Judging books by their covers

On “Corruption in textbook-adoption proceedings: ‘Judging Books by Their Covers‘”:

In 1964 the eminent physicist Richard Feynman served on the State of California’s Curriculum Commission and saw how the Commission chose math textbooks for use in California’s public schools. In his acerbic memoir of that experience, titled “Judging Books by Their Covers,” Feynman analyzed the Commission’s idiotic method of evaluating books, and he described some of the tactics employed by schoolbook salesmen who wanted the Commission to adopt their shoddy products. “Judging Books by Their Covers” appeared as a chapter in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” — Feynman’s autobiographical book that was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company.

The perils of averaging (or poorly selected crowd-sourcing), biased presentations, and careless writing and reviewing.

Teaching stereotypes

On “When Teachers Highlight Gender, Kids Pick Up Stereotypes“:

When preschool teachers call attention to gender in any way, kids pick up on it. When boys and girls line up separately and when teachers say things like, “Good morning boys and girls”, children express more stereotypes about gender and even discriminate when deciding whom to play with.

Needless categorization fosters needless categorization.

Distinguishing science from pseudoscience

Here’s another excellent reminder of the importance of responding to others’ different beliefs gently, in “The 10 Commandments of Helping Students Distinguish Science from Pseudoscience in Psychology“:

Gently challenge students’ beliefs with sympathy and compassion. Students who are emotionally committed to paranormal beliefs will find these beliefs difficult to question, let alone relinquish. Ridiculing these beliefs can produce reactance and reinforce students’ stereotypes of science teachers as closed-minded and dismissive.

Summary of commandments:

  1. Delineate the features that distinguish science from pseudoscience.
  2. Distinguish skepticism from cynicism.
  3. Distinguish methodological skepticism from philosophical skepticism.
  4. Distinguish pseudoscientific claims from claims that are merely false.
  5. Distinguish science from scientists.
  6. Explain the cognitive underpinnings of pseudoscientific beliefs.
  7. Remember that pseudoscientific beliefs serve important motivational functions.
  8. Expose students to examples of good science as well as to examples of pseudoscience.
  9. Be consistent in one’s intellectual standards.
  10. Distinguish pseudoscientific claims from purely metaphysical religious claims.

I think the implications of these guidelines extend well beyond psychology into the nature of science more generally, and into methods for helping the broader public evaluate the connection between belief and evidence more critically. Guidelines #6 and #7 are especially valuable for describing how to do this respectfully and kindly.

Acknowledging and learning from differences

On “New Directions in Diversity — Toward Social Justice for All“:

Fresh takes on the divisiveness of race and other differences include abandoning color-blindness and admitting that ethnic mixing isn’t the end in itself.

The goal isn’t to ignore or minimize differences, but to acknowledge and learn from them. (As expressed in a rather unusual analogy: “As sulfur indicates the health of a marshland, so conflict signifies the health of a society.”)

Classic issues: defining people as “norm” vs. “other”, framing differences as deficits rather than collective strengths, focusing on race and excluding other dimensions, equating all diversity concerns with power struggles, polarizing race as two colors instead of many, addressing diversity as a poster or event rather than exploring its ongoing influence.

New(er) findings: that children may be more equipped to explore diversity in 1st than in 3rd grade, that 3-yr-olds already ascribe positive traits to similar-looking people and negative traits to others.

More, more numbers!

On “Parents Should Talk About Math Early and Often With Their Children — Even Before Preschool“:

The amount of time parents spend talking about numbers matters more than was previously known. Children whose parents talked more about numbers were much more likely to understand the cardinal number principle (that the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set.

Susan C. Levine, Linda Whealton Suriyakham, Meredith L. Rowe, Janellen Huttenlocher, Elizabeth A. Gunderson. What counts in the development of young children’s number knowledge? Developmental Psychology, 2010; 46 (5): 1309 DOI: 10.1037/a0019671

Keep counting, parents!

When discussing risk backfires

On “More Talk, Less Agreement: Risk Discussion Can Hurt Consensus-Building on Science/Technology“:

When it comes to issues pertaining to science and technology, “talking it out” doesn’t seem to work. A new study shows that the more people discuss the risks and benefits of scientific endeavors, the more entrenched they become in their viewpoint, and the less likely they are to see the merits of opposing views.

Still more evidence on how people become more entrenched in their views upon actively considering contradictory information and perspectives. We really need to learn more about how emotion and identity influence these discussions, and develop better techniques for listening and communicating.


Andrew R. Binder, Dietram A. Scheufele, Dominique Brossard and Albert C. Gunther. Interpersonal Amplification of Risk? Citizen Discussions and Their Impact on Perceptions of Risks and Benefits of a Biological Research Facility”. Risk Analysis, 29 Oct 2010 DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01516.x

Improving medical (and educational) research

On “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science“:

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science.

The research funding and dissemination mechanisms need serious overhaul. I think the research enterprise also needs to institute more formal appreciation for methodologically sound replications, null results, and meta-analyses. If the goal of research is genuinely to improve the knowledge base, then its incentive structure should mirror that.

Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time.

On the education side, we also need to help the general populace become more critical in its acceptance of news stories without tipping them over to the other extreme of distrusting all research. More statistics education, please! We need a more skeptical audience to help stop the news media from overplaying stories about slight or random effects.