Monday, April 7, 2008

Scientific progress goes "boink"

Apologies for the title, which I borrowed from a well-known Calvin and Hobbes volume.

The theme for today is a set of three "scientific" discoveries that have in the last few weeks been apparently reversed. Here are the original discoveries:

(i) Drinking lots of water is good for you.
(ii) Stretching is an important part of exercise.
(iii) Poor people are happier than rich people.

And here is current wisdom, according to recent press reports:

(i) Drinking water is not good for you.
(ii) Stretching is bad for your muscles.
(iii) Poor people are (you guessed it) less happy than rich people.

So, what happened? Is this on par with saying one day that the electron is a fermion, and the next day that it is a boson? Not at all. The point here is, I suspect, the pathetic level of press reporting, coupled with the lazy reader's desire to have a one-line answer to everything.

Let's consider drinking water. If you drink only water, or water all the time, you are not likely to be in good shape. If you drink no water, you will die. So, whether it is good for you or not is a matter of quantity. If you drink too little, you need more. If you drink too much, you need less.

Am I sounding vacuous here? Of course. But no more so than the press reports, which abound in idiotic statements like "X drank no water for the last 37 years and she is fit as a fiddle" (no information about the rest of her diet.)

As for rich and poor, dare I state the obvious? If you are dirt poor, you are probably dead. No happiness in that. If you are very rich, it can go both ways. Maybe you have a private plane and take flying lessons. Nice, that would make most of us happy. Or maybe you have a private drug supplier and take intravenous heroin. Also nice, perhaps, but not for very long - you'd likely end up as dead as the dirt poor person. So both extremes have their risks.

Now suppose one is trying to gauge average levels of happiness. The answers are bound to depend on the nature of the questions. If one evaluates peoples' delight at the thought that their country is a superpower that can bomb any other country to shreds, then citizens of the USA will come out happy while those of Belgium or Vanuatu would have little chance. If one evaluates peoples spontaneous smiles as evidence of their happiness then Thailand and India will do well while Russia and Sweden would fare badly. If one evaluates people's belief in the goodness of their nation's foreign policy then Canada will win. In other words, it depends.

Now for some reason (and I'll be rude enough to hazard a guess), journalists hate the phrase "it depends". It simply robs newspapers of their headlines. Try replacing "hamburgers cause cancer" with "a diet mainly consisting of hamburgers may, depending on what else you eat, increase your risk of cancer. However there is also evidence that many hamburger-eaters are phenomenally healthy and a number of them have climbed Mount Everest without oxygen". It just doesn't sell.


Cheeta said...

On the last apparently new "finding", that "poor people are less happy than rich", a question: when was it suggested otherwise, and by whom?

I would have thought it was always felt to be the opposite, and the new study would merely confirm what we've always known rather than being a Calvinian boink (or was it Hobbes who did the boinking?).

Oh, and you're perfectly right on laying the blame for all of this mis-reporting and mis-representation on sub-editors - the ones on the editorial team who write and re-write headlines and other eye-catching stuff. The new study your post refers to (as the actual news report on the study's findings clearly says) was on happiness within a peer group. People whose incomes were 25% less than that of their peers tended to be 10% less happy, or some such thing (not surprising, since keeping up with the Joneses seems to be an over-riding characteristic of human social groups). The catchy but very misleading over-generalization it was summarised into was, of course, from the creative imagination of a sub-editor.

Sunil Mukhi said...

A survey on happiness done some years ago suggested that the greatest source of happiness is meeting several people a day who, in your opinion and belief, care about you. (This is of course a definition of one kind of happiness, different from the kind you get from having a private plane, or designer clothes, or designer drugs). On this indicator, Bangladesh came out to be the happiest nation on earth and India was not far behind. Sweden and Russia were far down the list and so was the US.

I think this is a valuable study, and see no reason to doubt the result.


Cheeta said...

Is there a source from which one can learn more about the survey, and about its basis, methodology and findings? The only references to such a survey I can locate using Google are on Bangladesh-oriented sites, which quote the result without being in the least specific as to how it was arrived at.

Other "surveys" have put at the top of the happiest list such diverse countries such as Nigeria (from an article in The New Scientist magazine as cited by the BBC in 2003) and Puerto Rico and Denmark (according to The New Scientist itself). A study done at the University of Leicester (perhaps the same one which prompted the article in The New Scientist?) also mentions Denmark, and India and Bangladesh not at all.

A common theme in the mentions of these survey results is that happiness is equated with being satisfied with life; and, of course, many of those participating in these studies have commented on the obvious, that anyone suffering below the poverty line (in any country) is surely less than likely to express any such satisfaction. Which would put countries such as Bangladesh (and India) fairly low in any comparative ranking of what percentage of that country's population are satisfied/happy.

Would like to know more about the suggestion that the greatest source of happiness is meeting several people a day who, in your opinion and belief, care about you. Is there any evidence to confirm that this is in fact the case? Are starving people with many caring kith and kin (also starving) "happier" than, say, well-fed people who may interact but rarely with family and friends? That's surely stretching the definition of "happiness" to the extreme!

Sunil Mukhi said...

Let's leave aside people who are involuntarily starving, as we've agreed they would not be happy. For the rest, "satisfaction with life" (a concept you just brought up) is very closely tied with "expectations from life", for these expectations are what we can satisfy or not satisfy. People with high expectations can easily end up dissatisfied, and those with low expectations can easily end up satisfied. That is why it is not obvious where in the world one expects to find happiness, and where not.

An instructive book that I read a while ago, Life and how to survive it", by Robert Skynner and John Cleese, actually studies different cultures to see what behaviour patterns make people more - or less - predisposed to being happy.

Anonymous said...

And now, the story goes, vitamins can actually "increase mortality". A big "boink" indeed !