Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mad Genius or Bad Science

As we build up towards next June's Symposium we'll be running a number of occasional posts on the theme of 'creativity'. To kick the series off, where better to start than with one of the most prevalent myths, that of the "mad genius"?

In a paper published in May's edition of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Judith Schlesinger (psychologist and Jazz afficionado - there seems to be a distinct subgroup of such people) exposes the weaknesses of this idea by tracing back recurring references to their original source. It's a well written and biting piece and shows the real dangers of using secondary references/sources with some extremely dodgy original material becoming cited widely with little question. Perhaps because it fits our stereotype of creativity and genius (as Keith Sawyer emphasises in his book "Explaining Creativity") the citation has just been copied into a wide range of subsequent publications with no critical review.

It is certainly worth reading Schlesinger's article just to get a feel for how extraordinarily bad the original 'evidence' actually is: trying to diagnose mental health based on newspaper obituaries; noting in diary entries that a great composer sometimes seems a bit low and yet other times happy; having conversations with writers at a country retreat and discovering that someone in their family had a mental health issue! Oh and lovely statistics such as an effect being demonstrated by 12.5% of the sample and in case that number rings an alarm bell, yes it really did correspond to a single person out of a group of only eight that were interviewed.

This is the kind of work that would be a field day for Ben Goldacre in his crusade against 'bad science'.

This design contains artwork that is © 2006-2008 FunDraw.Com.

No comments: