Skip to the Main Content

Note:These pages make extensive use of the latest XHTML and CSS Standards. They ought to look great in any standards-compliant modern browser. Unfortunately, they will probably look horrible in older browsers, like Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x. Moreover, many posts use MathML, which is, currently only supported in Mozilla. My best suggestion (and you will thank me when surfing an ever-increasing number of sites on the web which have been crafted to use the new standards) is to upgrade to the latest version of your browser. If that's not possible, consider moving to the Standards-compliant and open-source Mozilla browser.

January 21, 2014

Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Posted by Tom Leinster

If someone told you that in order to flourish rather than languish, you have to have at least 2.9013 times as many positive as negative emotions, and that they know this because of the Lorenz equations, you’d be instantly suspicious, right? It sounds like run-of-the-mill pseudoscience, but it was published in American Psychologist, official organ of the American Psychological Association and one of the very top journals in the field. Not only that, the lead author on this two-author paper, Barbara Fredrickson, is one of the editors of this journal.

The Guardian Observer carried a great piece yesterday telling how it was debunked by — it gets better — a master’s student, Nick Brown. He teamed up with the legendary Alan Sokal and the psychologist Harris Friedman, and they wrote this highly enjoyable account of exactly how incompetent the original paper was. American Psychologist, to its credit, is publishing it.

Sample from the original paper:

An interesting observation that highlights the usefulness of fluid dynamics concepts to describe human interaction arises from the fact that Lorenz chose the Rayleigh number as a critical control parameter in his model. […] Low performance teams could be characterized as being stuck in a viscous atmosphere highly resistant to flow

Sample from Brown et al.’s response:

They appear to assert that the predictive use of differential equations abstracted from a domain of the natural sciences to describe human interactions can be justified on the basis of the linguistic similarity between elements of the technical vocabulary of that scientific domain and the adjectives used metaphorically by a particular observer to describe those human interactions. If true, this would have remarkable implications for the social sciences. One could describe a team’s interactions as “sparky” and confidently predict that their emotions would be subject to the same laws that govern the dielectric breakdown of air under the influence of an electric field. Alternatively, the interactions of a team of researchers whose journal articles are characterized by “smoke and mirrors” could be modeled using the physics of airborne particulate combustion residues, combined in some way with classical optics.

The Observer article is here, and Brown et al.’s article (“The complex dynamics of wishful thinking”) is here.

Posted at January 21, 2014 1:53 PM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:   http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/cgi-bin/MT-3.0/dxy-tb.fcgi/2685

19 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past summer. Here is the response from Fredrickson. Also, she published an Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios.

Posted by: Ryan Grady on January 21, 2014 3:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Actually, the prevailing emotion I feel about this is not hilarity, but genuine sadness. By all means one should reveal bullshit where it occurs, but there are powerful forces in the world of academe that drive grown-ups to publish crazy bullshit, when deep down they probably know better.

Or if they don’t know it deep down, that’s because they have been somehow been led to believe in the magical power of mathematics, and in those wizards who wield it. In which case, I would be more inclined to point the finger at this Losada bloke (the expert in complex dynamics).

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 21, 2014 5:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

I know what you mean. In a different mood, I probably would have despaired rather than laughing.

I don’t know whether you’ve looked at Brown et al.’s article, but it explains very patiently what you have to do in order for it to be valid to use differential equations (p.10ff), including some things so incredibly basic that you might not think of them at first — e.g. making sure that the variables actually, you know, mean something. That’s part of what I found funny, but yeah, it’s also depressing, for sure.

I don’t know which person this reflects worst on, but I think the worst thing about the situation is the involvement of Fredrickson and American Psychologist, a highly respected academic and a highly respected journal. She shouldn’t have had to know the first thing about differential equations to have been suspicious of this. How did she fail to smell a rat? And how did the reviewers for this prestigious journal, and the handling editor, also fail to smell a rat?

