• How Jonah Lehrer Should Have Blogged

    12/13 2012

    Back when we thought that Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions only went as far as self-plagiarism (not actual plagiarism, among others), Felix Salmon, editor at Reuter’s, wrote a helpful essay on Jonah Lehrer.

    Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away.

  • Happiness or Meaningfulness: Pick One

    11/27 2012

    Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.

    That’s one of the takeaways in Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, a paper by Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower and one of my favorite social psychologists.

    Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness…. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self-contributed to meaning but not happiness.

    So apparently I live a very meaningful life.

  • How to break into writing book reviews

    11/09 2012

    Overall, Rebecca Skloot has probably the best advice I’ve ever seen on breaking into book reviews on her website. Some of the best advice: “Read the publication you plan to query” to know their tastes. Her advice on getting clips is, for the most part, spot-on. But the market is completely different since Skloot first broke into book reviewing, so I’m going to update a few things.

  • The Story in the Science

    10/29 2012

    I’m completely jealous of those who were able to attend the National Association of Science Writers conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Angela Herring, versatile science writer at Northeastern University who blogs here, was kind enough to post some notes here on the panel discussion on “Unearthing Narrative,” a panel discussion that kept popping up on my Twitter feed.

    Here are four takeaway lessons she posted, noting that these come from panelist David Quammen, author of the forthcoming Spillover:

    • Be a Human Listener: When you’re the reporter, do your best to transcend the journalist-scientist relationship, get beyond the telephone or the office appointment. If your source asks you to go to McDonald’s with him, go to McDonald’s with your source.
    • Don’t Write About Famous People: It’s more fun to write (and read) about the grad student or post doc who isn’t’t famous yet but should be. Make people famous because you wrote about them.
    • Get Into the Field: When you call up that source and you’re talking about their work, ask if you can go with them into the field. If your source asks you to go to Borneo, go to Borneo with your source.
    • Engineer Serendipity: Serendipity is where human narrative comes from; be ready in the field, and hope that you will experience some kind of non-lethal disaster, for it is in these moments that human character is revealed.


    Engineering serendipity is one of my favorite topics, which I wrote about here on Scientific American‘s website last month. Herring also writes “Eric Powell, senior editor at Discover Magazine, we must sometimes turn to unexpected characters. He gave the example of a story he edited about the state of meso-american chocolate research. The story came to him lacking “connective tissue,” looking more like an encyclopedia of recent research finding, he saids.” [sic]

    By far, the one thing that makes me likely to recommend a book and finish it quickly is its connective tissue. Some books, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, lend themselves entirely to narrative. Skloot got obsessed with the story first, and used the narrative of Lacks’s life to discuss medical ethics to gene mapping. Other books, like Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, manage to marry ideas, research and narrative in the best way. At the risk of sounding anti-education, Traffic is one of those books that’s such a pleasure to read it makes you forget that you’re learning. It’s truly a model for science writing.

    Many researchers I’ve interviewed bemoan the tendency for popular science writing to dumb down the topics, oversimplifying them for the sake of connective tissue. The books I’ve read lately that lack this connective tissue are written by academics making the leap to mainstream publishing—Nudge fits this category, as does Thinking, Fast and Slow. Standard academic writing favors extensive detail over narrative, typically explaining each line while never giving you a clear, vivid image of the entire picture. By now this is habit in the academic publishing world and not going to change anytime soon; nor are journalists and science writers going to start breaking down each new discovery into its fundamental pieces.

    You could say the that detail-oriented/academic vs. narrative/journalist dichotomy or spectrum is due to the varying nature of their audiences. But here’s the secret: narrative and detail aren’t mutually exclusive. Like all quality efforts, it just takes more work to find both.

