Batman Movies Don’t Kill. But They’re Friendly to the Concept.


Update 7/28/12: In the week since this has run, some people have read it and understood, and, as the comments show, many have read it and not understood. Earlier this week I posted the caveat below to try to clarify. For some, that didn’t work — so I made this argument in a different way, with more context and specific examples, in Batman Returns: How Culture Shapes Muddle Into Madness. You may want to go there if the post below doesn’t work for you.

Note 7/26:: Since hordes of readers seem to miss that I’m writing about the effect of media on psychotic or psychopathic people, I’ve bolded those passages. And please take note: I’m not saying movies turn average viewers violent, make people crazy or homicidal, or make our country as whole more violent. I’m saying  that culture, including movies, can shape the way people express these urges. I’m not making policy recommendations.  I’m trying to get people to think a wee bit differently about the relationship — to recognize there is a relationship — between these killings and culture. As noted above, I explore these dynamics more explicitly and fully in  Batman Returns: How Culture Shapes Muddle Into Madness.


Let me apologize in advance, seriously and sincerely, to my many friends who love the Batman movies. But I think this needs saying.

This, from the Times today, is frightening in more than one way:

Chief Daniel Oates of the Aurora police praised the arresting officers on the CBS program “Face the Nation” for noticing that Mr. Holmes’ gear was not quite like that of the other S.W.A.T. officers or he might well have escaped, mistaken for one of the responders.

This is part of what I was getting at in my little editorial about a culture of violence at the end of my piece on Aurora the other day. I may have been closer than I thought when I wrote:
…the shooter went out the exit door and to his car in the parking lot and there surrendered without trouble to police similarly clad and armed. I found it too easy to imagine that he felt a sort of fraternity with his new captors.

And his captors nearly felt a sort of fraternity with him — one that might have let him walk, at least for the time.

So a man bent on mass murder dons SWAT garb that a) makes some in the theater initially think his live-action IRL appearance is part of the extraordinarily hyped special midnight showing they’re sitting down to and b) damn near fools the SWAT team outside into thinking that he was one of them.

I don’t think this is a side-issue. We don’t know what led Holmes to do this, whether he was, to use David Eagleman’s distinction, psychotic or psychopathic or  something else altogether. But unlike Anthony Lane and many other commenters, I don’t think we can give the movies a free ride here by saying they had nothing to do with it and just provided a stage. They gave this actor his lines and stage directions.

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits.  This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.

When I expressed this idea (perhaps clumsily) on Twitter two days ago, someone said, “That’s the argument that violent video games cause violence.” As I replied then, It’s NOT the same argument. My older son played lots of shoot-em-up video games when he was a teen, and you’d have to look hard to find a gentler, sweeter, more caring 22-year-old than he is. But it’s silly to think that we can live in and support a culture so saturated in images of violence and in the absurd availability of guns and not have that culture steer certain unhinged or deeply a-moral people toward the sort of violence that has now become so routine that the entire thing seems scripted. This isn’t a plea to ban Batman. It’s a statement of implications. It’s a fantasy to think we can indulge in fantasies like the ones we indulge in at Batman movies and pay no price.

Is this art? I haven’t seen Dark Knight Rising and had not planned to before the opening and do not plan to now, because I saw the prior two movies in the series and found them, like so many superhero movies and movies of dark, supposedly profound violence before them, entertaining but empty; overproduced, overwrought, pretentious. (I’ll admit I did like watching Michael Caine run the empire for a time.) But we’re not watching Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde here, nor Mystic River or Unforgiven. These superhero movies strike me as the Hill Street Blues of the 21st cinema: They entertain us freshly enough that we mistake their novelty for originality and their polish for art. On later review it’s clear they’re nothing special.

If this is the culture you want, well, fine, I suppose. But you’re fooling yourself if you think it stops at the exit door.


Addenda 7 July 2012: Daniel Lende gets at this and much more far more successfully with his “Inside the Minds of Mass Killers,” which is the single most (truly) provocative, original, and forward-looking thing I’ve read on the killings. Don’t, please, go there to bloviate. Go to read and think. Respond to his “call to expand our moral imaginations.”

Exit-door photo by jennlynndesign, used by permission. Some rights reserved.

Slug Sex, Bouncing Bosons, Heroic Virgins: My Picks for The Browser’s Best

Reading, by Cristiano Betta. See his excellent caption in the full photo credit at bottom.

I got the honors of being guest editor this past Saturday at The Browser, one of my favorite aggregators of good reading. My assignment: Pick a half-dozen of my favorite online pieces from the last month or so. I narrowed this brutal task by focusing on pieces that would add to the great picks the Browser had already made; most of these weren’t on there before. I was also constrained, as I note below, by a reluctance to feature pieces from any of  the several science writers I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with and/or become close friends with; that eliminated some others that I’ve included beneath my half-dozen Browser picks below.

My picks for the Browser, more or less as they appeared there:

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s rumination on the SCOTUS healthcare decision makes vivid the human costs of our failed system — and the determination of profiteers and ideologues to obscure this clarity.

The Weird World of Banana Slug Sex, by Cassandra Willyard. For hermaphroditic banana slugs, sex always involves a head job — a 69ish, ying-yang affair. Plus …  they apophallate. Fantastic, smart, definitely weird. Warning: “You can’t unsee a slug penis.”

Is Autism an “Epidemic” or Are We Just Noticing More People Who Have It?, by Emily Willingham. Autism is like a pool muddied by murky streams. Willingham clears these up. You’ll see the whole business — surface,, depths, contours — far better.

