Recently, I started reading a book called “Be Excellent at Anything." It’s written by the leadership of a top management consulting company, and its premise is that renewing our relationship to four “core needs” - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual - can make us higher performers at work. The authors support this philosophy, and their business, with various scientific studies and quotes.
I’m generally enjoying the book. It’s well-written and thought provoking. The ideas are worthwhile. But the way science is used in it grates me. It feels incredibly obvious that whoever researched this book went out and cherry-picked studies to support the ideas, rather than the ideas actually being based on science.
And I think it’s time we admit that when we say something that is not science-y is “scientifically proven,” we are actually saying that we have quoted enough studies to make it feel that way.
What got me thinking about this was how, early in the book (page 5, to be precise), the authors hang their hat on one piece of scientific evidence in particular. It’s a 1993 study by Anders Ericsson “designed to explore the power of deliberate practice in violinists.”
"Over the years, numerous writers, including Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling Outliers, have cited Ericsson’s study for its evidence that intrinsic talent may be overvalued.”
That sentence says to me that one of the authors read Outliers, and then thought, “That also supports my point! Put it in my book!” They use it to support not an idea about talent, as the study was designed for, but their idea that 90 minutes is the ideal amount of time for focused work. Therefore, employees should take short breaks, mental refreshers, throughout the workday. They briefly describe the study, and it immediately raised some red flags.
1. It’s a small study. Only 30 violinists participated, and they were divided into three groups of ten. That’s not a lot of data to draw vast conclusions about the way all people work.
2. The groups were not equal. The first group was selected from violinists that professors thought were destined to be soloists, the second group were thought to be good enough to win a place in a professional orchestra, but not showcased, and the third were taken from the music education department, destined to never play professionally. Then they were judged by how they practiced.
Obviously, the third group did not practice as much as the first two groups. Because they did not have the goal of being professional musicians. Their focus was to become educators. So why should they be on the same playing field as the first two groups? The author of the study may have been sensitive to this distinction, but the authors of the book characterized them as low performers. This seems unfair. I might be especially sensitive to the unfairness as I’m married to a music education grad student.
3. The data on practice times is self-reported, starting with from the time that the musicians were eight years old. How many of us remember accurately how long we did something for when we were eight? Back in those days, five minutes could feel like a half hour. I remember that my mom told me to practice my oboe for a half an hour every day, but did I scrape by with 15 minutes? Obviously I’m not a great musician today with that kind of attitude, but my point is that self-reported data is not the most reliable.
As I read on, it annoyed me that the authors were using such a flimsy study, which is now over 20 years old and has not been replicated, to support major ideas. Over dinner last night, I brought it up to my husband, who had already heard of the study from a music psychology class. He found it on Google Scholar, which showed it had been cited in almost 4,500 other publications. That’s probably not counting the number of times referenced in popular books. My husband is reading a non-fiction book called Quiet, about the power of introverts, and stumbled over the study in his reading just after our conversation. That book quoted Ericsson from an interview with the author of yet another book.
It’s almost as if this study became an input into some pop-pyschology writer hive mind, where any one author could draw it out from whatever keywords it matched, and found it ready to pin to their own ideas. And this is repeated over and over again, to patch together a convincing enough base of “scientific support” from scraps of studies and popular quotes.
Is this a problem? I would argue that it is. People are used to seeing science used in this way, to bolster pre-conceived ideas (hello, Malcolm Gladwell!). It undermines scientific literacy - that is, our ability to truly understand how science works. We are comfortable with reading scientific conclusions, ready-made to agree with whatever we want to think. And science doesn’t always readily agree. In a world of ready-made conclusions, we prefer not to know about the scientific process, uncertainty, or admit that what we nod our heads along to now may be utterly disproven in a few years. That comes back to bite us when we need to deal with socially complex scientific questions (hello, climate change!).
Be Excellent at Anything has good intentions - it wants you to work happier and better - but it ends up falling into the common trap of popular psychology. The trouble is that most of its readers don’t know that they’re in that trap, too.
I’m 40 weeks + 3 days pregnant and counting. I’m waiting on the border of my patience for my baby to be born. I have heard the phrase, “When the baby decides to come…" countless times each day for the past few weeks, and the wording has gotten under my skin.Babies don’t make decisions. How could they? They don’t know what the options are. They come blindly into the world, forced out of the womb by basic human biology.
But what constitutes that basic biophysiological function? What pushes a woman’s body into spontaneous labor? What do we actually mean when we say “the baby decides?”
