Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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We don’t know the world

A few years ago I saw a fantastic talk from Hans Rosling about the world and statistics. Okay, I probably lost a few people by implying statistics are fantastic, and now I’ll lose some more by saying statistics ARE fantastic. Unfortunately, Hans is no longer with us, but his son and daughter-in-law – Ola and Anna – are continuing his work with Gap Minder.

Recently they released the results of their 2017 survey of world knowledge. After looking at the results they decided to call it the Misconception Study.* You’ll see why.

That’s right, less than chance. People really don’t know that much about the world.

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Do you think you could do better? Well, find out! Take the 2018 quiz here. Of course, this is the part where I say that I passed the test. Humble-brag. But in fairness, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been following Gap Minder and I like statistics.

Could you pass the test?

*They probably called it that prior, but I’m making a point here, dammit!

What genre is the 2008 book Outliers in? What are some similar books in that genre?

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The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a popular example of fiction.

Outliers is probably most famous for promoting the idea of the 10,000 Hour Rule based on how many hours it will take you to get good at doing something. But like all good fiction, it ignores the reality of how skills are acquired.

Unfortunately, many people have mistakenly assumed that Gladwell’s writing should be classified as non-fiction pop-science, or even worse, factual. This has lead many researchers to waste time and resources showing that the 10,000 Hour Rule is nonsense, and that Outliers is pop-science at its worst Рi.e. incredibly influential despite being clearly nonsense.

Reviewers of the book have noted the flaws in calling this book non-fiction*:

In an article about the book for¬†The New York Times,¬†Steven Pinker¬†wrote, “The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of¬†cherry-picked¬†anecdotes,¬†post-hocsophistry and¬†false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my¬†Kindle.”[20]

In a review in¬†The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called the final chapter of¬†Outliers¬†“impervious to all forms of critical thinking”.[21]

And several researchers have debunked many factual claims made in the book*:

Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. Macnamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing” but “we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”.[24]

Statistical analyst Jeff Sauro looked at Gladwell’s claim that between 1952 and 1958 was the best time to be born to become a software millionaire. Sauro found that, although the 1952‚Äď1958 category held the most births, “[a] software millionaire is more than twice as likely to be born outside the 1952 to 1958 window than within it.” Sauro notes that Gladwell’s claims are used more as a means of getting the reader to think about patterns in general, rather than a pursuit of verifiable fact.[25]

In fact, the 10,000 Hour Rule seems to irk people in the social sciences quite a bit. E.g. Practice Does Not Make Perfect РWe are not all created equal where our genes and abilities are concerned.

Are there similar authors and similar books using misleading, cherry-picked, and tenuous research to make broad sweeping pop-science claims that make people feel good? Of course. Plenty of them. It is a minefield in the non-fiction section of bookstores, which I think should be more accurately renamed¬†‚ÄúBoring Fiction‚ÄĚ. So I think it would be negligent of me to recommend more books like Outliers or authors like Malcolm Gladwell.

*Quotes taken from Wikipedia.

This answer originally appeared on Quora.

A Book a Day: Six health benefits of reading

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Penguin Australia recently published an article suggesting reading was awesome for your health. Previously I have posted science-backed articles on the benefits of reading (1, 2), so more science telling us that readers are awesome never goes astray. Although, as much as I love some good old confirmation bias, I can’t just share that article without some commentary from the further reading. I mean, the article title is a play on An apple a day keeps the doctor away… that can’t pass without some mockery.

Reading can provide hours of entertainment and pleasure, impart knowledge, expand vocabulary and give insight into unknown experiences. Additionally, research has shown that it has a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. If you need another excuse to pick up a book, here are six ways reading can benefit your health.

And if those six reasons don’t encourage you to pick up a book, then think of them as six ways you’ll be superior to other people.

Improve brain function

Neuroscientists at Emory University in America conducted a study and discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The study showed that when we read and imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described on the page, the areas within the brain that process these experiences in real life are activated, creating new neural pathways.1¬†So next time you‚Äôre indulging in an armchair adventure with a great book, you could technically claim you‚Äôre working out ‚Äď your brain, that is.

This study was rather small, consisting of 21 university aged participants who had 19 days of baseline brain scans before 9 days of scans as they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii novel. Warning: they had no null group in this study, only the baseline comparison, so any conclusions drawn should be done next to a salt shaker. It does, however, draw similar conclusions to previous research I’ve discussed.

Obviously, stimulating the brain by engaging with a story is going to light up parts of the brain, but there is the implication that using our brains in this way will strengthen pathways. Calling it a workout for the brain is probably a stretch because it isn’t like our brain sits around doing nothing the rest of the day. But for me, the more interesting thing is the shared response among participants. It proves Steven King’s adage true about writing being a form of telepathy.

The big unanswered questions here are how does this compare to any other shared activity, and how does it compare to other similar activities. I’d bet crypto money – always best to keep bets symbolic – that any other activities would see similar responses.

Increase longevity and brain health in old age

Researchers at Yale University School of Public Health found that, ‚Äėreading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.‚Äô According to their results ‚Äėa 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.‚Äô2¬†And the longer you live, the more time you have to get through your to-be-read pile.

This study nags at my skeptic-sense. Nothing immediately jumps out and screams “This study is nonsense, don’t believe it!” but I can’t help but feel like it is. They sampled¬†3,635 people in the USA and compared readers to non-readers for longevity. Don’t worry, they factored in stuff like¬†age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression. But I’m still left with the nagging sound of my statistics lecturer telling the class that correlation doesn’t equal causation. See this example about storks and babies!

My suspicion is that there is something unmeasured that is confounded with reading that is the actual causal factor. This factor is probably also available from other activities, thus other activities will also increase your lifespan. Just my suspicion. Happy to be proven wrong.

Reduce tension levels

A 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce tension levels by up to 68 per cent.3¬†Researchers studied a group of volunteers ‚Äď raising their tension levels and heart rate through a range of tests and exercises ‚Äď before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading was the most effective method according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. The volunteers only needed to read silently for six minutes to ease tension in the muscles and slow down their heart rate. If ongoing stress is an issue take a look at these¬†simple stress management tips.

This claim is hard to pin down. It’s not like other studies haven’t shown reading (and yoga, humour, cognitive, behavioural, and mindfulness) have impacts upon stress levels. But unlike the linked studies, Lewis’ study hasn’t been published. The source in the Canadian National Reading Campaign links to The Reading Agency in the UK which cites an article in The Telegraph. Now, I suspect that this was probably one of those studies done for a report that no one has read because the only publicly available material on it is the press release. But it could also be rubbish research that didn’t get published because of claims like 300% and 700% better than other activities sound like made-up numbers.*

Increase emotional intelligence & empathy

Numerous studies have shown that reading books can promote social perception and emotional intelligence.2¬†Studies have also found that when a person is reading fiction, they showed greater ability to empathize. Similar to the visualization of muscle memory in sports, reading fiction helps the reader use their imagination to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.1¬†For books that‚Äôll test your empathy, push your moral boundaries and ask ‚Äėwhat would you do?‚Äô, take a look at¬†this collection.

I don’t know why they referenced the same two studies again as they didn’t look directly at the issue of emotional intelligence and empathy. I’ve seen better studies, such as the one I mentioned in my piece on Literary Fiction In Crisis, and this one that literary people like to wave around because they can’t afford a Ferrari. So while this appears to be true enough, it is worth understanding why (read this one and see how lots of books have differing levels of literary merit).

Improve sleep

While some scientists believe reading before bed can inhibit sleep due to heightened brain activity, researchers at Mayo Clinic recommend reading as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that can help promote sound sleep.4¬†This, coupled with the tension-relieving benefits of reading, can vastly improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. You may want to stay away from page-turning crime and thriller novels though ‚Äď you could be up all night‚Ķ

Clearly these people don’t read thrillers. Am I right people? Huh?

Anyway, it is worth reading what the Mayo Clinic actually said:

Prevention
Good sleep habits can help prevent insomnia and promote sound sleep:
Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soft music.

That’s right, it wasn’t that reading helped you sleep, it was that it could be part of a relaxing bedtime ritual. Could. They didn’t recommend it so much as used it as an example of a relaxing activity that wasn’t playing on the computer or watching TV (i.e. screen based). So this is overstating things a bit.

Improve overall wellbeing

Researchers at Italy’s University of Turin published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy: the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Their findings showed that participants in six of the studies saw significant improvements in their overall wellbeing for up to three years after partaking in a course of reading therapy.5 With that in mind, here are some books to help you achieve mindfulness and find happiness in the everyday.

Worth reading the actual link on this one. In summarising they have made this sound like wellbeing benefits were being measured in most of the studies out to three years when only one of the ten studies did. This could just be me nitpicking, but it does overstate the results in my opinion.

As with many of my posts breaking down a sciency article, you can see that at best the claims are overstated, or as I’ve summed up previously I think you’ll find it is more complicated than that. And as much as I like reading – and I’m sure many of you reading this do as well – too often this sort of science isn’t actually helpful.

Sure, reading is awesome, but if you’re going to stick someone in an MRI to prove it, how about comparing it to other activities and including a nill treatment. That’s called good science! Readers don’t actually need some scientist to tell them their hobby is awesome (or maybe they do), and they especially don’t need overstated claims about that science in articles, it goes astray.

* Seriously, check out this “abstract” quote:

Abstract: Tested against other forms of relaxation, reading was proved 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea, 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind.¬†‘Galaxy Commissioned Stress Research’, Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868356/#s007title
2 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953616303689
3¬†Dr. David Lewis ‚ÄúGalaxy Stress Research,‚ÄĚ Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)
4 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
5 https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/27/suppl_3/ckx186.244/4555858

 

 

Appealing to the echo chamber with memes

Don’t you just hate seeing a misleading meme that was clearly aimed at reinforcing an audience’s biases? Isn’t it just terrible how easily misinformation can be spread in this manner? Isn’t it funny how memes stop us thinking too hard about the content such that we don’t fact check them?