  • Luck, wealth, and implications for policy

    10/17 2012

    I love it when economists chime in about luck. The great Richard Posner recently wrote about Luck, Wealth and the Implications for Policy here. Money quote:


    I think that ultimately everything is attributable to luck, good or bad. Not just the obvious things, like IQ, genes that predipose to health or sickliness, the historical era and the country in which one is born, the wealth of one’s parents, whom one happens to meet at critical stages of one’s life and career, one’s height and looks and temperament, to the extent genetic, and one’s innate propensity to risk or caution (that is an exceptionally important factor); but also the characteristics that cause a person to make critical decisions that may turn out well or badly, characteristics that really are derivative from some of the previously noted “luck” characteristics. The decision-determining characteristics include intelligence, imagination, attitude toward risk, and personality characteristics such as aggressiveness, maladjustment, indolence, and having a low or high personal discount rate (how future-regarding one is or is not). Talent is luck but so is the propensity for working hard (often the consequence of a compulsive personality) or not working hard.


  • 21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves

    10/15 2012

    A bit of genius from The Awl.

    One of my favorites is #10, in response to the myth that “publishing this book will change my life.” No, the writer says:

    What will change your life is committing to regularly producing work. More than any single opportunity, usually a commitment to writing succeeds instead.


  • What is the science of winning an election, and why don’t politicians use that knowledge?

    10/09 2012

    What’s the science of winning an election? We can know what the winners do, but that’s never made for good science, since you can’t isolate one variable at a time. (It’s a bit like looking at the list of the wealthiest Americans and trying to write a list of how to get rich. The winners tend to leave out the part about their rich dad who started everything for them.)

    What we do know is this: most political scientists speculate that campaigns can influence the outcome of an election in the neighborhood of 2-5%. Last month I interviewed Christoper Wlezien, author of The Timeline of Presidential Elections. After decades of research, he told me that the best and most reliable poll is the one taken right after the conventions, which has decided 14 of the last 15 elections. Every other change is merely a “temporary bounce,” which disappears after a few weeks. Permanent bumps, which have long-term effects on the campaign, are much more rare.

    We have mountains of data about what actually works in campaigns. For example, the quality of interaction matters a great deal; mobilization techniques like canvassing and personal phone calls are much more effective than robo-calls, emails, or snail mail. TV ads are effective, but short-lived. People remember negative ads for a long time, but they don’t necessarily draw people to the other candidate. Because candidates are so convinced that everything on the list is necessary–from travel to TV ads–campaigns often end up engaged in counterproductive behavior. Candidate A decides to blanket West Virginia with a certain message? Candidate B steps in and targets the same territory. The net effect is zero.

    So why don’t candidates ever seem to follow any of this advice? Old habits die hard.

    1.) Campaign organizers need the work. They’ve built an entire industry dissecting and building up each step. The more complex and unwieldy they can make the process of a campaign seem, the more they can charge, and the better job security they have. Candidates are far more likely to listen to the smooth-talking guy who’s gotten them this far than a disinterested professor who’s carried out tons of research.

    2.) The other reason why campaigns engage in frustratingly inefficient behavior is a little more perverse. In the U.S., we expect campaigns to run this way. Yes, they’re inefficient, insanely expensive, and generally annoy everyone within 20 feet of cable TV or a loud-mouthed relative for months on end. But having elections any other way would feel weird, even if it were a better way.

    The take-away: there might be mountains of data telling you what you need to do to win, but don’t underestimate other people’s desire to stick to the status quo. Of course, you might be the one secretly wanting to stick to the status quo. Or maybe your high school friends don’t want to you grow up. Perhaps your spouse or partner is comfy-but-not-incredibly-happy. No matter how many tricks, lifehacks or secrets you know, your ability to change your own behavior will ultimately make the difference between whether or not you’re able to live the life you want.

  • Vanport City talk at Design Week Portland

    10/02 2012

    Dear Portland people!

    I’m speaking at Design Week Portland on Oct 11th (5:30pm, Ziba auditorium) with Clear Cut Press co-founder Matthew Stadler, Silicon Florist dude Rick Turoczy, Mental Floss blogger Chris Higgins and Ziba writer Carl Alviani. I’ll be discussing Vanport City, aka Portland’s Hurricane Katrina.

