Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Say No to Christmas Displays?

If you tend to like any and all things celebrating the Christmas spirit, this study may be a bit of a downer. Apparently, Christmas displays reduce feelings of well-being and positive mood in people who don't celebrate the holiday. (I know, I know, if your first reaction is anything like mine, it's – they actually did a study on this?! Seriously?) But I kid you not, here's the abstract: 
In two experiments we examined the differential psychological consequences of being in the presence of a Christmas display on participants who did or did not celebrate Christmas (Study 1), or who identified as Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh (Study 2). Participants completed measures of psychological well-being in a cubicle that either did or did not contain a small Christmas display. Across several indicators of well-being, the display harmed non-celebrators and non-Christians, but enhanced well-being for celebrators and Christians. In Study 2, we found that the negative effect of the display on non-Christians was mediated by reduced feelings of inclusion. The results raise concerns about the ubiquitous presence of dominant cultural symbols (such as Christmas displays) in culturally diverse societies. 
No, I don't think we need to go out and immediately eradicate all Christmas displays. But the study does challenge a few assumptions about the harmlessness of certain symbols in public spaces.

But, since
Happy Holidays has a kind of empty ring to it, I'm still going to go ahead and say – all positive feelings and good cheer intended – Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shoes, Politics, and Willpower

Two stories and a blog up on Scienceline (several more coming soon).
A few conclusions I have reached:

1. From now on, every difficult task is energizing. I have heaps of self control. And a will of steel. (I just gotta repeat this often enough and it'll be true, I swear)

2. "Scientific articulacy" is a pretty cool term. I think we should adopt it. 

3. Apparently every shoe recommendation I've ever read in Runner's World is wrong. I should really stop buying those expensive Asics Kayanos. Sigh.

The Reins of Self Control: Changing your expectations could change your willpower

December 15, Scienceline

Scientists, Get Political: To move forward on climate change, the illusory boundary between science and politics must come down
November 17, Scienceline

No Glass Slipper for Runners: Current running shoe recommendations won’t protect you from injury
November 16, Scienceline

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brains and Choices

Where my blogging effort has gone the past month or so:

The Architecture of Choice: How subtle cues in the environment can effect our decisions
November 11, Nature Education 

The Brain in the Voting Booth: How hidden biases influence our vote
October 27, Scienceline

What Neuroscience Has to Say about Gap's Logo Disaster: (and why designers already knew it)
October 24, Discover

The Brain Scan Appeal: Bringing neuroscience into the courtroom may influence more brains than we think
October 4, Scienceline

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What You "Get Out of Reading"

What are you actually doing when you read a novel? What's the point of reading, and if you've forgotten what you read, did it really matter? I’ve noticed a few articles lately that deal with these questions about literature and the sort of knowledge you get out of reading. The most recent was a few days ago in the NY Times The Stone column, where philosopher Robert Pippin gave a “Defense of Naïve Reading.” After describing how an overly scientific “research paradigm” has infiltrated the modern study of literature, he says: 
"Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language. This response can certainly be enriched by knowledge of context and history, but the objects express a first-person or subjective view of human concerns that is falsified if wholly transposed to a more “sideways on” or third person view. Indeed that is in a way the whole point of having the “arts.”
Likewise ─ and this is a much more controversial thesis ─ such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge — exemplified in what Aristotle said about the practically wise man (the phronimos)or in what Pascal meant by the difference between l’esprit géometrique and l’esprit de finesse — is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy."
In "Reading in a Digital Age", literary critic Sven Birkerts suggests something similar – that the novel is not just a statement or message-driven device to allow an author to convey content to his readers. Not at all, in fact, literature is much more about creating an experience and fostering a new way of thinking:
"[The novel] is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind... it's inwardly experiential, intransitive, a mode of contemplation, its purpose being to create for the author and reader a terrain, an arena of liberation, where mind can be different, where mind and imagination can freely combine...
I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion."
Finally, author James Collins in "The Plot Escapes Me" struggles with the dreadful thought that all his reading might have been a waste of time, since he can't recall the plot:  
“But this cannot be. Those books must have reshaped my brain in ways that affect how I think, and they must have left deposits of information with some sort of property — a kind of mental radiation — that continues to affect me even if I can’t detect it. Mustn’t they have? …
 “It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”
This was very encouraging, and it makes intuitive sense: we have been formed by an accretion of experiences, only a small number of which we can readily recall. You may remember the specifics of only a few conversations with your best friend, but you would never ask if talking to him or her was a waste of time. As for the arts, I can remember in detail only a tiny fraction of the music I have listened to, or the movies I have watched, or the paintings I have looked at, but it would be absurd to claim that experiencing those works had no influence on me. The same could be said of reading.”
I tend to agree that literature can’t be measured in a strictly quantifiable way, books are not only objects of “research” to be studied and explicated, and reading must affect us long after the details of a novel or the experience of curling up on the couch are gone. How exactly – I can’t say. (I’ll obviously have to go read more about it). 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Words of Wisdom