What is the Higgs Boson? by Ian Sample and Laurence Topham Sugar, ping-pong balls, and Sample’s gorgeous accent: This sweet, bouncy 4-minute video on the Higgs discovery may be the simplest and clearest particle-physics explainer ever.

When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back, by Michael J. Mooney Mooney relates a horrific story — a 62-year-old virgin held captive by a neighbor and repeatedly raped over 12 days — with such empathy and restart that it approaches redemption. I had to stop reading this a couple times, but I’m glad I continued. An astounding tale told with perfect modulation and, always, immense respect for the steely woman who suffered it.

Wiring the Brain: The genetics of stupidity by Kevin Mitchell. To understand intelligence, maybe we should look not about for what creates it, but for what destroys it. Fresh thinking and a great example of why scientists should blog.

Left on my shortlist were another rough half-dozen that I liked as well but which did not make the half-dozen Browser entries either because of mix reasons or because the people who wrote them are close enough friends that I felt I might be accused of favoritism. (In every case, by the way, I was drawn to these friends because I admired their writing, not the other way around.) Consider this then, the rest of my Browser Picks, Long Version:

The Data Detective, by Ed Yong  Yong had three contenders, but I recused him because a) he’s a friend and b) he keeps winning contests I enter, so I’m not about to puff him up any extra. That said, he’s a force, and my bookmarks of favorite reads over the last month included several of his, three of which made my short list. One is the piece links above — his scoop interviewing Uri Simonsohn, who, as Yong described in another fascinating post, developed a data-analysis tool that exposed data fabrication in the works of social psychologist Dirk Smeesters. In addition, i was tempted to list his I’ve got your missing links right here (07 July 2012), but since it is itself a round-up, it didn’t qualify. No link round-up better filters each week’s science writing; it’s indispensable. And Yong, rather frighteningly, keeps getting better even as he keeps up a seemingly impossible pace.

The Good Fight by Eric Michael Johnson. A sharp fresh take on the Altruism Wars by a writer who was strong when he emerged two years ago and gets better by the month.

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, by Bill McKibben. An almost furious exploration of how we manage to ignore climate change even as the world literally ignites around us.

Tiny Fireworks, by Deborah Blum. Blum too has become a friend over the past couple years, due to the combination of warmth, insight, amd intelligence that grace this piece on family fireworks.

The Lure of the Fairy Tale, by Joan Acocella. Acocella, reading and harvesting Grimm and otherswith genius. “In sum, the Grimm tales contain almost no psychology…. They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away.” And a great quote from A.S. Byatt: “‘It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.'” It’s both. And this piece is an example of how The New Yorker’s particular culture still produces some of the smartest, liveliest, jolting literary criticism.

9-Year-Old Who Changed School Lunches Silenced By Politicians by Maryn McKenna. McKenna blogs here at Wired, and I don’t think I’m revealing too much inside info by saying she blew the hits ceiling right off the place with this post; the thing just went crazy, as the post’s post-scripts relate. McKenna likes food and smart writing and has a particular affinity for the point of view of young children. When school officials muzzled a young student whose blog and been delighting McKenna and changing school lunch culture, at least at her school, McKenna responded with a post of quiet but almost frightening fierceness.

The only good abortion is my abortion. BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker is another writer who had several contenders. She’s just killing it at Boing Boing, and is on my very shortest list of must-follows. This piece stands out for its extraordinary courage and openness about an enormously painful experience.

Aurora shootings: These two came too late to make Saturday’s list, but are among the most helpful things I’ve read on the Aurora shootings, precisely because they seek to give context rather than read the all-too-spare tea leaves available at this point:

Colorado shooting: how James Holmes fits into the history of rampage killers | Harry J Enten  Very nicely done. And James Holmes’ Brain: Some Initial Speculations, by neuroscientist David Eagleman, worried me with its title but turned out to be restrained and very useful, particularly its distinction between psychosis and psychopathy.

I’ll stop there, though I know I’m missing a ton of good stuff. Please chip in below. I may try to find a way to do this more often.

Photo of woman reading  by Cristiano Betta, by permission, some rights reserved. I love Betta’s caption at Flickr: “I think Melinda can read literally anywhere, anytime. Quite often I’m bored and playing with my iPhone, she will be playing with her toy: books. It doesn’t matter if we are in a crowded tube, on the beach, of outside in the middle of London.”


How Do You Choke Away the British Open? The Science of the Tight Collar


Spurred by Adam Scott’s collapse today at the British Open, where he bogeyed the last four holes to lose by a stroke, I’m reposting this feature that I originally published here in September, 2010, as “The Tight Collar: The New Science of Choking.” It was selected the following summer for inclusion in The Best American Sports Writing 2010.  As you’ll see, choking is even more complicated and horrible than you’d think. But if I were you, I wouldn’t think about it — except when you need to. 


The Collar

Late in May 2008, perched in superb seats a few rows behind home plate at Chicago’s Cellular Field, I took in a White Sox-Indians game with Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who studies what is surely, other than serious injury, the most feared catastrophe in sports: the choke.

Sian Beilock

Beilock, who not long ago played some high-level lacrosse at University of California, San Diego, traces her own interest in choking back to high school, when she discovered that during the tense, game-beginning face-offs, she more often gained control of the ball if she sang to herself, “to keep me from thinking too much.” Later, in grad school, it occurred to her that if you could avoid choking by engaging your brain with singing, it followed that choking must rise from what neuroscientists like to call mechanisms — that is, systematic, causal chains of brain activity.

