Marks in the Margin will be taking a break for an indefinite period while I hole up in a grass shack on a remote island in the middle of the ocean to work on some long-delayed projects. Postings during this pause will be intermittent, if that. I'll still be reading, catching up on a long list of books that go back several decades, and training for the next season. Meanwhile, I wish each of you Happy Holidays and many thanks for reading and responding.


What's Next?

Last Tuesday, November 9th, The New York Times published a special anniversary issue of its regular Tuesday edition of Science Times. They asked “top researchers” in ten sciences to predict the future direction of their field and what the most important discoveries are likely to be during the next ten years.

The researcher’s disciplines ranged from genomics to mathematics to earth science. Here is a very brief list of ten disciplines and the predictions of the researchers:

Space Science: Learning more about asteroids

Game Science: Developing games for the study of women’s rights, climate change and medical innovation

Climate Change: Testing the accuracy of current climate change models

Engineering: Growing integration of biological processes in engineering real systems

Biotechnology: Refining methods for producing stem cells that will be “cheap, fast, and relatively easy.”

Conservation Biology: Increasing knowledge of marine biodiversity

Ocean Science: Exploration of the oceans (70% of the planet) with particular emphasis of the “mysterious” yet major worldwide effects of the Indian Ocean

Genomics: Reading new types of genomes and completing DNA sequencing (ordering) of an individual’s (or any organism’s) genome at a single time

Neuroscience: Determination of the physical organization of a memory within the brain

Mathematics: Discovery of scientific results that are correct and predictive but are without explanation. “We may be able to do science without insight, and we may have to learn to live without it.” [Personal note: My favorite prediction and one with particular relevance to psychology.]

There are several features of this list that concern me. I am struck by the overlap of disciplines. There are two pointing to improved understanding of climate change, two focusing on developments in the biological sciences, and two related to the marine sciences. Indeed, the majority of disciplines are drawn from the natural sciences.

Secondly, the social sciences are completely ignored. Not a single researcher in economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. is interviewed. Are these not sciences? Do they not seek general laws about the subject matter of their inquires? Are there no more discoveries to be made in these fields? Or is it simply that anyone with a head on their shoulders already knows the results of their studies?

Perhaps the editors at the Times do not consider these fields as sciences. Or perhaps they believe we now have a complete understanding of human behavior and are easily able to predict and control it. No, I am sure they do not hold these views. What then can account for their failure to interview a few representative investigators from these areas?

I am aware that they are not unified sciences and that there are frequent disagreements among investigators in these disciplines. For example, Rom Harre, researcher, teacher, and writer in the philosophy of science, and later in social psychology has written about his field, one that was mine for many years:

“It has been about 30 years since the first rumblings of discontent with the state of academic psychology began to be heard…Methods that have long been shown to be ineffective or worse are still used on a routine basis by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Conceptual muddles long exposed to view are evidence in almost every issue of standard psychology journals.”

Geoffrey Loftus, a leading cognitive psychologist has also spoken of his concerns about the field. “But I have developed a certain angst over the intervening 30 something years, a constant nagging sensation that our field spends a lot of time spinning its wheels without really making much progress.”

I suspect the same can also be said of the other social sciences. Still that doesn’t make them any less scientific in objectives and methods. Rather it reflects their developing state and the extraordinarily complex subject matter they have carved out to investigate. As others have said, the social sciences are the most difficult of all the sciences.

Finally, I might note that there are also wide areas of uncertainty and theoretical disagreements within the natural sciences. So in this respect they are no different than the social sciences, indeed probably any field of inquiry especially one that in comparison with the natural sciences is in an early stage of development.


Radio: Then and Now

In an essay in the November 11th New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reminds us how extraordinary radio is today and the way it has been transformed by the digital age. Yet it is rarely discussed and not much is written about it. I grew up with the radio and I have grown old with the radio so I appreciate how right he is.

Television was still several years away when I was a child and so my early experience with the media was exclusively an auditory one. As a result it was also an imaginative one. There was nothing to look at, no images before me, and so what traveled through my ears took me to my own places, my own mental maps. I had an RCA flip top radio that turned on and off by lifting a horizontal lid covering the dial, at that time exclusively AM. Somewhere on the box Nipper, the legendary RCA dog, was peering into a large speaker searching for his master’s voice.

