Monthly Archives: July 2013

Positivity ratio all wrong

The one (academic) thing I remember most from my undergraduate days is my Thermodynamics professor Dr, Will Sutton’s mantra: “Check your sources. Check your sources. Check your sources.” Makes perfect sense and I took that as a universal given but after reading a few PhD dissertations recently, I was wondering if it applies to the soft sciences. Then last week I happened across a Discover magazine blog post by someone with the byline Neuroskeptic: “Positivity Ratio” Criticized in New Sokal Affair.

The article discusses a paper by Nicholas Brown, Alan Sokal and Harris Friedman that supposedly demolishes a highly-touted tenet of the field of positive psychology. I thought it interesting that Sokal is not the lead author yet was called out in the blog headline for something he did 17 years ago.

For those not familiar with Alan Sokal, he submitted a paper to the Duke University academic journal Social Text in 1996 titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” When Social Text published it, Sokal revealed that paper was a hoax intended to expose editorial laziness and the lack of peer review, specifically with respect to humanities commenting on physical sciences. As you might imagine, the academia were not amused and the subsequent firestorm is often referred to as the Sokal Affair.

Neuroskeptic says in (his?) post that the Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada paper, “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing”, has been cited nearly 1,000 times in Google Scholar. I don’t know anything about “positive psychology”, but I’ve read some of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and didn’t come away impressed. It seems that Brown, Sokal, and Friedman were also not impressed with a fundamental concept in the field. The abstract of their paper reads:

We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct known as the “positivity ratio.” We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools, such as nonlinear dynamics, and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)

Well…that sure gums up the works.

Now, what I can’t figure out is how Fredrickson’s research, collecting assessments of feelings on a scale from 0 to 4 can ever have been considered rigorous enough to generate more than a “that’s interesting” observation. I don’t want to guesswhy Losada used fluid dynamics equations from Edward Lorenz to come up with 2.9013, but I ask:

How can anyone not question the extreme precision (five significant digits!) from such subjective data as a break point of whether someone or some group will flourish?

Because Losada used fancy math? And created such apparent dazzling brilliance from baffling BS that no one saw the emperor’s nakedness? If anyone in the “harder” science tried that, there’d be a host of folks ripping through the paper to check for errors…or at least confirm the number for themselves. Fortunately, Alan Sokal is still out there debunking those who misappropriate good science for fuzzy purposes.

Given that that the authors of at least 964 papers failed to check this source, I guess Dr. Sutton’s lesson had a limited reach.

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De-pooling our resources

I’ve never been able to confirm who said it first, but I’m sure most of my legion of followers (allow me a little creative enhancement, please!) have heard the phrase,

“Diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to Hell in such a way that he’ll look forward to the trip.”

And then there’s the joke about the guy in Hell who doesn’t seem to mind the temperatures…even when the devilish superintendents keep jacking it up. When asked why it didn’t bother him, he replied, “Oh, I’m from Texas…that ain’t nothin’.”

Now, a lot of people know that I’m averse to heat and I get, “Then why do you live in Texas?” My standard answer until very recently has been, “My wife lives here and I want to be with her.” To my amazement, after living in Texas since 2007, my dear wife Andrea managed to find a way for me to stop complaining about the heat. I’ve come to realize in my 27 years of being married to this wonderful woman that radical life changing ideas often start with, “Please don’t be annoyed with me, but I’ve been thinking about…..”

This time, she finished with, “… changing our pool into a pond.”

Whoa. Continue reading

My 2013 Reading List – First Six Months

I started the year with another ambitious goal of 100 books (using the Goodreads site to log and track), as last year I read 119. Through June, I’ve managed 58.

I’m grouping the books as I did in last year’s recap by the month in which I finished them (and fiction/nonfiction subgroups.) As the list is already quite long, and I’ve decided to tag all of the authors and titles, I’m publishing the first half of the year as a standalone.

Some quick stats for the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): heavier on the nonfiction (again) for the six months so far this year:

  • 34 nonfiction
  • 24 fiction
  • 9 of the fiction were Arthur C. Clarke novels. The last of the Big Three (Asimov and Heinlein being the other two, though Heinlein doesn’t warrant the distinction…IMO), I think he did well with science fiction and not so well with things that involve people.
  • I’ve rated 10 as five-star on Goodreads
  • I gave 2 books a one-star rating (not-only-no-but-really-no)
  • I’ve linked all of my Goodreads reviews (even if only one line) to each title, in case anyone is interested in what I thought.

And, now to the books of the first half of 2013…

Continue reading