Tales That Should Not Be Told

In one of the comments to my post Telling Stories, Veryretired said something very wise:

There are myths so entrenched in our national psyche that facts are simply insufficient to change the story that “everyone knows”.

As H. Beam Piper said in “Cosmic Computer“: “Well, always take a second look at these
things everybody knows. Ten to one they’re not so. ”

Over time that damage to the collective mental model of how the world works can be repaired, but in the short and intermediate timeframes, myths are dangerous. One of the great boons bequeathed to mankind by the scientific method is the creation of a class of people who question received wisdom all the time. One of the recurrent complaints on my blog is that many scientists don’t lead the way in this regard. Oh, sure, we question each other deeply about matters in our own fields, but we don’t carry this over to other areas in our own lives, to say nothing of trying to spread the method to laymen.

Near my home town, there is a good example of the threat posed by myths, ignorance and the inability to work things out on one’s own. It seems that in the early 1960s, some fruitgrowers near Martinsburg, West Virginia hired a “cloud-seeding” firm to spray silver iodide crystals into cloud formations in the hopes of preventing hail. It was an idiotic hope:

… the seeding does not make much difference either to rainfall of hail formation. Under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation, scientists at the University of Arizona carried out an elaborate investigation of cloud seeding from 1957 through 1960, concluded that it has no statistically detectable effect.

About the same time as the experiment, a drought hit the entire Northeast. Suddenly, the ancient P-51 and its partner, a T-6, were to blame for magical feats of practical meteorology:

In a parched field near Mercersburg. Pa., Dairy Farmer Jack K. Beck pointed a finger toward a distant mountain rim. “We always used to get rain when the clouds came across that mountain,” he said. “But not any more, with that cloud seeding going on. I’ve stood here and watched the plane fly into a black cloud, and within five minutes that cloud scattered and the sun shone. I tell you, somebody’s going to get hurt over it unless they stop.”

That article was printed in 1962. In 1983 or 4, I heard the exact same words from another farmer in the area. My father was a meteorologist who often worked with both farmers and fruitgrowers. I heard this mantra over and over again. Small private planes in the area would occasionally get fired upon during dry summers – I remember one such incident near Shepherdstown when I was a kid. By that time the farms hosted between one and three generations of farmers downstream from the ones interviewed for that article, and there was no way to knock that myth out of their heads, not even with a pile driver. What made matters worse is that C-130s from the Air National Guard base in Martinsburg often circled the area in training runs. Suddenly the government was complicit in droughts, too. No one noticed that the number of flights was pretty much the same during both rainy and dry summers. Or if they did, they didn’t fit that piece of data into their mental model because the myth was in the way.

Anyone with a little knowledge of meteorology (which hopefully at least the smarter farmers have) would think about water droplet formation, the number of crystals needed to seed even one cloud in its entirety, and the number and size of planes that would be needed to stop even one rainstorm, and the cost involved – not to mention data from broader weather patterns over the entire region – and conclude that the whole story was horse hockey. Nope.

Little by little the anti-scientific method is creeping into society’s thought in the marginal cases, and we lose the gifts of the Enlightenment. It infects our leaders at the highest levels of government (note the line about Hillary Clinton in that piece). More importantly, it begins to creep into science (especially the softer sciences) in a form of collectively agreed-upon Lysenkoism.

In the old days, stupidity got spread by word-of-mouth, as it did in the case of the cloud-seeding. However, the Media magnifies and accelerates the spread of misinformation. Even when corrections are eventually made, the relative press given to the original sensation claim, versus the usually quiet retractions, perpetuates wrong ideas in the collective conscious. Here’s good example that Mark Lieberman at Language Log has been fighting for a while:

This morning, I spent a fruitless hour trying to track down the source of Louann Brizendine’s assertion that “A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000”. I found many similar assertions, with estimates of the male lexical allowance varying from 2,000 to 25,000, while assertions about the female daily word budget ranged from 7,000 to 50,000. But nowhere could I find any evidence that anyone has ever supported these assertions by actually counting words or measuring talking times. My current best guess is that a marriage counselor invented this particular meme about 15 years ago, as a sort of parable for couples with certain communication problems, and others have picked it up and spread it, while modulating the numbers to suit their tastes. This is what happened in the case that Geoff Pullum called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, discussed here. If I’m wrong, and you know a source for Brizendine’s numbers that isn’t just passing along someone else’s story, please tell me

If one thinks hard about this claim, one is forced to agree with Mark:

For either sex, the variance of daily word-production counts will be enormous, and even for a particular individual, the count will depend massively on variable aspects of life circumstances. At best you’d be able to say that in a certain range of comparable circumstances, there were different mean values for men and women; and even in that sort of controlled comparison, I’d be very surprised if the within-group variation wasn’t much larger than the across-group difference. So far, I haven’t found any evidence that there is any empirical warrant for saying even that much.