(By the way — to avoid confusion — the “complex dynamics” referred to is not complex dynamics in the sense of holomorphic dynamics; it’s just dynamics that’s complicated.)

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2014 5:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

including some things so incredibly basic that you might not think of them at first — e.g. making sure that the variables actually, you know, mean something

Well, that’s one of the parts of mathematics that my freshman calculus students have the hardest time understanding.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on January 21, 2014 7:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

This was covered back in September by RetractionWatch: Fredrickson-Losada “positivity ratio” paper partially withdrawn. (Why is the Guardian only noticing it now?). The “withdrawal” is vague on exactly what is being withdrawn and they bring in Brown and Sokal to comment on this issue.

Posted by: RodMcGuire on January 21, 2014 6:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Why is the Guardian only noticing it now?

I don’t know that they are only noticing it now. The journalists involved may have noticed it months ago, and have spent the time in between researching and writing what is, after all, a longish article with no particular urgency to it. But I can only guess.

Also, I made a mistake: it’s not actually the Guardian but the Observer (which is essentially the Sunday version of the Guardian). I’ll correct my post. If it appeared as a magazine rather than newspaper article, that would again suggest a less hurried timeframe.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2014 6:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Like Rod, I remember seeing this on Retraction Watch last fall, erm, I mean, autumn.

I see that the article is by Andrew Anthony. Hence it may be playing out against a background context of a certain cadre of journalists at Graun+Obs who delight in what Stefan Collini has cattily termed “«No Bullshit» bullshit”. I suspect someone sent Francis Wheen or Nick Cohen an email and it got sent onto Anthony.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of journalists in Britain castigating obvious nonsense when I suspect they could easily be persuaded to castigate what I do as jargon ridden nonsense. (And not just me: category theory in linguistics, anyone?)

That said, the positivity ratio does sound atrocious, and kudos to Nick Brown. Since he’s a mature student, I’m sure he had more self-confidence about questioning the transparent vestments of the hegemon than the average master’s student. It’s also interesting that Brown’s been involved with or has been reading up on the Stapel expose which is also mentioned in the Observer piece.

Posted by: Yemon Choi on January 21, 2014 8:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

category theory in linguistics, anyone?

Not sure what you mean. Is there something about this which is inherently jargon-ridden nonsense, or do you have something specific in mind?

I am not in a position to say whether Lambek’s thoughts on linguistics (for instance) are jargon-ridden nonsense. As a start, I’ll refer to Wikipedia.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 21, 2014 8:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Is there something about this which is inherently jargon-ridden nonsense, or do you have something specific in mind?

Not at all, Todd! sorry if it came across that way. My point is that I imagine Andrew Anthony and his ilk, on a different day with different weather, lambasting that as as being waffle-and-claptrap. The Collini article, ostensibly a review of Christopher Hitchens’s book on Orwell, might make the point better.

Posted by: Yemon Choi on January 21, 2014 8:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Oh, now I understand what you were saying, Yemon! Sorry, it took me quite a few rereadings to get to that point. Strange lapse on my part, I guess (I could explain what happened, but it wouldn’t be interesting).

But has this cadre ever exhibited such a tendency, of castigating stuff that strike them as jargon-ridden nonsense but has in fact true intellectual weight? I think we’re getting into some tricky territory. For example, there is quite a lot that comes under the broad heading of post-modernism or post-structuralism that certainly carries an air of profundity, lampooned in fact by Sokal, that one might wonder about. If this cadre were to hold that type of jargon under a lamp, I for one would continue reading with interest. (For all I know they have; I’m not a regular reader of the Guardian/Observer.)

