I feel ya, Gureckis
June 10, 2011 13 Comments
I’m feeling a deep sense of camraderie right now with Todd Gureckis, a psychologist at NYU. That’s because a couple of weeks ago, senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report titled, “Under the Microscope,” scrutinizing the funding decisions of the National Science Foundation and complaining about what he felt was a waste of taxpayer money on many frivolous research projects — one of which was Gureckis’. “Armed with a $1 million grant from NSF,” Coburn wrote, “researchers at Indian (sic) University-Bloomington and New York University analyzed baby names to determine trends in parents’ naming decisions.”
The paper in question, co-authored with Rob Goldstone, is called, “How You Named Your Child: Understanding The Relationship Between Individual Decision Making and Collective Outcomes.” Gureckis was surprised at Coburn’s criticism, and responded on his website:
“The Coburn report makes it seem as though this research spent money to determine the frequency and popularity of names… Had those developing this report actually looked the research paper they were criticizing, they would know that we were not specifically interested in baby names except in so far as they offer a unique opportunity for studying such the impact of social influence on decision making. We all know that iPhones are popular but the underlying reasons for this cultural success is distorted by the role that advertising budgets and existing computer technologies play in determining which ideas win out and which die off in the consumer marketplace. In contrast, the popularity of names is more organically determined by processes of social influence (there is no company out there trying to convince you to name you child something in particular). Baby names thus represent an important and relatively “pure” empirical test of theories of cultural transmission and social influence in large groups.”
Now of course, I’m not an NSF-funded researcher being criticized for frivolity. But the reason I felt so much camraderie with Gureckis after reading about his situation was because this sort of thing happens to me all the time — I’ll bring up a particular case as a way of shedding light on a general principle, and the people I’m talking to focus on the particular case and ignore the general principle.
For example, I’ve tried a couple of times to start a discussion about the difficulties of measuring happiness, and I’ve begun by citing the fact that most parents claim to be very happy that they have children despite the fact that research shows parents are less happy, on average, than non-parents. So that points to this really interesting tension between two ways of measuring happiness (how satisfied are you when you consider your life overall, versus how happy do you feel on a moment-to-moment basis) that apparently can contradict each other, and raises the question of whether one is “wrong,” and if so, which?
At least, that’s the discussion I keep wanting to have. But I never get to, because the thread always turns into a debate about having children, with commenters testifying about how happy they are that they had kids and how the parenting-skeptics are missing out.