Sunday, April 10, 2005

 

A Scary Idea


Mr. Saletan's New York Times review of my book The Hypomanic Edge and Peter Whybrow's American Mania was so uninformative, distorted, and viciously ad hominem, as a psychotherapist I had to wonder: What did Whybrow and I do to provoke this primitive reaction? Saletan is a well respected left wing intellectual. This is not how he normally behaves. But we have scared and offended him, with a radical idea--genes may have contributed to America's character.
I wrote a book review for the New York Times once. OK, it got cut before it was published, but they paid me a $100, and gave me an education. When I emailed the first draft, I received a reply with 67 corrections, many punctuated with terse derisive remarks. My editor, Michael Anderson, proceeded to explain the job he was hiring me for: Take the book seriously. Adopt a neutral tone, i.e. don’t be a wise-ass. First, I was to explain what the book was about, and then offer fair, balanced arguments. Where was Michael Anderson when I really needed him?
Within a month of each other, two professors of psychiatry at prestigious medical schools published books reporting a whopping dose of hypomania in the American gene pool. Both point to evidence of mild American mania, yet disagree about its implications. That should be the starting point for a serious discussion. But these ideas are too radioactive to even touch. We can't be taken seriously. We are so toxic that we must be discredited and mocked from the very first sentence. Saletan's reaction to the simultaneous publication of these books is that they provide an intoxicating opportunity: a "delightful twist in the marketplace of ideas" that "yields a felicitous result: a case study in the psychology of psychologists."
Uh oh.
Rubbing his hands in glee at this delightful opportunity, Saletan begins his review, not with descriptions of our books, but with ad hominem attacks on both of us. The first thing you learn about me is that "Gartner concedes he can be high strung," After all, I confessed that I "hooted like an elated primate" the day my stock portfolio hit a million dollars. Yes, I hooted. It's true. But I don't dance on my desk as you might imagine from that introduction. I wrote that sentence in the context of a section illustrating how basic primate behaviors are shared by both humans and chimpanzees, which led me to argue that hypomanic genes predate humanity. But Saletan is more interested in lampooning me than actually discussing what I have to say. For him, my propensity for hooting is just proof that the entire book was whipped up in a state of mania. I have "thrown together a few entertaining mini-biographies" (at least he admitted they were entertaining) and on that basis, I "leap to radical genetic conclusions on minimal evidence and disregard negative feedback." According to Saletan, I am not just crazy, but dangerous, a "social Darwinist" hiding in scientist's clothing, misusing my position to justify free enterprise because I "love the market." Whybrow, on the other hand, is sober enough, but he is a misguided liberal, anti-capitalist, tarring all Americans with a manic brush because he yearns for the peaceful contentment he found in "rural village where he farmed a bit as his daughter grew up." His call for a less manic America only reflect his misguided "grandiose" fantasies of "healing society."
Because our premise is so offensive, we must both be either deluded or intellectually dishonest. "This is the danger of diagnosing a whole society: you start out selecting theories that fit the evidence, but you end up selecting evidence to fit the theory." Ironically, Saletan sounds like he is describing himself here, given his habit of lifting quotes out of context and deceptively splicing them together. This would be an example of what psychoanalysts call projection. Saletan systematically employs his skills to distort what we have said. For example, I criticize the methodology of a large study which reported that hypomania is rare. "The survey indicates that one in 1,000 people is hypomanic, so Gartner broadens the criteria, arguing that anyone who admits to having gone through 'a period of greatly increased energy' is hypomanic." What I actually said was that this survey underestimated the frequency of hypomania because they asked subjects "Have you ever had a period when you were a little high, so high you were out of control?" If they said no, no further questions querying the presence of hypomanic symptoms were asked. This screening device is called a stem question. The problem is that hypomanics don't think they are out of control when they are hypomanic. Just the opposite, they feel they are happy, productive, and at their best. So of course, the vast majority of hypomanics answered no, and the researchers never assessed whether they met diagnostic criteria for hypomania. Another study, by respected Swiss psychiatrist Jules Angst, asked subjects if they had ever had a period of increased energy as a stem question. If they said yes, they were not, as Saletan says, branded hypomanic. They were then assessed according to traditional criteria. Studies using this approach found between 5-10% of subjects to be hypomanic. Just using common sense, the one in a thousand figure is wrong. That would mean there are only 300,000 hypomanics in the United States. Everyone I have spoken to immediately volunteers that they know multiple people who live on the hypomanic edge, including perhaps themselves. But you'd be more likely to cross paths with an immigrant from Tobago at the rates Saletan insists must be accurate. What he could not have known is that among the many emails I have received from senior scientists praising the book, one is from the author of the very study he defends. What he had to know was that both my book and Whybrow's were the focus of a New York Times article in the Science section (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/22/health/psychology/22hypo.html), which failed to reveal us to be the frauds Saletan--who is not a scientist--claims we are.
Close to the end of the review, Saletan concedes that "Capitalism's manic energy has made us wealthier but at a price." Ironically both Whybrow and I clearly agree on that thesis statement. Isn't that an idea worth discussing? Mr. Anderson would tell me: Put that in paragraph one--and stop being a wiseass.
Behind Saletan's gleefully snide tone is fear, fear of an idea so politically incorrect that Whybrow and I have become enemy combatants, no longer protected by the New York Times literary conventions of accuracy and fairness



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