Mimicking an impact on Earth’s early atmosphere yields all 4 RNA bases

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Stanley Miller and Harold Urey performed an experiment that has become a staple of high school textbooks:

Miller and Urey are the people who sealed up a mixture of gases meant to model the Earth’s early atmosphere and jolted the gas with some sparks. What emerged was a complex mix of chemicals that included amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

It was a seminal experiment in that it gave researchers one of the first avenues to approach the origin of life experimentally, but its relevance to the actual origin of life has faded as the research it inspired began to refine our ideas. A French-Czech team of researchers decided to give it another look, using a source of energy that Miller and Urey hadn’t considered: the impact of a body arriving from space. The result? The production of all four of the bases found in RNA, a close chemical cousin to DNA and equally essential to life.

Tough, detail-oriented, and able to push themselves

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Jennifer Bricker was born without legs and immediately given up for adoption by her Romanian-American parents:

But with the support of her adoptive family, Jen, in spite of her physical challenges, grew to become a champion athlete herself. By age 12 she was excelling in power tumbling — an acrobatic sport that combines artistic gymnastics and trampoline. She failed to understand why people singled out her achievements over those of her teammates. In 1998, she placed fourth in the all-around event at the Junior Olympics, the first physically challenged tumbler to finish so high. Her gymnastics idol growing up? Dominique Moceanu.

Her gymnastics idol, Dominique Moceanu, was one of the “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta — and turned out to be her older sister.

Nancy L. Segal describes her work on identical twins and non-twin siblings:

I have studied separated twins for many years, first from 1982 to 1991 as an investigator with the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA). Today, I follow the progress of 16 young Chinese reared-apart twin pairs, as well as older twins separated due to unusual life events. I have seen striking examples of identical, reared-apart twins whose athletic talents coincided prior to any contact between them. Japanese-born twins Steve and Tom, raised by different families in the United States, both became competitive lifters and owners of bodybuilding gyms; Steve competed in the 1980 Olympics. Adriana and Tamara, born in Mexico and raised in New York, attended different Long Island colleges and found each other only after one was mistaken for the other. But both were already accomplished dancers and later performed together. Mark and Jerry, each six-foot-four, were both already volunteer firefighters when they met in their early thirties, each having developed the strength, stamina, and motivation to pursue the demanding role.

Studying twins, particularly separated-at-birth pairs, and separately reared non-twin siblings, is the best way to disentangle the genetic and environmental influences on individual similarities and differences. For example, such research could help determine if nature or nurture is the stronger factor in sports participation and achievement. But other physical actions and routines appear to have a genetic basis as well. Most reared-apart identical twins in the MISTRA group, for example, positioned their bodies the same way while standing for unposed photographs, which occurred less often among fraternal reared-apart pairs.

[...]

A 2005 twin study by Dutch researcher Janine Stubbe showed that genetic effects on sports participation increase after adolescence, as children gain the freedom to enter and create environments compatible with their genetic proclivities. Her subsequent 2006 study confirmed this finding, and numerous twin studies from around the world have found similar genetic effects on oxygen uptake, anaerobic capacity and power, cardiac mass, and other performance-related fitness characteristics.

Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is one of the few researchers to combine twins and adoptees in genetic studies of sports-related traits. His 1984 study of submaximal physical working capacity — an index of aerobic metabolism and oxygen transport that boosts muscular activity and endurance — found the greatest resemblance between identical twins, followed by fraternal twins, biological siblings, and adoptive siblings and showed strong genetic influence on these traits. These findings have serious implications for how we make the most of our physical abilities and overcome our limitations.

[...]

Dominique and Jen are both extroverted, driven, and competitive. They are also perfectionists and “performance hams” who love being in front of a crowd. Their voices sound the same, whether speaking or laughing, and they use their hands a lot in conversation. Jen recognizes traits in Dominique that she sees in herself, such as leadership and initiative. Both are tough, detail-oriented, and able to push themselves emotionally and physically, perhaps explaining their commitment to the long hours and personal sacrifices required for success in gymnastics.

According to Dominique, though, an important difference between them is that Jen has “super-high confidence, whereas we were beaten down by our father. I walked on eggshells.” Jen herself credits her competitive success and self-esteem to the support of her adoptive family and community — and now to the DNA she shares with her sisters as well.

