Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Lecture This Sunday…

Jared Diamond

Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 2 pm,
Beckman Auditorium (download a map)
Caltech, Pasadena, CA

Natural Experiments of History
Jared Diamond

Author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel and the bestselling work in environmental history Collapse, Jared Diamond reveals for the first time his methodology in the applied use of natural experiments and the comparative method. READ more…

ADVANCE TICKETS RECOMMENDED: Call Caltech at 626-395-4652, Monday to Friday, 12–5pm to order your tickets. Do not leave a voice message.


In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr Harriet Hall, MD, (aka the Skepdoc) reviews 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.

Dr Harriet Hall, MD is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, Washington. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She recently published Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is www.skepdoc.info.


50 Great Mtyths of Popular Psychology (details from cover composited into a new image)

The Mythbusters of Psychology

a book review by Dr. Harriet Hall, MD

KARL POPPER WROTE: “SCIENCE MUST BEGIN WITH MYTHS and with the criticism of myths.” Popular psychology is a prolific source of myths. It has produced widely held beliefs that “everyone knows are true” but that are contradicted by psychological research. A new book does an excellent job of mythbusting: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late, great skeptic Barry L. Beyerstein.

I read a lot of psychology and skeptical literature, and I thought I knew a lot about false beliefs in psychology, but I wasn’t as savvy as I thought. Some of these myths I knew were myths, and the book reinforced my convictions with new evidence that I hadn’t seen; some I had questioned and I was glad to see my skepticism vindicated; but some myths I had swallowed whole and the book’s carefully presented evidence made me change my mind.

The authors start with a chapter explaining how myths and misconceptions arise.

  1. Word of mouth. If we hear something repeated enough times, we tend to believe it.
  2. Desire for easy answers and quick fixes.
  3. Selective perception and memory. We remember our hits and forget our misses.
  4. Inferring causation from correlation.
  5. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning.
  6. Exposure to a biased sample. Psychologists overestimate the difficulty of stopping smoking because they only see patients who come to them for help, not the many who stop on their own.
  7. Reasoning by representativeness — evaluating the similarity between two things on the basis of superficial resemblance.
  8. Misleading film and media portrayals.
  9. Exaggeration of a kernel of truth.
  10. Terminological confusion. Because of the etymology of the word schizophrenia, many people confuse it with multiple personality disorder.

The authors discuss our susceptibility to optical illusions and other cognitive illusions, our propensity to see patterns where they don’t exist, the unreliability of intuition, and the fact that common sense frequently misleads us. They characterize science as “uncommon sense” — it requires us to set aside our common sense preconceptions when evaluating evidence. They cover 50 myths in depth, explaining their origins, why people believe them, and what the published research has to say about the claims. Everything is meticulously documented with sources listed. Here’s a sample of the myths they cover:

item of interest…
How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America

In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal 19th-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking…
ORDER the lecture on DVD

  • Criminal profiling is helpful in solving cases. In most studies, professional profilers barely do better than untrained persons. Most of what they say can be inferred from “base rate information” about criminals: guessing that a serial killer is a white male will be right more than 2/3 of the time just based on statistics.
  • A large proportion of criminals successfully use the insanity defense. The insanity defense is raised in less than 1% of criminal trials and is successful only about 25% of the time.
  • If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch. Darn! I wonder how many questions I got wrong over the years because I believed that. 60 studies have consistently shown that students are more likely to change a wrong answer to a right one than vice versa, and students who change more answers tend to get higher test scores.
  • Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. This turns out to be an urban legend not supported by any acceptable evidence. It could backfire because students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them. The authors cite a satirical story from The Onion about nasal learners demanding an odor-based curriculum.
  • It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in. The evidence shows that expressing anger only reinforces it and leads to more aggression.
  • Men and women communicate in completely different ways. There are differences, but they are very slight, probably not enough to be meaningful, and definitely not enough to suggest that they are from different planets as claimed in the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Women don’t talk more than men: a study of college students carrying recorders showed that both sexes talked about 16,000 words a day.
  • A positive attitude can stave off cancer. Not only does the evidence not support this claim, but there is evidence that women who were highly stressed were less likely to develop breast cancer. And attitudes don’t prolong survival: even the most optimistic cancer patients lived no longer than the most fatalistic ones.
  • Memory is like a tape recorder.
  • Memories of traumatic experiences are commonly repressed.
  • Subliminal advertising is effective.
  • Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained.
  • Playing Mozart’s music to infants boosts their IQ.
  • When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.
  • Hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories.
  • The polygraph can detect lies.
  • Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems.
  • Only deeply depressed people commit suicide.
  • Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.
  • Childhood sexual abuse usually leads to adult psychopathology.

The authors also list a total of 250 other myths in a brief “Fiction/Fact” format with suggested resources for further reading. Some of these facts intrigued me. Dreams occur in non-REM sleep as well as during REM sleep. Transcendental meditation yields no greater effects than rest or relaxation alone. Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period. Women are no better than men at guessing the feelings of others. Sexual content of ads may make people pay more attention, but they are less likely to remember the product’s brand name. There’s little or no evidence for the G-spot. Men don’t think about sex every 7 seconds — somebody just made that up. Individual efforts produce better quality ideas than group brainstorming sessions.

If you read this book, you may be challenged to give up some of your cherished beliefs. Some people find it painful to admit that they were wrong. I find it one of the greatest pleasures of skeptical inquiry and science. When I change my mind about something I don’t chastise myself for the original error; I congratulate myself for having learned better and for having achieved a better grasp on reality.