She has spent much of her time since then exposing and exploring those mechanisms. Her labs include a putting room where she can find a way to make virtually anyone screw up putts that were easy just moments before. Her work has brought her absurdly early tenure, a rain of prizes and grants, and a flashy book contract. She is a kind of queen of choke.

Which is what brought us to Cellular Field. I’d hate to say we were wishing for someone to choke; more like waiting. And given that baseball offers a hundred openings for pressure’s effects, and that this was a tense game between teams vying for first place — the White Sox led their longtime division rivals, the Indians, by a game and a half — we could wait in confidence, knowing that at some point a player would “suffer,” as Beilock politely phrased it, “a decrement under pressure.”

The game did not disappoint. Through seven innings the pitchers dominated, and the pressure slowly rose. Then, in the eighth, the White Sox, leading 2-1, got a chance to put the game away when the Indians’ pitcher C.C. Sabathia finally tired and was replaced by Jensen Lewis, a rookie, just as the White Sox were sending up their best hitters.

Lewis, perhaps suffering a bit of a decrement himself, walked the first hitter and then surrendered a double that left runners at second and third. When White Sox slugger Jim Thome, who had already homered once, came to bat, Lewis, on orders from the bench, walked him intentionally to get to the next batter.

A certain weight — the weight of great opportunity — falls upon any hitter who steps to the plate with the bases loaded. It falls heavier when the pitcher has just intentionally walked the previous batter.

Feeling this weight now was Paul Konerko, the Sox first baseman. Konerko generally hits well with runners in scoring position, batting a few points higher than his lifetime average, and he could do so in big moments: He had won game 2 of the 2005 World Series, in fact, by homering with the bases loaded.

But Konerko was also a streaky hitter, and lately he had run cold. In fact he was having a terrible season. He was hitting just .212, and he had not homered in weeks. Now, however, he had a chance to break open an important game.

Though I was there to see a choke, I was pulling for the guy. But he had a horrible at-bat.

It was one I could relate to, for I had endured an at-bat remarkably similar to his the week before. (I play in what my wife calls “geezerball,” an amateur league for those over 35.) With two runners on and my team trailing by a single run, I had done everything wrong: I took a hittable fastball for strike one, chased an unreachable curve ball outside, and then stood frozen as strike three — another fastball, which you should always be ready for with two strikes — split the plate.

Now I watched with amazement as Konerko did much the same. He had enough sense to swing at his first-pitch fastball, only he missed it. But after that it was carbon copy: He chased a curveball outside, then stood frozen as a heater blew by for strike three.

Now, I don’t want to say Konerko choked, because (a) he was facing major-league pitching, which is incomprehensibly nasty, and (b) I met Konerko later, and he’s a tremendously likable guy, and I’d hate to hurt his feelings. Yet it seemed clear that if the tremendous pressure of this crucial at-bat had not exactly destroyed Konerko, it had affected him enough to produce a subpar performance. So I don’t want to say he choked. But he gagged.

But what, really, did this mean? What had transpired in his skull to make this feared major-leaguer bat like an amateur?

Continue reading →

Patients, Prisoners, and Mass Shootings

Closure of mental hospitals and rise in prison rates, 1934-2010, US. From Bernard Harcourt


The medical resident PetulantSkeptic drew my attention to the graph above, which he included in a short, sad post he wrote last fall:

I’m currently doing a psychiatry rotation at an outpatient behavioral health clinic which primarily serves the substantial indigent population here. I’ve tried to sit down and write about the experience but all that comes out is a structureless jeremiad about the tragedy of a shredded safety net and those with psychiatric problems.

Rather than subject you to that I’d rather just present this chart by Bernard Harcourt.

The graph comes from a paper that Harcourt, a criminologist, wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, which he blogged about at the Volokh Conspiracy:

Was the tragic incident at Virginia Tech the result of a failure of Virginia’s mental health system? Slate recently posted Seung-Hui Cho’s commitment papers and they are revealing: the magistrate who heard Cho’s case determined that he was “an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness,” but determined that there were “alternatives to involuntary hospitalization.”

After the shooting, Sally Satel at AEI argued that Virginia needs to reexamine its involuntary treatment laws and adopt a lower threshold for commitment, more in line with states like Arkansas and Hawai’i. Others, like Brian Jenkins at RAND, contend that the tragedy probably could not have been prevented and might not have a solution.

It’s impossible to make sense of the debate, though, without understanding the extent to which we’ve dismantled our mental health system in this country. Brick-by-brick, cell-by-cell, we deconstructed what was once a massive mental hospital complex and built in its place a huge prison.

Harcourt isn’t arguing that everyone in prison should be in mental hospitals; the rise in prison population is far more complex than just jailing the unstable. Yet he and many others note that we are imprisoning many people who are mentally ill — essentially because, as a nation, we’re far more enthusiastic about imprisoning people who commit crimes than we are about treating people who are mentally ill.

We should not be surprised that there are so many persons with mental illness behind bars today. We deal with perceived deviance differently than we did in the past: instead of getting treatment, persons who are viewed as deviant or dangerous are going to jail rather than mental hospitals.

The second is that we should not be surprised that our mental health systems are in crisis today. The infrastructure is simply not there. This is evident in states across the country where persons with mental illness are being housed in jails rather than treatment facilities.

