We had an unexpected amount of fun experimenting with our baking soda go kart! Watch the video to find out if we managed to push our unwitting stuffed moose down the street while taped to a furniture dolly with a wine rack mounted on the back loaded with baking soda rockets.
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.