Tag: Henry David Thoreau

Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience: How to Tell the Difference

In a digital world that clamors for clicks, news is sensationalized and “facts” change all the time. Here’s how to discern what is trustworthy and what is hogwash.

***

Unless you’ve studied it, most of us are never taught how to evaluate science or how to parse the good from the bad. Yet it is something that dictates every area of our lives. It is vital for helping us understand how the world works. It might be too much effort and time to appraise research for yourself, however. Often, it can be enough to consult an expert or read a trustworthy source.

But some decisions require us to understand the underlying science. There is no way around it. Many of us hear about scientific developments from news articles and blog posts. Some sources put the work into presenting useful information. Others manipulate or misinterpret results to get more clicks. So we need the thinking tools necessary to know what to listen to and what to ignore. When it comes to important decisions, like knowing what individual action to take to minimize your contribution to climate change or whether to believe the friend who cautions against vaccinating your kids, being able to assess the evidence is vital.

Much of the growing (and concerning) mistrust of scientific authority is based on a misunderstanding of how it works and a lack of awareness of how to evaluate its quality. Science is not some big immovable mass. It is not infallible. It does not pretend to be able to explain everything or to know everything. Furthermore, there is no such thing as “alternative” science. Science does involve mistakes. But we have yet to find a system of inquiry capable of achieving what it does: move us closer and closer to truths that improve our lives and understanding of the universe.

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

— Henry David Thoreau

There is a difference between bad science and pseudoscience. Bad science is a flawed version of good science, with the potential for improvement. It follows the scientific method, only with errors or biases. Often, it’s produced with the best of intentions, just by researchers who are responding to skewed incentives.

Pseudoscience has no basis in the scientific method. It does not attempt to follow standard procedures for gathering evidence. The claims involved may be impossible to disprove. Pseudoscience focuses on finding evidence to confirm it, disregarding disconfirmation. Practitioners invent narratives to preemptively ignore any actual science contradicting their views. It may adopt the appearance of actual science to look more persuasive.

While the tools and pointers in this post are geared towards identifying bad science, they will also help with easily spotting pseudoscience.

Good science is science that adheres to the scientific method, a systematic method of inquiry involving making a hypothesis based on existing knowledge, gathering evidence to test if it is correct, then either disproving or building support for the hypothesis. It takes many repetitions of applying this method to build reasonable support for a hypothesis.

In order for a hypothesis to count as such, there must be evidence that, if collected, would disprove it.

In this post, we’ll talk you through two examples of bad science to point out some of the common red flags. Then we’ll look at some of the hallmarks of good science you can use to sort the signal from the noise. We’ll focus on the type of research you’re likely to encounter on a regular basis, including medicine and psychology, rather than areas less likely to be relevant to your everyday life.

[Note: we will use the terms “research” and “science” and “researcher” and “scientist” interchangeably here.]

Power Posing

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ―Isaac Asimov

First, here’s an example of flawed science from psychology: power posing. A 2010 study by Dana Carney, Andy J. Yap, and Amy Cuddy entitledPower Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Effects Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” claimed “open, expansive” poses caused participants to experience elevated testosterone levels, reduced cortisol levels, and greater risk tolerance. These are all excellent things in a high-pressure situation, like a job interview. The abstract concluded that “a person can, via a simple two-minute pose, embody power and instantly become more powerful.” The idea took off. It spawned hundreds of articles, videos, and tweets espousing the benefits of including a two-minute power pose in your day.

Yet at least eleven follow up studies, many led by Joseph Cesario of Michigan State University including “’Power Poses’ Don’t Work, Eleven New Studies Suggest,” failed to replicate the results. None found that power posing has a measurable impact on people’s performance in tasks or on their physiology. While subjects did report a subjective feeling of increased powerfulness, their performance did not differ from subjects who did not strike a power pose.

One of the researchers of the original study, Carney, has since changed her mind about the effect. Carney stated she no longer believe the results of the original study. Unfortunately, this isn’t always how researchers respond when confronted with evidence discrediting their prior work. We all know how uncomfortable changing our minds is.

