Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Annals of Pathological Science: Positive Psychology edition

Here's more news from the world of fake(d) science.
[a] 2005 paper by Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, a Chilean psychologist and consultant, the findings of which suggest that “a set of general mathematical principles may describe the relations between positive affect and human flourishing.” The idea is that you count up the number of positive statements (“Good idea, Bob”) and negative statements (“That stinks, Phil”) made in certain situations, and arrive at a ratio. That, in itself, isn’t terribly novel, but they took it a step further, using a mathematical model derived from nonlinear dynamics, and asserted that the ratio must be above 2.9013 for human beings to flourish.
 2.9013, huh? What was it Aristotle said? Something like: "Don't look for more precision than the subject matter allows". I think he wrote that in a text that also dealt with human flourishing.
Then along came Nick Brown. Brown, a graduate student in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, read the paper as part of a course. It seemed like bunk to him. Brown is not a math genius; as an undergraduate he skipped math courses because they were too hard. Still, it immediately appeared to him as if the paper was making outlandish and completely unsupported claims. “I realized that Fredrickson and Losada’s approach was always going to come up with the same number, like a stopped clock, because in that equation there is no connection between the data and the math,” he recalls. So he set about attempting to see whether the numbers added up. He found that they did not.
Next he sent an e-mail to Alan Sokal—he of the infamous 1990s hoax in Social Text—a professor of physics at New York University and a man who enjoys poking the softer sciences in their softest spots, to see if he was intrigued. Of course he was. Brown, Sokal, and Harris Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, put together a paper, published in July in American Psychologist, dissecting the 2005 paper by Fredrickson and Losada. They concluded that it had been “based on a series of erroneous and, for the most part, completely illusory ‘applications’ of mathematics.” They titled their takedown “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking.” The paper doesn’t just assert that errors were made, though it does assert that. It argues that the authors concocted a transparently ridiculous fiction.

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