Well, I hope I’m not alone. Or we’re all doomed. Doomed, I say.

Now I could discuss any one of hundreds of memes that circulate daily in political discussions. But, as a heavy hitter who has addressed the issue of memes before, I’m going to be tackling serious misinformation.

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That’s right, this meme on the benefits of books is serious misinformation.

Now, before people start¬†thinking I’m being melodramatic in calling a non-political meme that is just a bit of fun about books, remember, books are a $124 billion industry. So when people are talking about the format wars with memes like the one above, it is serious… Well, as serious as any discussion of an entertainment and leisure industry can ever be. Particularly if we take the existentialist view of the world.

I could, of course, have used a different meme. One with anti-science messaging, or a misleading political message designed to further divide public discourse, or one about cats, everyone loves cats. But if I did that, people would take one look at the meme and have either agreed or disagreed, and would be uninterested in anything else discussed. And this is part of the problem. Memes, like a lot of modern discourse, are designed to get you nodding your head in agreement before you think too hard. They allow you to outsource your thinking and fill in your knowledge on a topic by appealing to you with relatable content.

This meme is styled in a friendly cartoon manner. It has a whimsical font. Whimsical! It could be flirting with your partner and you wouldn’t mind. It is also appealing directly to the people who like their books to be made of the flattened entrails of trees, with relatable jokes about how terrible e-books are. But don’t think. It doesn’t want you to think.

Let’s take these points one by one.

Glare:
Books have glare. If you’ve ever sat out in the sun and read a book on white paper you’d have noticed how much squinting is involved. Either that or you had a patch of white scarred onto your retinas. Books also don’t fare well without a decent light source. Soft light causes just as much squinting.

No battery:
Neither does a shovel. Lots of things don’t have batteries, including my computer that plugs straight into the wall. The idea that an e-reading device (Kindle, iPad, etc) requires a power source, unlike the “superior” book, isn’t a like-for-like comparison. A Kindle holds thousands of books and can access libraries and stores directly. A smartphone can tell you the time. Let’s see a paper book do that.

Dog ears:
Nope. No self-respecting reader and book lover dog ears books. This is sacrilege. It would be like promoting the ability of books to retain coffee stains.

No pop-up ads:
None on my Kindle or iPad either. You’re reading wrong. Oh, and books have ads in them, usually for other books by the same publisher and/or author.

Smells good:
Clearly never borrowed a book from a library. I’ve borrowed some, even own one, that smells like it has been swimming in vomit at some stage. This is actually a reaction from the chemicals used in production. And e-reading devices smell just fine. As long as they don’t get left to swim in vomit at any stage.

Probably won’t get stolen at the beach:
Probably says more about the meme creator’s selection of reading material than anything. Maybe read less Twilight and more Kerouac to have you book stolen.

The trick to memes is that they slip the misinformation past you while you aren’t concentrating. Whether it be a¬†misattributed¬†quote or some cherry-picked statistics, it is easy to deceive people when they are busy looking at a pretty picture.

In the case of the paper books (DTBs), the “benefits” are dubious as soon as you think about them for more than two seconds. And notice that they aren’t benefits, like improved empathy, or greater cognition, or better communication abilities (see the rest of the list). Instead, the list is all about bashing e-books.

When the format wars discussion starts, everyone rolls out their usual banal reasoning for their preferred format. Without fail someone will talk about the smell of dead tree books (DTB), or the feel of eviscerated tree flesh in their fingers, or refer to some¬†dodgy research¬†that¬†denigrates e-books.¬†For some reason, the reading world is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better. This meme is no different, and I’ve addressed this issue before.

Whether it be dodgy “science”, or misleading memes, we need to critically assess the information we receive and share. Otherwise, the errorists win.

Creativity Explained

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Last week I reblogged an article about some new research into what makes us creative. This week I’m sharing a video from one of my favourite YouTube channels, which essentially covers the same work. But this one is a video!

Since this is going to be a three part series, I’ll update this post as the other videos are released.

Part 2:

Further reading:

Kidd, C., & Hayden, B. Y. (2015). The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Neuron, 88(3), 449-460.

De Pisapia, N., Bacci, F., Parrott, D., & Melcher, D. (2016). Brain networks for visual creativity: a functional connectivity study of planning a visual artwork. Scientific reports, 6.

The Real Neuroscience of Creativity – Scientific American.

Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world.

Catapult. Durante, D., & Dunson, D. B. (2018). Bayesian inference and testing of group differences in brain networks. Bayesian Analysis, 13(1), 29-58.

Li, W., Yang, J., Zhang, Q., Li, G., & Qiu, J. (2016). The Association between Resting Functional Connectivity and Visual Creativity. Scientific reports, 6.

Bendetowicz, D., Urbanski, M., Aichelburg, C., Levy, R., & Volle, E. (2017). Brain morphometry predicts individual creative potential and the ability to combine remote ideas. Cortex, 86, 216-229.