Sci Culture


Did you fall for this? Science published a paper which claimed that reading literary fiction, you know that stuff that gets taught as highbrow reading material in college literature classes, is objectively better than genre or popular fiction at improving your mind and making you better able to understand other people’s mental states. It was all over the popular news sites.

Language Log shreds the paper wonderfully. It’s a great example of stirring the muck and taking whatever odor wafts out of the mess as a great truth. You might be able to see some obvious flaws just from my brief description: what the heck is “literary fiction”? Isn’t that a contentious division already? How do you recognize it (mostly, I fear, it’s because they’re old books that you’d never pick up to read for pure pleasure)? How did the authors of the study choose it?

As it turns out, the authors hand-picked a few passages from books that they subjectively placed into their categories of literary vs. popular fiction, had subjects read them, gave them a couple of standard tests of theory of mind or empathy, and got a very weak statistical effect. You know, if you shovel garbage at a wall, you can probably find some seemingly non-random distribution of the pattern of banana peels, too.

But it got published in Science, which is dismaying. Unfortunately, here’s where Language Log fails — they infer nefarious commercial intent from it.

The real question here is why Science chose to publish a study with such obvious methodological flaws. And the answer, alas, is that Science is very good at guessing which papers are going to get lots of press; and that, along with concern for their advertising revenues from purveyors of biomedical research equipment and supplies, seems empirically to be the main motivation behind their editorial decisions.

Oh, nonsense. I’m sure that Science is quite careful to keep editorial/review and advertising decisions entirely separate, and if their main concern was peddling expensive biomedical gear, why would they waste space on a simple and flawed paper using cheap psychological techniques? There are trade journals that are much better sources for overpriced gadgetry and reagents.

I’ll also point out that they’ve reversed the situation: Science isn’t good at guessing what papers will appeal to the popular press, the popular press is accustomed to turning to a few journals, like Science and Nature, for finding what the scientific soup d’jour is.

This is not to say that Science or Nature are objective paragons at finding the most important science of the day. To the contrary, both are self-consciously elitist journals, jockeying for position as the premier sources of distilled scientific wisdom. Language Log completely missed the boat: paper decisions at Science are not made to satisfy either the popular press or the scientific supply houses; they are decisions to appeal to the tastes of other scientists, and the financial benefits flow secondarily from that.

There is a Sci Culture, just like there is Pop Culture and High Brow Culture and Redneck Culture. And all of these fragments of a greater whole have their various organs of communication and modes and expectations of behavior, which are all much more complicated than being simply driven by the invisible hand of the market.

Comments

  1. sparkles says

    Coming soon: Answers In Genesis provides a similar study using another common book of literary fiction, The Bible.

  2. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    This reminds me of the time my creative writing instructor was trying to draw a distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction. To try to appeal to things students might have read outside of the classroom she wanted to put Tolkien in with the literary authors and yet had clearly never read anything by him. This lead her to constructing an argument in which literary fiction focused on the rich inner lives of the characters and the plot was driven by character flaws, while popular fiction focused on settings and the characters were pushed along by circumstances. And naturally she assumed that The Lord of the Rings must not have done anything so crass as be driven by a plot external to the characters’ personalities.

    Considering that this paper claims reading literary fiction improves social intelligence, I’d be willing to wager they used a similar definition.

  3. says

    literary fiction, you know that stuff that gets taught as highbrow reading material in college literature classes,

    THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO THINK

    No, seriously… that’s what they want you to think. “Literary fiction” is a currently and widely used marketing term within contemporary publishing, attempting to associate certain works and certain types of works with the idea of “literature” right off the presses, instead of waiting a couple of decades to see if anyone still gives a shit about it or if it gets into schools or whatever. What it even means within contemporary book publishing/marketing varies quite wildly. (You can see me going off about it in the comments on the LL post because this shit bugs me SO MUCH.) The only thing we can be certain about is that something explicitly labeled “contemporary literary fiction” or “short literary fiction from 2012″, etc., is probably not “old books”.

    At the end of the day, “literary fiction” means nothing, except maybe “Hello, I am a gigantic snob.”

    Would I be totally off in suspecting that if “Science is a self-consciously elitist journal,” that might be part of why they liked this stupid study so much?

  4. M can help you with that. says

    I notice that they included genre fiction in the “popular” category basicaly by definition; I wonder whether they might have been able to work towards a more worthwhile study if they categorized texts not in terms of “literary” or “popular/nonfiction/paraliterary” status (note the latter “everything but the stuff we’re promoting” category; it’s the Regnerus version of categorization!) but in terms of whether the text involves characters interacting or trying to understand each other. It would be more believable to suggest that reading about characters with varying perspectives cues people to think about empathy, unerstanding, etc. than to suggest that the marketing label “literary” has some sort of inherent psychological effect.

    Hell, some of the authors I’ve read who are most focused on theory of mind, perspective, social awareness, etc. are SF writers (“popular” rather than “literary” by the definition of the “study”).

  5. says

    I always assumed “literary fiction” was the stuff where the bottom half of the page was taken up by footnotes explaining what in hell the top half of the page was talking about.

    @The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical #2:

    This lead her to constructing an argument in which literary fiction focused on the rich inner lives of the characters and the plot was driven by character flaws, while popular fiction focused on settings and the characters were pushed along by circumstances.

    So, Brave New World is out, while The Prince of Tides is in.

  6. gillt says

    PZ

    paper decisions at Science are not made to satisfy either the popular press or the scientific supply houses; they are decisions to appeal to the tastes of other scientists, and the financial benefits flow secondarily from that.

    You don’t believe Science stands out from the big three, Cell, Nature, Science, as having published more splashy, and in turn dubious, papers in recent years?

  7. David Marjanović says

    PZ, I’m surprised you didn’t leave a comment at LL. I just did and linked to here. Linguists don’t live in the world of impact factors, and publish all the important stuff as books.

    You don’t believe Science stands out from the big three, Cell, Nature, Science, as having published more splashy, and in turn dubious, papers in recent years?

    I have no idea about Cell, it’s way too specialized. :-) The Number Three General Science Journal is PNAS!

    …And yes, in fields I feel qualified to judge, Science has published more dubious papers than Nature and PNAS since at least 1997, if we don’t count the PNAS papers that were submitted by a NAS member and not peer-reviewed.

  8. gillt says

    I would say PNAS is too obvious an outlier as it bests the others by mere design. I know a evolutionary biologist who started a career in part from a PNAS fast tracked paper and a human geneticist who is a NAS member but doesn’t publish in his academy’s journal because it’s not prestigious enough. Lots of variation within biology.

  9. J Dubb says

    When I first heard about this study, it reminded me immediately of the so-called Mozart effect. It’s an elitist idea that certain types of art are somehow like medicine. But only certain types… certainly not common, crass music. Turns out that the Mozart effect was bullshit, it never replicated. I have a feeling this ‘literary fiction vs. non-snooty fiction’ will suffer the same fate.

  10. says

    @David Marjanović writes:

    Linguists don’t live in the world of impact factors, and publish all the important stuff as books.

    As a linguist working in academia, I believe that (at least in my own subfield) what you say is false. Research results are typically disseminated in journal articles or conference proceedings. Books are probably more important than in, say, physics, and oftentimes a place where some “big ideas” are laid out; certain key books end up getting cited quite a lot in the literature for that reason. Professionally, there is not a lot of incentive for me to write one, however. I am much better off putting my energies into getting articles published in certain key (ie high impact) journals.

  11. Stacy says

    mostly, I fear, it’s because they’re old books that you’d never pick up to read for pure pleasure

    Hey, PZ, lots of those old books are a real pleasure to read, for some of us. Many pleasures require some experience and background before they can be fully appreciated by those who indulge them.

    (That doesn’t make them superior in some metaphysical way, and your point about the awfulness of the experiment and the paper stands, of course.)

  12. voidhawk says

    So far as I can tell Literary Fiction is simply a story which doesn’t fit into any other genre. After all, if you’re telling a story about a man whose marriage is breaking down in modern day New York and his attempts to try to keep his world together, how else would you classify it?

    “they’re old books that you’d never pick up to read for pure pleasure”

    Can we have less of the inverse snobbery, please? Some people can enjoy Tolstoy or Melville just as much as Baxter or Hamilton.

  13. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    14
    voidhawk

    After all, if you’re telling a story about a man whose marriage is breaking down in modern day New York and his attempts to try to keep his world together, how else would you classify it?

    Contemporary.

    Oh, wait no, they shove women and minorities into genres.

  14. oursally says

    >“they’re old books that you’d never pick up to read for pure pleasure”

    You mean, you mean, when I hated reading Jane Austen at school it was literature, but now I’m grown up and I read her for fun, it has somehow been degraded to popular fiction. This is fun. And so, something like the most sexist fifties-style stuff produced by, say, Clarke, it was genre back then, but now it’s boring it’s become literature, magically, that’s clever.

    That’s how Roth and Miller managed to become literature, now it’s all clear…

  15. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I find this incredibly exciting. People have been saying for years that lit fiction is better for your brain. I’m sure it’s been investigated like **20 times** in the past. Well, now the media can get speculating about exactly which passages were the operant ones neglected in previous studies, because now we know the truth.