Columns > Published on January 12th, 2022

Debunking The Bad Science of Books and Reading

The joke among readers and writers is that we all got into the arts because we suck at math and science.

Sometimes, I’m not so sure it’s a joke.

I keep seeing these TERRIBLY unscientific studies about books and reading passed between readers and writers.

Studies like these.

The Emotional Empathy Test

Whenever you see a headline about how reading makes you more empathetic or emotionally intelligent, you’ll probably be linked to the same, one-time, very flawed study.

As one scientist puts it, the test used in this study

[is] a poor tool...[but] it is the only measure that we currently have ... which is why everybody uses it.

I fart constantly and to a degree that’s a medical marvel. Me being the best person my girlfriend has ever dated doesn’t make me a delightful partner. I’m just the closest thing she’s got.

But let’s put that aside, the farts AND the testing. Let’s pretend that there is an accurate way to measure empathy, and that reading does increase the empathy in someone’s brain.

The study isn’t able to determine if the empathy gained through reading is ever applied.

Which means that a reader might shove an elderly woman in the gutter and walk on her back to avoid getting his shoes wet, and the only difference between him and a non-reader would be that he’d better understand what that elderly meat bridge was feeling while she burbled away in torrent of melted bus runoff.

Is unused empathy stored up in the Think Bank worth writing articles about? Probably not.

Growing Up In A Home With Books Makes Kids Successful

Okay, these dumbasses…

You’ve probably heard a version of this one, the study that says kids who grow up in a home with books are smarter, richer, more successful, and so on.

But did these kids make it because of their home library, or is there another factor at work here?

Scenario A: If you have a home library with lots of books, a ladder on rails and a drinks globe, you’re rich. Even if you didn’t have this dream library, having space for a good-size library in your house means you probably didn’t have to cram 3 siblings into one bedroom. Being rich is probably your best bet for future success.

Scenario B: You had a lot of books, not because you were rich, but because your parents put their limited resources to use buying books. Books are SUPER important to them, and they will probably pass their values down to you.

I guess the headlines "Rich people tend to do better in life," and, "Children who were often encouraged to read by their parents succeed in school," aren't exactly electrifying.

eBooks are Worse Than Print

Take your pick as to why. Less retention of information, weaker connection to characters. In most of the ways people have come up with, eBooks can’t compare to print.

Yes, basketball players are tall, but playing basketball isn’t what makes them tall.

Let’s throw a wrench in these gears:

The first Kindle is right around 15 years old, the first iPad only 12. That means the first kids who grew up with a reader or tablet in the house are probably around middle school, and kids who learned to read on screens and read on them exclusively are even younger, maybe not born yet.

Isn’t it therefore possible that reading in electronic formats is “better” in every possible way, but we haven’t seen those effects yet? Is the problem in translating an activity from one format (the paper and ink we all leared to read with) to another, less familiar format?

Put a Toyota Corolla driver on a track, one lap in their trusty, unkillable, 4-cylinder whip, and then a second lap in an F1 car, and their fastest lap will be in the Corolla. Not because the Corolla is inherently better, just because the driver's used to it.

I distrust these studies for at least a few more years, until a generation who learned to read on screens can be tested.

Reading Saves You From Alzheimer’s

The problem with this study is that the researchers have no clue whether patients stopped reading because of the onset of the disease or if the disease kicked in because they stopped reading.

Did grandma stop reading cozy mysteries and therefore got Alzheimer’s, or did grandma get Alzheimer’s, and as it gradually set in, it was harder and harder for her to follow the adventures of an elderly sleuth and her plucky kitty pal?

Again, the headline, "Elderly Alzheimer's Patient Robbed Of Yet Another Joy By Unstoppable Juggernaut of Disease," isn't newsworthy, even though I did my best to make it sensational. 


I can make this really simple: basketball players tend to be tall. A shrimpy, young kid can be excused for noticing this and shooting hoops for hours and hours, figuring that playing basketball will make him taller.

This is confusing correlation with cause. Yes, basketball players are tall, but a career in basketball isn’t why Shawn Bradley smacks his head every time he fails to duck through a doorway.

Yes, reading is correlated with a lot of good things, but it’s not necessarily the reading that causes these good things.

Why Are We Always Fooled By This Junk?

We want to believe that reading is good for us.

It’s the same reason you’ll find people citing studies about positive effects of red wine, coffee, and chocolate: If it turned out we just happened to nail it, and we just happened to like all the right things, that'd be awesome! If the things that feel good to us also happen to be the things that benefit us in other ways, we're EVEN MORE right!

Chocolate, red wine, and coffee are great, but nothing beats being right.

Should I Just Quit Reading?

You know what I like about mozzarella sticks? They’re uncomplicated. You don’t eat a mozzarella stick with your health in mind. You don’t eat a mozzarella stick to impress someone. (You might try to eat 50 mozzarella sticks in 15 minutes to impress someone on a first date, but let me advise you that this will not work). 

There is one reason to eat a mozzarella stick: To eat a mozzarella stick.

If you want to make people more empathetic, be a therapist. If you want to avoid Alzheimer’s and dementia, wear a helmet. If you want your kids to go to Harvard, get them a tutor. 

Don't read a book to accomplish some other goal.

Read a book because you want to read a book.

Get Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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