Welcome To “Bad Research Theater”!

Yes, it’s Alistair Cookie, here for another episode—two, in fact!—of that long-running exhibition loved by the confirmation bias-infected and the unscrupulous alike, “Bad Research Theater”!

Episode I : “The Steam Engines of Galapagos

The eye-opening scholarly paper “The end of the line: competitive exclusion and the extinction of historical entities” has been published the journal, “Royal Society Open Science.” Bruce Lieberman, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and senior curator of invertebrate paleontology at the KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum, uses the history of railroad steam engines history to argue against the merits of “competitive exclusion,” the respected paleontology evolution principle that species can drive other species to extinction through competition.

Working with former KU postdoctoral researcher Luke Strotz, now of Northwest University in Xi’an, China, Lieberman found that the fossil record lacks the detailed data verifying competitive exclusion found in the history of steam engines. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced!

Many years ago, as a boy trying to bring in distant baseball broadcasts at night on my transister radio, I stumbled across a rural evangelist who was ranting about the godlessness of evolution. “Evolution says that if you put a six cylinder engine in your garage and let it sit there for a million years or so, when you come back and check on it, it will have become an eight cylinder engine!” he said, chuckling heartily. I thought that was the dumbest thing I had heard to that point in my life, and it still is in the top five. Little did I suspect that his idea of comparing mechanical objects with live organisms would be adopted decades later by actual scientists.

Episode II : Anything to Throw Them Off the Track

Recent studies seem to show that U.S. teens are more depressed than ever, and the conventional wisdom, derived from many studies, is that social media is at fault. Social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt says there is no longer any doubt what the culprit is.

“There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide,” Haidt wrote recently in his Substack, “After Babel.” He’s finishing a book to be published next year tentatively titled, “Kids In Space: Why Teen Mental Health is Collapsing.” Fortunately, statistician Aaron Brown has respectfully but emphatically come forward in Reason to point out that the studies Haidt is relying on are a lot of hooey.  Brown concludes,

The best analogy here isn’t art critics all looking at the Mona Lisa and arguing about what her smile implies; it’s critics looking at Jackson Pollock’s random paint smears and arguing about whether they referenced Native American sandpainting or were a symptom of his alcoholism. 

You can’t build a strong case on 66 studies of mostly poor quality. If you want to claim strong evidence for an association between heavy social media use and serious depression, you need to point to at least one strong study which can be analyzed carefully. If it has been replicated independently, so much the better….Looking over this work, it’s clear that there’s no robust causal link between social media use and depression anywhere near large enough to claim that it’s a major cause of the depression increase in teen girls, and I don’t understand how Haidt could have possibly concluded otherwise. There’s some evidence that the lightest social media users are more likely to report zero versus mild depression symptoms but no evidence that heavy social media users are more likely to progress from moderate to severe symptoms. And there are not enough strong studies to make even this claim solid. 

Really? I understand how. Scientists and researchers have a strong motivation to blame social media for driving kids into panic: they and their ideological allies are probably the real cause, though research aiming at proving it would probably be just as flawed as the studies Aaron Brown vivisects.

Schools now teach children that the Earth is heading toward a climate-driven cataclysm that will kill millions and turn the world into a broiling hell. They are also told that the nation they live in has always been and continues to be racist and evil. Although the chances of them being killed by a mass shooter are minuscule, anti-gun zealots and political demagogues bombard today’s kids with fear-mongering rhetoric and distorted statistics designed to terrify them and, best of all, make them registered Democrats. The future is being portrayed as dark and menacing, not as exciting and promising, which is how earlier generations of Americans were encouraged to believe, given the benefits of a culture that rewarded hard work , enterprise, individualism and courage, and a country with remarkable resources and assets. Religion, which once provided balm to young anxieties while cultivating morality and ethical awareness, is barely a factor in most teens’ lives. Instead, they have been encouraged to embrace substitute cults like climate change fanaticism and DEI worship.

Meanwhile, black kids are being taught that they are trapped in a society that makes them perpetual victims, with police departments determined to murder them. White children are told that their race is and has ever been the cause of inequality and death, so they should prepare for a life of making sacrifices and submitting to discrimination in penance for the sins of their ancestors.

But social media is the reason our young are depressed.

5 thoughts on “Welcome To “Bad Research Theater”!

  1. Social media is merely the vehicle scientists amplify crisis that leads to depression. Blaming social media for depression is like blaming guns for murders.

  2. Social media, like any tool or technology, can and will often be misused. Forty years ago, TV was being blamed for all manner of social ills. Next it was video games. Like TV and gaming, I believe social media use by children should be controlled by the parents and not allowed to become the dominant presence in kids’ lives.
    Jack wrote, “The future is being portrayed as dark and menacing, not as exciting and promising, which is how earlier generations of Americans were encouraged to believe…”

    As I teach Social Studies to my grandson, I try to convey a sense of optimism about the future, and simultaneously reinforce it in my own mind. To some extent, I have to wonder if this inculcation of darkness and menace is intentional. When Hobbes wrote that our lives are “dark, brutish and short,” he was rationalizing the dictatorial powers of the monarch. I think statists of today are (unethically) trying to convince us that things are just going to get worse and worse, and only by surrendering our autonomy to a totalitarian state will we ever overcome our “natural condition.”
    But it isn’t enough to recognize the concepts in Hobbes “Leviathan” as an attempt to establish grounds for forfeiting our rights and being subjugated by the state. We can’t stop thinking after realizing, “Totalitarianism is bad, don’t become enslaved by the state.” The more important question is, when do you recognize that it is going to become enslavement? When is the proper time to resist with force?

    The end result to be avoided is the gulag, the concentration camp, the killing fields or the gas chamber. Everyone can understand that, and no sane person would fault you for resisting when you are being forcibly loaded onto the cattle cars -or the FEMA buses- headed to one of those destinations. But when you have been disarmed and dispossessed, stripped naked and starved to seventy-five pounds below your healthy weight, you have no chance of success. On the other hand, no one (well, almost no one) would support you if you started an armed revolution because the ATF has banned pistol braces. So, the question is, when is it not too early, but not too late? How do we spot the precise point at which our society stands at the brink of losing our freedom, perhaps permanently, just one step before the government takes away our ability to effectively resist? I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions nowadays, as we become increasingly (and some might say inexorably) less free. I personally don’t think it is too late for a turnaround, but it will have to begin soon.

    • Yeah, this was outstanding. You didn’t answer your question, but I didn’t expect you to. It was just some great thoughts.

      As I pondered this, my mind drifted to the Bible’s account of the threat to the Jews in the book of Esther. The situation there was different, in that a specific date (on the calendar) was earmarked for their destruction. And since the King’s edict could not be rescinded, a new one was created giving the Jews permission to resist with deadly force. The knew exactly when the right moment was.

      Our situation – should it come to that – may be much more nuanced.

      Anyways, well written!

  3. My favorite source of bad research remains The Journal of Irreproducible Results (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Irreproducible_Results)

    Never a publication to take itself too seriously, what’s not to like about a journal that clearly identifies the existential dangers of collecting issues of National Geographic magazines (https://xray-delta.com/2011/05/10/national-geographic-the-doomsday-machine/) or the true causes of earthquakes (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert-Reitherman/publication/362580599_Earthquakes_and_Other_False_Hypotheses/links/62f28ff088b83e7320bec441/Earthquakes-and-Other-False-Hypotheses.pdf – downloads a pdf).

    In fact, many recent journal articles regarding COVID, climate change, and the like would have readily been accepted for publication by JIR without peer review.

    Follow the science!

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