Disgust Science, Disgusting Journalism

I’ve just read on LiveScience.com that “[b]ooks are just as powerful as movies” at triggering “delight, pain, or disgust” reactions in the brain. As is so often the case on LiveScience, this gripping opening represents a kind of yellow science journalism that has intensified its hold on the popular imagination in the last few years.

For one thing, in the single study writer Andrea Thompson discusses, a team of Dutch scientists (Jabba et al.) set out to test the triggering of disgust by various stimuli: print, motion picture, foul-tasting beverage. The study concerns disgust exclusively; there’s no hint of delight or pain in it, or for the rest of the article.

Moreover, contrary to what’s suggested by the article’s title—”Books Still Rival Movies For Stirring Emotions”—the scientists themselves make no quantitative comparison between the power of books and movies. That is, nobody’s saying “just as powerful” besides Thompson, not in their interviews or in the study. The parts of the study discussed on LiveScience.com only show that similar responses can be generated from various stimuli.

Finally, those portions of the study absent from the article in fact show deep differences among the responses generated by the stimuli. Let’s take a closer look at its methods to see why and how these differences emerge. At stake is not only a better understanding of the study, but the success or failure of the LiveScience article as a piece of science journalism.

First, participants in the study were shown three-second films of a disgust reaction: A person on the screen takes a drink and then appears disgusted. There were also control films showing pleasurable and neutral responses. As they watched, an fMRI machine captured changes in blood flow to various regions of their brain. During the disgust clips, these included an increase in activity in the region that injury and other studies suggest is a crucial part of the disgust reaction. (Jabba et al., 2)
One of the team members describes the next step in Thompson’s article:

“Later on, we asked them to read and imagine short emotional scenarios. […] For instance, walking along a street, bumping into a reeking, drunken man, who then starts to retch, and realizing that some of his vomit had ended up in your own mouth.”

In both cases, as well as a third in which the subjects tasted something, well, disgusting, the anterior insula and adjacent frontal operculum lit up the fMRI. (Jabba et al., 3-4) So, we conclude, books are as effective at provoking disgust as movies, right?

Not a chance. There are crucial differences between a three-second clip of a man taking a drink and then experiencing disgust and the process of reading and imagining a scenario like the one described above, and similar differences between participants’ reactions to the two stimuli.

First, the clips and the written scenarios differ in duration. The scripts given to the participants took much longer than three seconds to read and process; the study gives the reading times as 35 seconds (2). That the scripts required so much more time than the clips to induce the desired reaction belies any suggestion that the former are “just as powerful” as the latter.

Second, the clips and the scripts differ in terms of the depth of the empathetic reaction they allow. Reading a disgusting scenario and imagining oneself in that scenario seems much more likely to trigger deep emotional reaction than just seeing a face on-screen for three seconds (mirror neurons be damned). The study confirms this differing depth; the greatest average change to the fMRI signal during clip viewing was about 0.1%, compared to about .66% for the script-reading portions of the experiment (figs. 1b and 1c, page 3).

And of course, these clips don’t replicate the experience of watching a “movie.” Typically, narrative and generic context as well as cinematic style and technique allow or assist viewers in developing empathic responses to persons on-screen. All of that is absent or extremely limited in a laboratory setting, and in the films themselves. (You can find stills of the clips in another study, requiring a paid subscription or institutional access.)

Are these problems with the study? Or just with the reporting? The study’s abstract ends:

[T]his shared region however [sic] was found to be embedded in distinct functional circuits during the three modalities, suggesting why observing, imagining and experiencing an emotion feels so different. (1)

In other words, the study acknowledges the apples-to-oranges nature of the comparisons between the different stimuli-response pairs, even as it shows their similarities. So what do we make of LiveScience’s expansion of the conversation from the realm of clips and scripts to that of “movies” and “books”?

It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with science reporting in its current state—and not just on the web—is the indiscriminate use of the facts in the service of stories with artificially inflated “wow” factors. There’s a diminished ethical standard for much science journalism, in which obfuscation, equivocation, and fallacious conclusion or conjecture are all widely accepted, or at least routinely tolerated. By looking closely at one article and the study it concerns, I hope to have shown some of the problems to which this climate can lead.

Myths, Media, Motives: A Cautionary Tale

Housing Market Media Mayhem

As a homeowner, I have a heightened interest the housing market, to which my financial future is closely tied. But it’s not just “the housing market” in the abstract that makes me nervous right now. More than that, its the ways different media spheres are talking about the market that make me shudder.

Given my position, when I ended up reading the eFinanceDirectory article “Rent Vs. Buy Myths That Ruined the Housing Market,” I got a little sad. For reasons I’ll explain later, I’m confident this deeply troubling article will reach millions of people positioned to read uncritically.

First, Don’t Be Wrong

In short, the article is a run-down of five “myths” that, the unnamed author claims, caused the demise of the housing market. Each piece of the argument has problems, but I’ll focus on two:

“Myth #1: Renting is Like Throwing Your Money Away”

The argument here is that renters, unlike homeowners, “pay for one thing every month: shelter. They don’t pay interest to the bank, property taxes, or maintenance fees.” With “the money they save by renting,” they can “invest in stocks, bonds and other vehicles.” This argument—that renters pay less money, all else being equal, than owners—is echoed throughout the piece.

There’s a massive misunderstanding of real estate here, if not of basic capitalist economy. Renters write only one check each month, but it’s a rare landlord who’s not making sure her costs—including mortgage, taxes, insurance, and upkeep—are covered, and indeed that she’s making a profit. If I can rent an apartment for $850 each month, my landlord’s monthly PITI payment is perhaps hundreds of dollars less than that. In other words, landlords, in the interest of making money at their jobs, take a profit.

