Open a popular magazine of your choice, or even the newspaper of record, and you’ll find a lot of fascinating claims seemingly backed by scientific aura. Eat this superfood and you’ll be healthy; do this minor thing every day and you’ll be successful; have governments just slightly change some condition that faces us hapless humans and we’ll change the world.
A few months ago, I called this image a “pretend world,”
with pretend ideals, pretend money and pretend language. A world of quick fix and quick bucks, where the road to success no longer requires hard work, just papering over whatever defects emerge.
An idea about simple and revolutionary solutions to complicated problems seems to have consumed the chattering classes, our media elites, and our political overlords. In the last two years, I’ve stumbled across several engaging books trying to fight back against at least some of the research that underlies this nonsense: Stuart Richie at King’s College London wrote Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth; his colleague at King’s Bobby Duffy, armed with data from his previous job at the polling firm Ipsos MORI, released Perils of Perceptions: Why We’re Wrong about Nearly Everything; yet another Brit, Tim Harford, published How to Make the World Add Up; and Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West released Calling Bullsh*t: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World.
The latest of these books specializing in “takedowns of stupid research” to land on my desk is Jesse Singal’s The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. It’s a pleasant read, as Singal makes his way across various chapters of psychological research claims that turn out to have hyped their results much beyond what they deserve. Some of the specific examples are repeated from the above books, like Daryl Bem’s “extrasensory perception,” where an established psychology professor in a peer-reviewed article in a top-ranked psychology journal showed that university students can see the future (p < 0.05). Same with Amy Cuddy’s power poses: the claim that sitting and standing in more power-like positions can boost our self-esteem to the point where most perceived social ills (e.g., gender outcome gaps, racial discrimination) go away. Others I wasn’t aware of, like the hundreds of millions of dollars that the US Army plunged into weak, unproven, and frankly ridiculous projects that tried to prevent posttraumatic stress disorder in veterans. Because unvetted positive-psychology research had shown that the Penn Resilience Program, a twenty-hour course specifically targeti ...