He’s not arguing for more institutionalization — but for better treatment. See his post or the paper for more.

I agree too with the many who feel our gun culture — from easy ownership and defend-your-turf laws to a fetishization of violence — makes it far more likely that the violently inclined will express their fury in spectacular ways like the Aurora shooting. I don’t think you can separate the development of an obsessive psychotic fixation from the culture in which it develops; this is why we see these mass shootings so often here in the U.S. and so seldom elsewhere. The list of mass shootings in the U.S. since 2005 alone runs 62 pages. Is it coincidence that the alleged shooter dressed up in SWAT-team-like gear? I found it chilling and somehow utterly normal, almost expected, that (if this account is correct), after shooting 71 people in a theater amid a screenplay that reportedly made some at first think this strange live-action before the screen was part of the show, the shooter went outside to his car in the parking lot and there surrendered without trouble to police similarly clad and armed. I found it too easy to imagine that he felt a sort of fraternity with his new captors.

We’ve reached a point where it all feels quite scripted. Yet no one seems tired of this movie.

Bill McKibben on Why We’re Losing the Climate Change Fight

The Colorado Springs wildfire blows up.

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

Get the rest at Rolling Stone.

Photo by daisyelaine, by permission. Attribution Some rights reserved.

Long Genome, Lively Book


Five years ago, guitar player, raconteur, writer, genome geek and Duke professor Misha Angrist surrendered his DNA to the eyes of the public, and to his own restless, rambunctious curiosity. Over at the fine site LabLit, Richard Grant takes a smart, lively look at the smart, lively book that resulted:

The history of science and medicine is replete with self-experimentalists; those shining stars who, whether frustrated with lack of suitable models, peeved at the obstreperousness of officialdom, or simply out of sheer bloody-minded curiosity, inject themselves with heparin or swallow bacterial cultures in search of an Answer.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the era of ethics committees and independent review boards, the practice is no less prevalent today. Here is a Human Being (Harper Perennial, 2011) is Misha Angrist’s account of how he came to be the fourth subject of the Personal Genome Project, a Harvard-sponsored initiative to “improve our understanding of genetic and environmental contributions to human traits”. (The title, by the way, is from Walter Gilbert: “Three billion bases of DNA sequence can be put on a single compact disc and one will be able to pull a CD out of one’s pocket and say, ‘Here is a human being; it’s me!’”) Far from being the dry reporting of an experiment – introduction, method, results, conclusion – this is a highly personal, and often emotionally charged, account.

But then again, perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less. Quite apart from the questions of identity, ancestry, health, and race that all plague the author’s mind as he awaits the output from next-generation sequencing machines, the Personal Genome Project is more than a just a straightforward scientific study with Angrist (and his co-experimentees) as subjects. The Project’s Chairman and engine room personified, Harvard geneticist George Church, wants to study hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of individual genomes. Church believes that only by studying such huge numbers of people can we even begin to detect the subtle yet meaningful DNA variants that have an effect on familiar but frustratingly complex complex traits such as heart disease and diabetes.

More at LabLit. I read both the entire review and the book with great pleasure. This contemplation of one’s genome with become more common in the years ahead. Angrist shows how to take that a lot deeper than contemplation of one’s navel. (Though that can get interesting too.)

This is Beauty: Reporter Golfs Through Abandoned Detroit

I love this.

[Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Charlie] LeDuff’s idea of a love letter to his city was to golf his way across eighteen miles of urban decay, using hulking industrial relics as his sand traps and everyday Detroiters as his gallery. He counted 2,525 strokes. He comes across a mom trying to find her suicidal daughter, a disgruntled cop, and a generous deacon.

As he chips through a broken window and down the front steps of a crumbling bungalow, a woman encourages him. “That’s a good ass use for these houses, cause they won’t tear em down,” she says. “They won’t do nothing. They won’t cut the grass. Let’s all play golf!” LeDuff offers no tidy hopeful solution for Detroit’s ills, but he gets plenty of smiles and even a new pair of shoes.

Researcher Caught Up in Fraud Case Punches Back

When a researcher fudges data or engages in other fraudulent behavior, among those most wronged are the collaborators who did nothing wrong. Often there are many. Their reputations and careers can suffer horribly; they experience a horrible betrayal by someone they put enormous trust in; and they feel compelled to remain silent, lest they court legal trouble or draw undeserved fire.

Today, one such collaborator decided to speak out, loud and clear. The result is an extraordinary glimpse at the tangled loyalties, fates, and ambiguities that surround even a seemingly dead-clear case of scientific misconduct.

This comes via a post at Retraction Watch, a site that tracks retractions of papers for all sorts of reasons, including alleged or proven fraud. The main story was that Erasmus University social psychologist Dirk Smeesters resigned last week when a scientific integrity committee at his university concluded that results in two of his papers were”stastistically highly unlikely.”

Smeesters could not produce the raw data behind the findings, and told the committee that he cherry-picked the data to produce a statistically significant result. Those two papers are being retracted, and the university accepted Smeesters’ resignation on June 21.

Ugly business. Some of the comments at Retraction Watch then added to the ugliness, with unflattering speculations and musings about the integrity of one of Smeester’s co-authors, Camille Johnson, despite that the university explicitly said she wasn’t implicated.

