Kind of interesting, right? The problem is that the astonishing commercial success of “The Book of Lists” produced our current disaster, which is the ubiquity of the “listicle,” a form of pseudo-journalism that has become a drain on our collective intelligence. The listicle is an artifact of the Internet, an article hurriedly assembled by a hack writer to fill an insatiable demand for “content.” Listicles are mindless pap involving quick, careless research based on no actual original reporting. Plus, the compilers are obliged to come up with lists containing some conventional, impressive-sounding number of items. You just can’t have a list of six — it would look paltry and random. It has to be 10, or 20, or 25, or 100. This takes a bad problem and makes it worse, because if there is anything worse than pap, it is padded pap.
I became particularly exercised about this a few days ago when a friend sent me a piece that was written two years ago but is still robustly circulating online. It is a listicle from a website called Online Psychology Degree Guide enumerating the “25 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History.” It is reasonably well written as listicles go. But it is still a listicle, and you can see the flaws easily. Coincidentally, I might be the most qualified person on the planet to point them out.
Some of it is just fine. One item on the list is the Ivan Pavlov experiment from the 1890s, the most famous psychological experiment of all, involving dogs and food and bells and drool. Another item is the 1961 Stanley Milgram experiment at Yale University that did much to explain Nazism by establishing how ordinary people can be persuaded to act inhumanely if encouraged by authority figures. These are indisputable examples of influential science. But this listicle begins to go off the tracks on item No. 8, which is about the Kitty Genovese case. That was the event in New York City in 1964 in which dozens of people were said to have been affected by the “bystander effect,” watching a murder without trying to help. One problem is that this never happened the way it was initially portrayed: Some people did try to help. But the bigger problem is that this was not, in any sense of the word, by any stretch of the imagination, an “experiment.” The experimenter, according to the listicle, was the “New York Police Force,” which did not respond to the calls for help. That is like crediting the crew of the Enola Gay for conducting a successful weapons experiment on Aug. 6, 1945.
But the biggest error lies in item No. 24, where you can truly sense the listologist’s desperation. Have 23! Gotta get to 25! No. 24 is the Joshua Bell subway phenomenon from 2007, which I know something about since I conducted it.
Though I consider what I did to be primarily a stunt, I’ll magnanimously agree to call it an experiment. But what it clearly was not was science. I have no training in psychology (or, for that matter, anything else other than juggling, which I once took a class in). This “experiment” had no controls, no standard deviations, no peer review. It probably cannot be effectively replicated, which is the definition of science.
Still, don’t get me wrong. This is the age of “branding.” I am pleased to be listicled with Ivan Pavlov and Stanley Milgram. I plan to add it to a list of worthwhile things I have accomplished in my life.
Now I just need 24 more.
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