I thought it'd be fun to keep a collection of quotes from Dan, Michael, and Charles (SHERP professors), as well as our guest speakers as we continue through the semester. Eventually they'll range from realistic accounts of the world of journalism today to funny war stories from times immemorial. Right now they're more just quirky aphorisms.  I'll leave them anonymous – can you guess who said them?

"Nobody is god's gift to journalism. God didn't leave many gifts to journalism."

"In journalism, we never need to worry about getting our feelings hurt – we're gonna get the last word anyway."

"Journalism is the art of verification."

"Every story has an ecology, you just have to figure out your way around that world."

"Call up the editor in you – they are a fearsome beast!"

"I like poking at the cathedral of science."

"A science journalist isn't always talking about the 'good' in science."

"Journalists are unable to question numbers... they will take it as gospel."

"You don't want to end up with a masters degree in No Clips."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It Sounds Blue! Kandinsky and the Brain

The overwhelming "what? that's going on right now too?!" of New York City has hit me for real this month, so the blog posts are sadly lacking. But, since this science journalism stuff means I am bombarded with ideas and stories to write about a day, I'm going to make an extra effort to post more often (I need at least some partial record of my thoughts during these wonderfully-crazy months).

So, for starters, I have to share this amazing series in the New Scientist called "Six ways that artists hack your brain." It's all about the neuroscience and psychology of how we perceive/understand/interpret artwork (or get really confused by it). To my surprise, this cross-disciplinary field even has its own a name: neuroaesthetics. Below is a quote from one section about synaesthetes, people who have a neurological condition where their senses seem to get mixed up – they'll hear blue or taste yellow, for example.
LETTERS, words, numbers, sounds, touch, pain and smell all trigger flashes of colour in Carol Steen's mind. The New York-based artist first discovered she could paint her synaesthetic visions after a visit to her acupuncturist. "Each time a needle went in a colour flashed in front of my eyes," she recalls. "When all the needles were in it was like watching a movie. I rushed home and realised I could recall enough to paint a part of what I had seen."

Other synaesthetic artists include David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, who painted the piece below, entitled Blue. There is still some speculation over whether Kandinsky actually had synaesthesia or was simply influenced by reports of the phenomenon in other people. But to Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center in San Francisco, who has analysed Kandinsky's work, it is obvious (Journal of the History of Neuroscience, vol 12, p 223). "It's very explicit in his work and his writings. He went to a performance of Wagner's music and then wrote about how vivid the visual impressions of the horns were and the colour that the music evoked in his mind. That's synaesthesia," he says.

Steen agrees: "I saw a sphere like the one in Kandinsky's Blue in one of my acupuncture sessions. Since it is really hard to explain your visions to someone, I assume Kandinsky was a synaesthete." The striking colour contrast with the red dot is also familiar to her.

These experiences are probably due to extra connections between the auditory and visual cortex, says Jack Cowan, a mathematical neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. He thinks the additional flow of information into the visual cortex overloads its normal inhibitory mechanisms, allowing spontaneous waves of activity that would normally be eliminated to propagate through the brain. These signals may represent shape or colour. Since the brain can't tell whether a signal was generated within the brain or externally, synaesthetes see the shapes as if they came from the eye.

Check out the other parts of the series like the emotional response to impressionism or Dali's illusions. More to come soon!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Cultures (and many more)

The first official reading assignment for school (yes, very excited to be a student again!) is C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures." I've come across this essay – originally a lecture in 1959 – several times over the past year, mostly in the context of "look what a knowledge gap there is between scientists and the public" or "scientists are just fundamentally different people from the rest." Snow articulates a serious problem he notices in Western society: the splitting of intellectual life (and in turn, practical life) into two polar groups that do not communicate and do not understand one another. These two groups, literary intellectuals and scientists, have become increasingly isolated by a "gulf of mutual incomprehension." The gulf is widened by hostility, distortion, and most of all just a lack of understanding. In later writings, Snow called for a "third culture" to bridge this gap.

