Wow, how much would it suck to be “The Love Doctor” Paul Zak this week after John Oliver made him the laughing stock on his popular HBO show on Sunday night. Zak has ridden to fame with his book about oxytocin being “the moral molecule” and his TED Talk where he claims that hugs unleash the joys of oxytocin. Oliver and highly acclaimed science writer Ed Yong end up being a sort of tag team of humiliation — Oliver with the big, broad, simple message that Zak is a clown, then Yong last fall in The Atlantic with a powerful, detailed disassembly of Zak’s oxytocin story. Ouch. I think the Love Doctor gonna need some hugs.
THE HUG-LY TRUTH. If you haven’t seen this brilliant synthesis from John Oliver this past Sunday night, it’s worth watching the whole 20 minutes. Or, if you want to skip right to the razzing of Zak, go to 10 minutes in where he begins the public shaming of “The Love Doctor.”
“I RECOMMEND EIGHT HUGS A DAY AND — OH, CRAP, HERE COMES JOHN OLIVER!”
Busted. This past Sunday evening John Oliver delivered a wonderful and simple essay on the problem of “false positives” (saying you see a pattern when in fact it’s either not there or you don’t have enough data to say it is) that increasingly plagues the world of science — especially biomedical science.
The false positive problem was given a blast of major attention in 2005 by Jon Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University Medical School who boldly stated that, “Most biomedical papers published are false.” The medical community recoiled at this, tested it themselves, found out he was right, then it was translated brilliantly for the public by one of my all-time favorite journalists David H. Freedman in The Atlantic in a 2011 foundation-shaking article titled, “Lies, Damn Lies and Medical Science.”
If you are interested in this topic in general, you really have to read Freedman’s article. It made my jaw drop when I first read it on the way to speak at an epidemiology conference in 2011 where I asked the experts if what he said was true and they reluctantly nodded yes.
So John Oliver’s segment is really just the even-more-popular version of Freedman’s article. Oliver digs in deep with one specific example which is the excitement in recent years over “the moral molecule” oxytocin and the most enthusiastic promoter of this story, The Love Doctor, Paul Zak. What’s great is that before you question whether Oliver has his facts right, all you have to do is look to award-winning science writer Ed Yong who gave the detailed take down of Zak last fall in The Atlantic. Together they make it kinda painful to think about being The Love Doctor this week.
And of course I like this because the overall message of my book last fall, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” was that scientists are humans and have this Achilles Heel of (similar to all humans) desperately wanting to tell big, fun, exciting, and CERTAIN stories. Paul Zak clearly fell victim to this. Here’s the basic story points of his downward journey into the clutches of John Oliver.
THE RESEARCH – In 2011 Zak was the third of five authors on a paper in Nature titled, “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” I guess this is where he thought, “Wowser, I’m in Nature, what we’re saying must be right, I’m taking it all the way to the stars!”
THE TED TALK – Also 2011 (maybe a little soon on the heels of the research publication?) Zak found himself on the TED stage telling people about the joys of oxytocin — how hugs release it and cause good things in your body — even though a cloud of doubt was beginning to enshroud the molecule’s reputation.
THE BOOK – In 2012 Zak published, “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity” and hit the road with more TEDx talks and appearances on everything from The Dr. Phil Show to Good Morning America.
THE SCOURGE -That same year science journalist Ed Yong began training his skeptical eye on Zak and his oxytocin party. His article in Slate that summer said it all with the subtitle, “Why the hype about oxytocin is dumb and dangerous.” He quoted an analysis of the work Zak’s oxytocin campaign was based upon which said, “some conclusions are too enthusiastic.”
OXYTOCIN, CORTISOL AND STORYTELLING – By 2014 he was entering into my area of interest, weaving big yarns about the role of oxytocin and cortisol in “The Power of Storytelling.”
MY IRRITATION – I began getting irritated last year at what I was hearing about Zak giving talks on the role of oxytocin and storytelling. I found it irritating because I had found my own interesting angle on neurophysiology and brain science in 2012 when I first spoke with Uri Hasson of Princeton University about his work establishing the field of “Neurocinematics.” I cite his work in both of my last two books. Unlike the boldness of Zak and his “Neuroeconomics” label, Hasson seemed very cautious about his neurocinematics term and constantly warned me that the science was very, very limited, in part because Functional MRI is such a crude tool. Every time I tried to get him to commit to a simple, bold statement he seem to answer with words of caution and warning that the science is very preliminary. No such concerns seemed to have ever bothered Zak.
KABOOM – Cut to this past Sunday where John Oliver uses the dubiousness of Zak’s work to cast general aspersions at TED Talks as a whole, ending up with The TODD Talks as a parody. The highlight of his parody is a scientist asking a volunteer to rub butts with him to unleash oxytocin.
“OUR YEARNING FOR CERTAINTY” AND THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
You wanna know what’s at the core of Zak’s popularity — the same thing that works for religion and confidence men — certainty. In January I raved about Kathryn Schultz’s great article in The New Yorker on the popularity of true crime shows. What I loved most about her article was the phrase near the end about “our yearning for certainty.”
That’s the human weakness that The Love Doctor is guilty of exploiting. People are desperate to understand what drives our behavior — so much that they are vulnerable to anyone in a white lab coat or handsome enough to be believable who is willing to explain how it all works WITH CERTAINTY.
If you look at this Youtube video by Dr. Paul Zak all you hear is certainty. There’s no words of qualification, limitations of confidence or tenuousness in the narration. It’s all as certain as the sun will rise every morning. Which is fine, until Ed Yong puts in the detective work, like a good private eye, and reveals that none of it is that certain. End of story for now.
STEVE GOULD WOULD HI FIVE JOHN OLIVER
I was a graduate student at Harvard in the years when legendary evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were at war with the founder of the new field of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson. At the core of sociobiology was a lot of wonderfully fun stories about how so much of our behavior today is the result of things that natural selection “selected for” back in the early days of hominids.
But Gould and Lewontin came at them with the accusation of “Just So Stories” referring to Rudyard Kipling’s bedtime tales for children such as “How the Camel Got His Hump” where the story would give a silly explanation for the origins of animal anatomy (the camel was punished with a hump for being lazy). They tore up much of sociobiology and left clouds of doubt over the field that persist today, serving as a monument to this weakness we all have for “good stories.”
Steve Gould would love what John Oliver did on Sunday night. Sociobiology was underpinned by the basic assumption that pretty much everything about us today is there because “it was selected for.” What Gould taught us so well (I was a teaching assistant for him twice) was that a great deal of pattern that exists in nature today is due to random, chance factors rather than the result of some orderly selective process.
The main thing with The Love Doctor is that there may eventually be fascinating stories to tell about the role of oxytocin in our bodies some day, but for now, as both Oliver and Yong pointed out, the jury is still out. So while the jury is still out, the doctor ought to be a little more restrained on the storytelling and not be giving TED Talks full of tall tales.