Monday, December 3, 2012

Make no mistakes and you make no progress.

I recently blogged about a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard men from the late 1930s (What goes right is more important than what goes wrong). A book review of the last report of the study, Their Right Stuff: The evolution of the Harvard guinea pigs book by Christopher Caldwell has more information.

I had mentioned in my earliern post that, "Longitudinal studies are great but you have to be careful about how they evolve over time". It seems that I was more correct than I realized. Caldwell maps the many twists and turns of the Grant study.
Not to beat around the bush, the Grant study was a study in eugenics, as that term was understood in the 1930s. This was just a decade after Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding Virginia’s sterilization policy on the grounds that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” One of the study’s early leaders, the anthropologist Earnest Hooton, hoped it would lead to “effective control of individual quality through genetics, or breeding.”

A mesomorphic (muscular) body type was a sign of the right stuff; blubbery endomorphs and gangly ectomorphs were less promising. But Sigmund Freud had made inroads into American academia, too. So the Grant study was, from the outset, an uneasy mix of phrenology, somatotyping, race theory, and psycho-analysis. Not only did the young men have their skulls, pulses, and scrota measured; they also took Rorschach tests and filled out questionnaires about how they’d been toilet trained and how often they masturbated.

The study was barely a decade old when the revelations of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement brought its original eugenic slant into disrepute. But there had to be some use for those hundreds of blue-blood men on the hook to be studied intimately for a lifetime, and a use was found. In 1954, the tobacco industry gave the study money to look for “the positive reasons” that people smoke. For a decade after 1972, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sponsored its research, and Vaillant published his book The Natural History of Alcoholism in 1983.
Caldwell's review is a capstone to three other books I am currently reading: It Ain't Necessarily So (a discussion of the many slips between research and knowledge), The Half-Life of Facts (an exploration of the development and accretion of knowledge) and The Signal and the Noise (an investigation of how we make sense from data).

It seems marvellous to me that the Grant study should have been undertaken in the first place. Hugely expensive, invasive, and at the frontiers of knowledge, it is no wonder that over its seventy years, there should have been so many changes in the nature of the study. Caldwell is quite clear about the short-comings of the study, how it was administered and how subject it was to bias and fads.
Vaillant is particularly insistent that “defense mechanisms”—character adjustments that allow psycholo-gically wounded humans to adjust to, and overcome, their pain—“are not just one more dogma of the psychoanalytic religion.” He even developed a four-stage hierarchy to prove that mature defense mechanisms, such as humor and altruism, produce a better adjustment to life at age 65 than immature defense mechanisms, such as psychotic distortion and hypochondria. In other words, his study has proved that an ability to adapt predicts an ability to adapt.

Vaillant’s boldest conclusions generally take this form: tautologies presented as if they belong in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He sets up a “Decathlon of Flourishing”—a rather redundant list of career, health, and family outcomes—and then speaks of a “capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” Since Vaillant has already defined flourishing as an ability to enter and nurture relationships, this is not a surprise. He also establishes that a person who is well-integrated (i.e., able “to surmount common problems which confront him such as career choice, competitive environment, and moral and religious attitudes”) is more likely to flourish later in life. In other words, people who are good at addressing life’s problems do better at life than those who are not.
For all that, it is an example of exploratory science - bold, original well-intended by the lights of the time. Progress is not made by logic but by exploration and discovering the problems as we proceed. Later science builds on the errors of earlier science. Make no mistakes and you make no progress.

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