Even though Snow was writing 50 years ago, his observations are still relevant today. Many recent articles and books reference the "two cultures" theme, although it seems the modern flavor of this dichotomy has shifted – less "science & humanities" and more "science & everyone else". Those who can speak science to the masses – bypassing the literary intellectuals – are what John Brockman, editor of the Edge magazine, calls "third-culture thinkers." This brand of intellectuals include people like E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. The success of popular science books may surprise the "old-style intellectuals," (Brockman's phrase) but he thinks this is just a sign that science is becoming the new popular culture. 

"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are... 
Today, third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public. The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves."

While I do agree with much of Brockman's characterization, I have some concerns about these "third culture" scientists. Thinking it sufficient to communicate directly to the public, they sometimes ignore the arts and humanities altogether, or act as if science has taken its "rightful" place at the top of the intellectual kingdom. To build a bridge across the gulf, there must be collaboration and openness between the disciplines – what Jonah Lehrer's calls a "fourth culture.

“This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow’s original definition… will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness." (from Proust Was a Neuroscientist)

Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America, agrees with Lehrer. But he takes the argument one step further, urging science to interact and learn from all parts of society. 

"It’s not just that we need people transplanting knowledge between science and humanities—it’s that we need people who can transplant between science, the humanities, politics, communication, law, business—and everything else. All other walks of life, types of talent, kinds of expertise…the more science draws upon these and the more these intersect with science, the closer science will move back into relationship with the society that fosters it." 

For Mooney, science should not attempt to take the place of other intellectual traditions, but rather it should mesh and share ideas freely with all of them. 

And at this rate (with enough communication, interaction, and Snow's 1959 lecture firmly in mind) we may end up with a fourth, fifth, or sixth culture sooner than we expect.

Related link: Are We Beyond the Two Cultures? Video series from

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Monkeying Around in Science

The Economist calls it "ironic." In the midst of working a book called Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad, evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser has been accused of some wrongdoing of his own. Specifically, scientific misconduct and cheating. What exactly did he do? The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an overview:

It was one experiment in particular that led members of Mr. Hauser's lab to become suspicious of his research and, in the end, to report their concerns about the professor to Harvard administrators. The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. Researchers played a series of three tones (in a pattern like A-B-A) over a sound system. After establishing the pattern, they would vary it (for instance, A-B-B) and see whether the monkeys were aware of the change. If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed. The method has been used in experiments on primates and human infants. Mr. Hauser has long worked on studies that seemed to show that primates, like rhesus monkeys or cotton-top tamarins, can recognize patterns as well as human infants do. Such pattern recognition is thought to be a component of language acquisition.

Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and "coded" the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias. According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant's codes, he found that the monkeys didn't seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust. But Mr. Hauser's coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

The second research assistant was bothered by the discrepancy. How could two researchers watching the same videotapes arrive at such different conclusions? He suggested to Mr. Hauser that a third researcher should code the results. In an e-mail message to Mr. Hauser, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle, the research assistant who analyzed the numbers explained his concern. "I don't feel comfortable analyzing results/publishing data with that kind of skew until we can verify that with a third coder," he wrote. A graduate student agreed with the research assistant and joined him in pressing Mr. Hauser to allow the results to be checked, the document given to The Chronicle indicates. But Mr. Hauser resisted, repeatedly arguing against having a third researcher code the videotapes and writing that they should simply go with the data as he had already coded it. After several back-and-forths, it became plain that the professor was annoyed.

"i am getting a bit pissed here," Mr. Hauser wrote in an e-mail to one research assistant. "there were no inconsistencies! let me repeat what happened. i coded everything. then [a research assistant] coded all the trials highlighted in yellow. we only had one trial that didn't agree. i then mistakenly told [another research assistant] to look at column B when he should have looked at column D. ... we need to resolve this because i am not sure why we are going in circles."

