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A Credulous Nation Needs "The Quick Fix"

This book will not solve all your problems. But at least you'll understand why.

Imagine that a friend insists that playing in the NBA causes people to grow taller than average. You find that claim ridiculous but you humor your friend. “What’s your evidence?” you ask.

“You can see it with your own eyes!” your friend says. “But if that's not enough, just look up the data. On average, people in the NBA are taller! That’s all the evidence you need that being in the NBA causes people to grow.”

Sound empirical? Of course not. Sound preposterous? Sure does. So why is it so difficult for us to make the distinction between an empirical claim and a preposterous one in other arenas? Perhaps the issues about which we find it difficult to differentiate between science and nonsense are those in which we’re looking for a quick fix.

Used with permission
Source: Used with permission

In his meticulously investigated yet accessible new book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills, science writer Jesse Singal disentangles a number of questionable psychological fads that have garnered surprising support throughout the years. Starting with the self-esteem movement, he takes the reader on a fascinating march through years of pop psychology, revealing layer after layer of issues with concepts we’ve come to know — some of which are still quite popular.

He even unpacks one of the most popular fads of the moment: the Implicit Association Test.

Unlike some critics of the IAT, Singal doesn’t assume that the myriad problems with the IAT mean the concept of “implicit bias” is useless. Instead, he carefully examines just exactly what the race IAT—the one used in race-oriented diversity trainings—measures (response time in people’s associations between certain words and the faces of people of different races). And unlike everyone who joined the IAT bandwagon, he asks the same kinds of questions he would ask an imaginary friend who asserts that the NBA causes people to be tall: What’s the evidence that implicit bias is what causes a high score on the IAT? In other words, what’s the evidence that what the IAT is measuring is actually implicit bias instead of something else? And what’s the evidence that in the real world, people with higher scores on the IAT behave in discriminatory ways? (Spoiler alert: It appears that IAT scores have not been found to correlate with real-world behavior.)

In reporting on the many and varied problems with the IAT, Singal describes a particularly clever experiment. Participants in a study were assigned to one of two conditions, each of which taught opposite things about fictional groups of people, the “Noffians” and the “Fasites.” In the first condition, people were taught to associate the Fasites with words related to privilege and associate the Noffians with words related to oppression, victimization, and discrimination. People in the second condition were taught the reverse associations. Then they were all administered a version of the race IAT, but with Fasites and Noffians standing in for white and black people. Lo and behold, participants were faster to associate a group with "bad" after being conditioned to associate that group with oppression, victimization, and discrimination. “In other words,” Singal writes, “the experimenters were able to easily induce what the IAT would interpret as 'implicit bias' against a nonexistent group simply by forming an association between that group and downtroddenness in general.”

What does this mean in practical terms? The race IAT might not be detecting an “implicit bias” that favors white people at all. Instead, it could merely be measuring the degree to which test-takers associate white people with privilege and people from other groups with oppression.

How did we get so hoodwinked?

Years ago, I came across a “scientific” claim in the realm of physics that I thought sounded far-fetched. But without a background in physics, I didn’t have the ability to apply my skepticism with scientific rigor. So I asked physicist Lawrence Krauss for his thoughts. “The law of attraction says like attracts like,” I told him a popular book asserted. “Thoughts are magnetic. Thoughts have a frequency. As you think thoughts, they are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency.”

“That is definitely complete nonsense,” Krauss replied.

It wasn't that every single thing about it was entirely wrong, but as Krauss put it, the claims used words from science “to say things that science doesn’t support.” For example, he explained, “when we think, we generate electric currents, and electric current generates magnetism. So, in fact we can measure magnetic fields around peoples’ heads when they think. But one thing that’s absolutely certain is that those magnetic fields are extremely weak.” And “the energy content associated with your thoughts is not enough to affect chemical reactions far away.” On top of that, “when it comes to electromagnetism, in fact, like charges repel, and unlike charges attract.”

So the claim of a “law of attraction” was “not only general new-age nonsense,” and “specifically incorrect scientifically,” it was exactly backwards. And “frequency is completely irrelevant,” he added. These are “scientific words,” he told me, “used by someone who appears to have no idea what they mean.”

And yet, enough people were convinced otherwise to make The Secret, the 2006 book from which I quoted these claims, a worldwide bestselling phenomenon.

Fifteen years later, we are still buying into nonsense. School systems, nonprofits, and corporations are spending huge sums on unscientific quick-fixes (remember when Starbucks shut down for a day?) to solve real problems that deserve real solutions.

The late Reverend Peter Gomes, speaking at the 2008 Aspen Ideas Festival, echoed Singal’s thesis. “There is no such thing as an easy, fast, or cheap solution to any problem worthy of being called a problem,” he said.

The question is whether we’re ready to learn that lesson.

Pamela Paresky, PhD, is Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and the author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness. Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of any organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky, on Clubhouse @Paresky, and subscribe to her Newsletter: