A recent Economist book review about pseudo science (伪科学 to you sino-literates out there) in personality testing got me thinking about the damage I have seen done by abuse of tests of no scientific validity.
The Economist book review is about the popular Myers-Briggs personality test. The review “The enduring appeal of personality types — How a mother-and-daughter duo invented the world’s most influential personality test” appeared in the Economist on August 30, 2018. The business magazine Forbes ran an article along the same lines a few years ago “The Mysterious Popularity Of The Meaningless Myers-Briggs (MBTI)“. Myers-Briggs testing is an industry with certifications and all so it just rolls along.
I remember when I joined the U.S. State Department in 1991, we were given this Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) just as the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report that it had no validity along with another language aptitude test we all had to take. When a PhD linguist from State Department’s Language Service spoke with our A-100 entering class, I brought up the NAS study. She agreed that the language aptitude test (some name like MLAT (memory fading as old age overtakes me!) based on the Pushtu language of Afghanistan of all things) had no scientific validity at all, but State management felt much more comfortable “if they have a number”.
One of my State Department colleagues had years and years of trouble getting Chinese language training because of his low language aptitude test score. The score made it harder for him to get a China assignment and the up to two years of language training invested in many of the foreign service officers assigned there. So pseudo-science does real harm!
Craziness and pseudo-science (伪科学 for you sinoliterates) isn’t confined to the US government of course. I remember when I worked at the US Consulate General in Chengdu (2007 – 2012) going through a Chinese police roadblock that had been set up because a lot of dynamite had been stolen from a State warehouse and they worried about a mad bomber on the loose. The police officer who checked the car I was in (the Chinese authorities were taking me out of a Tibetan area of Sichuan which was open but they had decided I need to leave nonetheless for ‘for my own safety’) was probing the back of the car with a wand connected to a small pack mounted on his waist. The pack was labelled “Army of England”. No such organization of course.
I looked it up later and found that someone was making phony bomb detectors and selling them on the Internet. In 2014 the BBC ran a “The story of the fake bomb detectors” about phony bomb detectors that look just like the one I saw except that there was no mention in the article of the Army of England label on the small pack — maybe one of the salespeople added that. Or perhaps a counterfeiter of a counterfeit product? Fleas have fleas have fleas maybe said Jonathan Swift?)
I later found a detailed a Chinese language Wiki article about the phony bomb detectors (but no mention of China) along with two others, also in Chinese from the BBC and the Chinese information site Baidu that discusses local Chinese police use of the phony bomb detectors.
Apparently the Chinese police decided to buy some! Sichuan had mad bomber panics several times during my five years there. My theory was that there is a lot of wildcat mining in Sichuan and wildcast miners need dynamite. So they buy some under the table and dynamite stocks walk out the door of government warehouses. When the warehouses did inventory the loss would be discovered and a panic would ensue — oh no, a mad bomber on the loose! Then the police would set up checkpoints at choke points at Dujiangyan where a highway leaves the mountains and enters Chengdu.
Fake science and technology is a widespread problem because as the Forbes article mentioned above points out, people are always looking for a simple explanation, sometimes too simple an explanation. Albert Einstein, talking about scientific theories, said that “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler“. But no, just like science, fake science and scientism, famous Einstein quotes can be slippery things too! Einstein indeed said something kind of like that, but this is the massaged, condensed, version. Perhaps too simple a version of the quote against over-simplifying! Einstein quotes, like Lincoln quotes, can be tricky things! Perhaps because they are sharpened to be winning points in arguments? One of my Chinese friends can spout an inexhaustible supply of wise old Chinese sayings, very much like an American Bible thumper with the same argument-winning drive. My friend has more of a sense of humor than many of the Bible thumpers though.
What’s a mere human being to do?
I try to find some reliable sources of information. No, not the glorious leader’s (伟大的领袖的） twitter feed. One of my favorites is the website of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine at http://www.nasonline.org/ They have many free online (PDF format) publications available including many policy studies done by groups of leading scientist to improve advice the US government gets on scientific issues.
The National Academy of Sciences Press is my top pick — they have many PDF books caavailable for free. I subscribe to their email alerts. Information on email or RSS alerts here. Long reports but reading the summaries and skimming them can be rewarding.
A few recent examples:
From the Issues in Science and Technology series
Tax incentives have become an increasingly popular instrument for governments to promote private-sector research and development investment, displacing direct funding such as grants and public procurement.
Another good source is the Nature website at nature.com The website of their flagship journal Nature has a surprising number of articles available to non-subscribers though I subscribe myself. For example, these articles from the August 30, 2018 issue. A very fun science fiction story at the end of every issues. Scientists don’t like pseudo-science by many of them do like science fiction!