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Research on whether reading fiction makes you nicer (lithub.com)
65 points by ohjeez on April 9, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

Tl; Dr “ Researchers David Dodell-Feder and Diana I. Tamir set out to check the validity of existing research on the topic. They ran a meta-analysis on fourteen studies to check whether fiction reading causally improves social cognition—and they discovered that reading fiction has a small, statistically significant impact on social-cognitive performance. In other words, reading fiction makes you a little nicer and more socially aware.”

I picked up books in a tiny outdoor book-box nearby. And reading some did massage my view of the world; these weren't Marcus Aurelius kind of books, simple novels about average people, but it made me experience personalities and situations I wouldn't otherwise.

The paper claims to settle the correlation-causality question by using a multilevel random effects model metastudy methodology. That seems reasonable to me. However, it completely fails to address the - imho far more important - endogeneity problem, aka: which direction does the causality run (or does it run both ways)?

These results seem completely consistent with a very different story, namely that people who already score higher on those cognitive metrics are more attracted to reading fiction.

Does this include _science_ fiction? I cannot stand any other fiction.

Given how wide the classification of science fiction is I suppose the answer would be yes, I would expect the fiction of LeGuin for example would make you nicer.

But also considering how wide the classification maybe there is only one particular subset of Science Fiction you like?

I prefer Space Opera (e.g. Dan Simmons), but I have read pretty much every other catergory of science fiction, too (dystopian, hard, soft, parallel worlds). I have a bit of trouble wit Steampunk. But anyway, even this is always better than (e.g.) thriller fiction. Always try reading thrillers once in a while and always regret that I started reading.

I'm sure it would. If nothing else, the underlying premise of most SF/F is "What if...?" and presumably the practice of thinking about consequences makes you nicer, or at least slightly more compassionate.

So, cospiracy theorists who read the most fictional and out of touch conspiracies must be the nicest people out there.

I think that was an argument in Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. That reading, and especially memoirs and fiction, made violence decline.

This is seductive and comforting to those of us who like fiction, far more than true. We want to believe it, and it may be valid for a few of us (certainly wrong for others) but worst, it's too easy to believe because we want to.

Those are the dangerous ideas, the ones with more appeal than truth. Was Donald Trump mocked and belittled publicly? Of course, and some of it was even unfair. Tiny hands or funny hair are cheap shots, but he also was happy to bully others, among other truly outrageous things. He clings to the small truth that the press is mean.

What I want to believe (what I feel is true) is irrelevant to reality, even if my feelings are the most compelling and memorable aspect of my experience. Each of us is the center of our own experience, but not the center of the world, so our view is inherently warped.

> It’s official According to science ...

I have trouble deciding how to interpret that phrasing.

Taken at face value, it suggests the author has an implausibly bad understanding of science, logic, and thinking in general.

Given the context, I wonder if it's somehow meant in jest.

It's a phrase, and everyone understands what it means. Wikipedia isn't the worst here, even though it mangles the grammar:

    In summary that has authenticity emanates from an authority. 

The only problem here is people pretending not to know that language involves ambiguities, figures of speech, and so on.

To expand: in this case, two things are happening simultaneously: first, the author appreciates literature, and is genuinely happy that their intuitive belief that it is something "good" is getting a bit of empirical evidence.

Second, yes, I believe there is a hint of a smirk in the statement, that, if I were to dramatize it, is a comeback at all the STEM students in college that were dismissive of the author's enjoyment of non-non-fiction. It's all in good fun, however, because the article fundamentally rests on a believe in the scientific method, just not to the exclusion of other human endeavors.

I've met plenty of people who say "I only read non-fiction" always as if it's a virtue. A friend's father told her she made up lies about people who didn't exist. That was his opinion of her fiction. I think some people are really threatened by fiction, and it's unfathomable to me. Perhaps they're threatened because they've been told to like something that's not for them. It can be difficult to not like something when it's implied that not liking it is your own flaw. I feel these people live in a poorer world for closing that out of their lives.

Not being interested in fiction is about as damaging as not being interested in sports. In other words, not at all. Phrasing it as being in a "poorer world" is just normative bullshit, implying that one group is superior and the other inferior based on a point system I never agreed to.

