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Study in Science could fertilize your lawn

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While we are on the subject of theories not to believe, here’s another:

According to Slate, this was the basic thesis:

Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM and cognitive ToM compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

In other words, against all human experience, reading good books supposedly makes us empathetic and virtuous.

At this point, I (O’Leary for News) am prepared to state as a rule that we should disbelieve any gimcrack theory whatever that goes against all human experience, especially if we are over forty years old. Slate’s writer seems to agree:

According to the researchers’ own cherry-picked criteria, the works of fiction had to depict “at least two characters” and the nonfiction works had to be about “a nonhuman subject.” All of the participants were then administered a series of tests to determine their relative empathy and social adeptness—including, for example, one called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” in which one must choose from a series of adjectives to describe the emotions of people based on photographs of just their eyes. Those who read the literary fiction performed ever so slightly better.

Slate says, one of the articles producing lower empathy than great books was a Smithsonian piece about the potato … another was about air mice (house sparrows).

Linguistics prof Mark Liberman asks in Slate,

The real question here, in my opinion, is why Science chose to publish a study with such obvious methodological flaws. The answer, alas, is that Science is very good at guessing which papers are going to get lots of press, a motivation that seems patently behind their editorial decisions.

Yes, THAT Science. Looks like people are beginning to catch on …

File under: Peer review, don’t bother coming in to work today It makes no difference any more.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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