I feel ya, Gureckis

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.

13 Responses to I feel ya, Gureckis

  1. Frank Bellamy says:

    I assume there has never been a study where people were randomly assigned to be either parents or non-parents. Isn’t it possible then that the happiness level of nonparents is different from what the happiness level of parents would be if they had never had children? That the people who are parents would in fact have been even less happy than they are if they had not chosen to have children, even though the people who did not choose to have children are even happier still?

    • Graham says:

      I’m not trying to be a dick, but given what this post is about, this reply made me literally LOL.

      • Julia Galef says:

        🙂 Yeah… I kind of had a feeling, after posting this, that things might get meta.

      • Graham says:

        Ha, it did occur to me after posting this, that the reply might be some kind of meta-troll.

        Do you know what the meta-troll is, Neo? It is all around you…

  2. Max says:

    It’s even worse if you point out that various types of denialism have similar characteristics. The Global Warming deniers and AIDS deniers assume you’re calling them Nazis.

    Celia Farber has objected to the term “AIDS denialists” arguing that it is unjustifiable to place this belief on the same moral level with the Nazi crimes against humanity. However, Robert Gallo et al. defended this comparison, stating that AIDS denialism is similar to Holocaust denial as it is a form of pseudoscience that “contradicts an immense body of research”.

  3. Andrew T says:

    Me, too, Graham, me too 🙂

    In my occasional short-lived attempts at blogging, I realized that the best way to get people to focus on my main point was to front-load the examples and then drawing conclusions, rather than pitching an argument and then adding support to it. Might be less convincing, but at least it keeps readers focused on the big picture. As you point out, that’s much harder to apply to conversation successfully. The best I can offer is yelling “BUT ANYWAY, regardless of that case, the POINT is…” if someone pulls you off track – not very eloquent, unfortunately.

    In Gureckis’ case, the problem wasn’t “what was the last thing Coburn read” but probably that he only focused on the title. So the trick seems to be guessing where your readers will focus (or retain/understand the most info) and stripping out everything but your conclusions in that section. Too bad science readers and politicians read things so differently (and that Coburn, a medical doctor, chose to read with the latter perspective).

    • Julia Galef says:

      Yeah, that’s good advice. The problem just seems to be that a lot of people think (consciously or not) that I’m discussing the general principle in the service of the case at hand. That is, they assume the reason that I’m bothering to talk about the different ways of measuring happiness is because I want to know whether having kids is a good idea. When really it’s more like the other way around.

  4. Max says:

    Researchers risk this kind of misunderstanding when they try to spice up their research for the media.
    Like the computer scientists teaching a computer to make “That’s what she said” jokes, when they really “frame the problem of TWSS recognition as a type of metaphor identification.”
    Or the mathematicians who modeled a zombie outbreak, or the CDC telling us how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.

    But you can’t anticipate all stupidity, like when Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) blasted an NSF-funded study of “ATMs”, assuming it was about automatic teller machines, when it was really about Asynchronous Transfer Mode, a telecom switching technique.

  5. Of course, Coburn did not read anything but the notes prepared for him by the staff concerned with campaigning for the next election, when the anti-intellectual vote is important for such candidates.

  6. Julia Galef says:

    @Bora — Yeah, I know. It’s just a charade we all maintain, saying “The report [politician] wrote…” when of course we know that he himself didn’t write it.

  7. But back to the topic, I have also encountered many examples where commenters home in on the specific, on an example, while I want to discuss generalities.

    Sometimes they spend many comments debating a single sentence or phrase that is totally irrelevant to my argument. The fact that my posts tend to be long, so many commenters only discuss what they think the post is about, as gleaned from the title and perhaps the first couple of sentences, does not make it any easier….

    Perhaps some people just do not want to discuss, or are perhaps incapable of discussing the Big Picture, when a detail is where they are more comfortable (i.e., they have something to say).

  8. Judith says:

    I find this happening very often in conversation as well. Very frustrating. When once in a while I have a discussion with someone that understands what I’m trying to do, it is just *such* a relief.

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