In the 1960s, a Caltech geochemist named Clair Patterson made the case that there had been worldwide contamination of living things by lead, due to the lead in gasoline. There were great increases in the amount of lead in fish and human skeletons, for example. More than anyone else he was responsible for the elimination of lead in gasoline. (By coincidence, this was just shown on the new Cosmos TV series.) A professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh named Herbert Needleman did some of the most important toxicology, linking lead exposure (presumably from paint) and IQ in children. Children with more lead in their teeth had lower IQ scores. The importance of this finding is shown by the fact he was accused of scientific misconduct. (more…)
Archive for the 'insider/outsider' Category
There were many funny things about Leah Goodman’s claim in Newsweek that a California engineer invented bitcoin. One was her observation that he put two spaces after a period — just like the inventor of bitcoin. Another was her observation that his relatives said he was “brilliant”, without giving any examples. His brilliance had remained perfectly hidden — until now. A third was her conclusion that he was obsessed with secrecy and distrusted government — just like the inventor of bitcoin (according to her). Felix Salmon was quite wrong when he said there are some very strange coincidences and the pieces of her argument “fit elegantly together”. Actually, her argument is worthless from top to bottom. Salmon was right, however, when he said that the engineer’s English shows he couldn’t possibly have invented bitcoin. As Salmon says, Goodman ignored this itty-bitty problem.
Who is the inventor of bitcoin? I’m sure it’s Nick Szabo, a former law professor at George Washington University. This idea first surfaced a few months ago in an anonymous blog post based on textual analysis. Szabo used certain phrases in the original bitcoin description far more than a bunch of other possible candidates. That is real evidence. The hypothesis that Szabo is the inventor passes several other tests as well: (more…)
I was curious how Tisano Tea began (yesterday’s post) because it was an unusual product (chocolate tea). There wasn’t any point I was trying to make. At a party last night, however, I found myself talking to the daughter of a diplomat (Tisano Tea was started by the son of a diplomat). I told her the story of Tisano Tea. And I couldn’t help pointing out two generalizations it supports:
1. I’ve blogged many times about the value of insider/outsiders — people who have the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders. Patrick Pineda, the founder of Tisano Tea, was not an insider/outsider but he connected two worlds — the United States and Venezuela (in particular poor Venezuelan farmers) — that are rarely connected.
2. When people from rich countries try to help people in poor countries, the usual approach is to bring something from the rich country to the poor country. Nutritional knowledge, medicine, dams, and so on. One Laptop Per Child is an extreme example. Microcredit is a deceptively attractive example. In recent years, the flaws in this approach have become more apparent and there has been a shift toward local solutions to problems (e.g., the best ideas to help Uganda will come from Ugandans and those who have lived there a long time). Tisano Tea illustrates something that people in rich countries have had an even harder time imagining: people in a poor country (Venezuela) knew something that improved life in a rich country (the United States) — namely, that you can make tea from cacao husks. A small thing, but not trivial (maybe chocolate tea supplies important nutrients). An American desire for Venezuelan cacao husks improves life in Venezuela. Ethnic food trucks are a more subtle example. When immigrants from poor countries manage to make a living in a rich country — using knowledge of their own cuisine is a good way to do this — they often send money home. As far as I know, this possibility has been ignored in development studies.
My research, which shows how a non-expert can do research that teaches something to experts, is related to the second generalization. For example, my research on faces and mood has something to teach experts on depression and bipolar disorder. Although the term “home remedy” is standard, and lots of non-experts have improved their health in ways not approved by doctors, I have never heard a health expert show a realization that this could happen.
One hundred years ago (January, 1912), at the annual meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt, Germany, Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist, presented his theory of continental drift for the first time. It was almost uniformly dismissed by geologists. One of them called it “mere geopoetry”. Much later, he was proved right.