The proper stance of a skeptic or scientist is to defer judgment pending evidence. In practice, that isn’t always possible. We can’t take the time to thoroughly investigate everything we hear. It is reasonable to provisionally accept something that everyone says is true, that is compatible with common sense, that is plausible, and that is often based on some preliminary evidence. As long as we keep in mind that these claims may be based on inadequate evidence and we remain ready to change our minds when better evidence arrives.

We’re all susceptible to this kind of error. The authors of this book fell for one myth themselves. In a short mention of medical myths they included this one: “eating too many carrots makes our skin turn orange.” Apparently they had read it on more than one list of medical myths. I wrote the lead author to tell him this was not a myth, but a recognized condition called carotenemia. It looks just like jaundice except that the whites of the eyes are spared. I had a patient with that condition, caused by eating lots of carrots on a weight-loss diet. She had bright red hair and with her bright yellow skin she looked like something out of a comic book — sort of like an anti-Smurf. It was very impressive. As a good scientist, Dr. Lilienfeld accepted the evidence and promised to amend the statement in subsequent editions.

Apart from carrots, I found nothing to criticize in this book. The authors have done us a great service by compiling all this information in a handy, accessible form, by showing how science trumps common knowledge and common sense, and by teaching us how to question and think about what we hear. I highly recommend it.


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18 Comments »

18 Comments

  1. Donald Clarkson says:

    If the authors got it wrong about carrots, I guess I ought to be sceptical of all their claims. If I knew this stuff I wouldn’t need this book. Since I don’t know it, how can I trust it?

  2. Chuck Glenn says:

    Hey, nobody is perfect! I’m sure the other 49 are well-researched, well-supported and contain many eye-openers.

  3. Chuck Glenn says:

    Based on some detailed feedback on Amazon, I believe they oversimplified hypnosis. There have been brain wave studies about hypnotic and meditative states, and they brain is indeed doing something different than “fully awake.”

    So maybe the other 48 are worth reading. But not at $1.50 per myth. Sheesh! I’ve bought some really nice books for $11 and $13 on Amazon. What is this, a college textbook?

  4. Richard Hull says:

    $19.99 too much for you? Or do you only buy books that are in hard back? $.41 per myth ain’t bad! Shop, Chuck!

  5. Harriet Hall says:

    A clarification: the mention of carrots was not one of the 50 myths. It was mentioned in passing and was not supported by references like the 50 myths were.

    As for hypnosis, the myth was that it is useful for retrieving memories, and they provided convincing evidence that it is not.

  6. John D says:

    I’m guessing this is based on their long-running column in Scientific American Mind, yeah?
    If you want to scour back issues of that, I’m sure you can read up on most of these myths. I certainly remember reading them myself….but then again memory is not like a tape recorder.

  7. Gerald Guild says:

    Excellent!!! As a psychologist and skeptic with a deep interest in the destructive attributes of our intuitive and often erroneous thinking, I am excited about delving into this book. Thank you for bringing it to our attention!

  8. Elizabeth A Rose says:

    .41 cents a myth???
    Price for a new hard copy on Amazon is $76.45 (List Price: $89.95) – too rich for me!
    (I couldn’t find it anywhere for $19.99!)

  9. Richard says:

    Excellent read! They definitely go after Sigmund Freud and his failed theories.

  10. Dustin says:

    What I find amusing (and distressing to say the least) that as a forensic psychology student… a great majority of those bullet points are not anything close to what I’ve learned in my years of study. So what concerns me is are the “myths” they are demystifying twenty years old?? E.G. we are taught as psychologists and in our law classes that the “Insanity defense” does NOT work in the vast majority of cases. I’ve never!! heard the statement only depressed people commit suicide. “A positive answer can stave off Cancer” never uttered once in my years as a student. I’m proud to say that “at least” my schools (John Jay in New York) curriculum is as science based as it can be and I’m truly concerned about what this book will posit that passes as psychology education.

  11. Nick says:

    Dustin,

    These are myths propagated in pop psychology, not in curricula.

    • me says:

      >>>”these are myths propagated in pop psychology, not in curricula.”

      except when they are propagated in curricula. learning styles. yes, no less than in my Masters of Science program.

  12. Val says:

    Not to point to google as a reliable source, but when at one point I too thought that the skin turning yellow from carrots was a myth, it took all of 5 minutes to verify that it was in fact likely to be true.

    Google shopping gives a listing of stores that sell the book starting at $22. But I’m barely past being a poor student, so I’ll likely stick to other sources of myth busting :)

  13. Saint Gasoline says:

    These myths sometimes are presented in curricula, too, though perhaps not in psychology classes. The learning styles myth was very popular in my education courses when I was in college in 2001. Hopefully they’ve excised that bit. One of my education teachers insisted that autism was caused by lack of parental affection. It’s a sad world out there that myths so old and wrong are still being perpetuated.

  14. David says:

    My readings support the attitude/cancer survival comment, but I also have excellent work (eg by Becca Levy) which seems to show those with a positive attitude to ageing (as defined in her paper) live significantly longer than those who don’t have a positive attitude. Of course it may not be cause/effect but I wonder about generalising from the cancer situation to “survival” in general which you seem to be suggesting.

  15. george c says:

    Great review…
    Just ordered from Amazon for $22.XX. Yes, look for the paperback. Same page as the hardback…..
    Regards,
    George

  16. Paul C. says:

    I never was once confronted to these myths in four years of psychology. Unfortunately they are present in education faculties and the world of education in general.

  17. Brian says:

    I am a skeptic but if you don’t notice that most, not all, women have an altered mood during a period then you must be a skeptic who lives in mamas basement or you have never dated or married.

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