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 23, 2014 2:58 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

I’m still not sure what you mean, Yemon. I know nothing about this journalist, or indeed his “ilk”. Is there something you’d criticize about the specific article I linked to?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2014 9:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Hi,

I’m the subject of the Observer article. I’m not sure exactly what was implied by the comment about somebody sending an e-mail to the people you named, but just to clarify, none of us (me, Sokal, or Friedman) contacted anyone in the Guardian/Observer complex. I didn’t ask Andrew Anthony how he came across the story, but I presume it was by reading Vinnie Rotondaro’s piece (google it). As far as I know, all of the various academic and popular media coverage of this has snowballed from the blog post that Neuroskeptic wrote on it back in July 2013 (for which I will admit to giving him a heads-up).

Nick

Posted by: Nick Brown on January 21, 2014 9:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Welcome, Nick, and congratulations on your article. News travels fast!

I don’t know what Yemon meant either. I speculate that he was just speculating.

Here are links to the articles by Neuroskeptic and Vinnie Rotondaro.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2014 10:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Actually Structuralism in the Humanities was inspired by Linguistics after taking a by-way through Levi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology:

From a letter by Jean-Michel Kantor, Bourbakis Structure and Structuralism:

When I asked Claude Levi-Strauss about the origin of the word ‘structure’ in his work, he answered (letter to the author, Nov. 16, 1990): “Ne croyez pas un instant que Bourbaki m’ait emprunte le terme ‘structure’ ou le contraire, il me vient de la linguistique et plus precisement de l’Ecole de Prague.”

Do not believe for one minute that Bourbaki borrowed the word ‘structure’ from me, or the contrary; it came to me from linguistics, more precisely, from the School of Prague.

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on January 29, 2014 4:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

By the way, thanks for the Retraction Watch link. It’s a good, solid, explanatory account, with lots of detail.

It ends with a quote from Sokal, not mincing his words:

Last but not least, there is a huge open question, which concerns not Fredrickson and Losada but the entire psychology community, and particularly those people working in “positive psychology”. How could such a loony paper have passed muster with the reviewers at the most prestigious American journal of psychology, netted 350 scholarly citations, and been repeatedly hyped by the “father of positive psychology” (and past president of the APA), without anyone calling it into question before a first-term part-time Masters’ student in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London came along and expressed his doubts? Where were all the leaders in the field of positive psychology? The leaders in the application of nonlinear-dynamics models to psychology? Was everyone really so credulous? Or were some people less credulous but politely silent, for reasons of internal politics?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2014 7:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

A decade ago I would have found this sort of thing ‘hilarious’. I hadn’t read Sokals book when it came out, but I thought it useful as a taking-down of pseudo-science posturing by philosophers plagued with physics-envy. Now I’m just sceptical about border-wars between science & the humanities.

Someone recently quoted a section of his hoax paper to me as an example of irredemiable scientific illiteracy by the French Philosopher Derrida:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability - it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something — of a center starting from which an observer could master the field — but the very concept of the game which, after all, I was trying to elaborate.

Sokal, emphasises in his book, Fashionable Nonsense, that its their papers:

first major gibberish quote, namely Derrida’s comment on relativity (“the Einsteinian constant is not a constant …”). We haven’t the slightest idea what this means— and neither, apparently, does Derrida

and repeated by Weinberg in an article in the New York Times:

[when] I first encountered this paragraph, I was bothered not so much by the obscurity of Derrida’s terms “center” and “game.” I was willing to suppose that these were terms of art, defined elsewhere by Derrida. What bothered me was his phrase “the Einsteinian constant,” which I had never met in my work as a physicist.

I had a look at where the original quote was taken from though much of it went over my head, its clear that Derrida was responding to a question by Hippolyte (this is mentioned in his paper too).

When I take, for example, the structure of certain algebraic constructions [ensembles], where is the center? Is the center the knowledge of general rules which, after a fashion, allow us to understand the interplay of the elements? Or is the center certain elements which enjoy a particular privilege within the ensemble? … With Einstein, for example, we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of space-time, which does not belong to any of the experimenters who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constant – is this the center?

