minds of some design team. Such encounters sometimes constrain our otherwise high enthusiasm about the true progress of our theoretical advances.