Category Archives: Academia

Against Interesting Details

From the December Journal of Experimental Psychology:

In Experiment 1, students received an illustrated booklet, PowerPoint presentation, or narrated animation that explained 6 steps in how a cold virus infects the human body. The material included 6 high-interest details mainly about the role of viruses in sex or death (high group) or 6 low-interest details consisting of facts and health tips about viruses (low group). The low group outperformed the high group across all 3 media on a subsequent test of problem-solving transfer (d = .80) but not retention (d = .05). In Experiment 2, students who studied a PowerPoint lesson explaining the steps in how digestion works performed better on a problem-solving transfer test if the lesson contained 7 low-interest details rather than 7 high-interest details (d = .86), but the groups did not differ on retention (d = .26). In both experiments, as the interestingness of details was increased, student understanding decreased (as measured by transfer). Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

For this reason I tend to disagree with most people about who are the best speakers and writers.  Most people prefer those with lots of interesting tidbits; I prefer those that stay focused on and deliver a key interesting point. 

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“It is Simply No Longer Possible to Believe”

This piece by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books, while very good, mostly consists of stuff that would be familiar and unsurprising to OB readers.  But I was somewhat surprised that she went so far as to say this:

The problems I've discussed are not limited to psychiatry, although they reach their most florid form there.  Similar conflicts of interest and biases exist in virtually every field of medicine, particularly those that rely heavily on drugs or devices.  It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.  I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

That's pretty strong stuff for someone who is enough of an establishment figure to become the editor of the NEJM.  It's worth pointing out, though, that most of the biases that she is talking about are the product of plain old financial corruption, not the subtle cognitive biases that we mostly worry about here (though those undoubtedly play a role in allowing physicians to delude themselves into believing that they are not being swayed by the money).  So these kinds of problems could probably be mostly eliminated by a conceptually simple (though of course politically very difficult) change in the rules of the game.  Getting rid of problems like physician overconfidence would be much harder.
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Polisci Stats Biased

The 0.05 significance standard biases results in top polisci journals:

We examine the APSR and the AJPS for the presence of publication bias due to reliance on the 0.05 significance level. Our analysis employs a broad interpretation of publication bias, which we define as the outcome that occurs when, for whatever reason, publication practices lead to bias in the published parameter estimates. We examine the effect of the 0.05 significance level on the pattern of published findings using a "caliper" test, a novel method for comparing studies with heterogeneous effects, and find that we can reject the hypothesis of no publication bias at the 1 in 32 billion level. Our findings therefore raise the possibility that the results reported in the leading political science journals may be misleading due to publication bias. We also discuss some of the reasons for publication bias and propose reforms to reduce its impact on research.

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Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?

Following the announcement last week that Oxford University’s controversial Biomedical Sciences building is now complete and will be open for business in mid-2009, the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals for scientific experimentation have been revisited in the media—see, for example, here , here, and here.

The number of animals used per year in scientific experiments worldwide has been estimated at 200 million—well in excess of the population of Brazil and over three times that of the United Kingdom. If we take the importance of an ethical issue to depend in part on how many subjects it affects, then, the ethics of animal experimentation at the very least warrants consideration alongside some of the most important issues in this country today, and arguably exceeds them in importance. So, what is being done to address this issue?

In the media, much effort seems to be devoted to discrediting concerns about animal suffering and reassuring people that animals used in science are well cared for, and relatively little effort is spent engaging with the ethical issues. However, it seems likely that no amount of reassurance about primate play areas and germ-controlled environments in Oxford’s new research lab will allay existing concerns about the acceptability of, for example, inducing heart failure in mice or inducing Parkinson’s disease in monkeys—particularly since scientists are not currently required to report exactly how much suffering their experiments cause to animals. Given the suffering involved, are we really sure that experimenting on animals is ethically justifiable?

In attempting to answer this question, it is disturbing to note some inconsistencies in popular views of science. Consider, for example, that by far the most common argument in favour of animal experimentation is that it is an essential part of scientific progress. As Oxford’s oft-quoted Professor Alastair Buchan reminds us, ‘You can’t make a head injury in a dish, you can’t create a stroke in a test tube, you can’t create a heart attack on a chip: it just doesn’t work’. Using animals, we are told, is essential if science is to progress. Since many people are apparently convinced by this argument, they must therefore believe that scientific progress is something worthwhile—that, at the very least, its value outweighs the suffering of experimental animals. And yet, at the same time, we are regularly confronted with the conflicting realisation that, far from viewing science as a highly valuable and worthwhile pursuit, the public is often disillusioned and exasperated with science. Recently, for example, people have expressed bafflement that scientists have spent time and money on seemingly trifling projects—such as working out the best way to swat a fly and discovering why knots form—and on telling us things that we already know: that getting rid of credit cards helps us spend less money, and that listening to very loud music can damage hearing. Why, when the public often seems to despair of science, do so many people appear to be convinced that scientific progress is so important that it justifies the suffering of millions of animals? Continue reading "Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?" »

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Bad Faith Voter Drives

Brian Weatherson wonders why profs may push voting in general but not particular candidates:

My university (Rutgers) is fairly actively encouraging students to register to vote. And I’ve occasionally done a bit to help, hosting students who do a spiel on voter registration and personally encouraging students to vote.  Now I think this is all a good thing. Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters, so doing our little bit to help democracy is being on the side of the good. …