I asked my doctor at a third trimester appointment, and she told me (disappointingly) that no one knows. I demanded to know why there wasn’t more research to find out. She said that there is research, billions of dollars worth, because pre-term labor accounts for a disproportionate amount of spending in our health care system. Everyone would like to know how to stop labor from happening. Certainly, what initiates labor is part of the question. But the best answer my doctor could rustle up was some combination of the baby colluding with the mother’s body to trigger labor.
With each subsequent appointment, the science of starting labor appeared more and more fuzzy. My doctor would check to see if I was dilated or effaced, starting around 36 weeks. Every time, she turned up with nothing. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “You could go into labor tomorrow. But you probably won’t.”
I brought up a friend whose doctor had told her she would be waiting for another week, and then went into labor that night. “I’ve been wrong like that before,” my doctor said. “But I’ll see you next week. Or maybe earlier.”
As I’ve gotten into full-term territory, it’s become clear that the indicators of labor indicate barely anything. I had prodromal (false) labor starting on my due date, and I continue to have frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions. No one knows what specific purpose they serve in getting the body ready for labor, but my doula assures me that they are signs that everything is headed the right direction. I lost the mucus plug and again, a good sign, but it could mean labor is a few days away - or one to two weeks. Who knows?!
As a result of this lack of knowledge and control over possibly the most important event in my life, I’ve turned to “natural” induction techniques, which other parents are quick to offer up. Science’s ruling position on this has been totally thrown off. I’ve turned eagerly to drinking raspberry leaf tea, calculating astrological charts for ideal birth dates, and acupuncture. I know that nothing is proven to work, even if a friend swears it put her into labor with her second. Out of all the natural induction techniques, acupuncture has been the most studied. But the study I read last night showed that the often-quoted successful results have not been replicated by the same research team that produced them.
Looking further into the research with Google Scholar, I found only one paper that attempted to answer my basic question, “What initiates labor?" - from 1983.
Science is obviously more focused on interventions for babies in danger than with my frustration of having to wait to deliver a healthy, full-term baby. And I know I’ve been very lucky to have a very healthy pregnancy, and that the “problem” of this gap of knowledge isn’t an actual problem for me. But - I want answers, gosh darn it! I’m tired of folky sayings and anecdotal evidence. And I’m way pregnant, so shouldn’t I get what I want?
I’ve been thinking about the controversial Grantland story, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” since I read it on Friday night. Much has been tweeted, written, and reacted to. I am adding my two cents because, despite my obsessive consumption of all the tweets, writings, and reactions, I still can’t stop thinking about it. And my husband refuses to have a informed conversation about the ethics of this piece with me due to his self-proclaimed lack of interest. Thus, the turning to vent on Tumblr.
I’m not going to sum up the story, which has been done, again, many times elsewhere. I read the story only with the information from a tweet that the main character committed suicide - not who, how, or why. My early impression is that it was a very well-written, engaging read, the type that generally ends up in Best of Whatever Genre type-lists on Longform at the end of the year. That was, until I got to the end of the piece. When it was revealed that Dr. V had killed herself, the reaction of the storyteller felt hollow and left me confused. He called his story a “eulogy.” It was not. Eulogies are respectful of the dead person. This story was not. He also did not reflect upon what seemed obvious given the lead up: the role of the story in her death.
This is not to call Caleb Hannan a murderer. That characterization is extremely unfair, and I’m disturbed by the way that these types of exaggerations always find a willing crowd to reinforce them. (And how some outlets cover the story as “Twitter is freaking out about this thing!" People tweeting en masse is not in itself a story. It is the appeal of Twitter.) But it is undeniable to say that Dr. V warned Hannan that his story was akin to a hate crime - something very bad was going to happen. He did not seem to take that line seriously, because she was a quirky and increasingly unhinged character. The perfect type of character for a career-making story. Stakes were being raised! The plot was deepening. To turn back now would be folly.
The consequences of following this story to its conclusion are tragic. Dr. V is dead. (The way Hannan informs the reader is particularly insensitive to Dr. V’s memory and the reader: “‘Well, there’s one less con man in the world now’ …his seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died." Just unwrap that for a minute, while I sit here making frustrated sounds.) And as terribly as I think Hannan conducted himself towards the end of Dr. V’s life, I feel sympathy for a journalist in this kind of shit storm. This story could have happened to a lot of people: Case in point, Bill Simmons at Grantland named his entire editorial team that went through a seven month process, without anyone ever raising the issues that he admits ultimately condemned the story. I bet they pressed “publish” thinking it was another sure Grantland winner on the end-of-year Best of Sports Writing list.