The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser's permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn't appear to react to the change in patterns. They then reviewed Mr. Hauser's coding and, according to the research assistant's statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn't so much as flinch. It wasn't simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

The reaction to the Hauser investigation has been a mix of outcry against academic dishonesty, frustration at a lack of research standards, and distress over the terrible blow to the scientific community. But a refreshingly optimistic angle comes from JL Vernon, who sees "Hausergate" as an opportunity to demonstrate the integrity of the scientific process. Here are some of his ideas:
My reaction to this story may surprise readers of my blog, because I believe there is a silver lining to this story.  If handled properly, this tragedy can do great things for science.  What we have here is a ripe opportunity to showcase the integrity of the scientific process.  As I mentioned in my recent article  on creating science brand loyalists, I think scientists need to be more transparent about the scientific process from experimental design through peer-reviewed publication.  By emphasizing the mechanisms built into the scientific process that brought this deception to an end, science communicators and journalists can make the public aware that science is a self-regulating system in which fraud will not endure.  While there were failures in the system, science ultimately prevailed.

In this particular case, the misconduct that led to the investigation of Dr. Hauser occurred at the earliest stage of the scientific process, the experimental design.  David Dobbs does a great job describing the weaknesses of Hauser’s experimental protocols. The experiments involved observation of video recordings of monkeys responding to certain stimuli that were varied over time in order to induce a response from the monkeys.  The monkeys’ reactions to the stimulus were recorded by the observer.  Based on a letter written by the whistleblower researchers, professor Hauser’s observations conflicted with those of his lab assistants.  After the researchers realized that Dr. Hauser was trying to force them to accept and publish shoddy data, they acted properly by approaching the Harvard University administration to address these issues of scientific misconduct.

For their bravery, the whistleblowers should be recognized as “loyal defenders” of science.  Not only did they end Dr. Hauser’s dangerous practices, they also fulfilled the unofficial oath for science.

Thankfully, once these individuals brought this issue to the attention of the Harvard University ombudsman and the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the appropriate investigation was undertaken.  As far as we know, Dean Smith did not delay the investigation and subsequent to the completion of the investigation Dr. Hauser was properly sanctioned.

Related Links: A letter from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences describes the findings against Hauser in more detail. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

By any other cover?

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to judge books by their covers (ok, just a little bit). Why else would so much time be spent on their design? Some book cover designs are publicly declared great, making lists like the AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers, soon to be an exhibition in New York. Other times they go unnoticed, conveying the stories they contain so clearly they become invisible. And other times... they ruin the whole thing. This great collection of book cover before-and-afters shows just how crucial a cover can be – and highlights the success (or tragedy) of a redesign.

Some examples: 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bigger the Better? Not So Much.

The WikiLeaks information dump of over 90,000 documents covering the war in Afghanistan has some journalists quite worried. Not just about the content of the reports (although there is plenty to be concerned with on that front), but about what the reaction to the leak means for the media and the public. Specifically, the lack of much reaction at all. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen points out that often huge revelations produce the smallest consequences (how sadly ironic). At some level, the information overload is so great that people just ignore it and move on to something more bite-sized.
Some quotes: 
'We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.' My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.
Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.
The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?
I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.
Regardless of how it is framed, I think Rosen has identified a troubling problem. How does one communicate truly consequential ideas or findings in a way that has real consequence? How do you get someone out from under a pile of information to go act (and react) in the world? Is it a matter of being overwhelmed into paralysis or not really caring to begin with? Some questions worth considering.

The rest of Rosen's post also brings up a number of points about the nature of WikiLeaks (the "world’s first stateless news organization") and the rise of the political press. Read it here.

Related article at Slate: The WikiLeaks Paradox
And another (added 7/29): How to Give (and Take) a Leak - drip irrigation works better than a monsoon

Thursday, July 15, 2010

They're Made Out of Meat

Just came across a short story that brought me back to the beginning of high school. It'd be fair to say it was one of the first pieces of writing to get me interested in the whole mind/body problem and philosophy in general. I had completely forgotten about it. It's pretty amazing (in a gross but awesome sci-fi way).

