peterbirks: (Default)
We've all seen it. Someone posts something on Facebook that has "urban myth" written all over it. Dutifully you point out that the facts underpinning the ensuing argument (along the lines of, say, "this proves you should never let any of your children out of your sightline, ever") are flawed and that, therefore, the ensuing argument, while not invalidated, is most certainly not validated by the example given.

The truculent response is invariably (and, yes, I mean "invariably", not "usually") that, it doesn't matter if the example cited is false, because it served to highlight something that was true.

This argument is specious. No, I would go further. It is bollocks. It is also dangerous. Using a lie to "prove" an argument that you feel is true dilutes your argument; it does not reinforce it. Because it implies that you cannot find a true story to support your argument. The danger of "strangers" (aka "the bogie man") to children is far lower than the danger of close family members to children, but no-one goes around arguing that we should keep children away from close family members.

Anyhoo, just to show that this line of thought – "my supporting facts might be wrong, but that doesn't matter, because my conclusion is still correct" – is not restricted to people who swallow just about any mem spouted on the Internet for no better reason than it reinforces their own prejudices, take a look at this piece in The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/19/mathematics-of-happiness-debunked-nick-brown?utm_content=bufferdcd2b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Cliff Notes: A much-cited academic piece co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, entitled "Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing," was shown to use mathematical backing (provided by Losada) that was total bollocks. It just didn't stand up to analysis that an A-level mathematician could see through (not many psychologists are A-level Maths students, apparently).

Barbara Friedrickson, facing the obliteration of the standing of her piece that had seen her stock rise in the psychology world, adopted just this defence. She said that:

"She effectively accepted that Losada's maths was wrong and admitted that she never really understood it anyway. But she refused to accept that the rest of the research was flawed. Indeed she claimed that, if anything, the empirical evidence was even stronger in support of her case."
.

Now, journalists, so to speak, get a bad press. But even the low-lifes on some of our worse journals hesitate to take the line that "yes, our supporting evidence was a lie, but that's okay because we still think that our conclusion was correct". In fact, if you try that line in a court of law as a journalist, you can expect the judge to hammer you.

Apparently, however, it's a fine argument to maintain in the world of academia. Research? Who needs it?

August 2017

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