[...]

My reared-apart twin research reveals that close relationships can develop quickly between such pairs. In 2003, I found that over 70 percent of reunited identical twins and nearly 50 percent of reunited fraternal twins recalled feeling closer than or as close as best friends upon first meeting. These figures jumped to about 80 percent and 65 percent, respectively, for the closeness they reported feeling when surveyed. Yet only about 20 percent of the twins felt the same way toward unrelated siblings they had always known. In 2011, I reported my findings that most parents of young separated twins observed an immediate rapport between the children when reunited. These findings suggest that perceptions of similarity (mostly behavioral) are the social glue that draws and keeps reunited twins and siblings together, underlining the universal importance of family.

Sam Harris interviews Charles Murray

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Sam Harris interviews Charles Murray and admits that he assumed there was something to the accusations against Murray, until he went through his own witch trials and read Murray’s work.

They weren’t cogitating, recollecting, differentiating

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Radiologists were asked to evaluate X-rays while inside an MRI machine that could track their brain activity:

(There’s a marvellous series of recursions here: to diagnose diagnosis, the imagers had to be imaged.) X-rays were flashed before them. Some contained a single pathological lesion that might be commonly encountered — perhaps a palm-shaped shadow of a pneumonia, or the dull, opaque wall of fluid that had accumulated behind the lining of the lung. Embedded in a second group of diagnostic images were line drawings of animals; within a third group, the outlines of letters of the alphabet. The radiologists were shown the three types of images in random order, and then asked to call out the name of the lesion, the animal, or the letter as quickly as possible while the MRI machine traced the activity of their brains. It took the radiologists an average of 1.33 seconds to come up with a diagnosis. In all three cases, the same areas of the brain lit up: a wide delta of neurons near the left ear, and a moth-shaped band above the posterior base of the skull.

“Our results support the hypothesis that a process similar to naming things in everyday life occurs when a physician promptly recognizes a characteristic and previously known lesion,” the researchers concluded. Identifying a lesion was a process similar to naming the animal. When you recognize a rhinoceros, you’re not considering and eliminating alternative candidates. Nor are you mentally fusing a unicorn, an armadillo, and a small elephant. You recognize a rhinoceros in its totality — as a pattern. The same was true for radiologists. They weren’t cogitating, recollecting, differentiating; they were seeing a commonplace object. For my preceptor, similarly, those wet rales were as recognizable as a familiar jingle.

In 1945, the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle gave an influential lecture about two kinds of knowledge. A child knows that a bicycle has two wheels, that its tires are filled with air, and that you ride the contraption by pushing its pedals forward in circles. Ryle termed this kind of knowledge — the factual, propositional kind — “knowing that.” But to learn to ride a bicycle involves another realm of learning. A child learns how to ride by falling off, by balancing herself on two wheels, by going over potholes. Ryle termed this kind of knowledge — implicit, experiential, skill-based — “knowing how.”

The two kinds of knowledge would seem to be interdependent: you might use factual knowledge to deepen your experiential knowledge, and vice versa. But Ryle warned against the temptation to think that “knowing how” could be reduced to “knowing that” — a playbook of rules couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike. Our rules, he asserted, make sense only because we know how to use them: “Rules, like birds, must live before they can be stuffed.” One afternoon, I watched my seven-year-old daughter negotiate a small hill on her bike. The first time she tried, she stalled at the steepest part of the slope and fell off. The next time, I saw her lean forward, imperceptibly at first, and then more visibly, and adjust her weight back on the seat as the slope decreased. But I hadn’t taught her rules to ride a bike up that hill. When her daughter learns to negotiate the same hill, I imagine, she won’t teach her the rules, either. We pass on a few precepts about the universe but leave the brain to figure out the rest.

Some time after Lignelli-Dipple’s session with the radiology trainees, I spoke to Steffen Haider, the young man who had picked up the early stroke on the CT scan. How had he found that culprit lesion? Was it “knowing that” or “knowing how”? He began by telling me about learned rules. He knew that strokes are often one-sided; that they result in the subtle “graying” of tissue; that the tissue often swells slightly, causing a loss of anatomical borders. “There are spots in the brain where the blood supply is particularly vulnerable,” he said. To identify the lesion, he’d have to search for these signs on one side which were not present on the other.