They're Made out of Meat, by Terry Bisson

"They're made out of meat."
"Meat. They're made out of meat."
"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."
"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"
"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."
"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."
"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."
"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."
"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."
"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."
"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"
"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."
"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."
"No brain?"
"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."
"So ... what does the thinking?"
"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."
"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!  Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"
"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."
"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."
"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"
"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."
"We're supposed to talk to meat."
"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."
"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"
"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."
"I thought you just told me they used radio."
"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."
"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"
"Officially or unofficially?"
"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."
"I was hoping you would say that."
"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"
"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"
"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."
"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."
"That's it."
"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"
"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."
"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."
"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."
"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"
"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."
"They always come around."
"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

Apparently, some fans also made a short video version of the story.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Article Published in ACSM Health & Fitness Journal!

"Injury Risks for the Female Athlete" is finally out in print!! After hopping and squealing around my room in excitement, I sat down and read the From the Editor at the beginning of the journal:
The risk of injury is low when doing moderate-intensity physical activity, but increases with exercise intensity, especially in a competitive environment. And in this regard, female athletes are at a higher risk than male athletes. In her feature, Injury Risks for the Female Athlete, Marielena Groeger, B.A., provides a concise review of women’s unique physiological and biomechanical responses to exercise that influences risk, and outlines measures that can be taken to prevent injury. Given the large number of girls and women involved in fitness programs and competitive sports, this article is an important read for all of us.

Yeah! So super happy about this.

(If you wanna read it, email me and I'll send you the final PDF)

And thanks to Hannah for this very relevant article in the NY Times about exercise science and women.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You Don't Know That You Don't Know (and Other Such Puzzles)

This series is making my brain hurt... in a good way.
The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is
(Part 1)
DD: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth.  We literally see the world the way we want to see it.  But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that.  Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it.  Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it.   We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.
EM:  Knowing what you don’t know?  Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?
DD:  That’s absolutely right.  It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.”  It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism.  There are things we know we don’t know.  And there are things that are unknown unknowns.  We don’t know that we don’t know.”  He got a lot of grief for that.  And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”
In a brief communication presented to the Neurological Society of Paris, Joseph Babinski (1857-1932), a prominent French-Polish neurologist, former student of Charcot and contemporary of Freud, described two patients with “left severe hemiplegia” – a complete paralysis of the left side of the body – left side of the face, left side of the trunk, left leg, left foot. Plus, an extraordinary detail. These patients didn’t know they were paralyzed. To describe their condition, Babinski coined the term anosognosia – taken from the Greek agnosia, lack of knowledge, and nosos, disease.

The contemplation of anosognosia leads to many questions about how the brain puts together a picture of reality and a conception of “the self.” It also suggests that our conception of reality is malleable; that it is possible to not-know something that should be eminently knowable. It may also suggest that it is possible to know and not-know something at the same time. But additionally, it puts the question of how we “know” things at the heart of a neurological diagnosis, and raises questions about how we separate the physical from the mental.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wonks and the Press

The academy and the press can have somewhat of a love/hate relationship (ok, maybe mostly hate).  Academics don't want to give soundbites and journalists want a juicy story. Abstract theories just don't mesh well with a nitty-gritty 24-hour news cycle. But in the realm of politics, the relationship may be warming a bit.  This recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review traces the growing influence and acceptance of political science research in political reporting and commentary.  Some quotes: 
In November 2007, The Monkey Cage—the name comes from an H. L. Mencken line about the nature of democracy—was launched...perhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective. That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes.
These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting?
The journalists who have engaged most with political science...have something in common: they’re operating under a new model of what it means to be a political reporter, one that allows them to conceive of “news” in a different way.
That’s not to say that traditional reporting tasks will go by the wayside, nor should they. But even in day-to-day coverage, a poli-sci perspective can have value in helping reporters make choices about which storylines, and which nuggets of information, really matter. For that to happen, political scientists must do more to make their work accessible, reaching beyond the circle of journalists who are inclined to, as Sides says, “embrace the wonk.”

Because of course, not everyone is running to embrace the wonk. Here's a (hilarious) response from a journalist at Slate: What if Political Scientists Covered the News? 

Related Link (and comic above): Not political science, but my favorite comic on press coverage out there!

Added 6/23: Bloggingheads discussion between Jay Rosen & Julian Sanchez on the ideology of the press and related topics (they address political journalism in the first section).

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Cost of Machines That Think = People Who Don't?

As I marvel at the new iPhone 4 – and hope to get one of my very own, very soon – I can't help but notice the flurry of recent articles on the mind-altering impacts of technology. The half-empty: irreversible, fundamental changes to the brain caused by the deluge of incoming information, from e-mail to video games to tweets to newsfeeds. Essentially, this digital multitasking is rewiring us to be shallow. The half-full: those same changes could actually be pretty useful – even making us smarter.

