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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