Now I expect the famous educated layman if asked what possible constant Hippolyte could be referring to point me in the direction of the speed of light. But this can’t be right, as Hippolyte says it is a ‘combination of space-time’, which can only mean the Minkowski metric, which is invariant (‘constant’) and does ‘dominate’ the whole theory (‘construct’), and is not experentially obvious like speed or distance (‘does not belong to the experimenters who live the experience’), and nor do we experience space-time in the sense of Minkowski, we experience space and time.

Then Derridas answer explains itself, the Einstenian constant is simply their way, in that conversation to refer to Minkowskis Metric, neither of which appear to know the name of, and nor should it be suprising that they don’t.

So when he says ‘The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center’ - he is saying that it is not a constant or a centre in the sense of his theorising of (French) Structuralism and not (Bourbakian) Structuralism.

I have only an amateurs interest in Continental Philosophy, however Wikipedia has this to say about ‘Centre’:

The “center” is that element of a structure which appears given or fixed, thereby anchoring the rest of the structure and allowing it to play. In the history of metaphysics specifically, this function is fulfilled by different terms (which Derrida says are always associated with presence): “eidos, archè, telos, energia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.”[11] Whichever term is at the center of the structure, argues Derrida, the overall pattern remains similar. This central term ironically escapes structurality, the key feature of structuralism according to which all meaning is defined relationally, through other terms in the structure. From this perspective, the center is the most alien or estranged element in a structure: it comes from somewhere outside and remains absolute until a new center is substituted in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. “The center”, therefore, “is not the center.”

It then becomes clear why it isn’t a centre, and why Derrida is known for Post-Structuralism as opposed to Structuralism. In Structuralism all elements are are related to each other including ‘central’ elements. In Derridas theory the ‘centre’ is estranged or removed or transcendent - it is not part of the actual structure. The Minkowski metric is a central part of Einsteins theory (Structure) in the usual sense of central, hence it isn’t central in Derridas sense.

This is just a small section from Sokals Hoax paper - and it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. One then begins to wonder about all the other quotes that Sokal cobbled his paper from, that if given sufficient contexualisation rather than decontextualisation would they also appear to begin to make sense?

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on January 29, 2014 6:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Mozibur, I feel as though this response to Sokal’s hoax is further decontextualization. Drawing from Sokal’s own description of what he did, one can make the following points.

One of the points is the pastiche itself. Let’s assume that each of the quotes from Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, etc. made perfect sense when read within its surrounding context. But these are slapped together with only vague thin reference to “interconnectedness”, “flux”, and “nonlinearity” to serve as connective tissue. There is no real coherence or logical sequence of thought to hold the quotes together – and that incoherence is by design.

But it’s only partly pastiche. Some of it is Sokal’s “original contributions”, e.g., Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations being upheld by recent findings in quantum field theory, or the profound political implications of physics on the Planck scale. That there is bullshit by design.

That this article got past the referees or reviewers, and the editors, and not recognized as being the opposite of a serious article, has to be credited at the very least to intellectual laziness (after typing these words, I see that Sokal used the very same words on page 5). Perhaps the text had vaguely the right sound to it, but no one seemed to bother to see whether it actually made any sense. And it didn’t make any sense.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 29, 2014 12:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Possibly you are right about the decontextualisation I might be performing here. However I wasn’t attempting to defend Sokals Hoax paper, and I do take your point about how Sokal outed ‘intellectual laziness’ on the part of the editors of Social Text, but one of the Philosophers he quoted, perhaps under the false impression that he considered him to be guilty of practising a similar species of obscure empty rhetoric.

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on January 30, 2014 12:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Hilarious Takedown of Bonkers Maths in Top Psychology Journal

Yes, that’s a good point, and you’re quite likely right: the book by Sokal and Bricmont (Fashionable Nonsense) supports that reading – and there are plenty of people who think they were overreaching in that book.

One thing is for sure: the hoax itself was a huge embarrassment to the journal, and very effectively showed that there’s something rotten in the state of these types of humanistic studies. Satire is probably the best weapon in these cases.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 30, 2014 2:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Post a New Comment