Actually, some people, the fine folks at Language Log included, have begun an attack on this myth, and Brizendine is squirming. How she goes about squirming is highly instructive to the layman, One of the problems laymen find when trying to sort out hocus-pocus buried in scientific texts (and lexicon) is that scientists can often claim that their highly technical jargon was taken out of context, even when this is patently untrue:

The San Francisco Chronicle took the appearance of the new paper in Science about women’s and men’s chattiness as a prompt for a front-page story last Friday (July 6), and of course got some quotes from San Francisco resident and myth spreader Louann Brizendine. Quotes of astonishing disingenuousness, it turns out. Brizendine’s newest story is this:


My book is really about hormones, and that one line [about women uttering three times as many words per day as men] has been taken out of context. It’s fascinating, anytime you talk about sex differences, it’s controversial. But the bottom line is, there are more similarities than differences between men and women.


So first she claims to be just an ordinary working endocrinologist. Then, like a politician caught on tape saying something derogatory about negroes, she plays the “I-was-taken-out-of-context” card. Next, she ruminates in wonderment at the controversiality of the whole topic (could it be the fault of the press, perhaps, pumping all this up?), and then, in a dramatic big-lie U-turn, she endorses the “more-similarities- than-differences” position that properly belongs to her critics. Words almost fail me.

The actual truth:

That women are more talkative than men is a popular belief with little empirical support, in spite of which it is promoted in purportedly serious books like Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, which Mark has discussed here. A new nail in the coffin for this idea appears in today’s (6 July 2007) issue of Science, in a short paper entitled “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?” by Matthias R. Mehl, Simine Vazire, Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, Richard B. Slatcher and James W. Pennebaker (Vol. 317. no. 5834, p. 82 DOI: 10.1126/science.1139940).

has not received the same widespread dissemination as the myth. This is highly dangerous. The wonks at the Department of Education could easily pick this myth up to design remedial language classes for boys that might put them off of education for good. I’m afraid that this myth is on course to become one of those things that “everybody knows”. I’ve already seen it repeated at the local Board of Education level.

Great minds think alike, and Mark has hit on a theme that I’ve been harping on for a while, too. For most people, just swallowing facts as received wisdom, their time spent in science class might as well have been spent in Bible school for all they learn about the proper method of evaluating information, which is really what science is all about. Being a linguist, Mark said it better than I did:

Seeded by a breezy Daily Mail article that didn’t even get the author’s name and book title right, two pieces of quantitative psych-lore have been spreading through the world’s media over the past few days: women talk three times as much as men, and men think of sex every 52 seconds, compared to once a day for women. These “facts”, we’ve been told by Matt Drudge and fark.com and dozens of newspapers and CNN, the BBC and NPR, have been “discovered” or “confirmed” by Dr. Louann Brizendine’s scientific studies.  


The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the “facts” about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn’t done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. You can read about talking here and sexual thoughts here, and more on the pseudo-science of sex differences here.


But to insist on the concept of “fact” in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I’ve watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine’s book over the past few months, I’ve concluded that “scientific studies” like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It’s only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they’re true. For most people, it’s only important that they’re morally instructive.

Count me in as a Fundamentalist, too. This also muddies the waters of real science. Half-trained social scientists with half-baked understanding of the physical world pick up a few scientific-sounding factoids and get them all wrong. But the wrong interpretation fits with their preconceptions, so it is propagated. For example, some idiots picked up some research on hormone levels and used the findings to support their theory that women talk more because they get more pleasure from talking than men do. Not so fast, people. In a beautiful example of how to be a skeptic, Mark at Language Log first quotes the BS, then goes back to quote the primary source:

When women chit-chat, their oxytocin level — a feel-good hormone that elicits feelings of trust, bonding and love — rises, according to a recent study by Dr. Shelley Taylor, psychology professor at UCLA. This means they experience pleasure and feel connected with others. And it lines up with Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan’s work on the difference in moral thinking between the sexes that concludes men generally rely more on a universal set of rules that determine obligations and rights (justice-based reasoning), whereas women are oriented towards care-based reasoning that focuses attention on the needs of others. [emphasis added]