But speaking of Bill Simmons’ editorial letter, I was very impressed with the way that he took responsibility for really, truly screwing up. I deeply believe that editors should have their reporters’ backs, no matter what. My critique of the letter is that he took almost too much responsibility, while there is still much to be said about what happened during reporting. It was a freelance piece, always on the brink of not being published. It sounds like Dr. V’s death occurred before the editors had a serious hand in shaping the story. Only Caleb Hannan will be able to provide answers into the process - when he might have had second thoughts, or not. How he felt about Dr. V herself, whether he had a clue of the risk he was taking by following the story. I don’t think you can blame editors for saying, “There’s not a story here yet, come back later.” That is an editor’s role. What the freelancer does in the meantime - how he gets the story - is his responsibility.
When you get down to brass tacks, Hannan did not act in accordance with journalistic ethics. Here are the sections of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics on Minimizing Harm that I feel are relevant:
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
Right there. The conversation that my husband did consent to have with me involved him invoking the self-harm done by government officials who have lied - and Dr. V did also lie. But her lies did not change the effectiveness of the product she sold, and not wanting to reveal that she was trans is not the same as a lie. As a company founder, she is still a private individual, and the public did not need to know that she was trans. I sympathize with a reporter’s annoyance when the subject tries to dictate the terms of the story, but Hannan should have seen why she insisted on the story being about Science, not the Scientist, and have spoken with her and written based on that understanding.
Bottom line, this story is terrible for everyone involved, and a person is dead. No amount of hand-wringing about ethics can change that.
I had a weird realization yesterday, while sitting in traffic, that I went through my entire formal education without liking to learn. I was a good student. I got good grades. I learned things. But I only wanted to learn the things that I was good at already. It’s only been the past year or so that I’ve truly appreciated and taken advantage of my ability to learn.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of a book called Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. My husband, who is an educator and grad student and geek for educational psychology research, introduced me to it. The ideas and research are really interesting, but the book itself is not an great read, so I’ll save you the trouble.
The gist is that people can be categorized into either having a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. According to the book’s website: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” For example, you’re good at math. You’re a natural athlete. Your innate talent and ability leads to your success. And if you’re not successful, that’s the hand you were dealt.
Quoting the website again: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”
It’s the book’s argument that the growth mindset allows people to learn and develop to their “full potential” while those with fixed mindsets remain stuck trying to prove themselves and hide their deficiencies rather than overcoming them.
I’ve lived most my life with a fixed mindset. I was always good at reading and writing, and I was constantly praised for being a talented writer. Things I wasn’t good at, I abandoned interest in. One telling example is that I still automatically tune out when someone starts talking in numbers or trying to explain a graph. It’s become a reflexive instinct, because I know that I won’t understand. (Coping mechanism: Ask good questions after nodding head silently.) And if I was considered the “best” but was challenged at it - I would resent the challenger, rather than trying to get better. I gave up on the oboe immediately after a girl who was obviously more “talented” at music beat me out for a seat in the better high school band. Luckily being the best at the oboe is not necessary to join a rock band in Austin.
Things started to change when I left my full-time radio job for freelancing and small business ownership. It became apparent very quickly that I had a lot to learn about things they don’t teach you in school. Filing taxes, using Quickbooks, how to price myself, getting jobs, networking. I didn’t really like learning those things, but for the first time, I appreciated why I was learning them. I would say I finally developed my active like of learning when I taught myself how to edit videos - and then to shoot video, and then add titles, graphics, and make DVDs (all from YouTube). It was immensely satisfying to do myself what I previously had to outsource. The world of what I could do started opening up. I wasn’t stuck as an “audio person” as I had defined myself, I was everything I could learn how to be.
What really helped accelerate my learning was to just start saying yes to everything. When a client asked me if I could do something I didn’t know how to do yet, I said yes. And I learned it. Now, I’m eager to have people ask for new types of videos, so I have the opportunity to spend time learning new things.
There’s a chapter in Mindset on parenting, or how to raise a child with a growth mindset. (Another thing I’d like to learn how to do.) It’s all sorts of beneficial for their development - rather than getting frustrated when they’re not the best or when they fail, they realize that they need to work at it rather than feeling cheated or entitled. Here’s the catch: You can never tell them they’re good at anything, or acknowledge any positive attribute as a fixed trait. No “you’re so cute!” No “you’re so smart!” Praise sounds more like this: “I’m proud that you worked/studied/trained really hard and that’s why you achieved your goal.” Kind of dry, but more meaningful?
