A Rivalry is Joined: Lester vs. Voracek

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

compiled by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, AIR staff

The public loves a good rivalry, and Lester versus Voracek is shaping up to be a classic. A senior eminence, entering the graceful descent path of a high-flying career, finds himself challenged by a young, keen archrival.

The senior figure is David Lester, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

The challenger is Martin Voracek, D.Sc., Ph.D., M.Sc., M.Ph., a research resident at the Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, Statistics and Documentation Branch of the University of Vienna Medical School.

Professor Lester has been a publishing dynamo. His department’s web site proudly notes that he is an expert in abnormal psychology, and also reports that he “writes on all aspects of death, including suicide, murder, the fear of death, life after death, funerals/burials and war.” He publishes studies, too, on many other subjects.

Lester’s Legion of Reports
When we surveyed Professor Lester’s work in early 2004 (see “Way to Go, David Lester,” AIR 10:2), he had published some 835 academic reports about suicide, averaging more than 20 per year. 313 of those appear in the journal Psychological Reports. An additional 211 appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills, which is the sister journal to Psychological Reports.

Professor Lester had also published hundred other papers on other topics: 193 of them in Psychological Reports (giving him, at that point, a total of 506 articles in that journal), and 71 in its sister journal, Perceptual and Motor Skills. He had also published several hundred articles (some on suicide, some not) in other journals, as well as some 39 books.

Among the many articles authored by David Lester, topics and titles seem to recur, appearing in different journals, and even repetitively in the same journals. He has managed to maintain that pattern.

Voracek’s Variety of Interests
Martin Voracek was born in 1966, the year David Lester began publishing academic papers. Dr. Voracek’s first big academic publication, “Wiener Versionen zur Klinischen Applikation des Mehrfachwahl-Wortschatz-Intelligenztests,” appeared in 1996 in the Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift.

Dr. Voracek’s interests appear to be more diverse then those of his archrival. Dr. Voracek’s web site lists many of his favorite subjects, including some that are crowd-pleasingly abstruse. These include: implicit attitude measurement; testosterone research (especially as it pertains to the ration of finger lengths); secular increase in IQ (especially the so-called “Lynn-Flynn effect”); and scientometrics.

Lester and Voracek share a professional love of suicidology, the study of suicide.

The younger man has, so far, followed a traditional pattern. He established himself with several years of publications on a diversity of topics. He published regularly in many of the same journals as his rival, often on the similar subjects—including, of course, suicide.

Then, in 2003 and 2004, Voracek got his big break. Professor Lester published two short articles criticizing work done by Voracek.

Lester vs. Voracek 1
The Lester criticisms, like the articles they criticize, appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills. The first took aim at a 2002 Voracek paper called “Evidence for Lack of Change in Seasonality of Suicide from Timis County, Romania.”

“Seasonality of Suicide in Eastern Europe: A comment on ‘Evidence for Lack of Change in Seasonality of Suicide from Timis County, Romania,’” D. Lester and F. Moksony, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 96, no. 2, April 2003, pp. 421–2. It says:

Voracek, Vintila, Fisher, and Yip (2002) reported that 1,120 suicides by hanging in one county in Romania from 1980-1999 did not show a decrease in seasonality from the 1980s to the 1990s using a time-series harmonic analysis. They generalized from this sample to the seasonality of suicide in the transitional societies of Eastern Europe in general.

This Comment presents data on all 83,297 suicides (by all methods) in Hungary from 1980-1999. Comparing the numbers of suicides each month in the 1980s and the 1990s (correcting for the extra leap year in the 1980s) showed a significant difference. The seasonal distribution in 1980 showed peaks in August and May. The percentage of suicides in May dropped from 9.94% in the 1980s to 9.70% in the 1990s. The percentage of suicides in July dropped from 9.86% in the 1980s to 9.44% in the 1990s.

Lester vs. Voracek 2
Lester’s other Voracek target was a 2003 paper called “The Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis: Variation in European Suicide Rates by Latitude and Longitude.”

“Finno-Ugrians, Blood Types and Suicide: Comment on Voracek, Fisher and Marusic,” D. Lester and S.V. Kondrichin, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 98, no. 3, June 2004, p. 814. It says:

In a sample of 20 European nations, the distribution of blood types provided a better explanation for the association of longitude with suicide rates than did the percentage of Finno-Ugrian ethnic group.

Voracek vs. Lester 1
Voracek did not let the opportunity pass. Alert readers of Perceptual and Motor Skills must have been electrified to read Voracek’s response to Lester.

“Seasonality of Suicide in Eastern Europe: A Rejoinder to Lester and Moksony,” M. Voracek, M.L. Fisher, P.S.F. Yip and T. Zonda, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 99, August 2004, pp. 17–8.

