Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Decades ago, my parents were subscribed to an increasingly endangered item: a print newspaper. Seemingly every other day in the pages of this dying phenomenon was a new and brief item about how eating food X causes cancer. I was no science expert as a kid reading this (I’m still not), but I eventually concluded that all these foods may give me cancer, but not eating at all guaranteed I would die. So I would take my chances.

Jesse Singal’s new book The Quick Fix discusses the dangers of popularized social science in the press, not the “harder” science claiming everything causes cancer, but I could not help but feel that the two are linked, part of a broader problem in which the complicated, contingent, and sometimes contradictory science we produce is packaged and “sold” in the media, to the public, or presented to decision makers in government.

Singal, a veteran journalist with many positions under his belt, uses his experience as editor of New York Magazine’s online social science edition, Science of Us, to warn us of how all those flashy clickbait articles and airport books telling us about how we can change life and society with “this one trick” are either false or at the very least grossly exaggerated, often causing more harm than good.

Not one to shy away from controversial topics, Singal focuses on some of the biggest and most widespread of these fads—the idea of improving self-esteem as a way to improve school grades, the criminal “superpredator” as an “inevitable” result of American demographics, grit and positive thinking as ways to succeed and overcome severe trauma, “bias tests” to reveal bigoted thinking, and “nudging” as a governing midpoint between the overbearing social engineering of the post-WWII era and the ostensible “do nothing” approaches of the right.

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