But it seems it would be seriously wrong for either Rutgers, or for me, to use our positions of authority to promote voting for Obama.  And I think this isn’t a particularly controversial position.  But it’s a little hard to say just exactly why it’s OK for Rutgers (and me) to do what we’re doing, and not do what we’re not doing. …

It’s worth noting that there’s a degree of bad faith in all of this. We don’t think that we should be advocating Obama’s election. But we all know that encouraging more college students to vote will, on net, boost Obama’s vote totals. …

Continue reading "Bad Faith Voter Drives" »

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Academics in Clown Suits

Imagine the reception an academic would get if he gave a talk in a clown suit.  Or if he sang instead of just speaking his words.  Or if his papers were written on colored paper, or in crayon.  No matter how well his work otherwise corresponded to academic norms, it would be hard to get other academics to take him seriously.   I remember when I first started writing on economics, I was scolded for formatting my papers in a two-column, single-spaced format.  While that format was common in computer science, to be taken seriously in economics a paper must be formatted as single-column, double-spaced.

Academics are well aware that these norms are relatively arbitrary, but usually assume that similar norms do not influence the content of their talks or papers.  But I strongly suspect that not only are some presentation formats considered too silly to be taken seriously, the same also applies to many topics.  That is, I suspect academics refuse to consider certain topics and theses because such things just seem silly.  Academics assume that silly-seeming topics must be unworthy of study, but this conclusion may not really be based on much analysis; it could be the same immediate unthinking reaction they would have to a prof in a clown suit.

I’m thinking of writing an oped on this subject, and so want to collect a list of candidate topics that seem unfairly ignored because they just seem silly.  Can you suggest topics for this list, and reasons why they should be considered more seriously?

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Election Review Articles

Academics have a great tradition of review articles.  Even in areas where studies are conflicting and controversial, review articles try to present a neutral summary of the current state of the debate.  Of course review articles are often accused of being covertly partisan, but at least they are usually not overtly partisan.  Review article authors usually focus on hard analysis and data over speculation, and bend over backwards to appear neutral via their tone, style, and presentation.  This social norm of neutral summaries seems to help academics aggregate info in complex areas.

Today, many academics say the current US presidential election is of enormous importance, and wonder how they can help.  And yet most everything I see academics doing on this election is overtly partisan – folks act as if it were obvious who is the best candidate, and just wonder how best to help that candidate.

But If this election is really more important that the typical topic covered by an academic review article, why not write election review articles to advise academics like me who are honestly uncertain how to vote?  An election review article would apply typical academic standards to review what we know about the actual consequences of choosing each candidate.

For example, in this election the two candidates come from two established political parties.  So a review article could summarize published analyses attempting to discern how national outcomes relate to the party holding office.  Better yet, it could summarize the implications of published multivariate analyses, relating national outcomes to many candidate features.  Of special interest might be candidate policy positions; one could summarize how candidate policy positions have related historically to actual chosen policies.  For particular policy positions of these particular candidates, one could point to and summarize other academic review articles on the consequences of those particular policies. 

Sure some will accuse election review articles of being covertly partisan.  But given all the other academic review articles out there, why does no one even try this?  I was hoping disinterest in presidential decision markets came from inertia and novelty-aversion, but are even academics just aren’t interested in neutral evaluations?

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‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’

This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

Continue reading "‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’" »

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Hating Economists

A few years ago at an interdisciplinary conference I met an English professor and, in a spunky mood, asked "So why do you guys hate us economists?"  I fully expected to hear "Oh we don’t hate you, though we do think you mistaken about …"  But in fact he said "You know why."  I have since received similar reactions from other academics, sometimes in their words but more often in their eyes – their dislike for economics goes way beyond the disrespect implied by a differing opinion.  Many quite openly despise economics and economists. 

So why aren’t such expressions considered hate speech?  Remember, Wikipedia says hate speech is:

Speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, moral or political views, socioeconomic class, occupation or appearance (such as height, weight, and hair color), mental capacity and any other distinction-liability. [emphasis added]

Certainly in this case, and perhaps in most cases, I’d rather the conversation continue, even when hateful, than to just shut everyone up.  I would love to sit down with smart economics haters and talk it out.

Added: When someone complains about being subject to "hate speech", the usual response is not to explain to them why people could have come to hate them.  So why the different treatment when an economist complains? 

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Aping Insight

Editors at top publications often do amazing jobs; the quality you see if often more a credit to editors than authors.  But at mid and low rank publications, editors often frustrate good writers.  Focusing on obscure anal rules about grammar or citations, they waste enormous energy adding little communication value.  Why do they bother? 

Similarly, it seems to me that while a wide vocabulary enables more eloquence from the best writers, most writers who use obscure words communicate less well than if they had used common words.  Why do they bother?

In these and many other cases, it seems to me that folks are aping insight – they are imitating the surface features of the insightful, to look insightful in the eyes of ignorant observers.  After all, only relatively insightful people can see clearly when others are insightful – other folks find it easier to rely on surface indications.  (I’m granting the benefit of the doubt here to talk about "insight"; the game is probably really about looking impressive.)

Continue reading "Aping Insight" »

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