To me, this is a classic example of the power of what I call insider/outsiders. Wegener had a great deal of scientific training, including a Ph.D. in astronomy. Unlike professional geologists, however, (a) he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted about geology without endangering his job (as a meteorologist) or prospects for advancement and (b) was under no pressure to publish. He could spend as much time on his theory as he wanted.
Darwin was an insider/outsider; so was Mendel. Insider/outsiders are close enough to their subject to have a good understanding and skills yet far enough away to have freedom. In the case of Chinese history, a journalist named Yang Jisheng has filled that role. He wrote a book called Tombstone (Mubei) about the Great Famine (1958-61). He was able to write what professional historians could not:
Why are you the first Chinese historian to tackle this subject seriously?
Traditional historians [i.e., college professors] face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions.
But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled “Rightists” or “counter-revolutionaries.” There is an author in Anhui province who has described how his family starved to death. There are many authors who have written about how their families starved.
“If they publish, they will face censure.” With respect to weight control, I am an insider/outsider. When I published The Shangri-La Diet, I did not expect censure. My colleagues (other psychology department faculty) wouldn’t care what I wrote about a different subject. To my surprise, I was censured — maybe a better word is denounced — by a nutrition education lecturer in the UC Berkeley Nutrition Department. The woman who denounced me had not seen my book. Based on what a reporter told her, she expressed her opinion of it in an email she sent to twenty people in her department and the chairman of my department. It said, in part:
I did give the SF Chronicle reporter my opinion of the diet making these points:
– one cannot possibly meet nutrient needs on 1200 kcals per day
– sugar and oils are not nutrient dense; they are calorically dense and thus dilute the nutrient density of the total kcal intake.
– 1200 kcals per day is less than the semi-starvation diet used in the only published formal study ever conducted in this country on human starvation (Ancel Keys, 1950)
– human semi-starvation is not a path to health whether one is discussing physical, psychological, or social well-being
– the results of single subject research are applicable only to that subject; they cannot be generalized to others.
– I cannot recommend this diet, in fact, I recommend against it.
In other words: Ridiculous. Her many misconceptions (e.g., she is unaware of many examples of path-breaking self-experimentation in the field of nutrition) aren’t terribly interesting. What’s fascinating is her decision to trash a book she hasn’t read to a large number of her colleagues.
Thanks to Steve Hansen.
Lots of scientists say science is self-correcting. In a way this is surely true: a non-scientist wouldn’t understand the issues. If anyone corrects scientific fraud, it will be a scientist. In another way, this is preventive stupidity: it reassures and reduces the intelligence of those who say it, helping them ignore the fact that they have no idea how much fraud goes undetected. If only 1% of fraud is corrected, it is misleading to say science is self-correcting. A realistic view of scientific self-correction is that there is no reward for discovering fraud and plenty of grief involved: the possibility of retaliation, the loss of time (it won’t help you get another grant), and the dislike of bearing bad news. So whenever fraud is uncovered it’s a bit surprising and bears examination.
What I notice is that science is often corrected by insider/outsiders — people with enough (insider) knowledge and (outsider) freedom to correct things.Â As I’ve said before, Saul Sternberg and I were free to severely criticize Ranjit Chandra. Because we were psychologists and he was a nutritionist, he couldn’t retaliate against us. Leon Kamin, an outsider to personality psychology, was free to point out that Cyril Burt faked data. (To his credit, Arthur Jensen, an insider, also pointed in this direction, although not as clearly.) The Marc Hauser case provides another example: Undergraduates in Hauser’s lab uncovered the deception. They knew a lot about the research yet had nothing invested in it and little to lose from loss of Hauser’s support. This is another reason insider/outsiders are important.
One theme of this blog (I hope) is that it’s insider/outsiders — people with the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders — who can produce real progress. Ordinary insiders have the necessary knowledge but not the necessary freedom; ordinary outsiders have the freedom but not the knowledge. This article of mine makes this point in detail.
