Ellen Langer: genius or quack?

Ellen Langer: genius or quack –or master self-marketer?

  • Another lesson we need to be wary of trustworthiness and authority established by awards or celebrity status.
  • We need to be skeptical of the publicity machines that confer celebrity status on “scientists.’
  • We need to be skeptical about scientists who gather such recognition. It could be just a clever strategy to promote some product they are selling.  Check to see if they are selling something.
  • We should not be distracted by awards from the question ‘Is what they are claiming based on the best quality science?’

Never confuse eminence-based with evidence-based, even if something’s coming with awards from big-name universities. – Robin N. Kok

quckEllen Langer has been dubbed “mother of mindfulness” and “mother of positive psychology.” She can now also claim to be a genius and has a Liberty Science Center Genius Award to prove it.

The website announcement of her award apparently draws on a description of her that has been widely used elsewhere:

Ellen Langer, PhD, is a social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She is the author of eleven books and more than 200 research articles on mindfulness written for general and academic readers. Her best-selling books include Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning; On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity; and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. The Wiley Mindfulness Handbook is an anthology on mindfulness in which leading researchers integrate work derived from her western scientific theoretical base of mindfulness with research on eastern-derived forms of meditation.

An announcement on the Association for Psychological Science (APS) website elaborates:

LSC is honoring Langer — a Harvard social psychologist — in recognition of her achievements as the “mother of mindfulness.” Langer has written extensively on the illusion of control, aging, stress, decision-making, health, and of course, mindfulness. She is particularly well-known for her findings on the power of social cues to make us feel and act younger and healthier than our chronological age. In a classic 1981 study, Langer had elderly men live in a retreat that was retrofitted to look like 1959 and speak of the past in the present tense as if they were living in that year. The men experienced improvements in vision, hearing, strength, and other abilities, and actually appeared younger as well.

And describes the celebrity-studded gala at which her award will be given:

LSC has held the Genius Gala for the past 5 years to honor great thinkers in science and technology. Past honorees include Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, J. Craig Venter, and Vint Cerf. About 700 people are expected to attend this year’s gala, hosted by LSC President and CEO Paul Hoffman with celebrity presenters Susan Sarandon, Buzz Aldrin, and singer–songwriter will.i.am.

I have previously blogged about Langer  classic study  with  Judy Rodin that claimed that giving nursing home residents a rubber tree plant for which they had responsibility led to greater survival of the nursing home residents, not the plant. The comparison group was a group of nursing home residents simply being given a rubber tree plant without any responsibility for caring for it. Not surprisingly, these “too good to be true results” were shown to be a product of a statistical error. A later erratum statement has languished in obscurity, with little sign of affecting the echoing of the originally claimed results in textbooks and in media coverage of Langer.

Students in intro psych classes  continue to learn that Ellen Langer gave plants to nursing home relatives and that simple intervention led to these elderly people living longer. The lesson is supposed to be that a sense of control can have extraordinary health benefits. Maybe, but it is a myth that the classic study showed that.

I later blogged about Langer’s claims  about a study she was launching in Mexico:

The shrinking-tumor study will involve three groups of 24 women undergoing therapy for Stage IV breast cancer. One group is a no-treatment control. Two of the groups will be sent to a resort in Mexico supervised by Langer and her staff. One group going there will simply receive social support from the other women patients. The other intervention group will live for a week in environment saturated with cues invoking 2003, a time prior to their diagnosis with breast cancer.

They will be told to try to inhabit their former selves. Few clues of the present day will be visible inside the resorts or, for that matter, outside them. In the living areas, turn-of-the-millennium magazines will be lying around, as will DVDs of films like “Titanic” and “The Big Lebowski.”

langer businessSurely, such a study would have trouble getting through a human subjects committee. There is no scientific basis for assuming such an intervention would work, so why take up the time of people who believe that they are facing death? As I also noted in my blog, there are also conflict of interest issues involved in the lucrative arrangements that Langer has made with a resort in San Miguel, Mexico for housing not only the study, but for the patients’ caregivers who might want to accompany them to Mexico.

Langer’s claims of launching such a study continue to echo in the media, but there’s no signs of the study actually been launched. There also claims of her having a parallel study being launched in India of men with metastatic prostate cancer.

The APS announcement of her genius award makes reference to her “classic” 1981 study of aging men being taken to a retrofitted retreat lodge. Being transported back to an earlier tine in their life resulted in -at least according to the APS- “improvements in vision, hearing, strength, and other abilities, and [they] actually appeared younger as well.”

Really? Let’s look at the evidence for this wild claim. Like a lot of Langer’s claims made in the media, this one has never made it into a peer-reviewed journal. My blog describes results of an exhaustive search for evidence that only brought me back to a chapter a book edited by Langer herself.

I just checked Google Scholar again to see if further results associated with claims about these men or Langer’s other health projects had showed up in the literature yet. Nope.

I’ll stick with my labeling of Ellen Langer as a quack exploiting the hopes of desperate people facing death. But what do we make of the Liberty Science Center Genius Award and it’s being announced by the supposedly sciencey Association for Psychological Science?

The simplest answer is that everybody wants to be associated with celebrities, even the APS, which is apparently desperately seeking celebrity psychologists to promote.

If Liberty Science Center declares Ellen Langer a genius with an award conferred by celebrities, she is for the purposes of APS, a celebrity psychological scientist.

No matter that most of Ellen Langer’ important claims cannot be independently substantiated and involve invoking ridiculously on scientific explanations to account for them. No matter that she evades peer review.

APS likes to be associated with celebrity scientists, even if they are quacks. APS will help create the appearance that psychologists are credible scientists and celebrities.

Lessons learned

A simple, recurring lesson: just because a supposed “scientist” receives awards, it does not make the health-related advice that they offer evidence-based. We should remain skeptical of the products that they are selling, whether they are self-help books or trips to expensive spas. Maybe we should be extra skeptical.

I don’t know about you, but I get damned angry at the APS sacrificing its integrity and damaging itself as a trusted source by promoting this crap. This is not the first time that APS has let the public down with promotion of bad science that exploits people in need of credible psychological advice

You just can’t interpret claims as being credible because they are endorsed by the APS. You have to look at the evidence.

But there are further lessons.

Many psychologists are marketing all kinds of rubbish advice based on weak research that is p-hacked – results are tortured and made to speak all sorts of untruths. Take a close look and their research and you will frequently see it is  tainted by all kinds of questionable research practices.

Some psychologists fancy themselves to be like rock stars and self-consciously building careers this way and expecting to reap the rewards. They can get help. Psychological organizations like APS promote them,  whether they are  selling self-help books or launching lucrative initiatives like corporate speaking tours or workshop series.

Check out the Harvard psychology faculty, past and present. Ellen Langer is not the only one doing this, but she does it particularly masterfully well.

Maybe we  should be particularly skeptical about sciencey psychology merchandise coming out of Harvard.

There is a reason that some of the Harvard faculty are so upset about organized, independent efforts to replicate their findings. They could lose money.