From the NY Times article: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.vThese play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored...
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.
“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

From the WSJ article: Does the Internet Make You Dumber?
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
The common thread in these disabilities is the division of attention. The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it "meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory," writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts.
When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.

From the NY Times book review: Our Cluttered Minds
There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory.
Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

Related Link: The Edge Question 2010: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Experiments & the Future of News

Want to save the news? Look to Google. So says this Atlantic article about the future of journalism and the sustainability of professional news-gathering. Some quotes:
So how can news be made sustainable? The conceptual leap in Google’s vision is simply to ignore print. It’s not that everyone at the company assumes “dead tree” newspapers and magazines will disappear...But all of their plans for reinventing a business model for journalism involve attracting money to the Web-based news sites now available on computers, and to the portable information streams that will flow to whatever devices evolve from today’s smart phones, iPods and iPads, Nooks and Kindles, and mobile devices of any other sort. This is a natural approach for Google, which is, except for its Nexus One phone, a strictly online company.

The three pillars of the new online business model, as I heard them invariably described, are distribution, engagement, and monetization. That is: getting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads.

“The three most important things any newspaper can do now are experiment, experiment, and experiment,” Hal Varian said.

In fact, such advice is both natural and inconceivable for most of today’s journalists. Natural, in that every book, every article, every investigative project, every broadcast is its own form of pure start-up enterprise, with nothing guaranteed until it’s done (if then). Inconceivable, in that news businesses themselves are relatively static, and the very name “Newspaper Guild” suggests how tradition-bound many journalists are. We pride ourselves on defending standards of language, standards of judgment, and even a form of public service that can seem antique. Whether or not this makes for better journalism, it complicates the embrace of radical new experiments.
The other implicitly connecting theme is that an accumulation of small steps can together make a surprisingly large difference. The forces weighing down the news industry are titanic. In contrast, some of the proposed solutions may seem disappointingly small-bore. But many people at Google repeated a maxim from Clay Shirky, of New York University, in an essay last year about the future of the news: “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Structure of Scientific Activity

What does interdisciplinary look like? Starting from science outwards, it may look something like this crazy multicolored dotted web-wheel. Scientists collected data on over a billion user interactions with online scholarly portals, tracking the activity of scientists and the general public as they clicked through and engaged with publications in all sorts of disciplines. The result? A clickstream map of science that suggests just how interconnected the dynamics of scholarship can be. The wheel's hub is formed from closely-related journals in the social sciences and humanities, while the rim is made up of natural science journals. The spokes are journals that connect across disciplines (fields like brain research, human geography, and alternative energy). 

Besides being pretty to look at, what is this clickstream map good for? Here's what the scientists say:
Maps constructed from clickstream data can serve numerous functions. Like citation maps they provide a means to visually assess the relationships between various domains and journals. However, clickstream maps of science can offer an immediate perspective on what is taking place in science and can thus aid the detection of emerging trends, inform funding agencies, and aid researchers in exploring the interdisciplinary relationships between various scientific disciplines.
It's even getting support from humanities professors, who are chiming in about the map here. I'm all for it – science, bring on the color coding. 

Related Link: article in SEED magazine on networked knowledge and Science 2.0

Friday, May 21, 2010

Conversation with Dawkins

> view of earth as a pale blue dot

After reading, thinking, and writing about the work of Richard Dawkins, I had the unbelievable luck of speaking to him in person!! At the recent Science and Religious Conflict conference, over beef wellington, I got a chance to ask him about the public understanding of science (he held an Oxford chair by that title), popular science book writing (he's now working on a children's book), what role religion plays for him (he calls himself an atheist Anglican), and life in the little town of Oxford. Still reeling from the encounter, I'm going to try to write some coherent thoughts about everything we talked about.

One subject that came up was how somebody should go about communicating science. He thinks there are two main approaches – one that emphasizes the usefulness of science (look what this new pill or piece of technology can do for you!), and the Carl Sagan approach, emphasizing the wonder, awe, and sheer marvel of science. Dawkins suggested that he favored the latter, since it draws people into a longer-lasting appreciation and interest in science that provides more than a fleeting fascination with the latest fad or gadget. He’s probably on to something – a little while ago the NY Times found that its most e-mailed articles tended to be those that inspired awe, particularly science articles.