I reminded him that there were plenty of asymmetries in the image that he had ignored. This CT scan, like most, had other gray squiggles on the left that weren’t on the right — artifacts of movement, or chance, or underlying changes in the woman’s brain that preceded the stroke. How had he narrowed his focus to that one area? He paused as the thought pedalled forward and gathered speed in his mind. “I don’t know — it was partly subconscious,” he said, finally.

“That’s what happens — a clicking together — as you grow and learn as a radiologist,” Lignelli-Dipple told me. The question was whether a machine could “grow and learn” in the same manner.

Spoiler alert: yes.

Raising beef is good for the planet

Monday, April 24th, 2017

As a longtime vegetarian and environmental lawyer, Nicolette Hahn Niman once believed that cattle had an outsize ecological footprint:

But now, after more than a decade of living and working in the business — my husband, Bill, founded Niman Ranch but left the company in 2007, and we now have a grass-fed beef company — I’ve come to the opposite view. It isn’t just that the alarm over the environmental effects of beef are overstated. It’s that raising beef cattle, especially on grass, is an environmental gain for the planet.

Let’s start with climate change. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, all of U.S. agriculture accounts for just 8% of our greenhouse emissions, with by far the largest share owing to soil management — that is, crop farming. A Union of Concerned Scientists report concluded that about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gases can be linked to cattle and that good management would diminish it further. The primary concern is methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But methane from cattle, now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world, can be mitigated in several ways. Australian research shows that certain nutritional supplements can cut methane from cattle by half. Things as intuitive as good pasture management and as obscure as robust dung beetle populations have all been shown to reduce methane.

At the same time, cattle are key to the world’s most promising strategy to counter global warming: restoring carbon to the soil. One-tenth of all human-caused carbon emissions since 1850 have come from soil, according to ecologist Richard Houghton of the Woods Hole Research Center. This is due to tillage, which releases carbon and strips the earth of protective vegetation, and to farming practices that fail to return nutrients and organic matter to the earth. Plant-covered land that is never plowed is ideal for recapturing carbon through photosynthesis and for holding it in stable forms.

Most of the world’s beef cattle are raised on grass. Their pruning mouths stimulate vegetative growth as their trampling hoofs and digestive tracts foster seed germination and nutrient recycling. These beneficial disturbances, like those once caused by wild grazing herds, prevent the encroachment of woody shrubs and are necessary for the functioning of grassland ecosystems.

Research by the Soil Association in the U.K. shows that if cattle are raised primarily on grass and if good farming practices are followed, enough carbon could be sequestered to offset the methane emissions of all U.K. beef cattle and half its dairy herd. Similarly, in the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 2% of all greenhouse gases (slightly less than what’s attributed to cattle) could be eliminated by sequestering carbon in the soils of grazing operations.

Grass is also one of the best ways to generate and safeguard soil and to protect water. Grass blades shield soil from erosive wind and water, while its roots form a mat that holds soil and water in place. Soil experts have found that erosion rates from conventionally tilled agricultural fields average one to two orders of magnitude greater than erosion under native vegetation, such as what’s typically found on well-managed grazing lands.

Nor are cattle voracious consumers of water. Some environmental critics of cattle assert that 2,500 gallons of water are required for every pound of beef. But this figure (or the even higher ones often cited by advocates of veganism) are based on the most water-intensive situations. Research at the University of California, Davis, shows that producing a typical pound of U.S. beef takes about 441 gallons of water per pound — only slightly more water than for a pound of rice — and beef is far more nutritious.

Eating beef also stands accused of aggravating world hunger. This is ironic since a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock. Most of the world’s cattle live on land that cannot be used for crop cultivation, and in the U.S., 85% of the land grazed by cattle cannot be farmed, according to the U.S. Beef Board.

This isn’t the “PC police” talking

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Scientific American has published an embarrassingly unscientific piece by Eric Siegel on the real problem with Charles Murray and The Bell Curve:

Attempts to fully discredit his most famous book, 1994′s “The Bell Curve,” have failed for more than two decades now. This is because they repeatedly miss the strongest point of attack: an indisputable — albeit encoded — endorsement of prejudice.

