Archive for March, 2011

Talent, hard work, and superstars

March 24, 2011 5 comments

Jonah Lehrer attributes success to grit and “deliberate practice” rather than talent:

The first thing Duckworth, et. al. discovered is that deliberate practice works. Those kids who spent more time in deliberate practice mode – this involved studying and memorizing words while alone, often on note cards – performed much better at the competition than those children who were quizzed by others or engaged in leisure reading. The bad news is that deliberate practice isn’t fun and was consistently rated as the least enjoyable form of self-improvement. Nevertheless, as spellers gain experience, they devote increasing amounts of time to deliberate practice. This suggests that even twelve year olds realize that this is what makes them better, that success isn’t easy.

I found this message appealing and, to a certain degree, intuitive. Not too surprising that strenuous, repeated hard work is necessary for success. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote an entire book about theme a few years ago.

My biggest problem with studies like these (and I’ve looked at a few) is their focus on superstars. Yes, it’s true that the Mozarts and Michael Jordans of the world worked incredibly hard over their entire lives. But not everyone is going to be the spelling bee champion, or even compete at the national stage. For these people, the moderately successful, I’m not sure we can conclude anything from Lehrer’s post. The pretty good but not quite super-awesome may be able to get by on talent alone.

Categories: Uncategorized

Economics and the demarcation distraction

March 23, 2011 2 comments

A few days ago several bloggers felt it necessary to discuss the scientific status of economics (see Ryan Avent, Adam Ozimek, Matt Yglesias, and Jim Manzi). After reading through all those posts, a big part of me wanted to title this post: “Why do smart people discuss pointless questions?” But then I remembered that since I got a Ph.D in applied physics and blog about science studies, it would be a tad bit hypocritical. Nevertheless, here is my take on why they’re all wasting their time.

In one sense science is a brand, a very powerful and coveted brand. So it is understandable that economists want to be associated with this brand. To do so, they go through the usual routine of showing that economists care about data, change their theories under new evidence, try to make testable predictions and so on. Here’s Ryan Avent:

Is economics a science? Let me first associate myself with Adam Ozimek’s comments here. If you want to say that economics isn’t a “hard science”, that might be all right, depending on just what you mean by it. If you mean that economists can’t run lab experiments and can’t predict outcomes as accurately as, say, chemists, then that’s acceptable to me. If you mean that economists have no experiments, or don’t use the scientific method, or something of that nature, then you’re dead wrong. The currency of the economics realm is evidence. When economists do research they form hypotheses, build models, gather data, test the models against the data, and publish their conclusions. If other economists try to get similar results and fail, the original result is called into question.

All of this is (I believe) true. Economists do attempt to gather data and test their conclusions. But then again, so do historians and plumbers! And while we clearly don’t consider them scientists, we often do find their findings meaningful. So it seems to me that the important question isn’t whether or not economics is science, but whether it can be useful. Here is where, I believe, we need a bit more particularization: What economics findings are most robust? What relevance do they have for policy? And which policies? Which findings are more tentative? How do we weigh them against political exigencies?

There are two main problems with these demarcation efforts. First, it encourages us to be lazy and take shortcuts. We should be doing the hard work of determining whether a certain piece of scholarship is relevant to our specific problem and whether there is expert consensus.  Instead, the above authors seem to argue: “By my simple heuristics, economics is science and thus should be trusted.” But even physics, that most scientific of sciences, contains a long history of errors and frauds. Being branded as science is no guarantee of veracity.

Perhaps the bigger, more pernicious problem is that the mere act of demarcation closes our mind to useful research that may be useful. If we have it in our mind that science and only science belongs in policy debates, we’ve really hindered ourselves. Here’s a particularly baffling passage from Jim Manzi:

I’m not arguing that economics has produced nothing of value, but rather that its most useful outputs are more like those of historians than those of biologists. Draping the cloak of “science” over its findings can often be a rhetorical strategy designed to increase the leverage of economists in policy debates.

Well, there are instances when historians should be leveraged more than biologists in policy debates. As Sarah Mayeux showed in a wonderful post on trends in American incarceration rates, a historical perspective can be illuminating. What matters is not whether our policies exclusively make use of science, but whether they exclusively make use of sound evidence and research whatever their form.

Categories: Economics, Philosophy

Affirming values and convincing scientists

March 18, 2011 Leave a comment

If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way–Dan Kahan (~3-minute mark)

While Kahan was addressing climate change, I think his message should be taken to heart by those in the science studies community (myself included). Especially given the overblown rhetoric about rationality and scientific thinking, it’s easy to forget that scientists are people too! We have some of the very flaws and tendencies we often criticize in others. And just like everyone else, scientists don’t like to see their values attacked.

Fair or not, science studies is often viewed as attacking science, or at least some of the core underlying values of science. Consider climate scientist Andrew Dessler’s comment on this (rather ancient) blog post: “I guess what I really object to in STS is the assertion that all knowledge is relative.”

I don’t know a single STSer who thinks all knowledge is relative. But since Dessler appears to believe otherwise, he is understandably resistant to some of their other suggestions. I think his distrust comes through in the thread.

As annoying as it may be for some, perhaps such discussions should be prefaced with something like: “I acknowledge there is a a real world which contain objective facts. I also acknowledge that we can and should study the world in a methodological, coherent manner. When possible, we should try to replicate our findings…yada, yada, yada.” I suspect the omission of this type of message is part of the reason STS hasn’t gained more traction among scientists.