But what about the usefulness approach? After all, many people may first be introduced to physiology when they get a blood test, to chemistry when they look at the nutrition facts on a cereal box, to electromagnetism when they have to replace some batteries, or light and optics when they’re buying a new camera. A Pew Research Center study found that most people, even if they don’t know basic high-school science facts, still know something about the areas where science is personally relevant to their health and daily lives. So the science we deal with on a day-to-day basis seems like a good starting point for discussion and further curiosity, acting as a bridge into the wider world of science that Sagan championed and Dawkins promotes. One approach may feed the other, and if a combination is possible – the useful and the awe-inspiring, the relevant and the celebratory – so much the better. 

On that note, some words from Carl Sagan about the pale blue dot:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena... Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves... It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

I'm pretty excited about this new opinion series in the New York Times called The Stone, which will "feature the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." The first piece is by Simon Critchley (the moderator of the series) who tackles the question what is a philosopher? in little more than 1000 words. Here are some of them:

By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity. Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at our backs...

Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.

This all sounds dreamy, but it isn’t. Philosophy should come with the kind of health warning one finds on packs of European cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS.

And with that rather dramatic thought, I leave you to find out exactly why philosophy is so dangerous. Take your time.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Building Peace Conference

Yesterday (Saturday May 15th) was the Building Peace Conference organized by the Oxford Network for Peace Studies, or OxPeace. OxPeace is a "a multi-disciplinary initiative to promote the focused study of the nature of peace, peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, in Oxford. It aims to promote relevant research and teaching, and the inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation of ideas, and to enable the sharing of research between Oxford academics and graduate students and those from other institutions in Britain and abroad, and with scholar-practitioners in the field." Keynote speakers were Professor of Peace Research Johan Galtung and Ugandan human rights lawyer Barney Afako. 

I'll be adding my notes from the conference over the next few days. Highlights from last year's conference, The Serious Study of Peace, can be found here.

Background (from the program):
There is growing interest in academic circles in the questions surrounding the nature of peace. This includes the making, keeping, and building of peace. Peace as a site for academic study raises unique questions and provides a distinctive shape to interdisciplinary endeavour, drawing on politics and international relations, economics, development, environmental studies, war and conflict, anthropology, psychology, law, ethics and theology to name only a few.

The focus on peace adds a fresh dimension to established disciplines and engenders a distinctive interdisciplinary synergy. It has produced an extensive, rapidly growing body of academic literature, and shows potential as a discipline in its own right, embracing all levels from senior research to undergraduate teaching. Much relevant research and teaching  is being done in Oxford. This Conference taps into some of this work, as well as providing a forum for sharing with colleagues from across the world.

Dr Liz Carmichael (St John's College, Theology)
Carmichael began with some introductory remarks about the history and purpose of OxPeace. She described OxPeace as held together by the idea of peace as a worthy academic focus. Its goal is to promote new centers, new institutes, and a new chair of Peace Studies at Oxford (for which they need funding). Carmichael emphasized the need to raise the profile and the study of peace at an elite institution like Oxford, which would lend credibility to peace studies as an academic field in its own right.

First Talk:

Professor Johan Galtung
After the Abolition of Slavery and Colonialism, War as a Social Institution: The Role of England.  An example of Applied Peace Studies

Johan Galtung is currently based near Geneva as co-Director of the Transcend Research Institute,  which he co-founded in 1993. A Norwegian sociologist and ‘father’ of academic peace studies, Johan Galtung founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) in 1959 and was its first Director 1959-69. He then became Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Oslo University 1969-78. He is a peace practitioner and prolific researcher, who has held numerous visiting professorships in Europe and the USA.