Such speculation is hardly ususual in these cases. I’ve seen worse. Johnson, the co-author whose integrity was being questioned, stayed out of it, for understandable reasons. But Jonathan Levav, who was a co-author with Smeesters on some still unpublished papers, entered the discussion, taking sharp exception to a comment by commenter “SF.” SF’s comment said, among other things, “Guilty by association is not a proper way to go, but I think it’s quite peculiar [that Johnson] worked with both Stapel [another researcher found to have falsified data] and Smeesters.” And at that point Levav had heard enough:

SF, I’m not sure who you are. But it seems like you make a sport out of making allegations by hiding behind anonymity. How ballsy.

I don’t know Cammie Johnson personality, so I’ll leave it to her friends to attest to her honesty. It doesn’t take more than a drop of common sense to see that she was unlucky in her choice of two coauthors. She had no way to know this sad fact about them, any more than the rest of the field did, so LAY OFF.

However, I do intimately know two other people who were burned by Dirk Smeesters: one is my colleague and friend Christian Wheeler (his name isn’t secret, as it’s published on this site). The other is me, Jonathan Levav (until this moment, unpublished). Christian has five papers with Dirk; I have two, both of which are unpublished manuscripts that were invited for revision at the Journal of Consumer Research. Neither one of us ran the questionable studies in these papers, and neither one of is us guilty. We’re associated with Dirk as coauthors, but we’re not guilty. You might find this “peculiar”–that we’re not guilty–but those are the facts. I’m not afraid to say this and I have nothing to be ashamed about, so I don’t have to hide behind an anonymous initial.

Some of you might wonder, how did we not know that something was up? The answer is that it’s not that easy to spot a coauthor who is doctoring data…. Dirk is a nice, intelligent guy, and was an enthusiastic coauthor. He was a good critic of research. He was respected in the field. He also was at Erasmus, which has perhaps the best behavioral lab I had ever seen. So when the data streamed every few months, it was hardly suspicious. Unlike Stapel, Dirk actually ran studies. What he did with the data afterward is what’s in question.

So there you have it, SF, and all the rest of you voyeurs, haters of social psychology, great scholars, crappy scholars, cool people, losers, innocent bystanders, or whoever the fuck is still reading. You have your missing suspect paper, with another researcher to add to the mix of affected (infected?) names.

To all the readers on this site–those who have ranted and those who haven’t–you might want to consider a few things. Dirk Smeesters was a friend to many of us, a very nice guy. Maybe he’s not a friend any longer, but he was for some time. He has a family, and he’s paying a heavy price. Although this is probably deserved, it’s sad for many of us to watch. And although for many of you this whole incident provides much needed entertainment, for those of us caught up in it, the situation has been extremely distressing. I shudder to think how Cammie feels right now; most people would just quit the field in her shoes. Personally I’m over this whole thing now–it’s been a few months since I’ve known–so I feel free to write about it and have my writing cached in cyberspace for posterity (probably a terrible idea). I don’t know what motivated Dirk to do what he did, but I do know that he didn’t have to do it because, in reality, he was smart enough to be a respected scholar without doctoring data. This whole situation plain sucks.

SF, you coward in hiding, before you publicly speculate about people’s careers and judgment, take a deep breath and ask yourself who the hell you think you are to so freely besmirch people’s reputation in a public forum. If you have something to say, stand behind your name. Your NAME. You know Camille Johnson’s name. You know mine.

When I did the reporting to cover the Marc Hauser debacle, I talked to and learned of many people who felt this sort of pain — a searing sense of betrayal combined with a sense of being unfairly blamed, often while their own work was coming under a microscope.

The loyalties and divisions of duties and risks and sacrifices involved in scientific collaboration can be as complex as those in a marriage; the sense of betrayal and devastation can be almost as intense too. The other similarity: It’s extremely hard to know or judge, from the outside, what went amiss on the inside. This opacity does not mean that fraud or clear ethical violations are okay. They never are. But it enormously complicates — some would say renders irresponsible — the act of publicly speculating about the motives of those who find themselves in the gray areas.

Link to Retraction Watch story: Following investigation, Erasmus social psychology professor retracts two studies, resigns « Retraction Watch.

to Levav’s full comment:

Growing Up on Zoloft – Talking Drugs, Depression, and Identity With Katherine Sharpe

I was pleased to hear last year that Katherine Sharpe* was writing a book on Coming of Age on Zoloft,  and when I got my review copy a few weeks go, even the first half-hour’s reading showed me the book answered my hopes: The book explores not just the vital, running debate about whether we’re overmedicating depression and melancholy, but what it means to come of age, and of identity, while one is taking these meds, and it does so with smarts, sensitivity, and a sense for nuance. This is quite an absorbing read, in the tradition of Kay Redfield Jamison — a personal but heavily reported look at a dilemma that is both highly personal, for those who face depression, and important for how our culture views mood, mental illness, medicine, and character.  I think it an important book and recommend it highly. You can grab a copy here.

It was a pleasure to discuss with Sharpe some of the questions she explores in the book; our conversation is below. Please feel free to continue it in the comments section.

PS: If you’re in NY today (June 18), you can catch Katherine (and the book) at a reading and Q&A tonight at Bookcourt in Brooklyn, 7 p.m.


David Dobbs: What led you to write this book?

Katherine Sharpe: Taking antidepressants myself as a college student in the late 1990s. Feeling alone in this experience, and totally freaked out by the idea of “needing” a medication to get by, the idea of being “crazy,” the idea of taking a drug that was going to change my experience of myself and the world. How would I know what was real? How would I know how I truly felt about anything? If I couldn’t know those things, how could I make the choices I’d need to make to grow up?!