I listened, if you can believe it, to Stuart Hamblin who sang country music and ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket, Arthur Godfrey who had a morning variety show, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy, etc. And on Sunday nights, instead of peering at 60 Minutes on the tube, we sat around a huge radio cabinet listening to the comedians of the day--Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen, Abbott and Costello, Fred Allen, etc. These are people you may never have heard of but they were wildly popular during what some have called golden age of radio.

I still listen to the radio and I do so far more often than I watch television. McKibben cites some intriguing statistics on radio listening today. He notes that in terms of frequency of listeners, Rush Limbaugh is number one with 14.25 million listeners, that’s 14.25 million listeners, during an average week. But surprisingly Public Radio is not far behind.

“National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week.”

In my view Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is far and away the number one program on NPR. I listen to her relentlessly perceptive and intelligent interviews when I workout and the moments pass by in a flash. I’ve never heard or seen an interviewer draw out a person better or get to the central issue faster than Gross and she’s been conducting the show for nearly thirty-five years. McKibben reports Fresh Air is syndicated to more that 450 stations and can claim of average of nearly 4.5 million listeners each week.

Every time I listen to National Public Radio I am struck by the range and originality of its programming. I often wonder why that kind of programming can no longer be brought to television? There was a time when it was on Omnibus during a nine-year period beginning in 1952. I must have seen almost all the hour-long shows that aired on network television each Sunday afternoon. They featured theater and opera performances, literary readings, interviews with celebrities, scientists and artists and some legendary concerts accompanied by lectures from Leonard Bernstein.

Once in a while, programs like these can be found on the Web. Why not TV? Yes occasionally there are comparable programs on cable TV but unlike those early television programs or those on Public Radio they are not given away for free.

Perhaps the most remarkable event that has come to radio during our time is the development of podcasting and radio Apps. Countless programs can now be listened to on iPods or other comparable devices. And the equally numerous programs that can be streamed to a radio station App have rewritten the rules of radio listening. I can listen to Fresh Air on WXYY, classical music on one of several stations, as well as programs that range from Ira Glass’ unusual This American Life to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! news hour on the Pacifica Network.

As McKibben says, “…this is the perfect moment to be a young radiohead.” I might add, there’s nothing wrong with being an old one too. Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio said it well, “It’s a transformative and exciting moment, a huge revolution.”


The Weekend

In The Weekend by Berhard Schlink, the author of the highly praised The Reader, a group of former compatriots gather together at a run-down countryside mansion to welcome the release from prison of their former leader, Jorg, a pardoned German political terrorist. Little happens during the weekend other than talk, many questions, recollections, and a good deal of food and drink. But the tension among these people is powerful and the arguments among them raise issues that cannot be easily dismissed today.

The group consists of Jorg and his sister and those she invited for the weekend--a lawyer, a journalist a cleric, an aspiring novelist, a dental technician and various spouses and children. Other than one younger guest, who urges a return to “the struggle” and bemoans the betrayal of the revolution by the others, most have made their compromises, rejoined society, and found their way to being good citizens.

It rains a lot, some pair off, others go for walks around the extensive grounds. But mostly they gather round the table to argue about the legitimacy of their violent revolutionary past and its many victims.

The book recalls the 1970s militant campaigns of the left-wing Baader-Meinhof gang and in its later stages the Red Army faction. One is also reminded of similar groups in Italy and Japan that formed after World War II. An argument can be made that the individuals who joined these groups felt they had to make up for the conformity and lack of resistance of their parents to the fascist states in which they lived. As Jorg explains it,

“Our parents conformed and shirked resistance—we couldn’t repeat that. We couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany.”

Otherwise he says very little. In a way, he seems a broken man, trying to adjust to life outside the prison and the demands it now places upon him. He needs a job and in the end accepts an offer to work in the dental technician’s office. Whatever happened to the fight against oppression? Perhaps it simply became tedious, as implied by the remark of one of the guests.

“When I started my studies, all that counted was existentialism, at the end of my studies everyone was keen on analytic philosophy, and twenty years ago Kant and Hegel came back. The problems of existentialism hadn’t been solved, nor had those of analytic philosophy. People were simply fed up with them.”

Still the fact that it may no longer be fashionable to speak of existentialism or analytic philosophy or oppression, for that matter, doesn’t mean the questions they posed have been answered.