Galtung began his talk by urging Oxford University to become a “facilitator of solutions.” He described his role as “father of peace studies” in the 1950’s, where he worked to advocate peacebuilding, peacekeeping and peaceguiding. Over the years his work as led him to 10 findings, which he believes can help in the project of de-institutionalizing war:
1. The top will never abolish anything on its own – the top will never degrade itself.
2. Abolition never comes from bottom alone, it needs an enlightened element (often women play a pivotal role here).
3. Consciousness formation is crucial. Consciousness raising is often well performed by churches.
 4. There must be a vision of change, and spirituality can be used as a bridging concept, crossing divisions between religions of east and west. There must be emphasis on the linking of something out there to something in here. Heart and brain go hand in hand.
5. Need unlimited perseverance.
6. Cannot demand synchronicity, or implement change in all places at the same time. We need leading countries to provide the example.
7. Multilateralism (summit meetings) will generally lead to nothing. Galtung gives the example of the recent climate change summit as a failed attempt to implement change. Countries need to show the lead, especially now on the issue of nuclear weapons.
8 and 9. Sometimes heavy politics is necessary. “When someone has new idea, the first reaction is laughter, then suspicion, then a heavy politician who says ‘its been my idea all along’” There is a dialectic of success and failure.
10. There is a heavy price to any change. There will always be resistance from those who claim that if we don’t do this then someone else will. And every action will have often unforeseen consequences.

Galtung turned next to a “middle” position on what we would need to abolish war. After again emphasizing the role played by women, he says change will come from a variety of “middles”. The middle-aged – when they still have physical energy and have not yet solidified their ideas, although he acknowledges it is possible to be middle aged well into one’s 80s. The middle-sexed – who are not lost in narcissistic beauty concerns that take up too much time and effort in our modern society. The middle class – because the upper class is oblivious to problems, and the lower class is too concerned with its own.  The middle-towns – big cities have too many monuments celebrating the grandeur of their city, and growing up in this sort of environment seeps into a certain (righteous) view of world.  The middle-religious – somewhere between a hard religious outlook that is too uncompromising, and a soft religious outlook exemplified by groups like the Quakers. The Anglican church may be intermediary between these two extremes. Finally, middle-politics – that celebrates coalitions and seeks to find ideas that accommodate both sides. The idea of social capitalism or social democracy was itself such a coalition.

Galtung’s concluding remarks reflected on war as a tenacious structure, as opposed to solely dependent on particular actors. There is cooperation between countries in maintaining the war system, and history has shown that we tend to stop war just in time to avoid putting an end to the entire war system. Righteousness makes all players think their views are universal, but it is time for an "intellectual helicopter sweep" to view countries from above and see the larger picture.

Second Talk:
Barney Afako
Grappling with Peace: Reflections on some efforts to deal with violent conflict in Africa

Barney Afako, a scholar-practitioner of peacebuilding, is a leading Ugandan human rights lawyer and transitional justice expert. Currently based in London, he is an adviser to the peace process in northern Uganda and other peace processes in Africa. He is a leading scholar in transitional justice specifically.

Afako began by describing some of his experience in Uganda  working with  local people in small communities. He noted that these people are mainly interested in their futures and those of their children, not in punishing rebels and bringing them to trial. They bring into sharp focus the idea that justice is a much bigger concept than criminality and criminal justice. Therefore it is possible to have a primary focus on bringing an end to violent conflict without giving up the need for accountability. Afako described how he would constantly run into arguments to pursue and nurture the idea of international criminal justice, but this is a far too limited view. In approaching peacebuilding, one cannot escape hard dilemma’s, and one cannot always resolve these dilemmas. But we can try to be prepared to handle these dilemmas. Mediators and peacebuilding practitioners step into the space between law and the local (bridging the gap between international criminal justice and ordinary people). This is a no mans zone, but people who want to make peace need to stand here.

Afako also emphasized the dual role of the state and civil society in the peace process. The state’s influence is both inescapable and utterly crucial. Yes, the state exerts control over any part of peace-building, but it is important to understand that there is no space in which conflict takes place that is not under some aspect of control. Therefore mediators need to keep having conversation with many actors of the state, and this involves going to the top. They need to help states organize themselves to respond to conflict, as well as keep the state cohesive. On the other side, civil society is increasingly mobilized on issues of justice, and lots of people are engaged with peace process. Civil society needs to have a part in the peace process; it needs to be at the table. People in civil society will bring perspective to those around the table. So while it is critical to focus on state, it is important to also focus on people. People without the state will not work, and the state without people will not have support. A mediator needs to carry everyone.

Finally, Afako addressed the importance of looking deeper into any conflict to identify the structural concerns. He says we can’t take our eyes off the parties involved, but we also cannot afford to forget the structural issues. The process of peace goes beyond the signatures on a peace agreement. He advises mediators to keep abreast of social changes so that new conflicts don’t take them by surprise.