Keeping my medication use basically a secret for about a year, until one afternoon I was hanging out with a handful of fellow students, and we discovered that we were all on or had been on various psychiatric medications. Realizing that this thing that had been so personal and so problematic for me was, in fact, a rite of passage typical of my generation. That there must be thousands of other people dealing with similar questions and fears. Right then and there, ‘growing up on medication’ started to seem like a topic worth writing about.

Dobbs: Your book included stories of people who were helped by medication, as well as people who felt they weren’t — which in a rough sense matches the scientific literature.  Yet some have suggested your book is anti-antidepressant, and I don’t see it that way. Did I read you wrong, or did they?

Sharpe: Well, in a sense the book is more interested in being descriptive than it is in making some kind of all-out case for the goodness or badness of antidepressants. There’s so much polemical argument already, both for and against medication.

What’s harder to find is a thoughtful discussion, from people who’ve been through it, about the experience of actually being on these drugs. The fact is that thousands of adolescents and young adults are growing up on antidepressants and other psychiatric medications; I wanted to create a rich description of what that’s like.

I think antidepressants are a useful technology that has helped a lot of people. I’m glad we have them. But I’m definitely sympathetic to the view that they are overprescribed. For a number of reasons, we as a society have come to see certain feelings and states as psychiatric problems that wouldn’t have been seen as psychiatric problems, or psychiatric problems requiring medication, a generation ago. Some people think that’s great. They argue that the stigma around mental illness has lessened, and that people who need care are more likely to get it. To a certain extent, that’s right. But we’ve gone too far. As medication has proliferated — right now, 11 percent of Americans aged 12 and over use an antidepressant — people have become less likely to get other kinds of help, particularly psychotherapy, that don’t have the risk of side effects and have been proven effective for mild to moderate depression.

The mainstreaming of medication has bred confusion about what’s normal. In some sectors, we’ve grown so vigilant about the possibility of having a mental disorder that this vigilance becomes counterproductive, a source of anxiety in itself. Every negative emotion becomes a potential sign or symptom. I think people, particularly adults, should use medication if they wish, but I am concerned about the changing goalposts of what’s considered pathological. It’s nice to know that medication is available, but it’s also important not to lose sight of the comfort that can come from talking openly with each other, realizing that not every instance of feeling sad, or overwhelmed, or disappointed, or anxious, is a sign of something medically wrong.

With youth, I feel that a conservative approach to medication is best.

Katherine Sharpe

Partly that’s because of the way that getting a mental-health diagnosis can intersect with the adolescent search for self. Being diagnosed and using medication confers an identity, that of someone with a mental disorder. To an adolescent who is preoccupied with constructing an identity anyway, and looking for clues to who she is, that can be a big deal. Some adolescents feel that having a diagnostic label is clarifying and that it helps them. But others wrestle with it. They ruminate about what it means to be sick. They take that identity deep inside, and sometimes magnify it way out of proportion. A diagnosis event can have lasting, rippling consequences, and I think adults should be very cautious and careful before they impose a diagnostic label, or let a young person self-impose such a label, on what may be ordinary developmental struggles.

Dobbs: What parts were the most fun to write? Which the most challenging?

Sharpe: The first chapter, which is completely personal, was a lot of fun to write. The chapter about antidepressant drug advertisements and the cultural presentation of antidepressants in the 1990s and 2000s was fun to do too. It took on a more bouncy, humorous tone than certain other parts of the book. In individual lives, antidepressants can be serious stuff — when you zoom out to the level of society, it’s easier to see what’s funny and absurd about them.

The most challenging chapter was the one about quitting antidepressants. I had this personal story about going off medication after a long time on it that I wanted to tell. (I’ve been off for about six years now.) But it felt like a delicate topic. I wanted to be true to my experience and acknowledge that I did want to quit antidepressants, and that I did find satisfaction in realizing that I was able to get by without them. After all those years, it was empowering — and I wanted to say so, even though that seems like the kind of thing you’re not supposed to say.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem to be saying that people should quit, or that not taking antidepressants is somehow better than taking them. I’m not interested in telling people what to do. I can’t offer medical advice. And I would never, ever hold up a nonmedicated life and say ‘This is more valid or more real.’ A lot of people who take medication feel guilty about it anyway.

Culturally, I think it’s vital that we find a way to have a conversation about quitting medication. It’s just a practical necessity, given how many people start taking them. The challenge was to walk a line where I could start to talk about this under-addressed topic without adding to that pool of guilt.

Dobbs: I especially liked your passages on your own talk therapy. They brought out nicely both the internal and dyadic conversations, assessments, maneuvers and movement that psychotherapy can generate — something increasingly lost as treatment moves to chemicals and psychiatrist appointments are med checks rather than talk therapy. For you, what most distinguishes talk therapy, and what does it seem to offer that meds do not? And for you, did it leverage the meds or seem to work on a parallel track?

Sharpe: Thank you! I became a big fan of therapy, through doing it, but it wasn’t something I felt I understood well before I started, so it was a fun challenge to try to describe what it’s like and how it works.

I think one main thing therapy offers that drugs do not is a chance to develop skills that make you feel more able to handle your own emotions. Doing therapy creates self-awareness, and then almost inevitably, you use that self-awareness to help manage your emotional landscape — avoiding situations that trigger you, coping better when you are triggered because you recognize what’s happening, knowing what’s going to get you out of a given mood or situation and what’s going to make it worse. Acquiring and using these skills can help to create a sense of control and agency, where medication tends to diminish a sense of agency for some people. And of course the skills are portable and long-lasting. Sometimes I think of the difference in terms of that old “Give a man a fish/teach a man to fish…” parable. With medication, you are given a fish; in therapy, you learn how to fish.