For more on this bio-political trend, see “David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist” (9/17/2006). Our focus here is not the broader ideological movement, it’s the relationship between specific assertions and the scientific sources that they cite. So we’re zeroing in on the sentence in bold, about how oxytocin levels rise when women chit-chat, reflecting the experience of pleasure and a feeling of being connected with others; and we’re going to check the “recent study by Dr. Shelley Taylor”. That would be Shelley E. Taylor “Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation Under Stress”, Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 (6), 273–277 (2006):


… we examined the relation of plasma oxytocin levels to reports of relationship distress in adult women (Taylor et al., 2006). We found that women who were experiencing gaps in their social relationships had elevated levels of oxytocin. Specifically, women with high levels of oxytocin were more likely to report reduced contact with their mothers, their best friends, their pets, and social groups to which they belonged. In addition, those with significant others were more likely to report that their partners were not supportive, did not understand the way they felt about things, and did not care for them. Poor quality of the marital relationship and infrequent display of affection by the partner were also associated with higher levels of plasma oxytocin. Thus, oxytocin appears to signal relationship distress, at least in women. [emphasis added]


Looking at that piece on Cherie Blair, and then looking back at my own piece on “Dr.” Emoto, I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a new phenomenon, and that I’m only seeing a snapshot of the trajectory. The vast majority of mankind has ever believed in absurd things, and the demon-haunted world has never been truly banished from the mental sphere of the bulk of mankind. Fashionable nonsense comes and goes. Personally, I suspect we really are slipping into superstition again, especially at the marginal cases, but then I’m a cynic. I’ve got no proof. And I’d rather concentrate on propagating the scientific method than wallowing in doom and gloom. It’s one of the reasons why I blog.

I hope that blogging, and the kind of fact-checking that it almost forces upon its practitioners, will provide a partial remedy for stories that continue to propagate in the face of facts that disprove them. Language Log is certainly fighting the good fight. The layman now has the ability to check directly with experts in all kinds of subjects, from linguistics to physics, and – this is the important part – to cross check that information with other sources and decide for themselves where the truth lies. And that is a beautiful thing. Long live the Enlightenment.

7 thoughts on “Tales That Should Not Be Told”

  1. One of the grand things about the information age is that one can (but no one has yet) code in the ability to define memes, derive a truth value, and impact over time the reputation of the writer/speaker. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for some time. You start with a collection of fact checkers. Some are linguistic, like Language Log, others are on the lookout for urban legends like Snopes, still others are looking to detect religious (Catholic League), economic (CATO), or political (AIM) bias. Throw in a group of engineers and you end up with a language of defining what a meme is, how to encode criticism of that meme along with a source of the criticism as well as how strong the criticism is.

    You then end up with the ability to create browser plug-ins among other types of software to allow talk to not only be seen but also to be rated. The critics can also rate each other in a free-for-all of reputation. Ultimately, each individual decides what they believe in, how much faith they place in various critics, and whether to go on reading stuff that they themselves and the people/groups they trust is patent nonsense.

    Ultimately, we don’t have the time to manually going around and verifying everything. But everybody has the time to go around verifying something, in fact a lot of somethings. Once you have a common language to express that verification, computers can step in to enhance your personal BS detectors by applying the rules you have laid down impartially going forward and constantly grabbing the opinions of those you trust to throw into the mix.

    The incentives of the information consumers is to sort out truth from falsehood. The incentive for a critic is different. Standardizing criticism both increases the reach and heft of that criticism. It’s like an author’s Amazon book ranking. You get to see how many trust you, perhaps even how much. That’s great for a columnist’s contract negotiations.

  2. The elephant in the living room is the “man made global warming” myth which is gaining credence in so many minds because it is advantageous for so many people to push it.

    The Leader of the British Opposition, David Cameron, spent a few ridiculous days in Rwanda studying how “man made global warming” causes flooding. The ignorance is appalling, as is the sleazy eagerness to hop on a bandwagon. I remember that 20 years ago, the bandwagon was “a new Ice Age” being about to descend, possibly by next Wednesday afternoon.

    People hold their hands over their ears and close their eyes and sing “I can’t hear you” to anyone who wants to take issue. Does this mean they know their posits are indefencible?

    Last year David Cameron bought himself a parka and went to Norway, where he hired a sled and a couple of A-list Huskies for a photo op illustrating how a glacier was going to melt due to “man made global warming”. Well, the glacier’s still there and will be for many decades to come.

    What is the point? What do they gain by it?

  3. One thing I find disturbing is the trend in schools (and perhaps colleges as well) to replace actual science labs with computer simulations thereof. Instead of rolling actual balls down actual inclined planes, students will now do the whole thing on a screen.

    This seems to me to be a retreat from the most fundamental idea of science–that you can always *find out for yourself*–and a retreat to medieval ideas of authority-based knowledge. “Because the computer said so” is no different in principal from “Because Aristotle said so.”

