Think Small to Solve Big Problems
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He is best-known for writing, along with the economist Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics (2005) and SuperFreakonomics (2009), which have sold more than 5 million copies in 35 languages. Their latest books are When to Rob a Bank... and Think Like a Freak (2014).
Dubner is also the author of Turbulent Souls/Choosing My Religion (1998), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper (2003), and the children's book The Boy With Two Belly Buttons (2007). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and others.
Freakonomics, published in April 2005, was an instant international best-seller and cultural phenomenon. It made numerous "books of the year" lists, a few "books of the decade" lists, and won a variety of awards, including the inaugural Quill Award, a BookSense Book of the Year Award, and a Visionary Award from the National Council on Economic Education. It was also named a Notable Book by the New York Times. SuperFreakonomics, published in 2009, was published to similar acclaim, and also became an international best-seller.
The Freakonomics enterprise also includes an award-winning blog, a high-profile documentary film, and a public-radio project called Freakonomics Radio, which Dubner hosts. He has also appeared widely on television, including a three-year stint on ABC News as a Freakonomics contributor. He also appeared on the reality show Beauty and the Geek. Alas, he played neither beauty nor geek.
Dubner's first book, Turbulent Souls, was also named a Notable Book, and was a finalist for the Koret National Jewish Book Award. It was republished in 2006 under a new title, Choosing My Religion, and is currently being developed as a film.
The eighth and last child of an upstate New York newspaperman, Dubner has been writing since he was a child. (His first published work appeared in Highlights magazine.) As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he started a rock band that was signed to Arista Records, which landed him in New York City. He ultimately quit playing music to earn an M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University, where he also taught in the English Department. He was an editor and writer at New York magazine and The New York Times before quitting to write books. He is happy he did so.
He lives in New York with his wife, the documentary photographer Ellen Binder, and their two delicious children.
Stephen J. Dubner: One argument that we make is that we could all benefit a little bit from thinking more like children, okay. Now you could say well, we're -- first of all everybody's biased in a lot of ways and we have our set of biases too. It may be that we embrace the idea in this book of thinking like children because we're kind of, you know, childlike. We have kind of obvious observations sometimes. There's observations that strike people as obvious. We ask a lot of questions that are not considered, you know, the kind of questions that people ask in good company or smart company. But one of the most powerful pieces of thinking like a child that we argue is thinking small. So I realize that this runs exactly counter to the philosophy of the arena in which I'm appearing which is thinking big, Big Think, but our argument is this. Big problems are by their nature really hard to solve for a variety of reasons. One is they're large and therefore they include a lot of people and therefore they include a lot of crossed and often mangled and perverse incentives.
But also a big problem -- when you think about a big problem like the education reform. You're dealing with an institution or set of institutions that have gotten to where they've gotten to this many, many years of calcification and also accidents of history. What I mean by that is things have gotten the way they've gotten because of a lot of things a few people did many, many years ago and traditions were carried on. And now to suddenly change that would mean changing the entire stream of the way that this institution has functioned for many years. Therefore, attacking any big problem is bound to be really hard and the danger is you spend a lot of resources -- time, money, manpower, optimism which is perhaps one of our most precious resources attacking a problem that you can't make any headway on. So I mean, you know, history is littered with brilliant people who have attacked large problems in the past half century, century among them famine, among them poverty and most recently I think education reform, a healthy diet and so on. So these are all really big problems.
So our argument is -- you know what? There's a lot of people out there thinking big. Maybe some of them will be successful. Probably not so many honestly. It's very, very hard. Our argument is -- you know what? Let the people who are gonna try to think big solve big problems -- let them go. There's enough people doing that. Why don't you just try to think small. Why don't you try to find one piece of the problem that you can identify and peel it off and try to solve that problem or answer that question. So there are a lot of reasons why it's better to do that. It's easier to satisfactorily answer a small question or solve a big problem because you can get the data, you can understand the incentives, it's just inherently much less complicated. If you can come up with a solution to a small problem there's a much better chance you'll actually be able to get it done. A lot of people feel like they come up with the answers to big problems but then you need to get all the political and capital will to do it. And that can be much harder than actually solving the problem.
So if you can peel off a small piece of a problem and then someone else peels off another small piece and you add them up, you're constantly, you know, working toward a better place. So I'll give you an example. If you think about, let's say, education reform. Even that very phrase is kind of weighted or biased toward the supply side, the schools. It's basically saying that oh, all the kids and the families who are sending their kids to school -- they're all doing exactly the right thing. But education needs to be reformed because plainly the schools and teachers and principals, they're the bad people. So that's kind of an assumption already about where the problem should be solved. So you think, you know, people have been talking about the many, many inputs that go into education -- class size, technology in the classroom, resources spent, curricula -- the way the curricula are taught and so on.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Stephen Dubner talks about the importance of thinking small in order to tackle some of the world's biggest problems piece by piece. Dubner is the co-author of Think Like a Freak (http://goo.gl/LVlHtk).
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Students who think the world is just cheat less, but they need to experience justice to feel that way.
- Students in German and Turkish universities who believed the world is just cheated less than their pessimistic peers.
- The tendency to think the world is just is related to the occurence of experiences of justice.
- The findings may prove useful in helping students adjust to college life.
The world is just? That’s news to a lot of people.<p>The study is the most recent addition to a long line of work focusing on the belief in justice, our behavior, and our reactions to evidence that might suggest injustice occasionally occurs. This study focuses on a personal belief in a just world, (PBJW) rather than a general belief in a just world (GBJW). The difference between them must be highlighted.</p><p>GBJW is the stance that justice prevails all over the world and that people tend to get what they deserve. PBJW is more focused on the individual's social environment and their belief that they tend to be treated justly. While several studies show PBJW correlates with a higher sense of well-being and a variety of other positive effects, a high GBJW is associated with less life satisfaction, negative behavior, and callousness towards the suffering of <a href="https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-1-4939-3216-0" target="_blank">others</a>. This study controlled for GBJW, and focused on PBJW as much as possible. </p><p>To assure that culture was not a factor, the study included students at universities in both Germany and Turkey. </p><p>The researchers gave students at the four participating universities a series of questionnaires that asked if they ever cheated in class, if they perceived the world to be just, if they though that justice always prevailed everywhere, their tendencies towards socially appropriate behavior, their life satisfaction, and if they felt like they were treated justly by their teachers and fellow students. </p><p>The answers were statistically analyzed for relationships. While some of the connections seem trivially true, others were surprising. <strong></strong></p><p>PBJW turned out to only be an indirect predictor of if a student was likely to cheat. Both a belief in a just world and a lower likelihood of cheating were mediated by the justice experiences of the students, with more of these positive experiences lowering the rate of cheating and improving their belief in justice. This was also associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. </p><p>These effects existed across all demographics in both countries. </p>
What does this mean? Is a belief in justice a self-fulfilling prophecy?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/6oMv-azHNCA" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>In a way, it seems to be. People who have reason to think the world is just to them tend to interpret events in a way to sustain that belief and behave in a just manner. In a larger sense, the take away from this study is that experiences of justice, both from peers and instructors, is vital to student's wellbeing and understanding that the rules that exist about cheating are part of a larger, legitimate, system. </p><p>The researchers, citing previous studies on the perception of justice, note that "justice experiences (1) signal that university students are esteemed members of their social group, which in turn conveys feelings of belonging and social inclusion and (2) motivate them to accept and observe university rules and norms. These cognitive processes may thus strengthen their well-being and decrease the likelihood that they cheat."</p><p>The authors also suggest that if you want people (not only students) to act justly; consider treating them with "civility, respect, and dignity."</p><p>Sometimes, all it can take to help somebody act virtuously is to treat them well. Likewise, people treated harshly can rarely find reason to play by rules that don't protect them. The findings of this study will certainly add to the literature on how we perceive justice in the world around us, but might also help us remember that there are real consequences to our actions which can be much larger than we imagine. <strong></strong></p>
This could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
- The reason children suffer less from the novel coronavirus has remained mysterious.
- Researchers identified a cytokine, IL-17A, which appears to protect children from the ravages of COVID-19.
- This cytokine response could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
A member of staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London, England.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images<p>Experts don't want to place kids at the back of the line, regardless of how strong their immune systems appear. At least one company, Moderna, <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-vaccine-for-kids-moderna-plans-pediatric-trial-2020-9" target="_blank">hopes to begin testing</a> vaccines in pediatric volunteers by year's end.</p><p>Innate immune response is especially high during childhood (compared to adaptive immunity). This makes evolutionary sense: nature wants an animal to survive until its ready to procreate. Turns out the children in the study possessed high levels of cytokines that boost their immune response. The biggest impact is made by IL-17A, which appears to protect the youngest cohort from the ravages of the coronavirus. </p><p>While both age groups produced antibodies to fight off the infamous spike protein, adults that produce neutralizing antibodies actually suffer a <em>worse</em> fate. Herold says this "over-vigorous adaptive immune response" might promote inflammation, triggering acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). </p><p>This matters for vaccine development. As Herold says, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Our adult COVID-19 patients who fared poorly had high levels of neutralizing antibodies, suggesting that convalescent plasma—which is rich in neutralizing antibodies—may not help adults who have already developed signs of ARDS. By contrast, therapies that boost innate immune responses early in the course of the disease may be especially beneficial."</p><p>Herold says current vaccine trials are focused on boosting neutralizing-antibody levels. With this new information, researchers may want to work on vaccines that boost the innate immune response instead. </p><p>With <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html" target="_blank">at least 55 vaccine trials</a> underway, every piece of data matters. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Researchers from the University of Toronto published a new map of cancer cells' genetic defenses against treatment.
A moving target<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNjQ2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM3OTA0N30.z4u2eaulqRu8cslqqny8t9G7iaHr_DarbDJSFKLdDwI/img.jpg?width=980" id="21b22" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aefbbccdf3bb0d25bf14268ab87a821f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="IV drip" />
Credit: Marcelo Leal/Unsplash<p>Speaking to <a href="https://www.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-researchers-identify-genes-enable-cancer-evade-immune-system" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">U of T News</a>, lead author of the study molecular geneticist <a href="http://www.moleculargenetics.utoronto.ca/faculty/2014/9/30/jason-moffat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Jason Moffat</a> of the university's <a href="https://ccbr.utoronto.ca/donnelly-centre-cellular-and-biomolecular-research" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research</a> says, "Over the last decade, different forms of immunotherapy have emerged as really potent cancer treatments, but the reality is that they only generate durable responses in a fraction of patients and not for all tumor types."</p><p>There can be a significant degree of heterogeneity between cancer cells from human to human, and even within the same person, making the development of therapies maddeningly difficult. Attempting to address potential cancer-cell vulnerabilities across these variations is a life-or-death game of whack-a-mole.</p><p>"It's an ongoing battle between the immune system and cancer, where the immune system is trying to find and kill the cancer whereas the cancer's job is to evade that killing," says Moffat.</p>
Mapping the mechanisms<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNjQ3Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjQ1OTM0MX0.HNtivrlU9VBYxcG9JaWKvPJ5RrBsgqd8Fw6ohfSpfh0/img.jpg?width=980" id="0faa6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7687cdc5abe93503764c1c0401b65fd4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Illustration: genes (red, green, and blue spots within the nuclei of HeLa cells) artificially superimposed on images of multi-well plates.
Credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash<p>Moffat and his colleagues decided to investigate and identify genes within cancer cells that help them defeat treatment. Co-lead author Keith Lawson of Moffat's lab explains that "it's important to not just find genes that can regulate immune evasion in one model of cancer, but what you really want are to find those genes that you can manipulate in cancer cells across many models because those are going to make the best therapeutic targets."</p><p>To accomplish this, the researchers, working with scientists at <a href="https://www.agios.com" target="_blank">Agios Pharmaceuticals</a> in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first exposed cells from breast, colon, kidney and skin cancer tumors to T cells in lab dishes. This established a baseline of their responses to treatment. Next, using CRISPR, the scientists went through the cells, exhaustively turning off one gene at a time to determine its role in immunotherapy resistance by comparing the cells' response to the T cells compared to their original baseline response.</p><p>The team identified 182 "core cancer intrinsic immune evasion genes" that affected the cells' response to T cells. The fact that some of the identified genes were already known to be involved in resistance provided the researchers with some confidence that they were on the right track.</p><p>Still, many of the genes they ID'ed had not been previously implicated. "That was really exciting to see because it means that our dataset was very rich in new biological information," says Lawson.</p>