Another reason is that STS-folks tend to be typical academics, and are thus content sit in their own little world not engaging in outreach and communication. But that’s a topic for a different time!

Categories: Communication, STS

On particulars and broad trends

March 16, 2011 1 comment

A few months ago Alan Jacobs provided some needed restraint on the temptation to over-generalize, in this instance on the role of social media in the Middle East revolutions:

So when Clay Shirky says, “social media . . . helps [sic] angry people coordinate their actions,” I don’t know how we would even figure out whether a statement that broad is true. Which social media? Which actions? In which societies? Presumably when people connect with each other they won’t always agree, so how do we know that some social media, anyway, don’t exacerbate conflicts? Maybe some people in some societies would coordinate better if they met face to face. Maybe, though there are certainly dangers in meeting face to face, there may be just as many dangers in coordinating via social media, depending on how careful the users are and how technologically sophisticated the oppressors are.

It struck me how much Jacobs’ critique applies to the (all-too-frequent) platitudes often heard about science. I’m not at all sure what it means for science to “lie at the center of policy issues facing our nation and world?” Well, which issues? Do all nations face them? And what exactly do we mean by “the center?” It seems a bit strange to suggest that science is equally center in both climate policy and financial regulation. In discussing both social revolutions and science policy, more particularization can be helpful.

And while, as commenter PEG reminds us, “Broad trends do in fact, exist. There is value in identifying them precisely, analyzing their impact on the present and plotting out their course in the future”…the sloppy, armchair observations about science hardly qualify as precise analysis. Surely we need something more than the exceptionally vague “science and technology continue to transform our lives.” Until we clarify what such statements actually mean, I’ll try my best to stick with the particulars.

Categories: Public Discourse

On the lack of consequences

March 9, 2011 3 comments

In a recent exchange, Peter decries “overblown public assessments” of the benefits of science, and warns that “putting out hype that encourages unrealistic expectations is stupid and will eventually come back to bite the originator.” It’s a typical sentiment, and one that the science studies folks make often. You can find a recent iteration just after the State of the Union, when Matt Nisbet worries that Obama risks trust in “America’s most admired institution” by making science the center of his domestic policy.

This type of argument is quite common: If scientists don’t stop distorting the truth, then someday there will be a reckoning. The only problem is that there never has been and probably never will be any such reckoning. Scientists continue to insist that basic research is the source of applied research, that science is the center of decision-making, and that more science will solve all problems. Despite the possibility of impending doom over such claims, they (we!) appear willing to take the risk.

If we grant that overblown public assessments are intrinsically bad (and I’m not entirely convinced they’re that bad), those of us trying to change scientists’ behavior have to concede they face no consequences. It’s simply not very persuasive to argue that the very, very, very slight chance of backlash is reason enough for them to change. Suggesting otherwise is itself an overblown assessment and will rightly be ignored.

Why do we teach science?

March 3, 2011 2 comments

The Lt. makes an important point I’ve been meaning to address in his response to my suggestion that much of biology can be taught without the theory of evolution (emphasis added):

You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

In grad school I took a class on “Science Education for Scientists and Engineers.” Perhaps the most interesting discussions we had centered on the justifications for public science literacy. That is, why do we teach everyone science? Surely society’s need for scientists and engineers can be satisfied by training a small elite. But we clearly care about more than just that. The endless exhortations for more science education reflect, I believe, the belief that science must mean something for everyone.

And here is where it gets a little tricky. From my light reading in the field, there really is no expert consensus on why or how we foster a general public understanding of science. Scholars generally agree that science education should leave people with some content knowledge, some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But specifically what content, and how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation is a mystery.

From my standpoint, if we care even a little about the last goal (and I believe we should care a lot), then we must tread carefully around thorny topics like evolution. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it surely is), or that the theory should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily?

In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness.

Anecdotes, more evolution, exaggerations, and expertise

March 1, 2011 10 comments

Another very busy week this week. Things should get less hectic next week, when I will hopefully have time to write something more substantial. Until then, here are some semi-coherent thoughts and links:

  1. Facebook became the discussion ground for this positive review of the No Child Left Behind legislation. The generally positive statistical evaluations were countered with stories of teachers’ concerns. A theoretical physicist and good friend responded that statistics should trump anecdote, and thus we must conclude that NCLB is a success! Just a couple years ago I probably would have given him my unequivocal support. Now I’m not so sure. Statistics are definitely important. But for complex questions, qualitative methods, case studies and even anecdotes can be useful. I now see them as a complement to, rather than in competition with, data and statistics. Thoughts?
  2. Rod Dreher interviews a co-author of the recent study on evolution in U.S. high schools. The introduction of the interview describes evolution as “the unshakable bedrock of high school biology courses.” As I said a long time ago, that assertion is dubious. Much of biology can be taught without reference to evolution. Whether it should is a different question of course. I really want to comment more, and promise to get it soon!
  3. A few British neuroscientists protest exaggerations by their colleagues. I didn’t think scientists ever did that! The post made me think that this situation is partially driven by forcing scientists to identify the outcome or impact of their work. Basic research often doesn’t have direct positive outcomes, and asking scientists to demonstrate otherwise is a recipe for distortions and misleading publicity campaigns (h/t Roger Pielke Jr.)
  4. Over at The League, they’re discussing why liberals trust expert consensus on global warming but not free trade. I’m sure this has been mentioned in the comment thread, but it’s the politics silly!
Categories: Uncategorized