Is Uncommon Knowledge, Knowledge or Just Uncommon


The Boston Globe has a regular feature called Uncommon Knowledge. I just wrote a letter to columnist who writes this feature to tell him what disturbs me so much about this feature.

Dear Mr. Lewis,

Have you given any consideration to the possibility that the premise of this column, Uncommon Knowledge, leads you to search for the most counter-intuitive research results that you can find regardless of the quality of the research or the probability that the results you quote are correct?

Have you considered writing a column with a more beneficial premise that would encourage people to value quality research that either produced useful results or furthered knowledge and understanding?

The damage your column does in promoting silly research with shoddy methods and implanting false ideas in people’s minds is not something a self-respecting journalist ought to aspire to.

I should have also pointed to the possibility that the research he quotes may be legitimate, but his interpretation and selection of results from that research may be motivated by his need to fulfill the premise of the title of the feature.


August 4, 2013

I received a response from Kevin Lewis.

Thanks for reading the column, and thanks for writing. Notwithstanding your sarcasm, I can appreciate your criticism. Of course, it would be helpful if you could cite specific studies that you find objectionable, and why. In any case, rest assured that there is plenty of research for me to pick from — so I’m not just picking any old counter-intuitive study — and that I have enough expertise to filter out second-rate research. For more information, please check out http://www.nationalaffairs.com/authors/detail/kevin-lewis


August 5, 2013

Here is my response to Kevin Lewis.

Does my BSEE from MIT and MSEE from Northeastern qualify me any more or less for judging quality research?  People take away both good and bad from even the best educational institutions. That’s why credentials alone don’t prove much.

I just got the pun of “Uncommon Knowledge” as opposed to “Common Knowledge”.  However, the subhead reinforces the unpunlike meaning that I worry about. “And other surprising insights from the social sciences”.  If it isn’t surprising, is it not worth reporting?

Sunday’s example of the column may not be the most fertile grounds for my criticism, which is a long term concern of mine.  However, I will do the best I can with the material at hand.  All the examples in Sunday’s column seem to be in the line of things that are not really surprising as opposed to things that sound like easily dismissed, non-intuitive findings that make the researchers look silly. I have found those types of example in other columns.  That’s why I have stopped being a regular reader of your column.

I can start with – “Disgusted? Take this” – Is it really that surprising that experiments on what goes on in our brains might be affected by suggestions that are give to our brains.  Placebo, indeed.  Maybe the pill was a placebo, but the suggestion might not be.  Maybe there is more in the paper you cite to address this, but your selection from the paper merits a “Dah? Hardly surprising.”

Let’s look at “I feel a little too close to you”. “Pairs that had monitored closeness during the session tended to sit further apart on the bench.”  I would hardly call telling people to monitor closeness as backfiring when they then sat farther apart. “Dah? Hardly surprising.”

Or “Poverty: the coaching solution” – “However, a growing body of research, including new results from a decades-long study, suggests that the handicap can be ameliorated through early intervention.”  After about 50 years of success with the Head Start program this is hardly surprising.  Reporting this as if the researchers had never heard of Head Start makes them look silly.

What concerns me is the presence of politicians (demagogues) who want to take advantage of research summaries like you present to denigrate government sponsored research.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is the legendary Senator William Proxmire who awarded his “Golden Fleece Award” 168 times.  According to WikiPedia, “The Golden Fleece Award (1975–1988) was presented to those public officials in the United States who, the judges feel, waste public money.”

This feeling of the judges, in my opinion, was mostly based on a refusal to consider why certain research was being done and the benefits that would be derived from it. They took advantage of titles that were meaningful to the scientists in the field of study, but sounded odd to the uninitiated.

Nowadays, it is the Republicans who want to sell the idea of “the government is a big waste of money”.  I don’t mind reporting wastes of money that are actual wastes of money.  What I object to is pretending valuable research is a waste of money.

With a background in science, I would hope you would not want to feed this anti-intellectualism that is so rampant in our country.


August 6, 2013

The response I received focused on my concerns of what politicians and demagogues do with necessarily short research summaries. Kevin Lewis responded:

I think we’re on the same team here. One of the main reasons I do what I do is to make social science more salient to policy-makers. In fact, much of my audience, especially beyond the Globe’s readership, is involved in policy. And many of them are libertarians and conservatives who appreciate and respect social science.

I answered back:

I am happy to see that we are on the same side of this issue.

I have some ideas on what needs to be done, but I have no idea how to do it.  I’ll leave that up to your journalistic talents.

The summaries you publish in The Boston Globe are by the limitations of space necessarily very short.  It will be difficult  to cram into them what I think is missing.  Perhaps you can figure out a way.

Besides conveying a result, I think it is important to explain why the research topic is important in a larger context and why the particular result could be of value.  The value can be from how the result leads to practical applications or implications, or how the research expands important knowledge upon which future research can be built.

I am hoping that if you keep this intention in mind as you write the column, that it will help you to better realize what you are hoping to accomplish with what you write.

Here is an example I can think of to clarify what I am saying. Think of all the ridicule that the demagogues heap on scientific articles about the life of the fruit fly. To the uninitiated, the fruit fly seems to be a silly and irrelevant thing to study.  When you read about how studying the fly gives a highly accelerated view of the mechanisms of evolution, and what practical results have depended on such research, then a person is less likely to sneer at such research.

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