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Pseudoscience and the London Riots: Folk Psychology Run Amok

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The past week has been a case study of the miscommunication of science.

“There is something profoundly anti-scientific going on.”

And he would know. Since the climax of the London riots a week ago, Stephen Reicher–a leading crowd psychologist at the University of St Andrew’s–has faced a drove of inquiring journalists. And, in the meantime, Reicher has watched a previously humble discipline evolve into a wielded weapon; thrust, sparred and grossly misused by politicians, journalists and, worryingly, by scientists themselves.

He has, in other words, borne witness to the miscommunication of science on a massive scale.

“The basis of any good science is that any explanation has got to be rooted in a sound empirical account of the phenomena,” said Reicher. “The simple fact of that matter is that, at this stage, we don’t have that.”

“So the point is, how can you explain something when you don’t even know what that something is?”

Yet attempts to explain (and, in particular, to use the broad banner of ‘psychology’ to explain) have been overwhelming.

Take, for instance, this Guardian article on “the psychology of looters”, one of the most popular news pieces in the wake of the violence. In it, Kay Nooney–a forensic psychologist who specializes in prison operations, not crowd action–is quoted as claiming that the constituency of these riots is similar to jail riots, where “there is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.” This echoes countless other ‘psychological’ accounts of the riot, which explain by means of pathologizing the riot participants.

This, according to Reicher, is a widely discredited notion. And, though it is still early, much of the initial evidence suggests the rioters to be more ordinary than expected.

“It’s always been an instant response to riots to say that they are the marginal in society, they are people who are already violent in society,” said Reicher. “Those studies that have been done – and the biggest study was the Kerner Commission after the American riots of the 60s – which showed that the average ghetto rioter was not marginal. The average ghetto rioter was on the whole more educated than the norm, at least in the communities that participated.”

Or take this BBC article. In it, psychologist James Thompson refers uncritically to the bystander effect, which has recently been questioned and complicated. Most troublingly, however, are the comments of psychologist Jason Nier, who explains riotous behaviour by using the ‘deindividuation’ theory of crowd behaviour. This theory holds that anonymity in the group leads to a lack of restraint, and has most popularly been used to explain the Stanford Prison Experiment. But according to John Drury, Stephen Reicher and the entire discipline of crowd psychology, the theory has been discredited over decades of research. This, however, didn’t stop the theory from being featured prominently on many news outlets.

“Science, at some level, can move fast but permeate slowly,” said Reicher. “For instance, the notion of deindividuation.”

“It’s perfectly true that you will still see deindividuation in the textbooks. But there is evidence from the last 20 or 30 years that the idea does not stack up. In groups, when people become anonymous, what they do is they shift from individual to social identity and then act on the basis of collective norms, values, standards.”

“We have also had epidemiologists talking about crowds and taking literally the metaphor of contagion. So there is a real danger of people straying into areas they know nothing about and talking nonsense as a result.”

And the list of pseudoscientific explanations of the London riots goes on. There are epidemiologists taking literally the metaphor of contagion, or sociologists spreading the pseudoscientific notion that crowds are ‘irrational’. The only common denominator? None of the researchers interviewed are working on crowd psychology, yet all are quoted as using discredited psychological theories.

The miscommunication of science is not new. What seems novel, however, is that this miscommunication has involved many psychologists.

“Academics are sometimes lazy themselves,” said Reicher. “Especially in the current ‘impact’ climate, academics want that visibility … they want to be the expert so they can claim their funding. So we’re not entirely innocent victims, we’re part and parcel of this system.”

But it speaks larger volumes about how behavioural science is treated by the media. On the whole, scientists–who rarely get to engage the public with their work–cannot be faulted for seizing opportunities to conjecture about their discipline, particularly when their discipline is suddenly a focal point for current events.

“Once the media know you, they’ll phone you about anything,” said Reicher. “It’s actually quite hard, for all sorts of reasons, to say no.

“When you have a charming journalist who invites you to go beyond the boundaries, it does happen. And that’s quite flattering. Especially at an international level–if someone from another country phones you up there is that sense that, ‘oh, this makes me an international expert’.”

This may be the particular burden of the social sciences. For example, it would be rare for a stem cell biologist to feature prominently in a story about animal behaviour. Yet the journalistic bias towards the social sciences seems to be that, because they are by definition ‘social’, they are more open to interdisciplinary expertise and, as such, their practitioners should be able to comment on a host of unrelated subjects.

Hence, the coverage of the London riots. Proximal and distal explanations have been conflated, old textbooks used, and there seems to be confusion over what constitutes an explanation versus a mere description. The rigour that is normally a hallmark of good science journalism falls short.

“The Greeks were quite right–tragedy is often a matter of hubris,” said Reicher. “It’s when you overextend what you’re trying to explain that you come undone.”

The London riots, it seems, have been tragic in every sense of the word.

Photo Credit: Raymond Yau.

This article written with files from John Drury. You can read his crowd psychology blog at The crowd.

Taylor Burns About the Author: Taylor Burns is a science journalist who writes for COSMOS Magazine and blogs about cognitive science research at Scitable. He recently finished his term as editor of BlueSci, the Cambridge University science magazine. Follow on Twitter @teaburns.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. kclancy 10:01 pm 08/16/2011

    This was a fantastic post. So glad you wrote this, because I think it dovetails nicely with a lot of the work faculty try to do to explain the process of science to our students.

    Link to this
  2. 2. SAvalerie 9:51 am 08/17/2011

    In 1972 (following violent riots US urban centers, rise in psychodelic drugs, racial intolerance) Rollo May pubished a psychological study titled: Power and Innocemce, A Search for the Sources of Violence. Among Dr May’s insights: “As we make people powerless, we promote their violence rather than its control. Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their own self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant.”

    Dr May documents the relationship between powerlessness and psychosis. Significantly, he concludes, “There is one way, however, of confronting one’s powerlessness – by making it seem a virtue…”

    May stresses need to emphasize the positive, creative aspects of power and innocence. Providing individuals with incremental opportunities for self-affirmation. To focus on growing an individual’s actual confidence in his/her power to make a difference.

    Valerie Hansen
    @ebookafrica (Twitter)

    Link to this
  3. 3. The Manual Bat 9:07 pm 08/17/2011

    “…there seems to be confusion over what constitutes an explanation versus a mere description”.

    Spot on. There are far too many people getting away with these so-called ‘explanations’. All they do is get out their thesaurus and – hey presto, an observation becomes a ‘model’.

    Link to this
  4. 4. SSims 6:33 am 08/18/2011

    It’s so refreshing to read a critical analysis of the coverage of these riots. Hearing experts extend beyond their fields to explain what happened (often by relying on outdated psychological theories) has been highly frustrating. Thanks for shedding light on this issue!

    Link to this
  5. 5. This week I’ve mostly been reading « Basil Exposition 5:52 pm 08/26/2011

    [...] riot-related post, this time on the miscommunication of science in the reporting and comment around the riots (often emanating from scientists [...]

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