Discover more from Living With Evidence
Debating Happiness and Scientific Results
What happens when your country keeps topping happiness rankings?
Five years in a row… That’s how long Finland has topped the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. Many Finns think that’s right, but many are apparently puzzled as to why, and others dispute the claim – the whole thing is controversial.
Apparently, when rankings like this appear, countries on the list can be indifferent about it – or the news can set off a national round of glorification or a scandal about poor performance. In their interesting new paper, Jennifer de Paola and Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman explores why there’s controversy in Finland about ranking so highly. They analyzed the comments sections in broadsheet and tabloid newspapers for 25 articles, with more than a couple of thousand comments.
First, what does “happiness” even mean in this context? Well, the WHR uses a poll asking people to think of a ladder going from 0 to 10, where living your best life is at the top. The person then chooses how high up that ladder they reckon they are. Other data is used to put the results in context. Levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption are used to try to explain how each of the 150 countries surveyed compares to Dystopia. Dystopia is a hypothetical country that ranks rock bottom on these 6 domains.
There’s a Finnish concept that more or less corresponds to Utopia: Lintukoto, a mythical island “where the sky and surface of the earth meet”. That does sound glorious, doesn’t it? And the commenters were polarized as to whether Finland was near-Utopia or a veritable Dystopia.
The WHR, like so much else, turns out to be an opening for people to air their concerns about their country, or how it’s changing. And the negative responses had much in common with other disputes about research results people disagree with, complete with accusations of scientists’ cultural bias, government and UN manipulation, and claims of intentional fabrication of data – but with the usual layer of fear of the status quo, and an added one of devaluing Finnishness.
That sounds like a reason not to read the comments, but it wasn’t like that. The researchers describe it as a rich discourse, that wrestled with the notion of happiness, too. It would have been less controversial, they suggest, if the report was named the “World Life Satisfaction Report” instead. Which would certainly be more accurate.
The media also play a role in one of the systematic reviews I discuss in this week’s collection of evidence and other writing. It’s about studies on what can help solve cold cases. That investigative journalists sometimes achieve results in unsolved crimes is about all I knew about this. Collaboration with academics could be useful, too. Student assignments sometimes help crack a case as well, though TV shows have given many students an unrealistic idea of how easy it is.
Media also play a big role in people’s perceptions of what’s happening in social media at the moment. This week at Absolutely Maybe, I dissect a common narrative doing the rounds about Mastodon’s growth. There’s also a challenge to the common perception that African-Americans are more reluctant to participate in clinical trials, a great post on being a statistician, and more below.
I hope you have a good week!
My timeline at Mastodon was peppered with celebration that we’d clocked past 8 million users, and growing rapidly. But it didn’t make sense to me. I’ve been on Mastodon through a few big growth spurts, and you know it’s happening straight away: Your timeline fills with people welcoming newcomers, and new arrivals sharing introduction posts. Plus the whole network slows down, as people go flat out trying to expand capacity to absorb the influx. None of that was happening. In fact, it seemed to me engagement was, if anything, slowing down. So I dug into the confusing world of Mastodon stats and figured it out. Yes, it’s slowing and no, the part of the network we’ve joined hasn’t grown to 8 million. See more at Absolutely Maybe: Mastodon Growth Numbers Might Not Mean What You Think They Mean.
Cold cases – unsolved crimes and unidentified bodies – are on the rise in some countries. A new systematic review digs into what contribution psychological science has made to solving these cases, including the impact of involving the media, academia, and student assignments in the process. The authors mostly map out all the topics that need to be studied, as there’s not a lot of evidence already to hand. It’s enough, though, to suggest further research and collaboration between academia, journalists, and police could help solve more cases.
An example of techniques developed by academics that have sometimes led to a cold case being solved are Timeline Toolkits – ways of breaking down the elements of the lead-up and events, aiming to help analysis or improve questioning of witnesses or victims and their families. Another possible impact the researchers identified? Leaving some families feeling that their loved one was “a worthy victim”. Given the prejudices that can lead to cold cases, the need for that is vast. As evidence grows, I’d be keen to know what contributes to getting the “resolution” of a cold case wrong: An injustice reduction focus is critical, too.
A systematic review by Joseph Unger and colleagues challenges the idea that African-Americans are less likely to agree to participate in clinical trials than white Americans, at least in cancer. They found 35 studies, offering trial participation to 9,759 adult cancer patients. Over half agreed, with similar rates for Black and White Americans. The authors suggest the reason for lower rates of participation of people from minority groups lie elsewhere: “Policies and interventions to improve clinical trial participation should focus more on modifiable systemic structural and clinical barriers, such as improving access to available trials and broadening eligibility criteria.”
How likely are cancer researchers to share data and analytical code? Very unlikely, according to study results from Daniel Hamilton and colleagues. Only 1 in 5 studies said data was available. The authors question whether journal mandatory data sharing policies are making much difference.
We’re just a few weeks off the start of the NIH’s new mandate for data sharing. Earlier this year, it was called a “seismic” policy change: Maybe funder mandates can move this depressing needle.