Pseudoscience in the New York Times



A human brain subjected to pseudoscience
  • skpy
  • A human brain subjected to pseudoscience
Do experimental subjects exposed to words suggesting age—Florida, bingo, gray—walk slower? In 1996, psychologists from New York University said they did—and when Malcolm Gladwell recounted the study in his best seller Blink, the "goal-priming" effect "soon became a staple of pop psychology," the author of an essay in the New York Times wrote yesterday.

The slow-walker study and other goal-priming studies seemed to show "the power of subtle cues to influence our attitudes and actions," Sally L. Satel, a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, observed in the NYT essay.

Recent attempts to replicate goal-priming studies have found them wanting, however. Primed and unprimed walkers walked at the same rate. Subjects exposed to money at the start of an experiment were not more likely to endorse the free market when the experiment continued, as earlier research had suggested; subjects shown a picture of the American flag were not more likely to express nationalist sentiments.

People are too quick to believe what sounds intriguing, Satel wrote, and researchers are happy to please them. "A glut of neat results that are long on mass appeal but short on scientific confirmation" has brought the field of psychology into disrepute, she said.

But what about the field of journalism? Gladwell isn't alone in spreading dubious findings. Newspapers do it regularly, and the New York Times is a frequent offender.

Satel's essay ran in the Sunday Review as a Gray Matter article. Just one week earlier in the Sunday Review, the Times ran an extraordinary Gray Matter essay, "Why We Love Beautiful Things," by an architect named Lance Hosey, the author of a book on design.

"While we are drawn to good design . . . we're not quite sure why," Hosey wrote. But "this is starting to change. A revolution in the science of design is already under way, and most people, including designers, aren't even aware of it."

An example of this revolution: "Brain scan studies reveal that the sight of an attractive product can trigger the part of the motor cerebellum that governs hand movement," Hosey wrote. "Instinctively, we reach out for attractive things; beauty literally moves us."

The evidence? The link Hosey provided on "trigger" led to an eight-year-old Los Angeles Times article describing the work of two Caltech researchers who were studying marketing and the brain. During their research, a 54-year-old male subject was shown a "desirable product" which "triggered an involuntary surge of synapses in the motor cerebellum that ordinarily orchestrate the movement of a hand," the article said. "Without his mind being aware of it, his brain had started to reach out."

I reached one of the Caltech researchers, and he told me they never published the results of their study. I also asked Hosey to point me to the other research he'd relied on to make his claim about the reaction of the motor cerebellum (since he'd cited brain scan studies in the plural). He said his "knowledge of this particular phenomenon" was limited to the work of the Caltech researchers.

Which seems to have been limited to their interpretation of the reaction of one subject.

Next in his essay, Hosey cited German researchers who "found that just glancing at shades of green can boost creativity and motivation." It's easy to guess why green has this impact, Hosey explained: "We associate verdant colors with food-bearing vegetation—hues that promise nourishment."

The link he provided led to the NBC News blog BodyOdd, which offers "incredible stories about how wonderfully weird it is to be human." A 2012 BodyOdd post told about the German researchers who found that when people glanced at the color green for two seconds before taking on a creative task, it boosted their creative output compared to when they glanced at white, gray, red, or blue.

This was another of those goal-priming studies that Satel called into question yesterday. I read the study itself; its authors noted in passing that other recent research had found blue and not green to enhance creativity.

Hosey went on to describe the mystical wonders of golden rectangles, which "provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the 'Mona Lisa,' the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod."

The iPod link led to Deltaflow, the blog of Julian Seidenberg, a computer science PhD. Seidenberg noted that the Apple iPod was "the world's most beautiful MP3 player" because it "comes closer than any other MP3 player to the golden ratio 1 : 1.618," a ratio that "appeals to us at an unconscious level." In an article elsewhere on his blog, Seidenberg observed that "the science of Krishna consciousness" explains the mysterious nature of the universe.

Hosey also noted in his essay the "universal appeal" of natural "fractals"—complex geometric patterns with self-similarity. "Physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals—not too thick, not too sparse," Hosey said. "The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race."

We respond so well to fractal patterns that they "can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent—just by being in our field of vision," Hosey declared. "One researcher has calculated that since Americans spend $300 billion a year dealing with stress-related illness, the economic benefits of these shapes, widely applied, could be in the billions."

And perhaps save us from the sequester.

Whenever a newspaper runs a story with such alluring claims, it fires up the neurons in the corpus credulous, the area of the brain that controls e-mailing. Hosey's article was among the NYT's most e-mailed for much of the Sunday it ran. As far as I could tell, Satel's piece encouraging skepticism about "scientific" assertions never cracked the top 20. Might there be a link between the popularity of articles like Hosey's, the willingness of the Times to run them, and the paper's disinclination to vet them? That's a study I'd love to see.

Janey Lee and Jena Cutie helped research this post.

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