The worst comment I ever received taught me a lot

This comment appeared on the most popular thing I have ever written, and it came about a year after I originally posted it.

“I personally hold you responsible for the dumbing down of humanity via the willful spread of idiotic misinformation. Please die in a hole.”

Ouch.

Why?

The post was about “The Five Monkeys Experiment,” a story I had heard at a conference and went on to write about. I had done a quick search to see if such an experiment actually took place and found several references to a study in the 1960s. One of those was in a best-selling book. “It did happen,” I wrote, and then went on to talk about the lessons to be drawn from it.

But a few readers dug deeper, and pointed out that the study I cited was different from my story in key details and even in its conclusions. Thus the comment that I was willfully spreading idiotic information.

My immediate reaction was defensive. It’s only a story! That wasn't even the important part! But I knew he had a point, even if I didn’t love the way he made it. I tried to ignore the comment, but it gnawed at me, and after quite a few months I added an update to the end of the post explaining my mistake and what I should have written instead.

I thought that was the end of it.

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Two years later

This week, I read about an interesting experiment in a best-selling book. A study by Prof. Gail Matthews showed that if you wrote down a goal and shared weekly updates with peers, you would be 76.7 percent more likely to achieve it. That supported a point I wanted to make, so I was about to write about it.

Then I thought about the comment. Did it really happen? Maybe I should dig deeper.

I searched and found a wide range of citations to the study including articles in Forbes and Huffington Post, but  the links didn't work. There was a description on the university website, but it just linked to a summary of one experiment with 267 students. Since there was no evidence of a published, peer-reviewed paper, I didn’t write about it. 

Later this same week, I was writing a guide that included tips about time management and I was about to cite a finding I had come across in an article in BBC News. The article cited a study done by Dr. Glenn Wilson at the University of London.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ - more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers.”

Again, I thought of the comment. Instead of finding research, after a few clicks I found this letter from Dr. Wilson:

“This "infomania study" has been the bane of my life. I was hired by H-P for one day to advise on a PR project and had no anticipation of the extent to which it (and my responsibility for it) would get over-hyped in the media.

There were two parts to their "research" (1) a Gallup-type survey of around 1000 people who admitted mis-using their technology in various ways (e.g. answering e-mails and phone calls while in meetings with other people), and (2) a small in-house experiment with 8 subjects (within-S design) showing that their problem solving ability (on matrices type problems) was seriously impaired by incoming e-mails (flashing on their computer screen) and their own mobile phone ringing intermittently (both of which they were instructed to ignore) by comparison with a quiet control condition. This, as you say, is a temporary distraction effect - not a permanent loss of IQ. The equivalences with smoking pot and losing sleep were made by others, against my counsel, and 8 Ss somehow became "80 clinical trials".

Since then, I've been asked these same questions about 20 times per day and it is driving me bonkers.”

A commitment and a favor

I learned an important lesson. When you’re writing, it’s easy to find something the supports your point of view and include it as evidence of your truth, whether or not it’s based on good science. I know I have been guilty of intellectual laziness at times.

I’m committed to doing better. If you see something I write that purports to be more than just my opinion but isn’t grounded in good research, please comment or send me email. I will greatly appreciate it (especially if you leave out the part about dying in a hole). Thank you.