Contemplating American hype: Donald Trump and Barbara Fredrickson

Over the top versus effective self-promotion, where is the line? An author’s dilemma

When I’m teaching science writing workshops, one of the first points I emphasize is that good science doesn’t sell itself. Many decent manuscripts receive desk rejections because the authors fail to sufficiently promote themselves and the value of what’s in the manuscript. Authors cannot assume that editors even read their manuscripts in making decisions not to send them out for review. I then go on to discussing strategies for authors grabbing the editor’s attention with the title, abstract, and cover letter.

See my recent blog post:

Coyne of the Realm on the Daily Show and teaching scientific writing

For many, Self-promotion is initially a daunting task. A lot of academics are attracted to what they do because their job doesn’t seem to involve any salesmanship – they just have to do good science and report it transparently. If that is their attitude, they may be uncomfortable giving a pitch for their work and worry about the ethics of this kind of thing

I think that authors effectively pitching their manuscripts to editors is a necessity if the going to get the attention they deserve. Where I draw an ethical line is when authors make statements in the pitch simply because they will attract the kind of attention that is needed. Having to pitch a manuscript does not free authors from having to believe what they are saying is true.

What I’m teaching abroad, I often get confronted with the retort that self-promotion is not an American strength, but a vice some participants don’t want to acquire. I don’t deny the two sides to self-promotion, but I suggest people from outside the culture find the limits of their comfort zone and test these limits. They can safely act like an American without becoming one.

king-hokumAmericans do seem to have a knack for spinning hype and hokum. Maybe that is reflected in the latter term being a distinct American contribution to English.

In this blog post of contrast some distinctly American hype. We will see that the boundary line between satire and reality gets quite blurred in American self-promotion. But there are rewards to be had.

The first specimen is a spoof scientific paper written by a psychologist in the style of American presidential candidate Donald Trump. It can almost pass for the real thing.

The second specimen is the abstract of a successful grant application by American psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. If you didn’t know its source, it can easily be taken as a spoof. But whether you like it or not, it succeeds admirably, because the grant got funded, along with a number of similar grants by Fredrickson. I don’t like the rhetoric of the abstract and it helps calibrate my comfort zone.

Matt Crawford, the author of the first specimen disavows much thought having gone into a quickly written piece. Yet it is making the rounds and even showed up on the Democratic Underground.com.

trumpThis piece got circulated on the Internet without the real author, social psychologist Matt Crawford having his name attached. He’s from the American Midwest, got his PhD at Indiana University. He spent a lot of his career at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand and apparently he has contracted some modesty, perhaps from the raw oysters.

The piece is meant to be enjoyed, not carefully analyzed, but it does capture some features of the bombastic self-promotion of Donald Trump, but also some key features of a hyped article or grant application. You can see the overenthusiastic introduction documented with a very selective review of the available evidence. Then there is a vague method section, followed by thoroughly obfuscating results section. Is all very gushy, but leaves the reader at the mercy of the author in terms of the reader not having the details to make independent judgment

A title for a really good piece of research, just the best, really

 matt-crawford-trump-spoof

An affective intervention to reverse the biological residual of low childhood SES grant funded by the National Institute of Aging

The Fredrickson abstract was obtained from a freely accessible database, of the current and past NIH research portfolio, RePORT.

It takes a little practice to learn to navigate RePORT, especially the drop-down menus, but it can be an invaluable resource for so many purposes. In this case, I was seeking an example of how a successful American researcher pitched her projects to funding agencies.

Of course, we don’t get to see the unsuccessful proposals, but I think it is it is apparent that what succeeds in the United States might be beyond the comfort zone of grant applicants from other countries and culture.

The abstract is intended to shock and awe reviewers. Maybe like to spoof Trump piece, the abstract shouldn’t be subject to careful analysis, because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But it’s a fine example of something worth considering. Maybe it has some elements worth emulating by some authors, but it also sets the boundary conditions around self-promotion that some won’t want across.

In textbook fashion, the abstract creates a tension by defining a serious threat to life and well-being. It then identifies the proposed research as offering a solution – loving kindness meditation for the poor. The abstract claims a miraculous effect of this meditation on trendy biological parameters. The abstract wraps up with a resounding promise, surely intended to bring reviewers to their feet and a standing ovation.

This research stands to identify evidence-based interventions to drastically reduce the disease burden that disproportionately affects Americans raised in low SES households.

Wow! We must fund the study because we won’t want to pass on this opportunity to help the poor.

 DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Individuals raised in low socioeconomic (SES) households have been found to bear 20%-40% increased risk of costly chronic and infectious diseases and all-cause mortality, even after accounting for adulthood SES. Illuminating the biological mechanisms of these health risks, recent research has determined that severe and chronic stress endured early in life can embed a decades-long “biological residue” within the immune system, as reflected in leukocyte basal gene expression profiles, leukocyte telomere length, and levels of chronic inflammation indexed by C-reactive protein. These biological risk factors are further exacerbated by behavioral proclivities, namely, impulsivity (indexed by delay discounting) and mistrust, which are also more probable among those reared in low SES households. The overarching goal of the proposed research is to investigate whether and how this identified biological residue can be reversed in midlife. An innovative upward spiral theory of lifestyle change positions warm and empathic emotional states as key pathways to unlocking the body’s inherent plasticity to reverse entrenched biological risk factors. The PI’s team has identified an affective intervention – the ancient practice of loving-kindness meditation (LKM) – that produces salubrious biological effects in healthy midlife adults. The innovation of the present study lies in testing this affective intervention in a sample of midlife adults on poor health trajectories by virtue of having low childhood SES plus present-day pathogenic behavioral tendencies (i.e., impulsivity and mistrust). A dual-blind placebo-controlled randomized controlled trial (RCT) is designed to provide proof of principle that early-established biological risks factors are mutable, not permanent. It targets three Specific Aims: (1) To test whether LKM, through its effects on positive emotions, can reverse the biological residue of low childhood SES as reflected in (a) leukocyte basal gene expression (up-regulation of pro-inflammatory genes and down-regulation of antiviral and antibody genes), (b) leukocyte telomere length, and (c) C-reactive protein; (2) to identify plausible behavioral and biological moderators of the hypothesized benefits of LKM in this at-risk sample, with candidate moderators being (a) time spent meditating and (b) metabolic profile; and (3) to identify plausible biological, behavioral, and psychological mediators of the hypothesized biological benefits of LKM-induced positive emotions in this at-risk sample, with candidate mediators being improvements in (a) cardiac vagal tone, (b) delay discounting, and (c) mistrust. This research stands to identify evidence-based interventions to drastically reduce the disease burden that disproportionately affects Americans raised in low SES households.

Just what basis in pilot work is for these astounding claims? Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues conducted an RCT of the kind proposed in this abstract.

You may be familiar with one high profile report of the study. You  probably don’t know that it was an RCT, and certainly not an RCT published twice, without either publication acknowledging the other. Only recently, a brief corrigendum in Psychological Science  acknowledged the duplicate publication of the same data, but without an apology.

fredrickson-correction

Two publications that are not acknowledged to be from the same data set scrambles efforts to integrate studies to obtain any estimate of the overall effectiveness of loving kindness meditation. Meta-analyses assume that effect sizes being entered come from independent studies.

But what Barbara Fredrickson did was worse. You have to read the original Psychological Science to discover that it is an RCT. Reporting does not conform to the universally accepted CONSORT reporting standards. The first item of the CONSORT checklist concerns whether the title or abstract acknowledges that a report comes from a clinical trial. That’s to facilitate retrieval and systematic searches. Disclosure that the study is a clinical trial is left to a supplement.

Furthermore, the Psychological Science article is a mediational analysis of how loving kindness meditation influences cardiac vagal tone, which is misrepresented as a biomarker. If you carefully examined the analyses, as we did  in published commentary, you can find that practicing loving kindness meditation did not affect cardiac vagal tone.

Then there is a second paper from the same data set that was published in Biological Psychology. The findings are reported in that article contradict what is declared in the Psychological Science article, which is not cited. Again, there is no evidence that practicing loving kindness meditation is beneficial to health.

Curiously, Bethany Kok, the first author on both of these articles doesn’t bother to cite them in her subsequent publications concerning loving kindness meditation.

Sometimes magicians conjuring up successful grants and papers in prestigious journals don’t want you to notice what they’re doing and certainly don’t want to explain their magic.

I nonetheless suggest that authors who are inhibited in their self-promotion consider the strategies that were employed here and sort out what is within their comfort zone to emulate. Choose carefully!