    We were told to research something that was designed and helped make Portland the city it is today, and Vanport offers a fascinating, if sad look at Portland’s racial history. (Spoiler alert! Oregon is still white as hell. There are reasons for that.)

    Come and learn about your city!

  • I’m so bored. But why?

    09/28 2012

    For five consecutive weeks, my husband is away working. He’s back Saturday and Sunday morning, but in general I have to make do with these two:
















    Lately, in the absence of our usual routine, I’ve been feeling a little bored.

    On Wednesday, researchers from York University published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science that uncovers the nature of boredom. And found that we get bored in the following circumstances:

    • We have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
    • We’re aware of the fact that we’re having difficulty paying attention
    • We believe that the environment is responsible for our aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).

    In other words, being bored is really a problem with attention. We can’t focus for long enough to reach a “flow state,” when the challenge we’re faced with is a fit for our abilities and skills.


    Examined from this end, boredom is at the opposite end of anxiety. When we’re anxious, we’re overwhelmed because the task demands too much from us.

    Being bored is like being underwhelmed. But we can also become bored if we’re overwhelmed, simply by shutting out everything and saying that there’s nothing to do.

    We can also blame our environment for not making the next step obvious. Or we can blame our dogs for not talking to us, even though that inability to talk back is one of the reasons we love them so much in the first place.

    Let’s face it: there’s always something to do. And if you break it down just right and pay attention, you’ll find that it’s not boring.

  • How to make yourself luckier: The problem with Wiseman’s methodology

    09/27 2012

    The great Eric Barker recently wrote a lengthy post on Lifehacker about how to make yourself luckier. He collected a lot of good, solid research: some individuals are accident-prone;  superstition can be performance-enhancing. He also repeated the research from Richard Wiseman’s book, The Luck Factor, which looked at four main principles of luck: 

    Be open to more opportunities, interact with a large network of people, break routines and keep a relaxed attitude toward life.

    “The results were dramatic: eighty percent were happier and more satisfied with their lives—and luckier,” Wiseman summed. 

    According to Wiseman, people who follow his advice report an increase in how much luck they experience. Lots of reviewers on the Amazon page seem to agree! But no one mentions the elephant in the room, and the one key element in this research that skews everything: the confirmation bias. When people start believing in one thing—for example, that they’re doing things that will enhance their luck—they begin paying more attention to the events that make that belief true. If you self-identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you do this, too. We dismiss news that falls outside of our worldview.

    Confirmation biases are effects in information processing, distinct from the behavioral confirmation effect, also called “self-fulfilling prophecy”, in which people’s expectations affect their behaviour to make the expectations come true. Some psychologists use “confirmation bias” to refer to any way in which people avoid rejecting a belief, whether in searching for evidence, interpreting it, or recalling it from memory. Others restrict the term to selective collection of evidence. 

    In the case of Wiseman’s research, people became luckier throughout the course of the study while they kept so-called luck journals, detailing fortuitous events. People who are given a journal by a researcher and are told to start writing down everything lucky that happens to them are, by definition, going to pay more attention to those lucky events. They’ll start interpreting more things that go their way as being “lucky.”

    The act of paying attention to something and writing it down can cause many effects in the outcome of the study, including the subject-expectancy effect.

    The subject-expectancy effect, is a form of reactivity that occurs in scientific experiments or medical treatments when a research subject or patient expects a given result and therefore unconsciously affects the outcome, or reports the expected result.

    Because this effect can significantly bias the results of experiments (especially on human subjects), double-blind methodology is used to eliminate the effect.

    In other words, when both the researcher and the subjects expect that people will report an increase in luck, their behaviors conform to this. There are so many terms that refer to similar effects, but Wiseman never mentions this in his book. In truth, you don’t need to follow his four pieces of advice to become luckier: to get the sensation that your luck is improving, all you need to do is keep a luck journal.

    Are the subjects in Wiseman’s study actually luckier, or do they just feel luckier? To some extent, it doesn’t matter. Believing that you’re lucky, for example, can have lots of positive social benefits, and having access to more social capital can lead to more opportunities.

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