    It would be fine to use simulations *in conjunction with* actual experiments so that the results could be compared, but this doesn’t seem to be what is actually happening in most cases.

    It’s a bit sinister that Britain’s Royal Society has dropped its former motto, which was “on the word of no one.”

  4. Little by little the anti-scientific method is creeping into society’s thought in the marginal cases, and we lose the gifts of the Enlightenment.


    Personally, I suspect we really are slipping into superstition again, especially at the marginal cases, but then I’m a cynic. I’ve got no proof.

    One of the major criticisms that military historians have leveled at Allied generals during WWI was that they didn’t realize that the troops were the best educated up to that time. Not only were the majority literate, but there was also a significant fraction which had graduated from high school!

    But the top brass just figured that people with little military experience simply couldn’t function effectively on a battlefield. Instead of tapping this resource and allowing local commanders the flexibility to gain their own objectives in their own way, they ordered the troops to march slowly into massed machine gun fire. No matter the evidence to the contrary, they were convinced that the troops were only capable of understanding extremely simple maneuvers.

    Educated or not, the troops believed things that were simply not true. The heavy rains seen on the Western Front in 1916 was widely thought to be the result of artillery fire exploding in the clouds. One could say that it was an example of sympathetic magic since the boom of the exploding shells was thought to release the rain from the clouds.

    In the 1920’s, the United States saw an interesting if doomed political movement. The idea was that those with advanced degrees were better suited to become world leaders since they would be better able to divorce emotion from their decisions. Anyone who has observed the juvenile politics and petty feuds that university professors practice amongst themselves would be able to see in an instant that they are probably less qualified to lead than the average truck driver snatched from the street.

    The incomparable Megan McArdle once said that those which earn an advanced degree assume that they must be an expert in all subjects since they have managed to master one. I have had personal experience with this when I was working on my own degree a few years ago, as educated people would lecture me on police procedure and criminal behavior. If I told them they had gotten it wrong, they would dismiss my opinion as being ignorant and not worthy of note. The fact that I had actually helped put a few thousand criminals in jail was inconsequential. After all, they had an advanced degree while I had no degree whatsoever!

    The point from all this is that mindless acceptance of the common wisdom is simple human nature. There never was a golden age where cynical realism ruled supreme, and it certainly can’t be found even in the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower.

    Information technology has advanced to the point that there is a blizzard of news stories available to virtually anyone who cares to pay attention. Cherry picking stories that reinforce favored impressions while ignoring those which run counter to what is known to be true is also a result of human nature. I don’t expect it to change any time soon.


  5. “Iatrogenic disease” means a disease caused by medical treatment.

    In recent years, I think we have seen the rise of “paideiagenic stupidity,” which can be defined as “stupidity caused by education” (if my source is correct that “paideia” is Greek for education)

    This doesn’t mean that education is bad, any more than the existence of iatrogenic disease means the medicine is bad. It does mean that the common forms of stupidity which need to be addressed have changed.

  6. Not only is Global Warming or Climate Change an elephant in the room when you discuss memes that roam free.

    Probably the most dangerous one is the ADHD/Ritalin one. Ritalin is speed, and when kids take Ritalin it can cause heart damage. Have you ever wondered why there are all these stories of teenagers dropping dead from heart failure while playing basketball or football? In most elementary schools at least 5% of the boys are taking ritalin for ADHD. In many it’s much more. In twenty years I fully expect to see an epidemic of heart failure among men in their 20s and 30s. Little boys are going to jail for slapping little girls on the bottom, or for kissing them boisterously. The castrating oppression of boys in schoolrooms that leads to parents desperately medicating their sons in hope of relief from the oppression will have serious repercussions not only on these boys’ mental health but also on their physical health.

  7. Ritalin is an excellent example of myths that have no basis other than a determined lobby to advance the cause.

    What is unsettling is the numbers of people who not only buy into these baseless “facts”, but defend them stoutly and angrily.

    British columnist, author and broadcaster Peter Hitchens tackled Attention Deficit Syndrome and “dyslexia”, both of which seem to be without any scientific basis whatsoever, and the surge in his mailbox was as he had predicted. Scores wrote in saying they knew for sure that ADS exists because their son was diagnosed with it and is doing much better on Ritalin. Or that they know for sure that dyslexia is real because they suffer from it themselves! Therefore, it’s true! Their problem – probably developed by poor “modern” teaching methods – has a Greek medical name and that’s all they need. Woe betide anyone who claims these conditions are fake because hundreds of thousands have bought into them.

Comments are closed.