Seasonality of suicide in Hungary decreased from the 1980s to the 1990s, supporting the 2003 conclusion of Lester and Moksony. However, it was the strongest ever to be documented with contemporary suicide data, supporting the conjecture of Voracek, et al. (2002) that seasonality of suicide remains high in Eastern Europe. A new hypothesis regarding the co-occurrence of high incidence and strong seasonality of suicide is presented.

Voracek vs. Lester 2
Voracek engaged further, with another study in Perceptual and Motor Skills, in which he first praised a much earlier work by Lester, then announced a new, related triumph of his own.

“Suicide Rate and Blood Groups: An Ecological Study of 39 Nations,” M. Voracek, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 99, December 2004, pp. 896–8.

Across 29 European and 10 non-European nations, contemporary suicide rates for men and women were negatively correlated with national proportions of people with Type O blood, thus replicating and extending findings of Lester (1987) and Lester and Kondrichin (2004).

Voracek vs. Lester 3
Voracek also responded to Lester’s other attack.

“Variation in European Suicide Rates is Better Accounted for by Latitude and Longitude than by National Percentage of Finno-Ugrians and Type O blood: A Rebuttal of Lester and Kondrichin (2004),” M. Voracek and A.K. Formann, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 99, December 2004, pp. 1243–50.

The variation in contemporary suicide rates for men and women across 20 European nations is, in terms of shared variance, better accounted for by latitude and longitude than by national percentage of Finno-Ugrians and Type O blood, thus supporting the conclusion of Voracek, et al. in 2003 and refuting the supposition of Lester and Kondrichin of 2004.

Voracek vs. Lester 4
Voracek then methodically published a series of studies that refer to other of Lester’s works. Some of these point to possible shortcomings.

“Some Problems of Research on the Association Between Blood Types and Suicide Mortality: Comment on Lester (2004),” M. Voracek, Crisis, vol. 26, 2005, pp. 181–3.

This is a comment on the ecological finding of a negative association of national suicide rate
and national proportion of people with Type O blood (Lester, 2004). Current knowledge on
this topic is reviewed and several problems, limitations and discrepancies within this research line are noted.

Voracek vs. Lester 5
Voracek’s next Lester-related study confirms an earlier report by Lester, but at the same time relegates Lester’s work to an uncomfortably small context.

“National Intelligence, Suicide Rate in the Elderly and a Threshold Intelligence for Suicidality: An Ecological Study of 48 Eurasian Countries,” M. Voracek, Journal of Biosocial Science, vol. 37, November 2005, pp. 721–40.

Across 85 countries around the world, Voracek (2004) found a significant positive relation between estimated national intelligence (IQ) and national male and female suicide rate. The relation was not attenuated when countries’ per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and type of national IQ estimation were statistically controlled. Independently, investigating the total national suicide rate only, Lester (2003) arrived at the same conclusion.

Voracek vs. Lester 6
Voracek then published a study that raises doubt about one of Lester’s great triumphs.

“Suicide Rate and National Scores on the Big Five Personality Factors,” M. Voracek, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 102, April 2006, pp. 609–10.

Across 46 nations around the world, suicide rates were negatively correlated with national scores on the Big Five personality factors of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (two facets indicating low Psychoticism), thus not replicating previous findings of Lester (1993, 2005).

Lester published no response to any of these gambits.

Voracek vs. Lester 7 and 8
Voracek’s two subsequent Lester-related publications contain no direct attacks on the work of his rival. Rather, they pay respectful homage to Lester’s work, while further presenting Voracek as a true peer in their chosen line of research.

“Regional Intelligence and Suicide Rate in Denmark,” M. Voracek, Psychological Reports, vol. 98, June 2006, pp. 671–4.

Consistent with evidence from several recent geographical (cross-national and within-nation) studies (by Lester and by Voracek), a positive ecological (aggregate-level) correlation of regional intelligence and suicide rate was found across the seven major geographical regions of Denmark.

“Social Ecology of Intelligence and Suicide in the United States,” M. Voracek, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 102, June 2006, pp. 767–75.

The present evidence nevertheless adds to several recent findings from international geographical studies by Lester and by Voracek of a positive association of intelligence and suicide mortality by indicating that this pattern may also exist on the within-nation level.

Where from Here?
What are the prospects for one man ultimately triumphing over the other?

Things look good, though perhaps deteriorating, for David Lester, if the competition is measured only in number of publications. Lester is approaching two thousand total lifetime publications. Voracek has not yet reached even 200. Lester’s most productive days are behind him, however, and Voracek is accelerating. Of course, sheer number of publications may not be the only measure of how one researcher ranks against another.

The rivalry, now firmly established, appears to have become a tautly run marathon. Each researcher proceeds on his own steam. Both progress determinedly toward the same goal. They have many similar moves; they continue to publish on many of the same topics, and in many of the same journals. Yet each shows his own distinctive style. Their public devours each new publication, savoring the spectacle of two high-powered suicidologists racing at top speed with undying enthusiasm.

Update: In 2011, we found out that Dr. David Lester was elected president of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).

American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
American Association of Suicidology (AAS).


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2007 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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