Everyday science

David Brooks highlights a discussion "on what scientific concepts everyone’s cognitive toolbox should hold" on Edge.org. Brooks' first highlight is this:

Clay Shirkey nominates the Pareto Principle. We have the idea in our heads that most distributions fall along a bell curve (most people are in the middle). But this is not how the world is organized in sphere after sphere. The top 1 percent of the population control 35 percent of the wealth. The top two percent of Twitter users send 60 percent of the messages. The top 20 percent of workers in any company will produce a disproportionate share of the value. Shirkey points out that these distributions are regarded as anomalies. They are not.

The full Edge.org symposium is here. I'm not sure these individual insights are science or even scientific concepts, as much as "insights on thinking that some scientists have found useful" -- but still interesting. Here's Richard Dawkins on the Double-Blind Control Experiment (emphasis added):

....Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in Hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans and believe that the President of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be President? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?

Let's not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That's probably part of the story, but let's be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically, and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice and anecdote, in favour of evidence. I believe that the double-blind control experiment does double duty. It is more than just an excellent research tool. It also has educational, didactic value in teaching people how to think critically. My thesis is that you needn't actually do double-blind control experiments in order to experience an improvement in your cognitive toolkit. You only need to understand the principle, grasp why it is necessary, and revel in its elegance.

If all schools taught their pupils how to do a double-blind control experiment, our cognitive toolkits would be improved in the following ways:

1. We would learn not to generalise from anecdotes.

2. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone. 3. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority, and respect for personal opinion....

Unanticipated Revolutions

From the Wikipedia page on Timur Kuran:

The fall of East European communism in 1989 came as a massive surprise. Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 stunned the CIA, the KGB, the Shah of Iran that it toppled, and even the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom it catapulted to power. The Russian Revolution of 1917 stunned Lenin, the deposed Romanovs, and foreign diplomats stationed in St. Petersburg. No one foresaw the French Revolution of 1789, not even the rioters who brought it about. In each of these cases, a massive shift in political power occurred when long-submerged sentiments burst to the surface, with public opposition to the incumbent regime feeding on itself. Preference falsification explains why the incumbent regime appeared stable almost until the eve of its collapse. People ready to oppose it publicly kept their opposition private until a coincidence of factors gave them the motivation and the courage to bring their discontents out in the open. In switching sides, they encouraged other hidden opponents to join the opposition themselves. Through the resulting bandwagon process, fear changed sides. No longer did opponents of the old regime feel that they would be punished for being sincere; genuine supporters of the old regime started falsifying their preferences, pretending that the turn of events met their approval.

Timur Kuran first identified this mechanism in a April 1989 article entitled “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolutions,” which offered the cases of 1789, 1917, and 1978-79 as examples of revolutions that stunned the world. A few months later, the pattern was repeated in Eastern Europe. Kuran proceeded to explain why seasoned experts of the communist bloc were caught off guard in “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” published in 1991. These two papers, like related chapters of Private Truths, Public Lies, suggest that political revolutions and shifts in political opinion in general will catch the world by surprise again and again, because of people’s readiness to conceal their political proclivities under perceived social pressures.[5]

Asked in an interview whether he thinks that revolutions or counter-revolutions are imminent in the Islamic Middle East, he responded that although most Middle Eastern regimes are unstable due to lack of genuine legitimacy, the required shifts in Middle Eastern public opinion are unpredictable. If Middle Eastern regimes do collapse like a house of cards, he adds, most observers will be stunned, though there will be no shortage of commentators who will say “I told you so.” [6]

h/t @tylercowen

Blog update - Resources section

I just updated the Resources page here on my blog with a bunch of links to useful things around the interwebs: career advice, global health job listings, international development job listings, and miscellaneous links. Please let me know in the comments if you think of other resources I might include!


If you're a fan of reading long articles online (such as from Long Form) or just read a lot of different things on your web browser, I recommend checking out the excellent Readability plugin. Here's how Readability in Google Chrome renders this Atlantic article on parallels between mutations in genetic code and mutations in the text of hand-copied ancient manuscripts. The default version of the article:

Readability version of the article, with ads and other distractions removed, larger font, and more pleasing background color:

You can customize your settings, including font, font size, background color, and width of the text body. Check it out.

Information flow audit

Over the last year I've become increasingly interested in intentionally shaping my information intake. We have access to much more material than we can ever process, from breaking news, blogs, books and magazines. That's been true since the advent of the printing press, but the internet has accelerated that process exponentially.  Just randomly clicking on whatever catches my eye isn't enough; I want a process that helps me prioritize so that I have both a solid grounding in what's going on in the world -- news, politics, science, international development -- but still gives me time to get more in-depth. It's a constant struggle where intellectual curiosity is both your friend and your enemy. This post is my first attempt to audit my personal information flow. For the most part, I'm excluding things my friends recommend (by email or through Facebook), which typically go to the top of my reading queue. And I don't yet have a very systematic process for selecting which books to read. I do keep a list of books I want to read in a Google doc. When someone recommends a book, I add it to this list, and then when I want to buy or borrow a book, I'll usually scan the list to ensure I'm not forgetting something that I want to read more. Also, since I'm a grad student, readings for school - classes, seminars, and a work-study project - are taking an increasing amount of my brainspace, but I don't have much control over that.