The notion of power posing is exactly the kind of nugget that spreads fast online. It’s simple, free, promises dramatic benefits with minimal effort, and is intuitive. We all know posture is important. It has a catchy, memorable name. Yet examining the details of the original study reveals a whole parade of red flags. The study had 42 participants. That might be reasonable for preliminary or pilot studies. But is in no way sufficient to “prove” anything. It was not blinded. Feedback from participants was self-reported, which is notorious for being biased and inaccurate.

There is also a clear correlation/causation issue. Powerful, dominant animals tend to use expansive body language that exaggerates their size. Humans often do the same. But that doesn’t mean it’s the pose making them powerful. Being powerful could make them pose that way.

A TED Talk in which Amy Cuddy, the study’s co-author, claimed power posing could “significantly change the way your life unfolds” is one of the most popular to date, with tens of millions of views. The presentation of the science in the talk is also suspect. Cuddy makes strong claims with a single, small study as justification. She portrays power posing as a panacea. Likewise, the original study’s claim that a power pose makes someone “instantly become more powerful” is suspiciously strong.

This is one of the examples of psychological studies related to small tweaks in our behavior that have not stood up to scrutiny. We’re not singling out the power pose study as being unusually flawed or in any way fraudulent. The researchers had clear good intentions and a sincere belief in their work. It’s a strong example of why we should go straight to the source if we want to understand research. Coverage elsewhere is unlikely to even mention methodological details or acknowledge any shortcomings. It would ruin the story. We even covered power posing on Farnam Street in 2016—we’re all susceptible to taking these ‘scientific’ results seriously, without checking on the validity of the underlying science.

It is a good idea to be skeptical of research promising anything too dramatic or extreme with minimal effort, especially without substantial evidence. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

Green Coffee Beans

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” ―Niels Bohr

The world of weight-loss science is one where bad science is rampant. We all know, deep down, that we cannot circumnavigate the need for healthy eating and exercise. Yet the search for a magic bullet, offering results without effort or risks, continues. Let’s take a look at one study that is a masterclass in bad science.

EntitledRandomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Linear Dose, Crossover Study to Evaluate the Efficacy and Safety of a Green Coffee Bean Extract in Overweight Subjects,” it was published in 2012 in the journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy. On the face of it, and to the untrained eye, the study may appear legitimate, but it is rife with serious problems, as Scott Gavura explained in the article “Dr. Oz and Green Coffee Beans – More Weight Loss Pseudoscience” in the publication Science-Based Medicine. The original paper was later retracted by its authors. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered the supplement manufacturer who funded the study to pay a $3.5 million fine for using it in their marketing materials, describing it as “botched.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends studies relating to weight-loss consist of at least 3,000 participants receiving the active medication and at least 1,500 receiving a placebo, all for a minimum period of 12 months. This study used a mere 16 subjects, with no clear selection criteria or explanation. None of the researchers involved had medical experience or had published related research. They did not disclose the conflict of interest inherent in the funding source. It didn’t cover efforts to avoid any confounding factors. It is vague about whether subjects changed their diet and exercise, showing inconsistencies. The study was not double-blinded, despite claiming to be. It has not been replicated.

The FTC reported that the study’s lead investigator “repeatedly altered the weights and other key measurements of the subjects, changed the length of the trial, and misstated which subjects were taking the placebo or GCA during the trial.” A meta-analysis by Rachel Buchanan and Robert D. Beckett, “Green Coffee for Pharmacological Weight Loss” published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, failed to find evidence for green coffee beans being safe or effective; all the available studies had serious methodological flaws, and most did not comply with FDA guidelines.

Signs of Good Science

“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” ―Christopher Hitchens

We’ve inverted the problem and considered some of the signs of bad science. Now let’s look at some of the indicators a study is likely to be trustworthy. Unfortunately, there is no single sign a piece of research is good science. None of the signs mentioned here are, alone, in any way conclusive. There are caveats and exceptions to all. These are simply factors to evaluate.

