October 05, 2011

There's no need to "sex up" #skepticism or #science as #NewAge

There's no need to sex up decent scientific research in New Age dress. And, there's no need for another skeptical outlet to let that stand, when one skeptical outlet goes along with that.

So, why? Why does a decent psychologist, a A-list skeptical insider of sorts, feel the need to do that? Why does one skeptical magazine feel the need to go along? Why does a second skeptical magazine's blog site feel the need to go along with that?

Do professional skeptics give each other a "pass" at times?

After reading a Skepticblog post about a questionable new article in Skeptical Inquirer, one must wonder at times.

First, let's look at the SI article. Starting with the title and other information in this precis on the author's website.

"The Luck Factor"?

"Luck"? Rather than "chance"? Luck has often had, connotatively, metaphysical implications. It sounds too woo-ish. There's no need to "sex up" the article.

That said, his “reframing” is nothing new. Martin Seligman was talking about that 20 years ago.

But, let's look at the whole article, or at least the precis on the SI link:
The Four Principles
Prof Wiseman has identified the four basic principles that lucky people use to create good fortune in their lives.

Principle One: Maximise Chance Opportunities

Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences.

Principle Two: Listening to Lucky Hunches

Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. In addition, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by, for example, meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts.

Principle Three: Expect Good Fortune

Lucky people are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way.

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck to Good

Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on ill fortune, and take control of the situation.

Luck School

Prof Wiseman's work also involves developing techniques that help people think and behave like a lucky person. The efficacy of these techniques has been scientifically tested in a series of experiments referred to as ‘luck school’. The project has proved highly successful, with almost all participants reporting significant life changes, including increased levels of luck, self-esteem, confidence and success.

Seriously, if a known New Ager, like "The Secret" author Rhonda Byrne,, or Laura Day of "Practical Intuition," wrote something like this, SkepticBlog, and SI, would have ripped it apart, I think.

Since they won't, I will.

"Good fortune" under the Four Principles? Same as "luck." Wooish/sexed up.

Principle Two: Listening to Lucky Hunches …  what’s a “lucky hunch”? Plenty of potential for the bullseye fallacy and others, here; plenty open to ex post facto re-explanation.

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck to Good … first, again the word “luck.” Second, per the psuedo-Chinese proverb, what appears to be “bad luck” may be fortuitous, or vice versa.

Also … the BBC experiment? That’s hardly an “experiment.” Could be some third factor involved, for example, that affects both general perception and “luck.” Anxiety, for example, could affect the perception for which he tested, and the results of acting on the same opportunity as “lucky” people. What he seemed to be finding was that some people have less anxiety than others, not more “luck.” From the story:
Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense and anxious than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected.
Frankly, I have to seriously question SI, and Wiseman in his research, for … pandering? by talking about “luck.” A simple psychological story about anxiety wouldn't be so "sexy," though.

Finally, the whole "four quick tips" idea. Again, sounds like something a New Ager would have whipped up.

I mean, this is decent enough research on the psychology of anxiety without having to "sex it up." (Wiseman being British, in light of the Downing Street Memo, I've been using that phrase deliberately.) True, a story about how anxiety affects our life choices might not be so "earthshaking," especially since, as noted above, the idea of "reframing" elements of chance in life isn't new. The research is still solid, and forward moving, as is. Why not be content with that?

Meanwhile, Skepticblog post author Steve Novella compounds the error by touting the 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect idea.
Some psychologists who have studied this type of question have come to the conclusion that with sufficient work and effort anyone can master pretty much anything. Mastery is a matter of the 10,000 hours of practice, not inborn gifts.
I believe that's at least as myth as reality. Anecdotal counterexample? Michael Jordan, whose basketball practice intensity as well as skills are notable, never did learn to hit that Double-A curveball.

Another disappointment of both this blog post and the SI article, which, contra Novella's "no magic" claim, certainly DOES read like that with the "four quick tips." Frankly, if a known New Ager had written the same article, with the same title, I think it would have been savaged.

UPDATE, Oct. 29, 1929: Welcome, Skeptic's Guide to the Universe readers. I don't have a "vendetta" against Skepticblog, just against ideology masquerading as skepticism. Brian Dunning and Michael Shermer both do it regularly with their libertarianism. (So does non-Skepticblog Skeptic Penn Jillette, the magician.) Shermer also leaves himself "open" to critical purview otherwise, for having known racialists on his magazine's masthead.

Why pointing these things out should be considered a possible "problem," I don't know.

And, if you'll click either the skepticism or pseudoskepticism tags, you'll note that I take a skeptical eye at skeptics outside the magazine, like the above-named Penn and others who are Gnu Atheist evangelists, or even occasionally a Chris Mooney type.

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