Cognitive Daily

I’ve found a few articles that I’ve got couple sentences’ worth of thoughts about, but not a couple paragraphs, so I’m going to write them all up here. This is sort of halfway between a news and an in other news post.

1. Neuroscience and science writing. Jonah Lehrer argues that it’s okay for science writers to use generalizations like “the amygdala is the center of fear and anxiety” when actually all we can say for certain is that region is activated more when people claim they are afraid or anxious, compared to a “resting state.” I agree; writers need to take shortcuts sometimes, but an occasional reminder that that’s what they’re doing is also a good thing.

2. Are journal rankings distorting science? When journals are ranked based on how many other journals cite them, what do you think is going to happen? You got it — lots more citations. It’s actually fascinating to look at old journal articles (say, before 1980) and see how few citations there are. The claim in the linked article is that all this citing is distorting the overall message. I’m not sure we’re to that point yet — after all, citations can be helpful. But clearly at some point over-citing could be a problem. Any suggestions on other ways to determine if a journal is “important”?

3. Jason Rosenhouse on “Spirituality”: When asked what it meant to “feel one with nature” or “have a mystical experience” he replied “I think those are really just nonsense phrases people use but that don’t really mean anything.” I tend to agree, but sometimes I wonder if scientists are ignoring some real phenomena because they’ve never experienced it themselves.

More below.

4. Arguing there’s a “scientific consensus” may be counterproductive. This is another example of how scientists are different from “regular people.” I wonder if there’s an easy way of showing how scientific thought differs from ordinary thought, kind of like yesterday’s post on how artists look at pictures.

5. Speaking of thinking different — er, differently — here’s a great post on how musicians are different. Absolutely fascinating. I won’t try to explain it, just go read it.

6. I can’t decide if this is the coolest idea ever, or if it will just cause my head to explode. It’s a computer keyboard where the label on each key can instantaneously be changed, because each key is a tiny video screen. On the one hand, it would be neat if when I held down the shift key (or control, or alt, or so on), each label changed to show the actual function of the key. On the other hand, as a touch typist, I really don’t spend much time looking at the keyboard at all. Is it just a waste of — yikes — $1,490?

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    March 16, 2007

    Mmmm, Jason Rosenhause, not Josh Rosenau (JR, I understand)

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    March 16, 2007

    Oops! Fixed now. Sorry, Jason! And Josh!

  3. #3 steve
    March 16, 2007

    “Are journal rankings distorting science?”
    I have another question… are technorati rankings distorting science blogs?

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    March 16, 2007

    So what are you saying, Steve? Do you think we overlink?

  5. #5 blf
    March 16, 2007

    There’s at least one (a websearch suggests several) keyboards with blank keys.

  6. #6 Dana Leighton
    March 16, 2007

    Jonah Lehrer argues that it’s okay for science writers to use generalizations like “the amygdala is the center of fear and anxiety”

    This reminds me of the discomfort I feel everytime I teach introductory psychology classes. We have to make some pretty broad generalizations, in order to help students get concepts without being too bogged down in the miscellaneous details and exceptions. Then we spend a fair amount of time in upper division classes undoing some of the generalizations, and explaining why there are exceptions and how things really work. Then in graduate seminars, we continue to deconstruct those exceptions and assumptions, and discover we actually know only a little bit about those generalizations we have made.

    As I write on the board first day of class: Everything you learn in this class may be shown to be incorrect — Knowledge is a moving target.

    Education is like a process of gradually learning more and more, which reveals that more and more is being inferred from less and less…

  7. #7 Ompus
    March 18, 2007

    When asked what it meant to “feel one with nature” or “have a mystical experience” [Jason Rosenhause] replied “I think those are really just nonsense phrases people use but that don’t really mean anything.”

    Although I am a materialist aethist, (redundant, yes?) I think JR’s statement is absurd. To “feel one with nature” or “have a mystical experience” is no different than saying “I felt [xyz].” That is something that can be investigated. What is fear, happiness, awe, oneness? To say it’s nonsense to feel at one, is little different than saying the color red doesn’t exist because I haven’t seen it, or umami doesn’t exist because it is such an intractable taste to adequately describe.

    To put it simply, if a billion people tell me they feel one with god, I ffeel free to deride there explanation, but not their feeling. Indeed it feels me with wonder and puts me in awe of our magnificent brain… two pleasant emotions to which JR is apparently feeling-blind.

  8. #8 Paul Sunstone
    March 20, 2007

    People who claim to have had mystical experiences tend to understand what others who claim to have had mystical experiences are talking about. But folks who don’t claim to have had such experiences usually seem to be at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about. While I don’t believe in God, I do think the evidence for the existence of mystical experiences should be sufficient to whet our curiosity.

  9. #9 jasper
    March 20, 2007

    I love your blog, but we need more of the science girl! Keep up the great work.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    March 20, 2007

    Jasper:

    I hear you. It’s been a busy couple weeks, but things should settle down soon.

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