So, the science is unassailable, but we should vehemently attack an encoded endorsement of prejudice that is based on that (apparently) unassailable science? “This isn’t the ‘PC police’ talking,” he asserts, but he completely ignores what Murray explicitly says about prejudging people:

Even when the differences are substantial, the variation between two groups will almost always be dwarfed by the variation within groups — meaning that the overlap between two groups will be great. In a free society where people are treated as individuals, “So what?” is to me the appropriate response to genetic group differences. The only political implication of group differences is that we must work hard to ensure that our society is in fact free and that people are in fact treated as individuals.

Take your shoes off at the door

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

It turns out that taking your shoes off when you come inside doesn’t just keep the carpets cleaner. It’s also healthier:

Among samples collected in homes, 26.4% of shoe soles tested positive for C. Diff, about three times the number found on the surfaces of bathrooms and kitchens.

And that’s just one bacterium. In an earlier investigation, Dr. Garey examined past studies to learn if “shoe soles are a vector for infectious pathogens.” The answer was a resounding yes.

Among the studies: Austrian researchers found at least 40% of shoes carried Listeria monocytogenes in 2015. And a 2014 German study found that over a quarter of boots used on farms carried E.coli.

“Essentially, when you wear your shoes in a house, you are bringing in everything you stepped in during the day,” says Jonathan Sexton, a laboratory manager at the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

Wiping your feet, however vigorously, on a welcome mat, provides only limited help, he says. “It will remove some of the dirt, but you have to think of the person who wiped their feet before. You might be picking stuff they left behind.”

Some homeowners may worry that guests in socks or bare feet might also represent a health risk. That’s possible, Dr. Sexton says, but the inside of a shoe has far less bacteria than the outside.

Both researchers agree that the risk is muted. “Shoes in the house are not something to freak out about,” Dr. Sexton says.

To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

To be a genius, think like a 94-year-old — more specifically, like Dr. John Goodenough:

In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.

Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.

We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age. But Dr. Goodenough’s story suggests that some people actually become more creative as they grow older. Unfortunately, those late-blooming geniuses have to contend with powerful biases against them.

[...]

On the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that late blooming is no anomaly. A 2016 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation study found that inventors peak in their late 40s and tend to be highly productive in the last half of their careers. Similarly, professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Hitotsubashi University in Japan, who studied data about patent holders, found that, in the United States, the average inventor sends in his or her application to the patent office at age 47, and that the highest-value patents often come from the oldest inventors — those over the age of 55.

[...]

Years ago, he decided to create a solid battery that would be safer. Of course, in a perfect world, the “solid-state” battery would also be low-cost and lightweight. Then, two years ago, he discovered the work of Maria Helena Braga, a Portuguese physicist who, with the help of a colleague, had created a kind of glass that can replace liquid electrolytes inside batteries.

Dr. Goodenough persuaded Dr. Braga to move to Austin and join his lab. “We did some experiments to make sure the glass was dry. Then we were off to the races,” he said.

Some of his colleagues were dubious that he could pull it off. But Dr. Goodenough was not dissuaded. “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.”

When I asked him about his late-life success, he said: “Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” This crawl through life can be advantageous, he pointed out, particularly if you meander around through different fields, picking up clues as you go along. Dr. Goodenough started in physics and hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also keeping his eye on the social and political trends that could drive a green economy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together,” he said.

He also credits his faith for keeping him focused on his mission to defeat pollution and ditch petroleum. On the wall of his lab, a tapestry of the Last Supper depicts the apostles in fervent conversation, like scientists at a conference arguing over a controversial theory. The tapestry reminds him of the divine power that fuels his mind. “I’m grateful for the doors that have been opened to me in different periods of my life,” he said. He believes the glass battery was just another example of the happy accidents that have come his way: “At just the right moment, when I was looking for something, it walked in the door.”

Last but not least, he credited old age with bringing him a new kind of intellectual freedom. At 94, he said, “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

Short- and Long-Term Memories

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

All memories start as a short-term memory and then slowly convert into a long-term memory — or so we thought:

Two parts of the brain are heavily involved in remembering our personal experiences.

The hippocampus is the place for short-term memories while the cortex is home to long-term memories.

This idea became famous after the case of Henry Molaison in the 1950s.

His hippocampus was damaged during epilepsy surgery and he was no longer able to make new memories, but his ones from before the operation were still there.

So the prevailing idea was that memories are formed in the hippocampus and then moved to the cortex where they are “banked”.

[...]

The results, published in the journal Science, showed that memories were formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and the cortex.

[...]

The mice do not seem to use the cortex’s long-term memory in the first few days after it is formed.

They forgot the shock event when scientists turned off the short-term memory in the hippocampus.

However, they could then make the mice remember by manually switching the long-term memory on (so it was definitely there).

“It is immature or silent for the first several days after formation,” Prof Tonegawa said.

The researchers also showed the long-term memory never matured if the connection between the hippocampus and the cortex was blocked.

So there is still a link between the two parts of the brain, with the balance of power shifting from the hippocampus to the cortex over time.

A Tale of Two Bell Curves

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Bo and Ben Winegard tell a tale of two Bell Curves:

To paraphrase Mark Twain, an infamous book is one that people castigate but do not read. Perhaps no modern work better fits this description than The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. Published in 1994, the book is a sprawling (872 pages) but surprisingly entertaining analysis of the increasing importance of cognitive ability in the United States.

[...]

There are two versions of The Bell Curve. The first is a disgusting and bigoted fraud. The second is a judicious but provocative look at intelligence and its increasing importance in the United States. The first is a fiction. And the second is the real Bell Curve. Because many, if not most, of the pundits who assailed The Bell Curve have not bothered to read it, the fictitious Bell Curve has thrived and continues to inspire furious denunciations. We have suggested that almost all of the proposals of The Bell Curve are plausible. Of course, it is possible that some are incorrect. But we will only know which ones if people responsibly engage the real Bell Curve instead of castigating a caricature.

Masters of reality, not big thinkers

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth attempts to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around?

He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow — that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans — masters of reality, not big thinkers.

Mokyr sees this as the purloined letter of history, the obvious point that people keep missing because it’s obvious. More genuinely revolutionary than either Voltaire or Rousseau, he suggests, are such overlooked Renaissance texts as Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun,” a sort of proto-Masonic hymn to people who know how to do things. It posits a Utopia whose inhabitants “considered the noblest man to be the one that has mastered the most skills… like those of the blacksmith and mason.” The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments — “stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.

As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts — more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. ted talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view ted talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines — that’s where the leap happens.

How to Gain New Skills

Friday, March 24th, 2017

In his How to Gain New Skills guide for students, Ulrich Boser (Learn Better) discusses an experiment that took place years ago at a Catholic all-girls school in New York City:

As part of the experiment, the girls were taught how to play darts for the first time, and the two psychologists conducting the study divided the young women into some groups. Let’s call members of the first group “Team Performance,” and they were told that they should learn the game of darts by trying to throw the darts as close to the center of the board as possible. In other words, the researchers informed the women that the best way to win was to rack up some points.

The psychologists also pulled together another group of young women. Let’s call them “Team Learning Method,” and they learned to play darts very differently. The researchers had these girls focus on the process of gaining expertise, and the women started by focusing on how exactly to throw the darts, mastering some basic processes like “keep your arm close to your body.” Then, after the women showed some proficiency, they were encouraged to aim at the bull’s eye, slowly shifting from some process goals to some outcome goals like hitting the target.

Finally, there was the control group. Their instructions? The researchers told them to learn to “do their best.” In other words, these young women could take any approach that they wanted to learning darts. Let’s think of this group as “Team Conventional Wisdom.”

To learn more about the experiment, I met up with Anastasia Kitsantas, who ran the study together with psychologist Barry Zimmerman. While the experiment took place some years ago, Kitsantas still has the darts stashed away in her office at George Mason University, and on a rainy afternoon, she pulled out the little yellow missiles from an office cabinet to show them to me, laying the darts out like an important relic from some forgotten South American tribe.

Kitsantas held onto the darts because of the study’s surprisingly large outcomes, and by the end of the experiment, the young women on Team Learning Method dramatically outperformed the others, with scores nearly twice as high as Team Conventional Wisdom. The women also enjoyed the experience much more. “Several of the students asked me to teach them more about darts after the experiment. They kept asking me for weeks,” Kitsantas told me.