It’s Published by a Reputable Journal

“The discovery of instances which confirm a theory means very little if we have not tried, and failed, to discover refutations.” —Karl Popper

A journal, any journal, publishing a study says little about its quality. Some will publish any research they receive in return for a fee. A few so-called “vanity publishers” claim to have a peer-review process, yet they typically have a short gap between receiving a paper and publishing it. We’re talking days or weeks, not the expected months or years. Many predatory publishers do not even make any attempt to verify quality.

No journal is perfect. Even the most respected journals make mistakes and publish low-quality work sometimes. However, anything that is not published research or based on published research in a journal is not worth consideration. Not as science. A blog post saying green smoothies cured someone’s eczema is not comparable to a published study. The barrier is too low. If someone cared enough about using a hypothesis or “finding” to improve the world and educate others, they would make the effort to get it published. The system may be imperfect, but reputable researchers will generally make the effort to play within it to get their work noticed and respected.

It’s Peer Reviewed

Peer review is a standard process in academic publishing. It’s intended as an objective means of assessing the quality and accuracy of new research. Uninvolved researchers with relevant experience evaluate papers before publication. They consider factors like how well it builds upon pre-existing research or if the results are statistically significant. Peer review should be double-blinded. This means the researcher doesn’t know who is reviewing their work and the reviewer doesn’t know who the researcher is.

Publishers only perform a cursory “desk check” before moving onto peer review. This is to check for major errors, nothing more. They cannot have the expertise necessary to vet the quality of every paper they handle—hence the need for external experts. The number of reviewers and strictness of the process depends on the journal. Reviewers either declare a paper unpublishable or suggest improvements. It is rare for them to suggest publishing without modifications.

Sometimes several rounds of modifications prove necessary. It can take years for a paper to see the light of day, which is no doubt frustrating for the researcher. But it ensures no or fewer mistakes or weak areas.

Pseudoscientific practitioners will often claim they cannot get their work published because peer reviewers suppress anything contradicting prevailing doctrines. Good researchers know having their work challenged and argued against is positive. It makes them stronger. They don’t shy away from it.

Peer review is not a perfect system. Seeing as it involves humans, there is always room for bias and manipulation. In a small field, it may be easy for a reviewer to get past the double-blinding. However, as it stands, peer review seems to be the best available system. In isolation, it’s not a guarantee that research is perfect, but it’s one factor to consider.

The Researchers Have Relevant Experience and Qualifications

One of the red flags in the green coffee bean study was that the researchers involved had no medical background or experience publishing obesity-related research.

While outsiders can sometimes make important advances, researchers should have relevant qualifications and a history of working in that field. It is too difficult to make scientific advancements without the necessary background knowledge and expertise. If someone cares enough about advancing a given field, they will study it. If it’s important, verify their backgrounds.

It’s Part of a Larger Body of Work

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” ―Jules Verne

We all like to stand behind the maverick. But we should be cautious of doing so when it comes to evaluating the quality of science. On the whole, science does not progress in great leaps. It moves along millimeter by millimeter, gaining evidence in increments. Even if a piece of research is presented as groundbreaking, it has years of work behind it.

Researchers do not work in isolation. Good science is rarely, if ever, the result of one person or even one organization. It comes from a monumental collective effort. So when evaluating research, it is important to see if other studies point to similar results and if it is an established field of work. For this reason, meta-analyses, which analyze the combined results of many studies on the same topic, are often far more useful to the public than individual studies. Scientists are humans and they all make mistakes. Looking at a collective body of work helps smooth out any problems. Individual studies are valuable in that they further the field as a whole, allowing for the creation of meta-studies.

Science is about evidence, not reputation. Sometimes well-respected researchers, for whatever reason, produce bad science. Sometimes outsiders produce amazing science. What matters is the evidence they have to support it. While an established researcher may have an easier time getting support for their work, the overall community accepts work on merit. When we look to examples of unknowns who made extraordinary discoveries out of the blue, they always had extraordinary evidence for it.

Questioning the existing body of research is not inherently bad science or pseudoscience. Doing so without a remarkable amount of evidence is.