It is really fashionable to talk about narrative and story right now, but maybe another way to think about what therapy does that medication doesn’t is to say that therapy is about crafting, with the help of another person, a narrative that both accounts for the facts of your life and gives those facts meaning. It creates a sense of direction, and that somehow helps you to interpret and deal with the situations that life throws in your way.

It’s hard for me to pick apart the relative contributions of medication and therapy. In my own case, I guess I think of it in terms of timescales. Medication, if you hit on the right one, works fast, and its effects can be very marked in the short term. Therapy doesn’t give you that day-and-night, instantly transformative feeling. But the effects and benefits of medication became much less clear for me over time. After the crisis faded, was it really helping me to take antidepressants month in and month out? I couldn’t tell. But by that time, that therapy was making a difference was totally obvious — including with things that medication had never touched. So I’m thinking about rocket boosters that fall off in stages. Medication can get you up there, if you need that; therapy can stabilize you and keep you going.

Dobbs: You talk a lot about antidepressants and identity. Do mind-altering medications really change who we are?

Sharpe: There’s a study that came out of Northwestern University a few years ago that found that antidepressants actually can change people’s personalities, causing them to score higher on measures of extraversion and lower on tests that measure neuroticism.

But when we talk about “who we are,” we’re often talking about something even deeper and harder to define than how outgoing or how irritable we are. Culturally we have this idea of the ‘real self,’ which we think of as something very inward and precious, almost spiritual.

I don’t know whether antidepressants change who we are in the sense that they change — or reveal — the real self. But I do think it’s fascinating that this notion of the real or authentic self has become a key idea in our debate about antidepressants. In my interviews, for example, I found that the people who are happiest using antidepressants tend to be the people who believe that the medications make them more like themselves, and the people who are the least happy are the people who believe that medication alienates them from themselves. We may never know whether antidepressants actually change who we are inside. For me, the significant and interesting thing right now is that we believe they can, and that these beliefs about how the drugs affect our selves are a key piece of how we experience them.

Dobbs: If there were one point about antidepressants and depression you could drive home to everybody, what would it be?

Sharpe: I would let people know what statements like “depression is a chemical imbalance” or “depression is a disease like diabetes,” although they sound scientific and you hear them a lot, don’t actually represent great science. The fact is that researchers don’t know yet what depression is, biologically speaking. We presume that chemicals are involved, but so much is still unclear, including whether, for example, a disturbance in brain chemicals is the cause of a depression or the effect of it.

At best, these claims that depression is a disease like other diseases are well-meaning abstractions. They’re grounded in the idea that if mental disorders can be understood as physical diseases, people will attach less stigma to them. At worst, they’re sales pitches. The more depression can be packaged as a physical disease, the more it makes sense to treat it with drugs. Either way, I think that the biomedical model of mental disorder is too reductive, particularly as applied to the millions and millions of Americans who get diagnoses.

There’s this word that refers to what I think is a much more accurate and helpful way of understanding depression and other common disorders, and that word is “biopsychosocial.” What it means is that our individual biology contributes to our mental state, but so do psychological factors like our relationships and our thought patterns, and social factors like our culture, the neighborhoods we live in, our support networks or lack of them. It means that these variables are all in play, and that to treat an emotional problem well, we need to look at all three. The best intervention could be in any of those areas, or in more than one. The best intervention could be in any of those realms, or in more than one. It doesn’t make good sound-bite material, and it doesn’t have a huge commercial apparatus behind it, but I think it’s a much more thoughtful, hopeful, and widely applicable way of looking at the problem.

Dobbs: You describe your own generation, which you define as people born from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s, as the first to literally be raised on psychiatric drugs. Any predictions for the next generation?

Sharpe: When I talked to people who are in college right now, I found them to be more blasé about medication use than my peers and I were. They’re more open about it, and see it as less of a big deal. That makes sense, because these drugs have been around since they were born. At the same time, they seemed unclear on the difference between ordinary negative feelings and clinically significant mental disorder. Having perspective and admitting to vulnerability isn’t exactly what people in their late teens and early twenties have ever been known for.

Still, I was struck by the way that these students were primed to assume that feeling lonely, confused, sad, or academically inferior was abnormal, something to be hidden away. They seemed less tolerant of negative emotions and more ready to use medication to nix them.

There may be a backlash against psychiatric medication coming. We’ve seen that a bit in the press, with Irving Kirsch’s work about the placebo effect and all the publicity it’s generated. But the statistics, which admittedly lag behind by a couple years, have yet to show that pushback translating into behavior in terms of people using less medication.

Assuming that medication use stays high, I think it’s likely that this generation may start to make less of a distinction between the idea of using a drug to treat a mental disorder, and simply using a drug in order to deal with something negative, or to change the way you feel. That intrigues me; I think it might actually be a healthier attitude, to take a utilitarian stance toward these drugs, to focus on the ways they can help rather than dwelling on the diagnoses — here’s what I have; here’s what’s wrong with me — and to have buying into a specific notion of illness be the prerequisite for getting these drugs and the relief they provide. The next generation might be more fluid.

