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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

William Saletan atSlate always has these big pseudo-scientific questions that he thinks are deeply thought-provoking but are actually pretty schmeh.

For example, he has a long-standing (and probably wrong) hypothesis about race-linked intelligence. (I have previously noted the goofiness of this “scientific” discovery here.)

Now Slate has two stories about a study finding that children of gay parents at a time when being gay and having children was/is maligned can be stressful and difficult. That’s pretty understandable. Saletan’s take is probably more line with mine in that he thinks it still proves gay marriage is a good outcome (two parents, loving household, financial support, etc.). Still, he takes the study as methodologically sound (some criticisms here).

That said, let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that the study is right and two same-sex parents are actually in fact worse for the child than two opposite-parent biological parents. So what? Lots of children are raised in households without two opposite-sex biological parents; couldn’t a two-parent same-sex household still be better than, say, single parents? Couldn’t some alternate arrangement (let’s say, oh I don’t know, three parents in a household, or a two-parent biological household with grandparents in the home to provide childcare) provide even better results than the two-parent biological household? Should the government or society encourage such behaviors? Maybe, but maybe not. Attacking the “worst” child-rearing environments probably yields the most returns for society; certainly two-parent same-sex households are better than, say, institutional housing or constantly shifting foster care. Since there is high demand for same-sex households to have children, maybe we should be encouraging lots of adoption by any combination of two-parent households.

My point is that much like any presumed difference in intelligence between races (which, as I’ve noted, is probably wrong on its face anyways), the difference between a two-parent same-sex financially-supported household and a two-parent opposite-sex financially-supported household is probably so marginal that the policy implications are nil compared to the differences between a two-parent household and a no-parent household, or a two-parent household and an institutional care facility, or the difference between a poor family and a rich family.

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With modern materials, motors, etc., humans have apparently achieved flight like birds, flappy wings and all.

I wonder often about path-dependency and determination, particularly when it comes to inventions and innovations. For example, if there had been more advanced fabrics and miniaturized motors in the early 1900s, would we have seen flappy flight before fixed wing flight? Or did we need fixed-wing flight to get miniaturized motors? It would seem impossible to imagine a world with flight, but without fixed-wing flight. Yet, is it really so implausible? Certainly experimenters at the time liked the idea. With different materials, who knows what they could have done?

When the term “thinking outside the box” is bandied about, I always wonder who among the human race will actually go out and do the crazy thing that everyone thinks is stupid. Apparently this guy. Also these dudes. Flying looks fantastic:

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The Times Magazine has a neat piece last week about how Target and other retailers use psychological analysis of habits to predict and affect people’s buying behavior. In extremely brief summary, your brain has certain habits that it generally follows — what to buy, what to eat, etc. But Target went out of its way to try to find moments when your habits change drastically — usually coinciding with major life decisions. Much has been made of the article’s description of Target’s semi-creepy sending of baby advertisements to pregnant mothers based on their buying patterns, but I find the habit-changing material more potentially useful in the long run:

But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.

I was thinking about this in the context of areas other than purchasing goods and services. I thought of this as I played the piano, where bad habits inculcate themselves with surprising ease. One plays something wrong once, and then continues on, creating the stimulus->response->reward feedback loop that develops all those bad habits.

In the realm of education, so many bad habits get ingrained — study habits, reading habits, after-school habits, etc. How can we change our behavior in a positive direction? How can we combat obesity, or get kids to study math? When shifts in kids’ lives happen, good habits can be lost and bad habits can develop. I think this is part of the success of the KIPP schools and their ilk; rather than just changing curriculum, they are trying to create and take advantage of those “unique moments” when people are vulnerable to changes in habits.

In many ways, we have tried to envision people as complicated actors, with deep-seated root causes for our behaviors, which is absolutely the case. But in making decisions about our daily lives, we may be simpler than we thought we were, and that may not be such a bad thing if we know how to use it ourselves.

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Because we have to keep up our lead in Useless Bullshit somehow.

