Monday, January 23, 2017

Book: The Worm at the Core by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. 2015. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Penguin.

This book aims to draw big picture conclusions about life, the universe and everything based on a (quite large) literature of lab (mostly) experiments in which individuals primed to think about their own mortality change either their responses to researcher questions or their behavior in a wide variety of substantive domains. The authors had a hand in starting this experimental literature, and they view it as having broad implications for how society deals with quite a number of issues quite far removed from death and its rituals.

I found the case they make in the book provocative (to borrow the word used by the Financial Times reviewer quoted on the cover of the paperback edition that I purchased at my favorite bookshop in Aarhus) but ultimately incomplete for several reasons. First, the book lacks an argument as to why the results from the (mostly) lab experiments on (often) undergrads would generalize to real world behavior by other groups. This is a standard issue with lab experiments done by economists and other social scientists, of course, but it should receive serious mention in a book aimed at the intelligent non-specialist. Second, the authors describe the experiments, and they describe what they see as the big picture implications of them, but they never really provide much evidence regarding what they have in mind as the mediating causal linkages. Third, and finally, the authors do not give a sense of just how much of the variation in real world behavior in particular domains they imagine that "existential terror" (i.e. fear of death ... some truly excellent jargon indeed) explains. In a crude sense, I would like to know their estimate of the partial r-squared of existential terror in the grand regression of life. The reader could easily come away with the view that the authors think it equals one but surely it does not and equally surely that is not their view. But is it 0.01, or 0.1 or 0.01 in some domains and 0.1 in others, or what?

Recommended if you enjoy big picture social science books whose ambition perhaps exceeds their evidence.

No comments: