Zing!: What the New Science of the New Sciences Tells Us About Our Unquenchable Craving for the Illusion of Scientifically-Validated Insight

Zing!: What the New Science of the New Sciences Tells Us About Our Unquenchable Craving for the Illusion of Scientifically-Validated Insight

Amid the tiny din of two-hundred micturating rodents, Ralph X. Bumblefutz goggled in disbelief at a discovery that would forever lay waste to the West's most cherished ideas about incontinence. It was a clear Autumn morning in 1974, in a cluttered basement laboratory occupying a disused corner of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, and pants would never be the same. But before we can come to terms with Bumblefutz and his paradigm-exploding diapered hamsters, we must travel in time to 14th-century Tuscany and confront the mystery of a beloved Dominican friar hanged to death for frock-soiling. ...


O' God! What hath Gladwell wrought?! Plenty of "ideas non-fiction" editors think this hype is what readers want. And maybe they do want this. Maybe editors know readers. But not this one. No, not me. I swear to sweet Moses I'm sick unto death of the anecdote-choked, aha!-hunting ,"What the New Science of Blah Tells Us about Blech," book-length collection of pop-sci features articles. Which is why I have not come, to the best of my knowledge, within fifteen feet of Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works. Which is terribly unfair. Lehrer's a smart guy capable of fine writing, and I only suspect he's plowing the field I'd rather see salted. Still, Issac Chotiner's smart, harsh review of Imagine played to my prejudices. (And I wanted to try my hand at a gee-whiz parody, which is fun!)

Chotiner comes down hard on Lehrer's attempt to torture a Bob Dylan anecdote into the illustration of a principle drawn from the science (the "new science", one trusts) of how the brain does it thing:

THERE IS LITTLE to be learned about Bob Dylan, or the creative process more generally, from Jonah Lehrer. What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions. Imagine is divided into two sections, “Alone” and “Together,” because Lehrer is interested in distinguishing between an individual’s creativity and the environments that allow creativity to flourish. His basic argument regarding individuals, captured in his discussion of Dylan, is that being obsessively focused on a problem can lead to a dead end. When we are relaxed, by contrast, we are more likely to direct our attention inward, and thus detect the “connections that lead to insights.” Similarly, Lehrer preaches the value of so-called “horizontal interactions,” which are characterized by “people sharing knowledge across fields.” The benefit of such “conceptual blending” is that it allows “people to look at their most frustrating problems from a fresh perspective.”

Sounds a heck of a lot like Arthur Koestler's 1964 The Act of Creation, my favorite book about creativity. (I think I've read two books on creativity, maybe.) Also, ouch. Anyway, Chotiner is not impressed by Lehrer's mode of argumentation:

Lehrer’s slippery language is crucial to his method. He writes, “The people deep inside a domain—the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem—often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap.” A page later he notes that “the young know less, which is why they often invent more.” In both cases, the crucial, slippery word is “often.” In the first instance, Lehrer is just stating an obvious fact—a fresh look may be useful, an outsider can see what an insider may overlook—but one which does not explain much. In the second instance, the “often” completely destroys the point of the sentence. Do the young invent more, or not? No doubt in the entire history of humanity, the young have “often” come up with inventions. But how often, exactly? And what does he mean by young? In the ancient and medieval and early modern centuries, and even into the nineteenth century, thirty or forty was not young. Their dates of birth are not all we need to know.

The problem keeps recurring. Of a surfing expert with Asperger’s, Lehrer writes, “Clay’s ability to innovate in surfing is rooted in a defining feature of his mental disorder.” Is Lehrer saying that Clay’s surfing expertise is the result of his disease, or merely that certain properties of the disease may lead to success in fields like surfing? Are there an unusually high number of surfers who suffer from Asperger’s? We are not further enlightened.

Chotiner goes on, hacking away mercilessly. Again, I'm not sure it's all fair, though I'm inclined to accept the gist of his assessment. But I am sure Chotiner's critique of Lehrer's genre is fair:

IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.

As I complained in my review of David Brooks' The Social Animal, Brooks' gallimaufry of "studies say" tidbits never comes together into a coherent picture, suggesting he doesn't understand the science he cites very well. I think that's generally true of synthetic pop-science books by journalists writing in a Gladwellian or Brooksian vein. Popularizations that hold up are most likely penned by actual experts who happen to write well, such as Daniel Kahneman or Jonathan Haidt. More often, though, serious scholars with fresh findings worth taking to the intelligent public are led by their editors or their own dim sense of popular style to ruin otherwise good books by littering them with hyperventilating anecdotes of doubtful relevance. Far from making these texts more readable, books bristling with zingy narrative hooks suggest to the reader that the actual intellectual content is too boring to bear. I'm through with this stuff.

Man, now I want to read The Act of Creation again. (Time to reissue, publishers!) That's a damn good book.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
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Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
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If we do find alien life, what kind will it be?

Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?

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