5 science facts that self-help writers get wrong


Because STRING!

It’s an exciting world of crazy info out there with some very excitable journalists, retweeters, and blokes down the pub who remember this thing they once read. Before you slip these fantastic facts into your own blog or book, check whether you’ve fallen for any of the doozies:

1. It takes 21 days to build a habit.

Sadly, it doesn’t. I wish it did take 21 days – or 12, or 20, or any of the other numbers I encounter when I’m editing. I know it doesn’t, because I stay up to date on the latest psychology research. Part of my job as an editor is to keep egregious inaccuracies from slipping into the final book and this one has spread like the ebola of habit-building. The actual research says it takes an average of 66 days, but it varies so much between individuals that the average is meaningless. It’s like saying the average number of legs per mammal in my house is three. True, but we don’t have any three-legged mammals here. Habit building takes anything between 18 and 254 days. So: no nice catchy number, but if you really want to help people build habits, read what’s proven to work: actual studies on building willpower.

2. As Einstein said…

He probably didn’t. Unless the quote that follows is “E = mc2“, I always check this and it usually wasn’t him. Finding another website that said it was Einstein isn’t proof either. As Shakespeare said, “The internet is full of misattributed quotations.” Einstein gets so many of them that he has a whole section on his Wikipedia page about misattributed quotes. If everyone’s favourite fluffy-haired genius had said everything he’s quoted to, the poor bloke would literally never have shut up. He wouldn’t have had time to file a single patent, never mind revolutionise theoretical physics.

Likewise, “The perfect is the enemy of the good” – Seth Godin. Seth may have said this, but he didn’t come up with it. That was the insight of that enlightened stalwart of French philsosophy, Voltaire, who between fighting censorship, ducking imprisonment, and writing his Dictionnaire Philosophique, announced in 1772 “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”. The best, or the perfect, is the enemy of the good.

While we’re on the subject of quotes, anyone who writes “Anon” without cast-iron proof deserves to have all their work stolen and attributed to Einstein. Or Seth Godin. It usually takes me about five minutes to track down the original source and it’s usually Maya Angelou – the underquoted yin to Einstein’s yang. You can read more about the hanging offence of writing Anon here, and the legal perils that await you here, but the rule is this: unless a respected publisher’s dictionary of quotations says “Anon”, neither do you. Go forth and hunter-gather your source.

3. The 100th monkey effect

This has been debunked for so long that it’s become its own model of evolution: myths survive better than truth. In case you’ve never come across this engaging little chestnut, the story goes that scientists were studying monkeys on a Japanese island in the 1950s and the monkeys learnt to wash sweet potatoes. They copied each other’s behaviour, but as soon as a critical mass of magical monkey knowledge was reached, this behaviour mysteriously and instantly spread through the ether to other monkeys on other islands. That when a certain number of people know something, the information magically leaps! Except it doesn’t. Never happened. The monkeys swam between islands and taught each other, the usual way. It turns out info can’t leap magically from brain to brain: it really is just a case of monkey see, monkey do.

4. Because QUANTUM!

Quantum physics is insane. Absolutely. If it doesn’t fry your brain, you need to read a great deal more about it, because it totally should. Physicists tie their brains in knots trying to interpret this stuff and at the moment the winning argument is that we need multiple universes for this crazy stuff to work! So: yes. It’s incredible. What it doesn’t mean is that anything you want to believe is true, or that we’re made of light, or that because we have energy too we can wish ourselves across dimensions / space-time like electrons popping in and out of possible place pre-wave-function collapse, or that nothing is knowable and everything is uncertain… E certainly does equal mc2 but I do not think that means what you think it does. You can’t win an argument by yelling “Because QUANTUM!” and wave-particling away. You can use this fabulous intelligent search tool to read up a whole more about it.

5. “And then that part of the brain just LIGHTS UP!”

Neuroscience is the new quantum physics for go-to pesudoscientific proof. Neuroscience is not pseudoscience, but it’s in its infancy and it proves remarkably little. It also, famously, “proves” that dead salmons’ brains LIGHT UP when they look at pictures of people. Before you claim neuroscientific proof of anything, see if you can find a single neuroscientist who says that – not a non-expert blog or an overexcitable newspaper article. Some reliable online sources are Christian Jarrett’s fabulous list of brain myths (that’s the chap who until very recently wrote the British Psychology Society’s Research Digest) and Discover Magazine’s Neuroskeptic. Meanwhile, consider if it might be true whether or not bits of the brain light up like fireworks.

So, that’s the top five terrible traps to avoid; now we just need someone to write an accessible explanation of string theory so we can all start using that to explain stuff. Because STRING!

3 thoughts on “5 science facts that self-help writers get wrong

  1. Thanks so much for this Megan, especially the Quantum bit. I did QM at Uni and still remember the shock. It hurts! ‘Leadership’ or ‘Transformational’ or ‘Energy’ modalities that claim we are Quantum beings don’t get it at all. It usually goes ‘it’s Quantum something…..[lots of guff]…. buy my book’. Run a mile from that.

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