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Recent Articles
How Fantasies Affect Focus
Posted by: Jonathan 2:28pm, Sunday, 28 February 2010
Fantasizing about sex gets more than just your juices flowing—it also boosts your analytical thinking skills. Daydreaming about love, on the other hand, makes you more creative, according to a study published in the November 2009 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The researchers asked 30 subjects to imagine a long, loving walk with their partners and asked 30 others to think of casual sex with someone they did not love. Then they gave the subjects cognitive tests. As predicted, the love-primed ones per­formed much better on creative tasks and scored worse on analytical ques­tions, whereas the reverse was true of those who thought about sex.
Jonathan says: Not much detail, but interesting. I wonder if Princeton Review knows about this.
A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion
Posted by: Jonathan 2:25pm, Saturday, 28 November 2009
Given the high price of wine and the enormous number of choices, a system in which industry experts comb through the forest of wines, judge them, and offer consumers the meaningful shortcut of medals and ratings makes sense.

But what if the successive judgments of the same wine, by the same wine expert, vary so widely that the ratings and medals on which wines base their reputations are merely a powerful illusion? That is the conclusion reached in two recent papers in the Journal of Wine Economics.

Francesco Grande, a vintner whose family started making wine in 1827 Italy, told me of a friend at a well-known Paso Robles winery who had conducted his own test, sending the same wine to a wine competition under three different labels. Two of the identical samples were rejected, he said, "one with the comment 'undrinkable.' " The third bottle was awarded a double gold medal.
Jonathan says: Even if wine ratings were completely random, I wonder if they would still have the benefit of increasing enjoyment of high-rated wines more than they decreased the enjoyment of low-rated wines. (But I guess there would still be the ethical issue of the adverse economic impact on vintners with randomly low-rated wines.)
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
Posted by: Jonathan 8:56am, Friday, 4 September 2009
Gilbert took the files and sat down at a small table. As she examined the eyewitness accounts, she noticed several contradictions.
Jonathan says: A fascinating, devastating case study of injustice.
Annals of Human Rights: Hellhole
Posted by: Jonathan 7:04pm, Wednesday, 25 March 2009
The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?
A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.
Most Likely to Succeed
Posted by: Jonathan 11:00pm, Tuesday, 9 December 2008
How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?
Harrington was a golden boy out of the University of Oregon, and the third player taken in the draft. Shonka still can’t get over what happened to him.

“I tell you, I saw Joey live,” he said. “This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence.” Shonka got as misty as a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. “He’s a concert pianist, you know? I really—I mean, I really—liked Joey.” And yet Harrington’s career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

Recent Comments
Gladwell fan
Posted by: Jonathan 4:27pm, Monday, 23 November 2009
Thanks, AJ. I'm glad you didn't add, "however you wildly overstate your empirical case."

I agree with your criticism of Gladwell. Taking his book Blink as an example, I'm no more inclined to value instinct over analysis after reading it. (My instinctive and analytical reactions to his conclusions were both "Meh.")

But I do think he's an exceptionally engaging and clear storyteller who finds really interesting ideas and research to write about. I just flipped to a random page in Blink, and he's writing about the theory that the causal direction between mood and expression can go in reverse - that your facial expression can affect your mood. He describes a study that had people look at cartoons, either while holding a pen between their lips, which prevented them from smiling, or while holding a pen between their teeth, which forced them to smile. According to Gladwell, the smilers found the cartoons "much funnier." That kind of thing is fascinating to me, and like a lot of his stuff, it relates to a lot of interesting Big Questions (Does acting happy make you happy? How does our mind relate to our body?) - it just doesn't answer any of them definitively.

My take on Gladwell's rebuttal
Posted by: Jonathan 2:24pm, Saturday, 21 November 2009
I also really liked the review. I'm definitely a Gladwell fan, but I thought the criticism, not just the praise, was right on. I was disappointed by Gladwell's rebuttal on the issue of predicting pro quarterback performance, enough to comment on it.

What Gladwell wrote in his original article was that researchers Berri and Simmons "found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros."

What Pinker wrote in his review was "It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros."

What Gladwell writes in his rebuttal is "[David Berri and Rob Simmons'] conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak."

First, if we believe Gladwell now (the connection "was weak"), then what he originally wrote was false (there was "no connection").

Second, if we believe Gladwell now, what Pinker wrote was true (it is not true rank and success are uncorrelated).

Third, Gladwell's implication that what he writes in the rebuttal is what he wrote in the original article is false.

Then in the next sentence of the rebuttal Gladwell adds that Berri and Simmons found that quarterbacks drafted in positions 11 through 90 actually slightly outplay those in the top 10. He then writes, "I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”"

To add to the three above, fourth, Gladwell's implication that the analysis about players ranked 11 to 90 was in the article for Pinker to find fascinating is false (it's not in the article).

Fifth, Gladwell's claim that "this argument" is what Pinker wrote was "simply not true" is false. (Pinker wrote, "It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros," which now even Gladwell agrees with.)

So, to sum up, what Gladwell originally wrote was false, what claims he wrote is false, and his claim about what Pinker wrote is false. Meanwhile what Pinker wrote is true, as confirmed by Gladwell himself.

What's funny is that all of this seems to support Pinker's more significant overall take, which is that Gladwell's biggest flaw is that "he wildly overstates his empirical case."

Vast right-wing conspiracy?
Posted by: Jonathan 6:22pm, Thursday, 31 January 2008
One idea that occurred to me, although this is probably way off base, is that the ruling was a PR/political move to drum up support for reducing government regulation of human subjects research. There are presumably business and political interests that would like to see human subjects requirements loosened, which would be consistent with the pro-business, anti-regulation stance of the current administration. Maybe they're hoping for a change in the law. If PR was their motivation, it seems to have worked. Gawande's op-ed in the NYT includes the following passages:
"the Office for Human Research Protections. Its aim is to protect people. But lately you have to wonder. Consider this recent case...Over 18 months, the [checklist] program saved more than 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million. Yet this past month, the Office for Human Research Protections shut the program down...The government’s decision was bizarre and dangerous...There need to be as few barriers to such efforts [as the checklist program] as possible...Now that the [quality improvement] work is becoming more systematic (and effective), the authorities have stepped in. And they’re in danger of putting ethics bureaucracy in the way of actual ethical medical care. The agency should allow this research to continue unencumbered. If it won’t, then Congress will have to."
But worth a shot
Posted by: Jonathan 12:43am, Sunday, 6 January 2008
"Dumbest" arguments, but not dumb to make them, just dumb to believe them.
Posted by: Jonathan 12:20am, Sunday, 6 January 2008
In an op-ed in the NYT, Gawande writes that the federal Office for Human Research Protections has shut the checklist program down. Apparently they found that implementing the checklist and analyzing the results was non-exempt human subjects research, which has requirements Johns Hopkins didn't follow (like getting informed consent from the patients).