So, in seeking shelter, my choices are to come up with some initial capital (a noteworthy hurdle, to be sure) for the privilege of building equity with, let’s say, a $550 payment each month. Initially, only a small portion of my payment goes towards the principal of my loan, but out of an $850 rent check, none of it builds equity. Ever. So not only am I spending more for shelter if I’m renting, but I don’t get to keep any of my money. If I am lucky enough to have the choice, then renting is, indeed, throwing my money away (unless I really like my landlord).

“Myth #2: There are Tax Benefits to Owning”

There’s more weird logic here: “Mortgage interest can only be deducted from taxable income. This essentially means that buyers pay a dollar just to save 30 cents.”

The first sentence is true, but what it “essentially means” is that homeowners save “30 cents” on the dollars that they have to spend anyway for shelter. Again, given two equal payments, the renter comes out behind, every time. (And again, the payments, rent and PITI, are never equal.)

But it doesn’t end there: “Furthermore, deducting interest has no tax advantage unless a buyer pays so much in interest that the amount exceeds the standard deduction that everyone—including renter—is allowed to take.”

The first sentence is false. Deducting interest has no tax advantage unless the interest combined with all the myriad other deductions one can itemize exceeds the standard deduction. I should note here that I’m a homeowner in Pittsburgh, a city with relatively low property tax, and that I bought when the market last bottomed out, so I pay about as little interest as one can in this country (5.625%).

Despite the insane bargain I’ve got, I’ve itemized my deductions every year since I bought the house, and not once before. In other words, my mortgage interest presents a significant tax advantage, as it would for just about everybody out there.

Beyond Wrong: Myths and Motives

The “Myths” article is worse than just being inaccurate, though. There is, in the end, a particular political agenda advanced in the piece, one that ought not be part of something that projects itself as impartial financial advice. (“Our goal is to provide you non-biased original articles about the housing and mortgage issues that matter to you most,” reads introductory copy on the site’s home page.)

The piece reads, “Potential buyers bought into all sorts of rent vs. buy myths to justify buying houses that they could not afford during the boom.” Placing blame on the buyers make a certain amount of sense, on the face of it: Why didn’t they understand that an adustable-rate mortgage, for example, would come back to bite them?

That’s a valid point. However, holding buyers solely responsible is also a tactic that conservative pundits often use to keep government spending down. Proposed ARM bailouts, for many conservatives, aren’t appropriate use of tax money. If you blame the borrowers, then you don’t have to give them anything. For me, that argument doesn’t hold, as it’s unclear how the history of the situation should have anything to do with economic arguments for and against bailouts. The point is, it’s a popular argument for a conservative position on the mortgage crisis.

(Another article on the site, “The Truth About Home Prices and Mortgage Bailouts,” makes good on this hidden motive, with falsehoods more problematic than in the “Myths” piece.)

Reader Beware

There’s an obvious problem with purportedly “unbiased” advice that’s so deeply biased. Notwithstanding that issue, there’s a larger lesson here. As readers, we have to look out for ourselves. I found the “Myths” piece linked to from one of my favorite sites, kottke.org. Though I find absolutely no fault with the site for posting the link, I worry for its visitors, who numbered 600,000 per month two years ago, and who has at least 100,000 subscribers in Google Reader alone.

It’s our human propensity to believe trusted sources—the limits of which can be extreme indeed—that can get us into hot water in situations like this. A site I and many others trust and respect linked to an article that’s misleading, untruthful, and deeply biased. My worry here is that because of our relationship to the site, we might shed our usual skepticism and read a troubling article more favorably than we should. I hate to advocate widespread suspicion, but surely some measure of caution is in order, no matter where we get our reading material.

A Phenomenology of the Clipboard

I’ve noticed: When I have an image or sentence or URL copied (or cut) to the clipboard, but not yet pasted into its destination, my left hand—with which I always perform my pasting operations—feels, somehow, different.

I struggle to describe the sensation, but my hand and wrist feel a little higher in my brain’s list of sensory priorities, like there’s an urgency attached to the nerves there. The phenomenon, albeit subtle, has nonetheless proved effective as a safeguard against the accidental overwriting of clipped items with new copy operations.

The effect is heightened with increases in a clip’s “importance,” a flexible term in this case. Usually, “importance” maps onto one of two factors, or a combination of them:

  • a lack of redundancy (the clip doesn’t exist elsewhere, or not in a readily accessible location)
  • a personal attachment to the details of the clip (I’m particularly attached to this way of structuring that paragraph and don’t want to figure it out again).

The effect is also particularly intense when the destination of the clip is unknown at the time I perform the original copy operation. In those cases, I have not only to remember to paste the clip, but also to figure out how I intend to use it. My conscious cognitive faculties are more heavily “booked,” in other words.

To recap, the intensity (and also the likelihood of occurrence) of the cognitive outsourcing effect seems to correlate independently with these two factors:

  1. an increase in the consequences of losing the clip
  2. an increase in the chance of losing the clip

It is as though my cerebral cortex, in great demand when I’m sitting at my computer doing cognitively intense work, makes use of my sensory cortex, mostly unengaged at those times, for assistance: “Here, sensory center, take this responsibility—We’re too busy.”

This is a sensible system indeed, though its effects can be distractingly intense. Sometimes, when I have failed to paste for several minutes, I often relief myself into a new text document or browser window, and the sensation quickly dissipates.

(I am then left with a separate feeling, a kind of emotional vulnerability associated with having unsaved work open. But that’s fodder for another post.)