Tag: Jonah Lehrer

Nassim Taleb: We Should Read Seneca, Not Jonah Lehrer

For those who didn’t follow him, Jonah Lehrer has a gift for turning science into a great story. His beautiful writing made it hard to resist the narrative fallacy.

The recent news about him fabricating quotes and generally offering a tenuous commitment to the truth caught me by surprise. But one question that we should have asked ourselves long ago — should we have avoided Lehrer and other pop-science journalists altogether?

Nassim Taleb argues yes.

In his book Anti-Fragile, he writes:

We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. Explanations change all the time, and have changed all the time in history (because of causal opacity, the invisibility of causes) with people involved in the incremental development of ideas thinking they always had a definitive theory; experience remains constant.

…what physicists call the phenomenology of the process is the empirical manifestation, without looking at how it glues to existing general theories. Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: If you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can eat plenty of lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.

The same holds for the statement Lifting weights increases your muscle mass. In the past they used to say that weight lifting caused the “micro-tearing of muscles,” with subsequent healing and increase in size. Today some people discuss hormonal signaling or genes, tomorrow they will discuss something else. But the effect has held forever and will continue to do so.

On Facebook, Taleb writes:

When it comes to narratives, the brain seems to be the last province of the theoretician-charlatan. Add neurosomething to a field, and suddenly it rises in respectability and becomes more convincing as people now have the illusion of a strong causal link—yet the brain is too complex for that; it is both the most complex part of the human anatomy and the one that is the most susceptible to sucker-causation and charlatanism of the type “Proust Was A Neuroscientist”. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons brought to my attention in their book The Invisible Gorilla the evidence I had been looking for: whatever theory has a reference in it to the brain circuitry seems more “scientific” and more convincing, even when it is just is randomized psycho-neuro-babble.

Taleb’s point, I think, is that most of Lehrer’s writing on science, while narratively sexy, derived from theories based on very little data. Most of these theories, won’t be around or even talked about in 100 years. Seneca, on the other hand, explained things that are still true today. Lehrer is noise. Seneca is signal.

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Still curious? A great way to start reading Seneca is to pick up Letters of a Stoic and Dialogues and Essays.

Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?

Jonah Lehrer comments on a new study forthcoming in Psychological Science led by Jason Moser at Michigan State that helps explain why some people are more effective at learning from their mistakes than others.

…the scientists applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

On the Moser study, Lehrer comments, “It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. As a result, they showed a spike in accuracy immediately following an error. … implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right.”

Dweck’s research, found mindsets have important practical implications. She debunked the commonly held belief that praise for ability encouraged motivation, concluding that “that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students’ achievement motivation than praise for effort.” How you approach the problem makes a difference. “According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.”

So, praising for innate intelligence encourages kids to avoid learning activities where they are likely to fail. And unless we experience the unpleasantness of being wrong and direct our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore the mind will never become effective at learning from mistakes. As Lehrer concludes, we’ll keep making the same mistakes, “forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.”

If you want to learn more, read Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.