Too few of us are paying attention to the problems with Johann Hari’s new book

Hugh Linehan: The disgraced journalist’s book Stolen Focus is light on scientific rigour

Johann Hari. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

Johann Hari. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

 

The journalist and author Johann Hari, whose new book Stolen Focus was reviewed in this newspaper last week, has had a rollercoaster career. Feted at an early age for his columns and features in the London Independent, the New Statesman and many other publications, he fell spectacularly from grace in 2011 when he admitted to plagiarising quotes and anonymously smearing journalistic rivals on Wikipedia.

Every sinner deserves a shot at redemption, and in the 10 years since then, Hari has taken that shot, building a new reputation as a compelling public speaker and author of best-selling books on subjects including depression and addiction. As his website and social media channels attest, these have been warmly received by luminaries ranging from Hillary Clinton and Stephen Fry to Naomi Klein and Russell Brand (who describes Hari as a “secular oracle”).

Stolen Focus (“a miracle of clarity and depth”, according to Emma Thompson) addresses a subject that worries many of us these days. Over the past decade, alarm about the effect digital technology and associated social changes may be having on human cognition has been voiced by many writers. The idea that our attention is being strip-mined by manipulative big tech and that our ability to maintain focus and concentration has been degraded as a result is now commonplace. Hari, however, presents it as a jaw-dropping revelation. He seems shocked to discover that, in the eyes of social media companies, the product is you, even though that particular trope passed from revelation to cliche some time around 2013.

To be fair, Stolen Focus does feature interviews with some of the most knowledgeable and acute critics of the practices employed by Google, Facebook and others to prey on our psychological weaknesses in pursuit of profit. And it can be argued that the book’s breathless pop psychology style is what’s required to bring an important subject out of dry academia and into the mainstream.

However, it’s also worth noting, amid the VIP endorsements, colour spreads and prime-time interviews, that not everyone is as impressed by Hari’s methods.

Light on evidence

In an article on Unherd.com, psychologist Stuart Ritchie points out that Stolen Focus is heavy on personal anecdotage but painfully light on hard evidence. Studies Hari cites on the rise in distractions or on our addiction to smartphones prove on investigation to be scientifically flimsy.

“It’s not until more than halfway through the book, page 176,” Ritchie writes, “that Hari drops what should be a bombshell: ‘We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.’ In other words, he quietly admits that there isn’t really any strong scientific evidence for the main thesis of the book.”

As Ritchie sees it, Hari’s criticisms of the effects of social media – the core of Stolen Focus’s thesis – are wrong-headed and inaccurate. Social media actually serves to bring us together in new and useful ways, he argues. That seems equally wrong-headed to me, and fails to take account of the evidence of our own experiences over the past decade or more, not to mention the by now well-documented ways in which powerful companies have weaponised the psychological insights they glean from our personal data. But, whatever your views on the matter, it’s disconcerting to see how little scrutiny of the sort Ritchie applies in his critique is to be found anywhere else in media coverage of the book. (Unherd’s stated mission is “to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places.)

Social panic

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the eternal appetite of mainstream media for a good social panic. Take a zeitgeisty subject that’s been knocking around for a couple of years, dress it up with a few expert witnesses and some fizzy Ted Talk-style prose, fire up an aggressive marketing push and prepare for a warm reception on the chatshows and podcasts.

Rather more disturbing is the account given by former Guardian science blogger Dean Burnett of his experience at that newspaper after he wrote a critical post in 2018 about what he saw as dangerous arguments in a previous Hari book about the appropriate use of antidepressants. As described by Burnett, and never rebutted by the Guardian, a number of (to put it mildly) highly unusual editorial interventions were made on Hari’s behalf. “I was a random geek with a moderately popular blog,” wrote Burnett on Twitter. “It shouldn’t fall to me to be the first one to call out dangerous claims in a major publication. But regardless, that’s essentially how it panned out.”

Judging by the coverage so far, a very similar pattern seems to be playing out with Hari’s latest book. One might wonder who exactly is not paying attention.

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