That excludes a good deal of reading, but still leaves a lot in, mostly websites and blogs. My RSS reader of choice is Google Reader, and I use it a lot. Some stats for the last 30 days:

That's a lot of reading! Of course, not everything "read" was covered very thoroughly -- it's more likely an indication that I either read it, or saw enough of it to deem in uninteresting and worth of being marked read. Reader also informs me that since June 19, 2007, when I started using Reader, I've read a total of 61,602 items.

Over time I've tried to get more organized and disciplined, so that now I prioritize items as follows:

1. Highest priority: friends' shared items. Google Reader tells me I currently follow 80 people, which means any items they choose to "share" in Reader will show up in my feed. However, only about a third of those people post regularly (more than monthly?) and I think on average I have about 10-15 items shared by friends in any given day. Maybe a third of these items are from feeds that I'm already subscribed too. The others give me a healthy - though small - dose of freshness (because I wouldn't normally find those items), especially in terms of pop culture.

2. Next priority: aggregators. This has been the most important and difficult category to refine. I'm trying to locate RSS feeds that give an extremely broad overview of news and commentary, but keeping the total number of items to be read reasonable. In other words, if I read the aggregators category and nothing else, I feel satisfied that I'm getting a good overview of everything that's going on. Right now this includes Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, NYTime's home page feed, Long Form, and Jason Kottke. Sullivan writes original content and has an army of blogger underlings who help him highlight other memes; they also helpfully highlight and summarize debates raging within the blogosphere. I used to have the NYTimes, Washington Post, BBC, and Al Jazeera, but I found that a) it was impossible to cover all of that material on a regular basis, b) there was substantial, non-helpful overlap, and c) if something is really important, it will likely be mentioned by Sullivan or Kottke (or other blogs listed below). Long Form aggregates great long-form journalism, a genre I really enjoy; for more on how it got started, the Observer has a feature. And finally, Kottke is a true aggregator, writing little original material but linking to what he describes as "the liberal arts 2.0."

As you can see, I spend the bulk of my Reader time on the aggregators, reading 952 + 738 + 98 + 89 = 1877 articles from those four feeds, out of a total of 3659 articles (51.3% of my online reading).

3. Lower priority: specifics. I have a number of folders for more specific interests, listed in bold below. With few exceptions, these folders have one or two feeds that are popular and frequently updated and a long tail of rarely updated, more obscure items. I won't list the contents of each folder here, but if you're interested just ask. My Rocketry folder illustrates one of the wonders of RSS feeds is that you can keep track of websites and blogs that may only update weekly, or monthly, or annually, without worrying about looking up all of their URL's. This lets me keep up with general rocketry news through Rocketry Planet as well as the very high quality but infrequently-updated rocket blog by Greg Smith. Friends and Trumans contains personal and travel blogs by and about friends of mine or Truman Scholars. Hopkins and Public Health includes public health blogs (there are surprisingly few that I find very compelling, especially compared to fields like international development or politics) and job listings. Some good ones include Aetiology and Karen Grepin.  Other categories include: Grad Students and Research, Baltimore (I had a DC folder when I lived there, but follow DC local news mostly through my friends' shared items now), Gender (including the always-great Sociological Images), Humor, Science, Politics, Uncategorizable, Arkansas and Harding (my alma mater), Atheism and Religion, Bloggers, Development, International Relations, and Tech. I can and probably should re-categorize the blogs from scratch, as many of those categories used to have more items but have been cut down recently.

Pros and Cons

My current "information flow" has several pros: I get a wide swath of internet news and writing, even if I just read my top few items. I've gotten the aggregators down to a level where I can read all of them 90% of the time, which feels about right. I also rarely see something in the news, or hear about a debate or trend in a magazine, that slipped through this primary filter.

On the downside, the longer tail of information is more difficult to handle. Even after months of working to eliminate it, there's a lot of overlap -- especially in certain categories like international development, where a few bloggers link to and post about the same things -- that I think I can eliminate.

And then there's confirmation bias. I follow one or two conservative friends on Reader, and find their shared items (especially a friend named Adam's) to be a breath of fresh air, even though I often disagree. How to go about finding more high-quality material to challenge myself with is an ongoing problem -- suggestions welcome.

I'd love to hear about how you organize and prioritize your online (or offline) reading. What solutions have you come up with? What did you try that didn't work? I'm sure there are other as obsessed with this as I am.