NY Times blog post covers a ground-breaking scientific discovery -
Our genes may have a more elevated moral sense than our minds do, according to a new study of the genetic effects of happiness. They can, it seems, reward us with healthy gene activity when were unselfish and chastise us, at a microscopic level, when we put our own needs and desires first.
To reach that slightly unsettling conclusion, researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, had 80 healthy volunteers complete an online questionnaire that asked why they felt satisfied with their lives. Then the researchers drew their blood and analyzed their white blood cells.
Scientists have long surmised that moods affect health. But the underlying cellular mechanisms were murky until they began looking at gene-expression profiles inside white blood cells. Gene expression is the complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins. These proteins jump-start other processes, which in the case of white blood cells control much of the bodys immune response.
Daily Beast Tears apart another fascinating discovery by the same first author, but she claims she did not understand the equations she published !
Fredrickson and Losada’s paper was a huge hit. It became a go-to reference in the literature on positivity and garnered almost 1,000 citations in less than a decadethe academic equivalent of a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Fredrickson parlayed that success into Positivity, the 2009 mass-market book mentioned above, which makes a big deal about the 31 ratio vindicated by Losada’s sexy math.
Except Losada’s sexy math is totally incompetent.
Thats the upshot of the scathing paper by Brown, Sokal, and Friedman. Losada had recorded the chatter of teams of business professionals collaborating on projects, and researchers later coded the “speech acts” of team members as either positive or negative. They also assessed the performance of those teams along certain metrics. Putting the two together, Losada found that teams with a 2.90131 ratio of positive to negative comments performed much better than those with only slightly lower ratios. However, as Brown, Sokal, and Friedman explain, Losada’s data are flat out the wrong kind to plug into differential equations, and Losada’s attempt to do so produced not a breakthrough about the nonlinear, tipping-point dynamics of positivity, but complete gibberish.
That is enough junk science within the span of 24 hours. For our previous coverage, check -
Thankfully the readers of New York times blog are smarter than the PNAS reviewers. Why not put Bruce Macevoysebastopol on the PNAS panel?
this is the kind of research, and report of research, that is a test of science literacy. or, a test of whether you can resist laughing out loud at the conclusions based on the evidence.
the combination of a small sample (n = 80), dubious assessment methods (self report), “small minority” of eudaemonic people, and very large number of reported correlations, are all red flags in behavioral research. when the independent variables are genes, with unreported frequencies in the population, the results are almost certainly fortuitous.
if not fortuitous, we still have those annoying cause and effect issues, for example whether the genes associated with eudaemonic outlook have a direct influence (almost certainly impossible), an indirect influence (via inflammation related health problems) or a very indirect influence (via education or income attained by people with less health risk).
with all that, to say that “genes can tell the difference” is patent nonsense. “tell the difference” is a predictive claim. let dr. cole take a large random sample, run his predictive gene analysis, identify who will be eudaemonic, and verify that selection.
to claim that genes are “working for the common good” is so far outside established evolutionary theory as to be superstition.