A similar point was made in a comment on a blog post by George Packer, the New Yorker writer. Packer had written an article about the U.S. Senate and his post was about how he’d written it. Someone commented:
I think Packer covered Washington with the refreshing take of a short-timer, one who didn’t have to make his living or sustain his career there. The disservice inherent in careerism connects with the Senate’s paralysis a la Tom Harkin’s quote about senators spending more than half their time fund-raising, one of the most troubling realities of the story. (Years ago, Bill Clinton said the House was ineffective because the members were “sleep deprived” from having to attend fundraisers every night. If a six-year term requires half-time fund-raising, imagine what a two-year term requires.)
I think the subtext is that journalistic long-timers, unlike short-timers like Packer, must spend a lot of time nurturing relationships, and this makes it harder to write unpleasant and unflattering truths.
Professional scientists spend a lot of time fund-raising, which in their case means applying for grants. A typical grant lasts three years. During those three years, because they need another grant when the current one runs out, they must publish several papers, recruit several grad students or post-docs (to do the heavy lifting), and avoid pissing off anyone in their field (because they might review your papers or grant proposals). Just as members of the House of Representatives never ever want to talk about how the constant need for money cripples them — it would make their job seem irrelevant and them appear impotent — neither do professional scientists.
The Big Short (sent to me by the publisher) is Michael Lewis’s best book, and that’s saying a lot. Moneyball was excellent. The Blind Side was excellent. All three are stories of underdog triumph but The Big Short is about a far more important subject, a far more complicated subject, and has a tremendously dark side. You know the saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Well, shame on Wall Street for creating the worst financial disaster ever. But then, as Nassim Taleb puts it, the school-bus driver who crashed a bus full of children were given a new bus. Those who created the disaster were put in charge of fixing it. As Steve Eisman, one of Lewis’s main characters, puts it, “I can understand why Goldman Sachs would want to be included in the conversation about what to do about Wall Street. What I can’t understand is why anyone would listen to them.” (Not just listen. They were allowed to dominate the conversation.) Showing that the foolishness of people at the top in American society has no clear limit.
I could hardly stop reading. Endless fascinating detail. Michael Burry, another main character, discovers he has Asperger’s after his son is turned down by several kindergartens and he tries to understand why. I’ve been talking and reading about data analysis my whole professional life, yet Lewis’s story about how means can be terribly misleading is the best I’ve heard. An average credit score of 600 can be due to two scores of 600 or to scores of 500 and 700, with vastly different consequences. (This escaped the averagers.) Sure, I knew about the conflict of interest of bond rating agencies, such as Moody’s, but Lewis describes it so well I loved reading about it again.
Long ago, I blogged about the importance of insider/outsiders — close enough to understand what’s going on yet far enough away to see the truth. Lewis’s heros, who saw that a tremendous crash was coming, are exactly that. Like Harry Markopolos, they were on the fringes of the financial industry. One of them (Eisman) had a gift for tactlessness, another (Burry) had Asperger’s, and a third group ran their fund from a Berkeley garage. Without them, the people at the top (e.g., the head of Goldman Sachs), who run and crashed our financial system, could plausibly say Nobody could have predicted this. Because of Lewis’s heros, they can’t.
A more serious problem arose when fellow Quaker Philip Ford, his business manager, embezzled from Penn. He capitalized on Penn’s habit of signing papers without reading them by including a deed transferring Pennsylvania to himself, and then demanded more rent than Penn could pay.
Why am I reading about William Penn? Because Penn was an insider/outsider. Born to wealthy parents and educated at Oxford, he became a marginal religious leader, at one point imprisoned for eight months for writing a “blasphemous” pamphlet. Just as self-experimentation empowered me, cheap travel across the Atlantic empowered Penn. He took his followers to what became Pennsylvania.