The best basketball player in the world is not the tallest

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Even a strong predictor of outcome is seldom able to pick out the very top performer, Stephen Hsu notes — e.g., taller people are on average better at basketball, but the best player in the world is not the tallest:

This seems like a trivial point (as are most things, when explained clearly), however, it still eludes the vast majority. For example, in the Atlantic article I linked to in the earlier post Creative Minds, the neuroscientist professor who studies creative genius misunderstands the implications of the Terman study. She repeats the common claim that Terman’s study fails to support the importance of high cognitive ability to “genius”-level achievement: none of the Termites won a Nobel prize, whereas Shockley and Alvarez, who narrowly missed the (verbally loaded) Stanford-Binet cut for the study, each won for work in experimental physics. But luck, drive, creativity, and other factors, all at least somewhat independent of intelligence, influence success in science. Combine this with the fact that there are exponentially more people a bit below the Terman cut than above it, and Terman’s results do little more than confirm that cognitive ability is positively but not perfectly correlated with creative output.

Strong Predictor Graph

In the SMPY study probability of having published a literary work or earned a patent was increasing with ability even within the top 1%. The “IQ over 120 doesn’t matter” meme falls apart if one measures individual likelihood of success, as opposed to the total number of individuals at, e.g., IQ 120 vs IQ 145, who have achieved some milestone. The base population of the former is 100 times that of the latter!

Please remember this perverse outcome

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Charlie Munger was not impressed with academic psychology, but he was impressed with Robert Cialdini‘s Influence:

Cialdini had made himself into a super-tenured “Regents’ Professor” at a very young age by devising, describing, and explaining a vast group of clever experiments in which man manipulated man to his detriment, with all of this made possible by man’s intrinsic thinking flaws.

I immediately sent copies of Cialdini’s book to all my children — I also gave Cialdini a share of Berkshire stock [Class A] to thank him for what he had done for me and the public. Incidentally, the sale by Cialdini of hundreds of thousands of copies of a book about social psychology was a huge feat, considering that Cialdini didn’t claim that he was going to improve your sex life or make you any money.

Part of Cialdini’s large book-buying audience came because, like me, it wanted to learn how to become less often tricked by salesmen and circumstances. However, as an outcome not sought by Cialdini, who is a profoundly ethical man, a huge number of his books were bought by salesmen who wanted to learn how to become more effective in misleading customers. Please remember this perverse outcome when my discussion comes to incentive-caused biases a consequence of the superpower of incentives.

Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion came out recently.

Collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Charlie Munger was always interested in psychology, but he didn’t turn to psychology textbooks for a long, long time:

Motivated as I was, by midlife I should probably have turned to psychology textbooks, but I didn’t, displaying my share of the outcome predicted by the German folk saving: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” However, as I later found out, I may have been lucky to avoid for so long the academic psychology that was then laid out in most textbooks. These would not then have guided me well with respect to cults and were often written as if the authors were collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies — with a passion for more butterflies and more contact with fellow collectors and little craving for synthesis in what is already possessed. When I finally got to the psychology texts, I was reminded of the observation of Jacob Viner, the great economist; that many an academic is like the truffle hound, an animal so trained and bred for one narrow purpose that it is no good at anything else. I was also appalled by hundreds of pages of extremely not scientific musing about comparative weights of nature and nurture in human outcomes. And I found that introductory psychology texts, by and large, didn’t deal appropriately with a fundamental issue: Psychological tendencies tend to be both numerous and inseparably intertwined, now and forever, as they interplay in life. Yet the complex parsing out of effects from intertwined tendencies was usually avoided by the writers of the elementary texts. Possibly the authors did not wish, through complexity, to repel entry of new devotees to their discipline. And, possibly, the cause of their inadequacy was the one given by Samuel Johnson in response to a woman who inquired as to what accounted for his dictionary’s mis-definition of the word “pastern.” “Pure ignorance,” Johnson replied. And, finally, the text writers showed little interest in describing standard antidotes to standard, psychology-driven folly, and they thus avoided most discussion of exactly what most interested me.