Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

A new study shows that people who go to museums, art galleries, the theater, and concerts live longer than those who don’t. The researchers, professors of psychology and epidemiology, described in detail their study’s methods, sample, and most importantly, its limitations. The A-Number-One Requirement of all legitimate scientific investigations is conveying exactly what the research can and CAN NOT do. These researchers made it unmistakably clear that causality cannot be inferred or assumed. 

Over the past several days I read dozens of articles written by those who saw this study on the wire services. Most disregarded the explicit warning label that says it provides no evidence that exposure to the arts results in longer lifespans. Below are three of many headlines ignoring those warnings and falsely claiming that involving oneself with the arts causes longer lives. Their conclusions may be accidental (poor comprehension and sloppy analysis) or deliberate (they grab the reader’s eye and make for a better story). Either way, they’re wrong.

  • Study Shows People Who Go to Museums Live Longer
  • Want to Live Longer? Visit an Art Gallery, Study Says
  • Study Says Going to Concerts Will Help You Live Longer

You saw they all say the study shows and the study says when it did not. “Survey Says” is an old one straight out of the Hoodwinkers’ Trick Book – adding gravitas by implying their conclusions are scientifically indisputable. You may also have noticed how the broad category of Arts gets whittled down to a lone subset, in spite of the researchers telling us their study did not examine what kinds of art, music, or theater their 6,700 participants were self-reporting, nor was any analysis performed at the specific activity level.

The same things happen when your organization’s gatekeepers get hold of a study. They invoke the authority of the research to foist off their conclusions as science. Would it surprise you to hear the top brass almost never ask to see the ingredients label? Those few who have learned how to read a specifications list know with certainty when they’re being sold snake oil, bilge water, and hooey. And because few executives have learned to ask the critical who, what, when, where, why, and how questions and evaluate the answers they get, gatekeepers continue to get away with shamelessly peddling their pet theories.

This is not to say that patronizing the arts is entirely unrelated to good health. Many studies have shown how engaging in the arts can reduce loneliness, promote empathy, stimulate emotional intelligence, and keep people from becoming sedentary — all elements that factor in longer lives. In this sense, being active with the arts may contribute to a longer life but does not cause it.

What none of the dozens of articles I read mentioned was how when you have two or more possible explanations for something, the best one is more often than not the simplest and most straightforward. The term for this is familiar to many: Occam’s Razor. Aristotle was a believer, as were Isaac Newton (three laws of motion) and Albert Einstein, who said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Instead of unquestioningly accepting the rather unlikely premise that attendance at cultural events is the cause of longer lives, think about asking a few simple questions, such as: what kinds of people are most and least likely to attend cultural events? Are people who are ill more likely or less likely to go to museums, galleries, theaters, and concert halls than those who are in good health? Are physically inactive people more likely or less likely than active folks to attend cultural events? I would expect to see few ill and inactive people out and about at museums, art galleries, the theater, and concerts, wouldn’t you? 

People with higher levels of education and income are likelier to attend cultural events than those with lower levels of education and income – and higher levels of education and income correlate closely with higher levels of physical and mental health.

Psychology Today’s headline says Arts Engagement and Cultural Activities May Be Linked to Longevity. They conclude the possibility of a link because active involvement with art and culture promotes emotional intelligence, creativity, and imagination – attributes positively associated with psychological and physical well-being. Taking Occam’s Razor to that, people with higher levels of emotional intelligence, creativity, and imagination are more drawn to the arts, especially the Fine Arts and to cultural events, especially highbrow culture. This explanation would hold that folks who are healthier in every way (and likelier to live longer) are those who are actively involved with the arts. Not the other way around.

Does anyone really think that moving to Plano, Texas (America’s happiest city) will make them happier or that they can reduce the likelihood of divorce by moving to Provo, Utah or have healthier teeth by moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut or become wealthier by moving to Pearland, Texas or be better-educated simply by moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan? Please say no.

Providing a clear discussion of study limitations is one hallmark of professional ethics, but when we don’t see caveats, asterisks, and fine print, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. Usually, it means quite the opposite – when we don’t see disclaimers prominently displayed, when there is no ingredients label, it means someone is deliberately hiding something and hoping you won’t notice.

This is the point where the scoffers say “So what?” and call it nitpicking. I agree when this sort of wrongheaded and sensationalist interpretation occurs in a news item that is soon forgotten. I know it matters a great deal when business leaders are making important decisions based on what they are told is rock-solid research. Executives who haven’t yet learned how to evaluate research for themselves are easy marks for hogwash hucksters.

Your gatekeepers concluding things that don’t follow from the research can only be accidental (scientific illiteracy and sloppy analysis) or deliberate (they grab the reader’s eye and make for a better story). Neither one is what you should be paying for.

Take a Closer Look, Volume 2, is free to Kindle Unlimited customers. The best way to protect yourself against the manipulations, distortions and fabrications that are more and more prevalent these days is to learn how to see through them.

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