January 09, 2005

A must-read: Mis-reporting science in the NY Times

I rarely do this (scream at you all: READ THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE), but today I'm gonna.

You MUST go read the following piece by Martin Seligman entitled "Misreporting Science in the New York Times: Against Happiness"


Martin Seligman, a cognitive psychologist, has written a ton of great books, but the one I like the most, the one I found most illuminating (and helpful, by the way) was- Learned Optimism. Seligman's whole "optimism" theory/practice is another one of those topics I keep saying I'm gonna write about, but I know it would be a huge post, and there aren't enough hours in the day. I can't just skim the surface with it.

All I can say is, Seligman (a big believer in the "social benefits of happiness", as he calls it) takes on the science and psychology reporting in The New York Times.

Don't miss it.

(via Roger Simon)

Posted by sheila

Increasingly, I find reading newspapers to be an almost surrealistic experience. The writers often fail to address questions that would be asked by any person of normal intelligence and knowledge. For example, today's NYT biz section had an article on future oil prices, and quoted an expert as saying that natural gas will increasingly replace oil. The obvious question was, "and where do you think the gas is coming from, given the current supply situation and transportation difficulties?" But the reporter didn't ask the question, or at least didn't let us in on it. (I googled the expert, and found he has indeed analyzed these questions and had some interesting ideas...but based on the story, you wouldn't even know the questions were there.)

Posted by: David Foster at January 9, 2005 02:42 PM

I just wanted to pop in and say hello. I found your blog from the Bob awards and added you to my favies. will pop in soon, but it looks like reading you could be a major time sucking project for me, so i'll have to be very very careful ;)

Posted by: lisa at January 9, 2005 02:45 PM

It is, indeed, surreal. There was a piece in the NY Times in 2002 - I remember it vividly. First of all, because it came out at a time when I really needed to hear the message in the article, and second of all, because it had such a commonsensical tone to it, such a refreshing energy to it, that I couldn't believe it had come out of the NY Times.

I printed it off their online version. I still have it somewhere. It was called something like "In Favor of Repression" - and it was basically a long long diatribe against the self-help-ization of our culture and country, and how a little REPRESSION is sometimes a healthy thing. That many of those who saw horror stories on Sept. 11 and then REPRESSED them (as opposed to dredging stuff up endlessly in therapy and support groups) were doing much better coping with life, and going on.

It was so refreshing. Something I had thought of a lot myself (I've talked about the self-help culture here before) - but to see someone else put it into words in the Times was refreshing.

I'm a bit surprised Seligman didn't note this exception (it was a huge article, multiple pages, etc.) - but other than that, I think Seligman is right on the money.

Posted by: red at January 9, 2005 02:47 PM

Hi Lisa - thank you much!

Posted by: red at January 9, 2005 02:48 PM

While I agree with much of that post (and I saw that trippy silly article in the Times when it was published as well), a couple of things should be taken into account.

To establish my lack of credentials let me note that I am not a psychologist, and that I studied psych as an undergraduate at Harvard, where I dropped my thesis at the last minute in favor of several theatre projects but was otherwise on track to be a magna candidate. I graduated in 1987, so my view is near 20 years old, and that's a lot of years. Still, like any good blogger, I have opinions.

First, it is very difficult to report on psych in the general media at all. The persistence of non-facts and bizarre misconceptions, far more prevalent in psychology than most other fields, renders legit journalism almost impenetrable to the general reader. (Examples: we only use 10% of our brains, you have to see something 7 (or 9) times before you learn it, etc.) When a discipline does not fit expectation it is hard to discuss responsibly. All science is ripped apart in the popular press, and psychology gets especially tattered.

If a particle physicist makes an announcement, say, the casual reader does not feel either qualification or need to get into the picture. When psych "discoveries" are made (and many of these are based on statistical winnowing rather than bold strokes, or involve hellishly complex reinterpretations of masses of knowledge which weren't known to the public anyway), there's more of a temptation to jump into the fray. "That's not what how I feel," one may say. Or, "I would never twist the knob to administer that shock." Some of the great experiments of the modern age (Ash, Milgram) are assaults against things we believe, much as the Kinsey report (and I just saw that movie, which I enjoyed a lot) assailed cherished and ignorant beliefs in its time. Ultimately they survive in the public mind more as myth than as serious research.

Second, there is a fire at the heart of the smoke. Happiness has been an underdog issue for decades in psych. Not a lot of people were interested in studying it in my day, but those who did found it terribly hard to get proper review and funding, and I imagine it's much the same now.

There's a small but interesting body of work on happiness as a pathology. It's a classic subject for "Hey lookee" journalism, since it seems so silly - we should all be so lucky to have that as a problem, right? In fact people who are pathologically happy are often dangerous and reckless and delusional, and they are a terrible risk in cooperative environments (like at a job). Balance this with a persuasive charm - who doesn't like a happy fella? - and you have potential for real harm which can be hard to articulate. "Too damn happy" is not taken seriously as an excuse for things.

There was a move on when I was in school to add Happiness as a symptom on the DSM-IV (which is a very controversial diagnostic tool - diagnostic because the creation of the tool necessitates a series of judgements on what is a pathology, which gets tricky). I don't know how it turned out, but the subject was a lively one. While the NYTimes article was not a good one, science writing in the papers is a very dark horse, since a daily will rarely have the space or the expertise to do justice to an issue that needs deep exploration and a lot of background. Thus the throwaway puff pieces you'll find there and elsewhere.

Posted by: Linus at January 10, 2005 02:29 PM

Oops, this:

(which is a very controversial diagnostic tool - *diagnostic* because the creation of the tool necessitates a series of judgements on what is a pathology, which gets tricky)

should have been this:

(which is a very controversial diagnostic tool - *controversial* because the creation of the tool necessitates a series of judgements on what is a pathology, which gets tricky)

The perils of distracted proofreading.

Posted by: Linus at January 10, 2005 02:34 PM

Linus - very interesting.

The whole pathologically happy thing reminds me of the whole self-esteem mania which has completely taken over the educational system. Raise a kids self-esteem and he will get straight As. Well, we are now learning, to our chagrin, that this is FAR from true, and that people who have "high self-esteem" have a tendency to be nasty, insensitive to others, and absolutely incapable of dealing with criticism. There are people (educators) who have been screaming about this for years, saying stuff like, "I'm sure Ted Bundy had GREAT self-esteem!!"

And even though there was NO evidence that raising the self-esteem of kids had ANY effect on their ability to learn - this self-esteem thing has completely taken over.

Not that self-esteem has NOTHING to do with it - I was shamed so profoundly when I was unable to learn fractions in 4th grade that literally, to this day, I feel like I "can't do math".

This may be a tangential point, but your comment did make me think of this. The self-esteem theory of education happened by stealth, with pretty much nobody picking up on it. Maybe Camille Paglia did, but that was it!

I am a big fan of Seligman's work on optimism, and believe that what he is talking about has nothing to do with that word "happy". "Happiness" is not "optimism", necessarily.

Posted by: red at January 10, 2005 02:36 PM

what i don't understand is how they can *study* happiness. you can take surveys, i suppose, but what people are essentially reporting is "satisfaction". how do you quantify happiness? how do you encapsulate it or show a trend?

the statistic he talks about at the end is the most telling--there has been no increase in "happiness" despite all the progress we have. couldn't it also be that there has been no increase in the reported, studied statistic because the reporting / study of such a thing is inherently flawed?

i mean, are YOU happy? how do you even answer that question? i am happy about certain things. i am deeply unhappy about other things. truth is, i honestly have no idea.

i'm not trying to defend the NYT, any more than i really think you linked to the article in order to attack it. but i am genuinely perplexed--i never knew before now that happiness had become something you could track, map, chart, graph, however you want to put it. shit, *I* don't even really know what happiness IS.

do you know what i mean?

Posted by: beth at January 10, 2005 03:52 PM

beth -

I'm not wacky about the word "happy" myself, but I do think it is a very interesting field of study. If depression/sadness can be quantified, why can not happiness? If sadness is a worthy topic for study, then why not joy?

Seligman's work on Optimism I cannot recommend highly enough. He is one of the founders of the school of "positive psychology" - and that book explains his work. He is AGAINST the whole "power of positive thinking" thing (where you recite mantras to yourself every day: "every day in every way I become better and better") Remember, Seligman is a cognitive psychologist (which I think is why I respond so strongly to his work.) He is not a Freudian. He believes that if you change the way you THINK (and he believes this is possible), then you can beat depression. And he believes that most depression is really caused by "learned pessimism". On the flipside of this, he believes that OPTIMISM is a real thing (his experiments regarding optimism are FASCINATING) - and he believes that optimism can be taught.

I can't really boil the book down in a blog comment but it would definitely be worth your while looking into it, if you're interested.

As a depressive type myself, I also liked his whole theory on pessimism. He doesn't take a rosy-eyed view of the world, he believes we NEED pessimists for various very good reasons (I remember when the whole Enron thing happened, I thought: Damn, that company could have used a couple pessimists!!) - but he believes that optimism can be LEARNED, and he equates a sense of optimism with what we commonly call "happiness".

He has done work with sports teams (ha! The book Learned Optimism has an entire section where he analyzes teams that consistently win ... hmmm, does that sound familiar??) and political campaigns. Campaigns suffused with a sense of optimism have a tendency to win. Teams that believe they will win have a tendency to win.


Anyway, I've already gone on too long. Seligman's work is VERY cool. A good friend of mine gave it to me, and I really got a lot out of it.

Posted by: red at January 10, 2005 04:09 PM