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Letters we never finished reading

I got a book in the mail attached to some publicity material that began:

Over the last several years, a different kind of science book has found a home on consumer bookshelves. Anchored by meticulous research and impeccable credentials, these books bring hard science to bear on the daily lives of the lay reader; their authors—including Malcolm Gladwell . . .

OK, then.

The book might be ok, though. I wouldn’t judge it on its publicity material.


  1. mark says:

    A few weeks ago a couple of us (all academic psychology researchers) were trying to think of even a single popular psychology book (the type you’d find at airport bookstores) that was based on “meticulous research”. We could not think of one – certainly not the stuff written about emotional intelligence, power posing, or grit.

    • Curious says:

      That’s a challenge to find in the journals, much less in a ‘pop psych’ book.

    • Sebastian says:

      honest question: Kahnemann doesn’t make the cut? His book is certainly at airport bookstores.

      • Curious says:

        Good point. I’d give a nod to Kahneman, Ekman, and Pinker. You might disagree with their approach, inferences or conclusions, but I think their research could justly be described as ‘meticulous’.

    • Greg Francis says:

      Along similar lines, several years ago the cognitive area in my department set up a new small meeting room. One of the students suggested that we should put up photos of famous cognitive psychologists. My response was, “both of them?”

      It is strange that a field that seems so relevant to modern life is not really part of modern culture. Of course, maybe this property is common for most sciences…

      • Carol says:

        Hi Greg,

        I’m not a cognitive psychologist but I can think of a lot more than two just off the top of my head: John Anderson, Philip Johnson-Laird, Steven Pinker, Michael Posner, Daniel Schacter, Richard Shiffrin, Anne Treisman, Daniel Kahneman, Robert Sternberg, Gordon Bower, Amos Tversky (who was a mathematical psychologist by training), George Miller, Howard Gardner. Some of these would be known to academics but not by “the man in the street,” I suppose.

        • Greg Francis says:

          Carol, I agree that there are a lot of good cognitive scientists, but I think only two in your list (Pinker and Kahneman) might generally be considered “famous”. For example, I do not think my mother, who is not a scientist but is very well read, would have heard of any of the others (despite living in the same town as Shiffrin). Elizabeth Loftus might be someone she would have heard of. In contrast, I think she could name some famous biologists and physicists; maybe even some famous chemists. If you feel some of the other scientists are famous, I would not strongly disagree; it all depends on your reference frame. Probably it does not matter anyhow.

          • Carol says:

            Hi Greg,

            But why would you want to put on the meeting-room wall in the cognitive area of a psychology department only those cognitive psychologists famous enough to be known to the “man in the street?”

            I’ll add BF Skinner to the list, and I’ll bet your mother has heard of him. Maybe Jean Piaget, although one might consider him a developmental psychologist rather than a cognitive psychologist.

            If your mother would like a good read, I’ll suggest PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX.

          • Andrew says:


            These people are pretty obscure to me too! I’ve never at all heard of John Anderson, Philip Johnson-Laird, Michael Posner, Richard Shiffrin, Anne Treisman, or Gordon Bower. I might have heard of Daniel Schacter, but I’m not sure for what. I think I’ve heard that Robert Sternberg is a psychology researcher but that’s all, and I’m not even sure of that. George Miller I’ve heard of only from 7 +/- 2. Howard Gardner’s famous as the “multiple intelligences” guy; I’ve never actually read anything he’s written. Pinker I’ve heard of, he’s a linguist who we’ve discussed on this blog, and I’ve actually met him. And Kahneman and Tversky, sure, they’re 2 of the 3 editors of that classic book on judgment under uncertainty. So of the 13 people on Carol’s list, I’ve heard of about half.

            • Carol says:

              Hi Andrew,

              OK, OK, so I’m just exceptionally well read :-).

              You want to hear my list of famous statisticians now?

              Anne Treisman is Daniel Kahneman’s wife, BTW.

              And while we are on the topic of Steven Pinker, a very interesting (and statistically oriented) read (if you can make it through the vitriol) is the exchange between Nicholas Nassim Taleb and Pinker on Pinker’s book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE.


    • Carol says:

      Hi Mark,

      What about Dan Ariely’s books? Or THE INVISIBLE GORILLA by Chabris and Simons? Or Darrell Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS? Or MISTAKES WERE MADE BUT NOT BY ME by Tavris and Aronson?

      • Andrew says:


        Daryl Huff didn’t know what he was talking about; see here.

        • Anonymous says:

          Hi Andrew,

          Very interesting read. I was not aware of Huff’s connection with the tobacco industry. But why does it mean that Huff didn’t know what he was talking about? It seems to me that he often did.

          • Andrew says:


            Huff’s book has an excellent title, it’s well written, and it has a mixture of good and bad material. But he was just making it all up as he went along. He was not a statistician or user of statistics; he was a journalist who had this good idea for a book, that’s about all.

            • Carol says:

              Hi Andrew,

              That comment was by me; somehow I appeared as Anonymous there. I haven’t looked at Huff’s book in years so I’ll have to unearth it. I do seem to remember that he made a lot of good points for someone writing in 1954.


  2. I would be interested in your take (at some point) on the lemon juice introvert test (see I wrote briefly about it here:

    If you google “lemon introvert test” you’ll see hundreds (maybe thousands) of claims that you can test your introversion (in the privacy of your own home) by measuring your salivation in response to lemon juice. They seem to be referring to the 1967 Eysenck and Eysenck experiment, though this is rarely clear. That test (which at least one subsequent study failed to replicate) concludes that introverts salivate more than extraverts in response to lemon juice. People seized on that and started claiming that you can find out, individually, how much of an introvert you are by putting lemon juice on your tongue and measuring the saliva before and after. One doesn’t have to know statistics to find this ridiculous–but I doubt the study’s statistical reasoning is strong.

    Some people perform an additional sleight of hand: they redefine introversion *in terms* of sensitivity to stimuli. (Brian Little, for instance, refers to “biogenic” introversion when bringing up the lemon test.) Sure, if that’s how you define it, and if this biogenic introversion includes salivating in response to lemon juice, then you can perhaps test your salivation to see whether you salivate. I somehow don’t find that informative.

    Gladwell’s theories don’t make me salivate either.

  3. Cliff AB says:

    Most likely you’ve seen this before, but I just came across it. I thought it was great.

    ‘Referencing a Gladwell reporting mistake in which Gladwell refers to “eigenvalue” as “Igon Value”, Pinker criticizes his lack of expertise: “I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.”‘

    -Wikipedia page for Gladwell

    • Chris G says:

      > … a Gladwell reporting mistake in which Gladwell refers to “eigenvalue” as “Igon Value”…

      That’s priceless. Maybe he was thinking of the character from Ghostbusters? (Ghostbusters being one of his favorite documentaries for making science exciting…)

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