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When Does A Presidential Candidate’s Mental Health Matter?

Today on Sparks, we’re going back to the future — reading a 1964 magazine article on the mental health of Barry Goldwater and talking about what it means for our current electoral politics.

The cover of the fifth issue of the magazine Fact featured an eye-catching (but, as you’ll learn, statistically misleading) headline: “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” That issue led to a lawsuit and, eventually, to the Goldwater Rule — an American Psychiatric Association ethics code that bans psychiatrists from talking about the mental health of public figures they haven’t treated. The rule (and the magazine) have big implications in the 2016 election, where seemingly everybody wants to talk about the health (mental and physical) of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Science writers Christie Aschwanden, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Maggie Koerth-Baker join senior editor Blythe Terrell to talk about the changing science of mental health, the way that mental health stigma stirred up in an election can affect non-politicians, and whether the mental health status of a political candidate should ever matter at all.

You can listen to the second part of the podcast, a discussion between Maggie and Dr. Patrick Corrigan, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, below. Corrigan is an advocate for people with mental illness and has studied the stigma that comes along with it.


A lightly edited partial transcript of the first part of this month’s episode is below. For further reading, you can also check out Maggie’s article on the Goldwater Rule from June. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you think!

Blythe: So if we go back to before the Goldwater Rule existed and why the Goldwater Rule existed, it came about because of a very specific article in an issue of something called Fact magazine. Anna, can you tell us a little bit about the story that appeared in Fact magazine back in September-October 1964?

Anna: So Fact magazine was this magazine that purported to tell truths that mainstream media wasn’t reporting. So in the 1964 election between LBJ and Barry Goldwater, they put out an entire edition that was basically dedicated to the idea that Barry Goldwater had mental health issues and they hinged that on a survey they did — they sent a survey out to all of the members of the American Psychiatric Association1 asking them if they believed Goldwater was psychologically fit to be president.

Blythe: “We’re not saying he is or that he isn’t, but what do you think?”

Anna: Right. And before we even get into like the ethical dilemmas and problems with that, the way that Fact magazine presented the results of this survey was a gross manipulation of the fairly bogus statistics that they had. So they polled over 12,000 psychiatrists, and less than 20 percent of them responded at all.

Blythe: Didn’t even send back this questionnaire.

Anna: Exactly. And of those who did respond, just over 50 percent either said he was fit to be president or they didn’t know enough to answer. But the headline that Fact ran on the cover of this edition of this magazine was this headline was …

Maggie: I love this headline!

Anna: “Fact: 1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!”

Blythe: OK, so that is a very, very biased use of data!

Anna: I like to think we wouldn’t do that at FiveThirtyEight!

Christie: Right. I think, right, that this is also evidence that — we think that the media has gotten so out of control these days and it’s so partisan, and I think this is evidence that this is not a new problem.

Sparks is a monthly podcast series discussing big ideas about science, which is produced and edited by Lucina Melesio. You can stream or download the full episode above. You can also find us by searching “fivethirtyeight” in your favorite podcast app, or subscribe using the RSS feed. Check out all our other shows.

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  1. Anna misspoke. Fact magazine claimed to have obtained the names of the nation’s psychiatrists through the American Medical Association, not the American Psychiatric Association.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.

Blythe Terrell is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Lucina Melesio is a former podcast and video intern for FiveThirtyEight. She has reported for Scientific American, Physics World and the BBC.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.