October 2, 2018

Halloween: The Science Behind the Stories

In anticipation of the Halloween holiday, you might want to check out a vintage edition of NPR's Science Friday. Ira Flatow interviewed top-notch scientists and writers about the stories that play so important a part in Halloween rituals.
Scared To Death... Literally
Earthquakes, terrorist attacks and muggings have all scared people to death. Sporting events, too, sometimes cause frenzied fans to drop dead. Neurologist Martin Samuels of Brigham and Women's Hospital explains how positive or negative excitement can lead to a heart-stopping surge of adrenaline.
Medusa's Gaze And Vampire's Bite
Next up, the science of monsters. Like most myths, there are some real-world phenomena behind the stories...consider the limitations of the vampire... His power ceases, as does that of all evil things, at the coming of the day. It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide. Then there are things which so afflict him that he has no power, as the garlic that we know of, and the crucifix. Where did these legends come from, the vampire's aversion to garlic, sunlight and running water? Are they just folk tales or is there something factual, something there behind them? Believe it or not, there have been scientific papers written on the subject, as my next guest writes in his new book, "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters."
Very entertaining and informative for adults and kids. Enthusiastic guests,  funny gory stories and great science - it's enough to inspire your middle- or high schoolers to take on one of these topics for a paper or project, so don't be afraid to share with kids.

See the transcripts and/or listen and or download podcasts:

August 1, 2017

Remember! Paradoxically, forgetting can be good!

It was May, then early June. Helicopter parents were getting knots in their shorts as teachers — who already sported knotty undies — performed the annual ritual warning about how much kids would forget before school resumed in the fall. Now it’s August.  For the kids who didn’t cram more into their heads, it’s another wasted summer. Yadda, yadda, yadda — additional failure.

Those worrywart parents and teachers might have had a calmer summer had they known more about the paradoxical benefits of forgetting.

By summarizing of some of those benefits, Ulrich Boser gives evidence-based reassurance that all is not lost if we remember that "forgetting" can frequently be better understood as memory pruning. His column is a nice primer for students, parents and teachers who want to know more about how memory really works. For example,
  • Most prominently, he reminds us that forgetting plays a crucial role in the development of wisdom! As we pass time to forget inconsequentials, we give ourselves a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the stuff we do remember.
  • Since we’re hardwired to selectively forget certain types of things, it’s important for us to learn to creatively work with those forgetting operations rather than against them.
Such paradoxes point to practical lifehacks for students, teachers and even retirees.

For active learners of all ages:

There’s a hidden subtext in the article about the importance of starting tasks early rather than putting things off for a last minute rush.
  • Even when you are not actively working on a task, your mind processes the work in the background, arranging things according to importance, embellishing things which need embellishment, chopping out things that are not necessary or counterproductive.
  • The creativity literature often refers to this period of time with names like “incubation” — it’s a period which simply cannot be rushed if you do creative work.
  • Advice to start a project early and return to it periodically is also consonant with the well-established principle that distributed practice leads to better learning than massed practice.
By letting the pruning function of memory do its work in the background, you can make your life easier and more productive.

For teachers and parents:

Over the summer, kids should do things that help them develop their gifts rather than engage in endless time wasters. On that, people agree. In regard to school work, most people also know that some “forgetting” over the summer is inevitable. That said, is it possible that steering children towards summer activities designed to counteract forgetting can lead parents and teachers to overlook other kinds of activities which would actually provide kids with more benefits? The answer is more complicated than it might first appear.

To make wiser decisions about enrichment activities for a particular child, consider the following.
  • When you feel yourself getting agitated about "forgetting", how do you know that a particular student really learned the material well in the first place? If a kid never fully mastered something by the end of the spring term, it's quite likely that memory pruning will leave the kid with even less mastery by the end of summer. Here, however, the problem is not forgetting per se – it's a problem of incomplete initial mastery. How many parents have the pedagogical skills to correct this situation with summertime instruction?
  • In the same vein, what happens when stuff is reviewed or relearned in the fall? If it’s a reasonably quick, effortless process, student knowledge of the stuff will be deepened — a benefit of memory pruning rather than a setback. When the process is protracted and difficult, are we correct to blame forgetting? Instead, reconsider the issue described above. Did the kid actually know the stuff in the first place?
  • More ominously, the issue of the importance of the material must be faced. Boser asserts that the pruning function of forgetting is important because it strips our minds of things that are not important. In the minds of students, how much of the curriculum is stuff that eventually deserves to be treated as mental clutter? If kids are “forgetting” stuff because it simply is not that important to them, are we barking up the wrong tree by urging them to cram more of those items into the summer when the true problem involves motivation, values and attitudes?
Let's finish off with a short thought experiment. Imagine two mediocre math students going into their summer vacations:
  • The first student tries to rehearse her computational skills in daily sessions of solving math problems. Each session starts with an argument with her parents about whether or not she needs to do math homework over the summer, but by the end of the summer she's averaged four sessions per week.
  • The second student centers her entire summer around baseball: she practices softball with her teammates at every opportunity, watches the Cubs religiously and even streams Moneyball four times before the summer is over. By the end of summer, she's done no actual math exercises, but when she returns to school she has a strong interest in Moneyball statistics. This newly developed connection between her deep interest in baseball and the math operations used in evaluating players has left her determined to learn more about applying math to practical problems that she encounters.
Who's had the more profitable summer? It's not an easy call. For a kid who needs more practice, simple practice sessions can be important. For kids who needs to reframe the connection between their deeper values and and their future academic tasks, a different approach is needed. Either way, forgetting per se might not be the problem.

May 5, 2015

A Bigger, Testier Supreme Court? New tools for analyzing cultural change.

Corporate documents are an important source of information concerning a company's values, sentiments and general culture. Policy statements, memos, the company motto, training and procedural manuals, press releases - all these reveal how the organization sees itself, its employees, its responsibilities and its place in its social milieu. There's never been much controversy about whether or not some attention should be paid to these documents in the course of a cultural audit.

Where has been controversy, it's been primarily about how to parse documents rather than whether to parse them during a particular piece of research.

By far and away, qualitative analysis has always been the most common method for dealing with company documents. Researchers examine the documents in a more or less formal way and look for themes, attitudes, values, whatever in a more or less systematic manner. The main problem with this method is that it opens the door to unrecognized biases and subjectivity as the project continues.
Quantitative analysis has been used much less frequently. On the one hand, it's long been recognized as a powerful method that can uncover important information that is overlooked by qualitative methods. It can also neutralize sources of biases and subjectivity. On the other hand, it has historically been very expensive and time consuming, since it requires considerable coding and categorization and scoring to generate its reports.

In a practical situation, then, the cultural analyst had to choose between a method that was relatively quick and inexpensive or one that was more difficult and expensive.

Now that situation is changing as the technology for mining "big data" becomes increasingly available to many different kinds of organizational researchers.

A good example: Adam Liptak - reporting about Supreme Court opinions - talks about a new "cottage industry of quantitative analysis of Supreme Court opinions using linguistic software."