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.

“They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

The TV show “Community” is set among the goof-offs and layabouts of the fictional Greendale Community College, but each individual episode uses that setting to stage a high-concept satire or parody, of anything from conspiracy theories to narcissistic directors to mafia movies. One of their recent episodes satirized political elections — an easy target, admittedly, and one that’s been shot at plenty already, but I thought Community’s take was a particularly fun one, because of the silly heights to which they took things.

Briefly: the school dean has just learned that vice president Joe Biden is coming to visit Greendale that afternoon (as part of his folksy-yet-progressive “Biden’ Time Talkin’ ’bout ‘Teachin'” tour around America’s colleges), and that Biden wants to meet with the student body president. Greendale has none, because no one ever bothered to elect a student government, so the dean decides to hold some last-minute elections.

Annie Edison, the fresh-faced idealist, jumps at the chance to run for student body president so that she can make some much-needed changes around the school, like cleaning up the black mold that’s been taking over the stairwells. In response, cynical Jeff Winger decides to run against her — not because he cares about politics, or about Greendale, but simply to prove to her that politics is a charade.

The campaign scenes will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a political debate.

Annie: “I just want to clean up Greendale.
Jeff: “Are you saying Greendale is dirty?”
(audience boos at Annie)
Annie: “Well — of course it’s dirty. Everyone knows that.”
Jeff: “I don’t, Annie. I think it’s clean. I think it’s the cleanest school in the entire country.”
(audience cheers for Jeff)

Eventually, the debate degenerates into two candidates trading catchphrases:

Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)
Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)


Not a bad representation of the elevated level of political discourse in our country, really.

Anyway, one of the jokes that struck a chord with me was something Jeff says when the candidates are asked what they’ll do if elected.

Jeff: “What will I do if elected? Well, Dean, these people don’t want me to say what I’ll do. (dramatic pause) …They want me to do what I’ll say!”
(cheers from the audience)
Jeff (smugly, to Annie): “They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

I’ve long been suspicious of rhetorical devices. Of course, just because someone uses one, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re trying to pull a fast one on me, but it does instantly put me on my guard. And the swapping-words trick is one of my particular pet peeves. I’ve noticed it not only in speeches, but in idioms in general, which serve as a kind of folk-wisdom for our culture.

You might assume that the fact that certain idioms get passed on time after time might constitute some evidence for them being true — it’s not unreasonable to imagine a kind of Darwinian selection of idioms, in which the accurate idioms survive and get passed on, while the inaccurate ones die out. But the picture becomes more complicated when there are other factors influencing an idiom’s survival besides its accuracy. For example, whether it sounds good.

And there is something about that word-swapping pattern that mimics the sound of wisdom. I can think of a number of other examples off the top of my head — for example, “It isn’t about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the size of the fight in the dog!” Or, “Happiness isn’t about being with the one you love. It’s about loving the one you’re with.” But of course, mimicking the sound of wisdom isn’t the same as being true. So it’s helpful to learn to recognize the sound of mimicry, and take an extra hard look at the statements it’s coming from.

In closing, I also have to include this bonus clip of the election coverage from this episode of Community. Troy and Abed provide a pitch-perfect satire of the fast-paced but inane patter of news networks covering the electoral race:

Troy: This election’s becoming a real horse race! According to our polls, the campus is almost evenly divided. Now keep in mind, the margin of error on this thing’s about 98 percent.”
Abed: “Could be higher. We don’t even know how to do margins of error. We talked to two people at a vending machine.”

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