I believe that cheap new ways of doing things empower insider/outsiders. A modern example is Stephen McIntyre, empowered by blogs. (His blog is Climate Audit.) The classic example is Martin Luther, empowered by the printing press. In contrast, expensive new ways of doing things empower insiders (the already powerful) because only they can afford them. I suppose the classic example is agriculture. Agriculture is expensive because it requires land. Lots of things start off expensive and become cheap, but many do not. The classic example is agriculture (land never becomes cheap); the big modern example is health care. It is very expensive to develop a new drug or new medical technology. This is at the heart of why the health care industry is extracting more and more money from the rest of us, just as government officials in rural China regularly ripoff farmers. I am unsurprised that doctors resist cheap new improvements, the only way out of a terrible situation. In China, people in rural areas migrate to cities; that’s how they escape. In Croatia, some friends of mine lived downhill from neighbors who were in the Communist Party. My friends were not Communists. One day they woke up to find that the property line between them and their uphill neighbors had shifted downhill about 10 feet. Unlike William Penn and rural Chinese, my friends could not move — and thus the powerful became more powerful.
In the latest Vanity Fair is a brilliant piece of journalism, Goodbye to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House by Cullen Murphy and Todd Purdum. In a fun, easy-to-read format, it tells some basic truths I had never read before. Here are two examples:
Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: When Abu Ghraib happened, I was like, We’ve got to fire Rumsfeld. Like if we’re the “accountability president,” we haven’t really done this. We don’t veto any bills. We don’t fire anybody. I was like, Well, this is a disaster, and we’re going to hold some National Guard colonel responsible? This guy’s got to get fired.
For an M.B.A. president, he got the M.B.A. 101 stuff down, which is, you know, you don’t have to do everything. Let other people do it. But M.B.A. 201 is: Hold people accountable.
David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: There’s this idea that the Bush White House was dominated by religious conservatives and catered to the needs of religious conservatives. But what people miss is that religious conservatives and the Republican Party have always had a very uneasy relationship. The reality in the White House is if you look at the most senior staff you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders. Now, at the end of the day, that’s easy to understand, because most of the people who are religious-right leaders are not easy to like. It’s that old Gandhi thing, right? I might actually be a Christian myself, except for the action of Christians.
And so in the political-affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at everyone from Rich Cizik, who is one of the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, to James Dobson, to basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.
This is related to the Shangri-La Diet. In these two excerpts, the speakers were (a) close to the events they describe but (b) not so close they are in any danger from the people they tell the truth about.
In science the same thing happens. Saul Sternberg and I could tell the truth about Ranjit Chandra’s research not only because (a) we were fairly close to that research (which involved psychology, even though Chandra was a nutritionist) but also because (b) not being nutrition professors, Chandra couldn’t harm us. Those closer to Chandra, professional nutritionists, had plenty of doubts as far as I could tell but were afraid to say them. Hal Pashler and I could criticize a widely-accepted practice among cognitive modelers because (a) we were in the same general field, cognitive psychology, but (b) far enough away so that the people we criticized would never review our grants or our papers. (Except the critique itself, which they hated. After the first round of reviews, Hal and I requested new reviewers, saying it was inevitable that the people we criticized wouldn’t like what we said.) Likewise, in the case of voodoo correlations, Hal is (a) close enough to social neuroscience to understand the details of the research but (b) far enough away to criticize it without fear.
In the case of the Shangri-La Diet, I was (a) close enough to the field of nutrition that I could understand the research but (b) far enough away so that I could say what I thought without fear of reprisal. Nassim Taleb is in the same relation to the field he criticizes. Just as Saul Sternberg and I knew a lot about the outcome measure (psychological tests) but were not nutritionists, Weston Price, a dentist, knew a lot about his outcome measure (dental health) but was not a nutritionist.
It’s curious how rarely this need for insider/outsiders (inside in terms of knowledge, outside in terms of career) is pointed out. It’s a big part of how science progresses, in small ways and large. Mendel and Darwin were well-educated amateurs, for example. Thorstein Veblen wrote about it but I haven’t read it anywhere else.