I doubt I’ll ever be able to avoid letting it slip to my child that he is the cutest, but I really believe that emphasizing work and dedication over talent and ability will help him understand and develop his abilities in a mindful way. I wish I had known before I hit my late twenties, why I should have liked to learn all along.
I usually stay away from films with violent words in their titles. I’m sensitive to violence in movies, and I spend all violent scenes covering my ears with my hands and staring stoically at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder. But last night, something told me to make an exception for The Act of Killing, a documentary showing at SXSW this week.
That “something” was the endorsement of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, documentary superstars who I’d like to imagine summering at each others’ houses, and the intriguing description. It’s about the perpetrators of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 getting together to make a fictional movie celebrating and glamorizing their past. They were “movie house gangsters” who took tickets at the cinema, got inspired by the violence in Hollywood movies, and aspired to be even more sadistic than what they saw on screen. One million people were killed in the genocide, and the main character claimed to be responsible for a thousand of those deaths.
The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, introduced the movie. “I won’t tell you to enjoy it,” he said. Awkwardly, the festival organizer came on right after him, told us there would be a Q&A later, and said, “Enjoy the film” as if there was no other way to close it out before the lights went down. Then the Alamo had a threatening message about not texting talking instagramming sexting etc, and the movie’s opening credits were disturbed by a waitress loudly asking our neighbors if they wanted parmesan on their popcorn.
What followed was an intense and powerful film about the state of Indonesian politics and how the killers are dealing with the past. The situation in Indonesia is as if the Nazis won and stayed in Germany, and celebrated their crimes and continued to act like gangsters with total impunity. In one scene, the Vice President of Indonesia gives a speech in front of the paramilitary and says, “We need our gangsters!” In another, the gangsters who are making the movie go on a national talk show, and the host congratulates them for creating a more humane and efficient way of exterminating people, as if Oprah was telling about a woman’s journey to her best life.
Those scenes felt surreal. They’re just so outside the realm of imagination, and also, it’s crazy that such an alternate reality could exist and that I was totally unaware of it. The movie-making scenes were equally crazy, starting one of the gangsters dressed up in drag with a Buddha belly and I’m still not sure why.
But the movie was really about the main character, Anwar, trying to exorcise the demons that haunted him from the genocide. In the first scene the director shot with him, he danced on the rooftop where he said he tortured and killed so many. Throughout the movie, he goes deeper into dealing with the morality of what he did - even though everyone around him glorifies his actions. In one scene, in which he says he understands how the people he killed felt being tortured after acting it out, the director calls him out from behind the camera. “No, you don’t know how they felt,” he says. “Because you knew it was a film and they knew they were about to die.”
After the film, the director did a quick Q&A and explained that although he was no longer welcome in Indonesia (the paramilitary tweeted that if he went back, the film should be called “The Act of Being Killed” which Oppenheimer thought was very clever, but scary), the film had changed the conversation about the genocide. People were actually able to speak out, whereas there had been total silence and intimidation before. He had started making films about the survivors and victims, but found filming stunted by the military. A neighbor suggested that he go and film with the killers. He interviewed 40 of them before he found Anwar, and shot him dancing on the roof.
After we were hustled out of the theater, we spent another half hour huddled in a small circle around the director, talking about the film. This is the kind of thing I love about South By. The thing that struck me about him was that this guy had already done a life’s work: Making a film that made a difference. For me, that’s what the point of art should be. Usually art aims on a small and vague scale of difference making (“start a conversation about…” or “make people think differently…” or “shock”) but The Act of Killing aimed for an overpopulated country with huge problems in the present and past, and made a difference there. That’s incredible; that’s inspiring to me.
The other thing, as an aspiring documentary maker myself, was that the film didn’t always look great. I’m so used to seeing these crisp and visually rich films shot with DSLRs on up. I just took a class on digital filmmaking that focused mostly on shooting narrative films where shots and lights are pre-arranged, and was frustrated by how the documentary I shot was often rough and shaky (I really would have liked a dolly walking alongside my character!). But in The Act of Killing, all scenes shot at night or in low light looked grainy or noisy, and some scenes were out of focus. And that was okay, because the story was just so captivating. I get caught up so often in how things look and it’s a reminder that the most important thing is story. And sound.
So go see The Act of Killing when you can. It’s being distributed by Drafthouse Films here in town, so it should be getting showings across the US.
Also, I’m having my first premiere today, at SXSW! A short documentary I made last year with Robert Melton won the City of Austin film contest and is being shown in a showcase at the Carver Center. It gives me a little bit of street cred, I hope.
My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish.
It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.
As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California.
The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.)
I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.
Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)
Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right.
This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord.
The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal.