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Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: The Nature Fix

I really wanted to like The Nature Fix. The entire book is about how getting out in nature cures all sorts of ills that are endemic in city dwellers, ranging from depression, ADHD, happiness, or even (in one chapter PTSD). Unfortunately, the book ends up reading a lot like a massive commercial for outfits like Outward Bound, which have always felt just as artificial as any of the corporate "team-building program" outfits I'd ever seen.

Most of the problem is that the author, Florence Williams isn't a scientist herself, but a journalist. That means her interviews of scientists in the book are shallow. There's barely any consideration about the size of the studies being done (most of the studies seem too small to draw any conclusion from, and the larger ones seem to be based around self-reporting!), or how to control for a Placebo effect.

This sort of thing hits the zenith when she visits Singapore, where the city state has recently built artificial trees. Yet she herself pointed out in earlier chapters that Singapore is one of the countries in the world that have massive rates of myopia, all traced to kids spending less time outside than in other countries in the world. This sort of easy gullibility permeates the entire book and undermines her thesis.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is the section on ADHD:
“ADHD got its start 150 years ago when compulsory education got started,” said Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “In that sense, you could say it’s a social construct.” Not only will exploratory kids feel bored and inadequate in conventional schools, he said, the constrained setting actually makes their symptoms worse. (Kindle Loc 2999)
 If, as the research suggests, outdoor free play is so important to kids’ physical and mental health, you might expect to see evidence of illness during this seismic generational shift indoors. And in fact, that’s exactly what you see, although it’s impossible to draw a direct line to a particular cause. The stats are alarming: Preschoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants in the United States. More than 10,000 American preschoolers are being medicated for ADHD. Teenagers today have five to eight times more clinically significant scores for anxiety and depression compared to young people born in the 1950s. Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has increased for nearly all groups, with the steepest rise—200 percent—among girls ten to fourteen years old. (Kindle Loc 3100)
But again, we don't see any evidence that increased outdoor time would reduce diagnosis or suicide rates. There's a lot of pontificating, so to speak, but precious little science, and next to no evidence.

I'm the last person in the world to advocate against spending time outside: if you ask me, I think  most Bay Area parents under-emphasize time spent outside and over-emphasize academics. But if you're going to approach the thesis English-major style, you're not going to do the outside movement any favors.

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