It Doesn’t Promise a Panacea or Miraculous Cure

Studies that promise anything a bit too amazing can be suspect. This is more common in media reporting of science or in research used for advertising.

In medicine, a panacea is something that can supposedly solve all, or many, health problems. These claims are rarely substantiated by anything even resembling evidence. The more outlandish the claim, the less likely it is to be true. Occam’s razor teaches us that the simplest explanation with the fewest inherent assumptions is most likely to be true. This is a useful heuristic for evaluating potential magic bullets.

It Avoids or at Least Discloses Potential Conflicts of Interest

A conflict of interest is anything that incentivizes producing a particular result. It distorts the pursuit of truth. A government study into the health risks of recreational drug use will be biased towards finding evidence of negative risks. A study of the benefits of breakfast cereal funded by a cereal company will be biased towards finding plenty of benefits. Researchers do have to get funding from somewhere, so this does not automatically make a study bad science. But research without conflicts of interest is more likely to be good science.

High-quality journals require researchers to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. But not all journals do. Media coverage of research may not mention this (another reason to go straight to the source). And people do sometimes lie. We don’t always know how unconscious biases influence us.

It Doesn’t Claim to Prove Anything Based on a Single Study

In the vast majority of cases, a single study is a starting point, not proof of anything. The results could be random chance, or the result of bias, or even outright fraud. Only once other researchers replicate the results can we consider a study persuasive. The more replications, the more reliable the results are. If attempts at replication fail, this can be a sign the original research was biased or incorrect.

A note on anecdotes: they’re not science. Anecdotes, especially from people close to us or those who have a lot of letters behind their name, have a disproportionate clout. But hearing something from one person, no matter how persuasive, should not be enough to discredit published research.

Science is about evidence, not proof. And evidence can always be discredited.

It Uses a Reasonable, Representative Sample Size

A representative sample represents the wider population, not one segment of it. If it does not, then the results may only be relevant for people in that demographic, not everyone. Bad science will often also use very small sample sizes.

There is no set target for what makes a large enough sample size; it all depends on the nature of the research. In general, the larger, the better. The exception is in studies that may put subjects at risk, which use the smallest possible sample to achieve usable results.

In areas like nutrition and medicine, it’s also important for a study to last a long time. A study looking at the impact of a supplement on blood pressure over a week is far less useful than one over a decade. Long-term data smooths out fluctuations and offers a more comprehensive picture.

The Results Are Statistically Significant

Statistical significance refers to the likelihood, measured in a percentage, that the results of a study were not due to pure random chance. The threshold for statistical significance varies between fields. Check if the confidence interval is in the accepted range. If it’s not, it’s not worth paying attention to.

It Is Well Presented and Formatted

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” ―John Maynard Keynes

As basic as it sounds, we can expect good science to be well presented and carefully formatted, without prominent typos or sloppy graphics.

It’s not that bad presentation makes something bad science. It’s more the case that researchers producing good science have an incentive to make it look good. As Michael J. I. Brown of Monash University explains in How to Quickly Spot Dodgy Science, this is far more than a matter of aesthetics. The way a paper looks can be a useful heuristic for assessing its quality. Researchers who are dedicated to producing good science can spend years on a study, fretting over its results and investing in gaining support from the scientific community. This means they are less likely to present work looking bad. Brown gives an example of looking at an astrophysics paper and seeing blurry graphs and misplaced image captions—then finding more serious methodological issues upon closer examination. In addition to other factors, sloppy formatting can sometimes be a red flag. At the minimum, a thorough peer-review process should eliminate glaring errors.

It Uses Control Groups and Double-Blinding

A control group serves as a point of comparison in a study. The control group should be people as similar as possible to the experimental group, except they’re not subject to whatever is being tested. The control group may also receive a placebo to see how the outcome compares.

Blinding refers to the practice of obscuring which group participants are in. For a single-blind experiment, the participants do not know if they are in the control or the experimental group. In a double-blind experiment, neither the participants nor the researchers know. This is the gold standard and is essential for trustworthy results in many types of research. If people know which group they are in, the results are not trustworthy. If researchers know, they may (unintentionally or not) nudge participants towards the outcomes they want or expect. So a double-blind study with a control group is far more likely to be good science than one without.