I'm genuinely sorry if I offended you with my feelings. I tried not to, but clearly I didn't succeed. And in a context where everything seems to be treated as a value judgement, I should've been clearer.

There was nothing normative intended, and that's why I used the word feel. For brevity, I left off the bit where I regard my infinite ignorance (including sports, biology, math, religion, and fiction) as my own limitation, and one which I acknowledge limits my experience and interaction with people who cares and know more. Like my dislike of seafood. I don't blame the fish.

Since you identify specifically, let me be clear: Not less, just missing out on something I enjoy and learn from. My own ignorance and indifference limits my world, even if it is a necessary limitation I choose.

I'm sorry you feel judged. Snobbery is truly toxic, and my intent is inclusive. I apologize if my words are not.


It is very clearly meant in jest. The rest of the article is about breaking down why "according to science" isn't a particularly meaningful term in this case, and by the time the author has reached the conclusion, they are using more rigorous phrasing.

I wish "according to science" should automatically be replaced with "according to this one study". Seriously. it builds this image of "science" as uniform United law-making body; and then when another study comes out, people see it as "science" failing, as opposed to working as designed.

"It's official!" Prefix don't help none either...

Every time there's some result in physics that doesn't match with the standard model, say, there's a flood of breathless "scientists are wrong!" headlines that make it sound like they're all incompetent bumblers who get embarrassingly shown up as elitist chancers by the "university of life".

In reality, the physicists themselves know the models are incomplete, have painstakingly devised an cutting-edge experiment to probe that uncertainty and are ecstatic that there is more to study and that they have a new clue to follow. Imagine how sad it would be to be a physicist on the day that the Grand Unified Theory is discovered and physics is complete.

Related to this, and tangentially connected to the topic of reading fiction, I'll take this as an opportunity to raise one of the many things that I disliked about Cixin Liu's “The Three-Body Problem”. I honestly don't understand why it is held in such high regard, let alone sometimes described as "hard" science fiction. Spoilers evidently follow.

One of the initial plot points in the novel is that many top scientists in fields close to theoretical physics are misteriously committing suicide. Eventually it is revealed that they're doing it because an alien civilisation is surreptitiously using advanced technology to secretly interfere with human research at the subatomic level or something of the sort, to the point that the affected scientists are coming across such contradictory, counterfactual and inconsistent results that they finally commit suicide out of despair, shame, or loss of faith in science.

The idea that scientists, when faced with sudden nonsensical results which they cannot explain, would feel compelled not only to keep this fact to themselves but also to take their own lives is an unbelievably ignorant take on the workings of science as a field and a community.

If an evil power were to somehow alter reality to start breaking the expected rules of the Universe scientists would be absolutely excited about it, not suicidal! And even if they were to eventually despair out of the meticulously planned inconsistency caused by the evil manipulators, such that nothing could ever be predicted again, the despair would happen long after years and years of scientific conventions making the whole situation very public!

I have to imagine, too, if they were to give up individually, they’d still want to stick around in hopes someone else discovers the root cause.

You're misremembering - the reason they committed suicide is because the Trisolreans made the scientists hallucinate using the sophons. Notably the countdown was a big plot point.

That being said the entire thing was kind of dumb.

I don't ever remember seeing a 'science is wrong' headline before COVID, only breathless headlines about the benefits of whatever the article is about. For reference see the latest breathless headlines about the solar panels that can produce energy at night, despite it being 50 milliwats even in the original papers title.

They certainly made a meal out of the "superluminal" OPERA neutrinos, and that was 10 years ago. Anything that can be phrased as "Einstein wrong?!" is particularly gleefully seized upon, despite Betteridge's cautions.

What if the author thinks that "according to science..." means "a statistically significant number of studies on this subject have come to the same conclusion that..."? Like when the media reported that the LHC had confirmed the existence of the higgs boson? It wasn't one study, it was a bunch of studies and experiments over many years that eventually crossed a confidence threshold.

I agree this can be an issue, however in this case it’s actually a meta-analysis of several studies so the wording is a bit more justified here.

"Backed by science", "according to science" etc is the new marketing buzz-phrase and it's very annoying. I think it's a reaction to the world of conjecture, "alternate facts", and opinion that dominates us thanks to... well basically thanks to 6 years of Trump, I guess.

However whenever I read now "according to science", or something similar I just baulk.

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