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This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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Once your favorite team has been knocked out of contention (and this happens often to Cubs fans), sporting events continue to occur and sports fans continue to watch them. How do you choose which team to root for, particularly when you have no connection to either team?

So, I present to you my rooting hierarchy for NFL football, but be warned that it is still full of caveats and loopholes.

  1. My team (in this case, the Bears, still, although I accept that one can adopt a new home team after a three-year waiting period, shortened to two years if the team is cosmically bad).
  2. Teams with some regional connection or personal link (e.g. the Colts, as a result of my attendance of Indiana University).
  3. Teams that play interesting or creative football (e.g. the Saints or the 49ers)
  4. Big underdogs (e.g. the Rams)
  5. Teams that I basically don’t care about at all but respect for their general competence (e.g. the Falcons)
  6. Historical rival teams (e.g. the Packers)
  7. Teams with obnoxious fans (e.g. the Patriots, the Giants)
  8. Teams I dislike on principle (e.g. the Jets)
  9. Teams I hate profoundly for a specific usually time-sensitive reason (e.g. Tebowmania and/or the Steelers for Ben Roethlisberger)

Although this generally holds true, multiple attributes apply to identical teams. In that case, the lower rung wins out; i.e. the Broncos were big underdogs (#4), but unfortunately they had Tebowmania, which means that #9 applied and I actually rooted for the Patriots yesterday. Similarly, although the Giants would normally be in the competent teams category (#5), the obnoxiousness of their fans that I have observed in Connecticut puts them into category #7, meaning I have to root for the Packers (a strange outcome).

In some other sports, there’s a category between #2 and #3 for players I really like, but in football, there are just too many players.

So, in case you were wondering, that meant my rooting for the divisional series was Pats over Broncos, Saints over 49ers (but just… for being more creative), Packers over Giants, and Texans over Ravens.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great reply to Andrew Sullivan’s rather tone-deaf regurgitation of an unsourced story on a “p.c. egalitarianism” stranglehold on so-called “intelligence research.” He writes a takedown as it should be written — with respect for the author and no tolerance for bullshit.

The problem with Sullivan’s suggestion that researchers continue pursuing race-based intelligence is that it ignores what it is that “intelligence research” is supposed to find in the first place. Context matters, and the search for the elusive g — a measure of “general intelligence” — has largely led to skewed results in favor of the dominant ruling class of well-educated white males.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a common IQ test type logic puzzle that has a clear “right” answer (the Wason selection test, for those interested).

You are told to check if the following statement is false: “If a card has a vowel on one side, the number on the other side will be even.”

You are then given the following cards: A, G, 7, 4.

Which cards do you have to flip over to check if the statement is false?

The answer is to flip over card A (obvious) and card 7 (not as obvious). It doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of G, and if card 4 had a vowel or consonant on the other side, the statement could still be true.

But let’s frame the question a different way:

You are told to check if the following rule is false: “If a person is drinking alcohol, they are over 21.” You either know the beverage they are drinking or their age.

The four people you see are: age 16, age 22, drinking a beer, and drinking a Coke.

Who do you need to check?

Most people get this one correct. (See the paper here.) Why? Because we have experienced events like these and adapted our brains to understand them. I would bet that the 10 percent of people who get the vowel/number version correct have taken formal logic courses or have wrestled with such logic puzzles before.

When I was teaching, one of the standardized tests that the book included had an extended reading sample about a family’s experiences with skiing and snow. For my students, many of whom had never left the city of Chicago, such a reading sample was totally foreign. The test wasn’t testing their reading comprehension; it was, in many ways, simply testing their familiarity with skiing and its terms.

The search for g is a search for something that doesn’t exist — no intelligence is “general”; it shifts with the context of the activity and the world we live in. I’m not a big believer in the woo-woo Gardner multiple intelligences, but I think we should be honest when we discuss intelligence. We were not born with intelligence; our culture created it. Performance on cognitive tests is as artificial as anything else we can cook up.

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