It Doesn’t Confuse Correlation and Causation

In the simplest terms, two things are correlated if they happen at the same time. Causation is when one thing causes another thing to happen. For example, one large-scale study entitled “Are Non-Smokers Smarter than Smokers?” found that people who smoke tobacco tend to have lower IQs than those who don’t. Does this mean smoking lowers your IQ? It might, but there is also a strong link between socio-economic status and smoking. People of low income are, on average, likely to have lower IQ than those with higher incomes due to factors like worse nutrition, less access to education, and sleep deprivation. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Cigarette Smoking and Tobacco Use Among People of Low Socioeconomic Status,” people of low socio-economic status are also more likely to smoke and to do so from a young age. There might be a correlation between smoking and IQ, but that doesn’t mean causation.

Disentangling correlation and causation can be difficult, but good science will take this into account and may detail potential confounding factors of efforts made to avoid them.

Conclusion

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” ―Claude Lévi-Strauss

The points raised in this article are all aimed at the linchpin of the scientific method—we cannot necessarily prove anything; we must consider the most likely outcome given the information we have. Bad science is generated by those who are willfully ignorant or are so focused on trying to “prove” their hypotheses that they fudge results and cherry-pick to shape their data to their biases. The problem with this approach is that it transforms what could be empirical and scientific into something subjective and ideological.

When we look to disprove what we know, we are able to approach the world with a more flexible way of thinking. If we are unable to defend what we know with reproducible evidence, we may need to reconsider our ideas and adjust our worldviews accordingly. Only then can we properly learn and begin to make forward steps. Through this lens, bad science and pseudoscience are simply the intellectual equivalent of treading water, or even sinking.

Article Summary

  • Most of us are never taught how to evaluate science or how to parse the good from the bad. Yet it is something that dictates every area of our lives.
  • Bad science is a flawed version of good science, with the potential for improvement. It follows the scientific method, only with errors or biases.
  • Pseudoscience has no basis in the scientific method. It does not attempt to follow standard procedures for gathering evidence. The claims involved may be impossible to disprove.
  • Good science is science that adheres to the scientific method, a systematic method of inquiry involving making a hypothesis based on existing knowledge, gathering evidence to test if it is correct, then either disproving or building support for the hypothesis.
  • Science is about evidence, not proof. And evidence can always be discredited.
  • In science, if it seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

Signs of good science include:

  • It’s Published by a Reputable Journal
  • It’s Peer Reviewed
  • The Researchers Have Relevant Experience and Qualifications
  • It’s Part of a Larger Body of Work
  • It Doesn’t Promise a Panacea or Miraculous Cure
  • It Avoids or at Least Discloses Potential Conflicts of Interest
  • It Doesn’t Claim to Prove Anything Based on a Single Study
  • It Uses a Reasonable, Representative Sample Size
  • The Results Are Statistically Significant
  • It Is Well Presented and Formatted
  • It Uses Control Groups and Double-Blinding
  • It Doesn’t Confuse Correlation and Causation

Henry David Thoreau on Success

In the classic Walden, Henry David Thoreau echoes Warren Buffett on having an inner scorecard and defining your own success:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

[…]

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

A bit later he writes, in perhaps one of the most important passages in the book,

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

And finally …

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality.

Henry David Thoreau on Reading Deliberately

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) remains best-known for Civil Disobedience and for Walden, a beautiful ode to simplicity and self-sufficiency.

Thoreau moved into a cabin he built by Walden Pond to extricate himself from social life and surround himself with the simplicity of nature. The book is a collection of his insights on a range of topics gained over the two years and a few months he spent there.

Here is some of what he had to say on reading:

With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.

The seclusion of Walden offered an opportunity for serious reading.

My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. … I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.

It’s the labour of reading that makes it worthwhile.

The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.

The classics are the noblest thoughts and require training.

Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.

The work of art nearest to life itself …

What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.

Books are the wealth of the world …

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

Most people don’t know how to read a book, a point that Thoreau echos:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

On the connection between books and culture …

The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.

And one of my favorite passages on the two types of illiterateness:

We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.

We spend more on our bodies than our minds.

We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment.

Walden is a classic for a reason.

Do Something Syndrome: When Movement Trumps Results

Petronius_Arbiter_by_Bodart_1707

Solving problems almost always starts with ensuring you’re solving the actual problem. When the actions we should take are not obvious, or the problem is difficult, it’s easy to feel the need to do something … anything. We convince ourselves that motion is better than inaction. The choice, however, isn’t between action and inaction. This is a false duality. There is a third option that often makes the most sense.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

— Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter

There is something almost poetic in the way that Petronius (27 AD — 66 AD) so succinctly captures a phenomenon that most of us have been through.

Poorly performing organizations or divisions reorganize all the time. Sometimes the source of the problem is the organization, more often than not, however, reorganizations offer little impact on the results.

Consider taking charge of a poorly performing division at work. The pressure to deliver is high. You’re told this is your big opportunity. You’re advised to take charge and lead. You’ve been taught that doing something is the same as results, so you naturally mistake movement for results. So it’s only natural that you come up with a plan to move the boxes around and reorganize the division.

Movement offers shelter from failure. When you’re in motion, you feel like you’re doing something. We convince ourselves that as long as we’re in motion, we can’t fail. As long as we’re doing something, anything, failure can’t really find us.

Movement feeds our ego. Our evolutionary programming craves the validation of others. In a world that values action and short soundbites, nuanced conversations are hard. Others don’t have time to really listen to your nuanced story as they run to their next meeting. And telling people that you’re doing nothing results in disapproving looks. Movement offers the drug of validation to the outside world. It is far easier to tell others that we’re doing something than doing nothing. And so we do.

Perhaps a few examples will help illustrate the concept. First, consider the person we all know that is always planning to start a business. Planning is doing something. It’s action. We can tell others about our dreams, and as long as we’re planning we never risk failure. Second, consider the person who has been writing a book for years. The movement of editing and refining serve a purpose, of course, but when that purpose becomes an end we never get results.  There is no risk of failure if you don’t publish your work. Finally, consider the person that wants to get a promotion at work. They take on so many new projects they are always too busy to apply for that promotion. They’re busy but they aren’t getting the results they want.

Movement teases us with the illusion of progress. However, action for the sake of action that results in success is nothing more than dumb luck. And Confusing movement with results often makes things worse, not better.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather make success a little less about luck every day.

Motion is easy. Results are hard.

Preparations are necessary but not sufficient for achieving results. The actions we take are often just preparations for what we really want to accomplish. We read a diet book instead of dieting. We learn how to use Shopify or Woo commerce instead of starting a store. When we confuse preparations with the end instead of the means, we really trick ourselves.

Maybe Pascal was right when he said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” And yet this inability to sit quietly serves us as well. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if the people who made your device sat quietly in a room. As with everything, it’s not black and white. We have to learn when sitting quietly in a room serves us and when it hurts us.

Doing something isn’t the same as getting results. The problem is we convince ourselves that our only options are to do something or do nothing. We forget the third option, gathering more information. While there will always be pressure to do something immediately with urgency, most of the time that action will be wasted. We’d be much better off if we stop for a moment and gather more information before acting.

The next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what Thoreau said: “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Dead Poets Society

To Be Read At The Opening of D.P.S. Meetings:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

A Philosophy of Walking: Thoreau, Nietzsche and Kant on Walking

Solitude is an important aspect of creative thought. You could make an argument that in our information-overloaded world where our senses are stimulated nearly 18 hours a day, solitude and calming our minds is more important than ever. Walking allows us time to play with ideas, explore concepts, and be wrong in our thinking without worrying about others seeing the rawness of our thoughts.

I’ve never been a big walker, but after reading Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking, I became one. I started walking at lunch. I started taking walking meetings and walking phone calls. Not only has it improved my health but it’s clarified my thinking.