Dobbs: I have to ask you about a recent piece in The Atlantic Health channel that was essentially a pushback against the pushback — a defense, as the author put it, of antidepressants in the face of critiques from you, Marcia Angell, and others. The author, Maura Kelly, starts off by saying the mere title of your book made her want to put up here dukes; later she portrays your stance as ambivalent rather than dismissive. Did her essay seem a fair treatment?

Sharpe: Yes. She represented me as a critic of antidepressants, but not the rabid critic she was expecting, and that’s about right.

I think one thing that piece illustrated nicely is the potential difference between starting antidepressants as an adult and starting them young.

Kelly was saying, ‘Look, antidepressants help people; they helped me; they’re this wonderful thing, and I don’t understand why you people are trying to shoot holes in them.’ Kelly has a story that was similar to that of a lot of adults who start antidepressants: she was in therapy for years; therapy was helpful but not that helpful; she went into crisis and finally overcame whatever inner resistance she had about trying antidepressants, and they were great — she wished she’d tried them sooner.

I very much respect that story, and many others have one like it. Part of what I’m on about in the book is that for people who start medication as teens, or even younger, the story is different. For them, using medication is often not their choice or not their idea. They don’t have the experience of trying other remedies for years and then reaching a point where they say, ‘You know what, these things aren’t working, this problem isn’t going away, and I’m going to take it seriously now and try something new.’ They haven’t necessarily had a chance to sort out what’s the turmoil of growing up and what might be deeper or longer lasting. Sometimes it’s very obvious that an adolescent is dealing with a real mental problem that goes way outside the realm of teen angst. But in other cases it isn’t always so clear. So for some of the people who start young, the narrative ends up not being one like Maura Kelly’s, of, ‘I had a problem, and then I used my own agency to find a solution, and it was wonderful.’ It’s more like, ‘Someone thought I had a problem, and this thing was given to me, and maybe it helped me or maybe it didn’t, sometimes it’s hard to tell, and if I stayed on it for years then I’ll never be quite sure, either what was the matter in the first place, or how I would have developed if I hadn’t tkaen this drug.’ It’s a singular experience, but it’s becoming more and more a hallmark of our time. That’s what I was trying to capture in the book.


Katherine Sharpe writes for  n+1, Washington Post magazine, GOOD, Seed, ReadyMade, The Village Voice, Scientific American Mind, and other publications. Find more of her work at her website. She’s also on Twitter and Facebook.

*Disclosure: I knew Katherine Sharpe slightly from her tenure as community manager at ScienceBlogs while I was blogging there, and from bumping into her at a conference or two.


Rowdy Beer-Guzzling Slobs v Estrogen-Sotted Girly Men: When Press Releases Go Manly

Antonio Canova - Perseus and Medusa low back torso, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One of the mixed blessings of being a science writer is the strange smorgasbord of press releases offered up in one’s inbox each week. Now and then one arrives and makes you think, Lordy, I should publish this sucker As Is, see what happens. A friend got one such today and shared it with me: “A man’s guide to manning up.”  So … well … here it is — if you’re man enough to read it.

My favorite part, possibly worth the price of the book, certainly worth the PR: “… a few scientific facts.”*

We are not making this up.

A man’s guide to manning up

A fresh philosophy of manliness for the modern man

SAN DIEGO —With a constant overload of messages from the media, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to define the concept of manhood. Is a real man sensitive or indifferent? Is he humble or cocky? While one guy might view manhood through one lens, another may have a completely opposite perspective.

In his new book The Testosterone Principles 2: Manhood and Other Stuff, TC Luoma presents the ultimate Bible for manhood. Filled with hilarious anecdotes, pop culture references and a few scientific facts, Luoma’s quirky guide addresses everything from sex, sports, strip clubs, pickup lines, steroids, and yes, even fart jokes.

According to Luoma, the majority of men today lack the basic characteristics of manliness, such as heroism, passion, drive, intensity and chivalry— and society is to blame.

“Most men don’t even understand why they think the things they do,” says Luoma. “They’re saddled with these iconic images of manhood from Gary Cooper and John Wayne, yet they’re also expected to be nurturing and kind and sympathetic. It just doesn’t gel for them.”

As a result, most men end up at one of two extremes: as rowdy, beer guzzling slobs or as a guy who seems to have more estrogen pumping through him than testosterone.

“Men today are in serious need of a new definition of manhood,” says Luoma. “The one I have in mind is a type of manhood that combines the do-goodness of the Boy Scouts with some heaping doses of self-determination and pragmatism, sprinkled with a dollop of testosterone, and seasoned with a few fistful-size pinches of Howard Stern.”

All right men, are you ready to man up?

The Testosterone Principles 2: Manhood and Other Stuff

By TC Luoma

ISBN: 978-1-45254-372-7

Retail price: $22.99

Available at and

About the Author:

Luoma is the editor-in-chief of Testosterone Nation (, an Internet magazine devoted to weight training, sports supplementation, and changing body physique. He also publishes a weekly column devoted to his philosophy of manhood called The Atomic Dog. After growing in popularity, Luoma published his first book, Atomic Dog: The Testosterone Principles, featuring highlights from his early columns. The Testosterone Principles 2 is the sequel.

Luoma currently lives in La Jolla, California with his heroically tolerant wife, Laurie, and his Staffordshire bull terriers, Tommey and Riley.


*Runner-up for for redundant-repetitive crowd: “increasingly more difficult”. Other runner-up: Upper-casing “Bible”. Plus, well, everything.

Photo by Ketrin1407 : Perseus, with Medusa’s head, by Antonio Canova , Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some rights reserved.