In the book, Gros explores people and lives that were shaped by walking. He ponders Thoreau’s seclusion, why Rimbaud walked in fury, Nerval and his cure to melancholy. Rousseau and Nietzsche walked to think. Kant walked through his town at the same time daily to escape the “compulsion of thought.”

Walking is not a sport.

Walking is not a sport. Sport is a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition, necessitating lengthy training: knowing the postures, learning the right movements. Then, a long time later, comes improvisation and talent.

Sport is keeping score: What’s your ranking? Your time? Your place in the results? Always the same division between victor and vanquished that there is in war – there is a kinship between war and sport, one that honours war and dishonours sport: respect for the adversary; hatred of the enemy.

Sport also obviously means cultivation of endurance, of a taste for effort, for discipline. An ethic. A labour.

Walking is not a sport. Putting one foot in front of the other is child’s play. When walkers meet, there is no result, no time: the walker may say which way he has come, mention the best path for viewing the landscape, what can be seen from this or that promontory.

[…]

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.

Freedoms

[T]here is the suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time. You choose to leave the office behind, go out, stroll around, think about other things. With a longer excursion of several days, the process of self-liberation is accentuated: you escape the constraints of work, throw off the yoke of routine. But how could walking make you feel this freedom more than a long journey? … only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential.

[…]

Walking can provoke these excesses: surfeits of fatigue that make the mind wander, abundances of beauty that turn the soul over, excesses of drunkenness on the peaks, the high passes (where the body explodes). Walking ends by awakening this rebellious, archaic part of us: our appetites become rough and uncompromising, our impulses inspired. Because walking puts us on the vertical axis of life: swept along by the torrent that rushes just beneath us.

What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.

[…]

During long cross-country wanders, you do glimpse that freedom of pure renunciation. When you walk for a long time, there comes a moment when you no longer know how many hours have passed, or how many more will be needed to get there; you feel on your shoulders the weight of the bare necessities, you tell yourself that’s quite enough – that really nothing more is needed to keep body and soul together – and you feel you could carry on like this for days, for centuries. You can hardly remember where you are going or why; that is as meaningless as your history, or what the time is. And you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial.

Walking Philosophers

As you would expect, the book explores philosophers and their relationship to walking. Nietzsche was a walker. He wrote:

Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel. All prejudices emanate from the bowels. — Sitting still (I said it once already) — the real sin against the Holy Ghost.

When he wrote, The Wanderer and His Shadow, he walked, alone, for up to eight hours a day. Nietzsche would stop to scribble notes in small notebooks with a pencil. The entire book, except for a few lines, was thought out and composed en route.

Walking is different things to different people. To Nietzsche walking was more than relaxation, it was where he worked best.

“Think while walking,” Gros writes “walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.”

While Nietzsche walked to work, Kant walked to escape. This was his way to escape — “a distraction from work.”

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant, by contrast, had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

Rain or shine, Kant had to walk.

(Kant) went alone, for he wanted to breathe through his nose all the way, with his mouth closed, which he believed to be excellent for the body. The company of friends would have obliged him to open his mouth to speak.

He always took the same route, so consistently that his itinerary through the park later came to be called ‘The Philosopher’s Walk.’ According to rumor he only ever altered the route of his daily constitutional twice in his life: once to obtain an early copy of Rousseau’s Emile, and to join the scramble for hot news after the announcement of the French Revolution.

 

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
Source: A Philosophy of Walking

Speed

Many people think that walking fast is key. We’re driven to get from point A to point B and we need to get there as quickly as possible. This is not leisure. Nor is it restful.

Gros claims the lesson, “in walking,” is that “the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness.” He later continues:

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal. But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour.

Solitude

Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Rousseau think we should walk alone.

Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm, and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours. But it is highly specific and exact. So that when you are forced to adjust to someone else’s pace, to walk faster or slower than usual, the body follows badly.

So, Gros concludes, “it’s best to walk alone.” But we are never alone. Thoreau wrote: “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”

***

A Philosophy of Walking explores the how walking shaped to Thoreau, Rousseau, Kant, and more.