Jorg’s estranged son also appears mid-way in the novel, disguised as an architectural historian who challenges his father to account for breaking up his family and the brutality of his terrorists actions. Jorg replies, “I know I have been wrong and made mistakes. I just want the respect due to someone who has given everything for a larger cause and a good one.”

His son then asks him, “What mistakes?” Jorg responds, “The victims. A struggle that doesn’t lead to success doesn’t justify victims.” The conversation continues—pass the rolls, is there any more coffee? And yet throughout there is the lingering, more general question: If you cannot win the struggle, should you not take it up?

Some critics have said The Weekend is a “bad novel,” that it is boring and ponderous or that “the characters are dead on the page.” I found it otherwise. The novel is not meant as a character study or mystery, or one with a good deal of action. Rather, it is one of moral reflection, especially for Germans who cannot easily forget their heritage or walk away from it.

The Weekend ends as if nothing momentous had gone on. “As easily as the friends had formed themselves into a whole, they would also fall apart again.” And one by one each of them drives away down the muddy road to their home.


Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

How are innovations developed? Do they spring forth in the mind of a single individual? Or are they crafted over time in a dialogue with others? Is there some recurring pattern that can account for their formation? These are the types of questions Steven Johnson considers in his densely packed, heavily researched book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Innovation.

In this book Johnson undertakes an analysis of 300 of the most influential innovations in areas ranging from the discovery of air conditioning, evolution, vacuum tubes, vacuum cleaners, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

It is an intellectual tour-de-force that is continually fascinating. Johnson argues that certain environments breed innovations effortlessly. Listing the major themes of this factually rich volume is, I think, the clearest way to illustrate his findings.

• Good ideas rarely spring de novo in the mind of a single person. It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world.

• Innovations are built out of a collection of existing ideas and they are limited to those ideas that happen to be around at any given time. Ideas are works of bricolage; they are built out of that detritus [of old ideas]…in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

• Innovations are often generated in open networks of ideas, individuals or settings that meld together seamlessly. …[a creative] space…sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw. It is designed to leak. In this sense it shares some core values with the liquid networks of dense cities.

• Good ideas often come from hunches that develop over a longer period of time. …the idea (Darwin’s theory of natural selection) didn’t arrive in a flash; it drifted into his consciousness over time, in waves… The Web came into being as an archetypal slow hunch: from a child’s exploration of a hundred year old encyclopedia, to a freelancer’s idle side project designed to help him keep track of his colleagues, to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform that could connect computers across the planet.

• Good ideas often occur by chance, say during a dream or while on a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub…)

• Innovations are often crafted from a tool or idea originally developed for a specific application but is then transformed or “gets hijacked” for a completely new one. Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation…Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine—the moveable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself—had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first bible.

• Good ideas often develop after a long series of false starts and errors. Being wrong forces you to explore…When we’re wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies.

• Finally good ideas are often formed in environments that encourage and promote exchanges between fields and methods of analysis.….[hotbeds of innovation] where different kinds of thoughts could productively collide and recombine.

In reviewing the 300 innovations (Each one is briefly described in the Appendix) that he studied, Johnson concludes that by far the majority developed in open environments, where there were no barriers (copyright protections), no economic incentives (market forces), and where ideas flowed freely in unregulated channels of communication.

For those eager to create the next big thing, Johnson concludes with this bit of advice: Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

(He also penned some not-so-subtle advice that is clearly aimed my way: New ideas do not thrive on archipelagoes.)


Charter Schools: A Reconsideration

In reviewing the film Waiting for Superman, I gave the impression that charter schools are uniformly superior to pubic schools on standard measures of educational achievement. That is the claim propagated in the film, one that is flatly contradicted by Diane Ravitch in a ringing critique in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

Ravitch argues that the writer and director Davis Guggenheim failed to acknowledge evidence that “only one in five” charter schools are able to outperform comparable public schools. “Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes…when there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones?”

She claims that Guggenheim simply ignored the wide variation in the effectiveness of charter schools, the fact that some are run by “incompetent leaders” or [for profit] corporations, that others have been accused of “unsavory real estate deals,” or whose directors are paid fees that range from $300,000-$400,00 a year.

In support of her claims she cites a major study of half the country’s 5,000 charter schools that revealed only 17% achieved superior outcomes on math tests compared to a matched sample of public schools, while 37 percent were worse, and the remaining 46% were no different.

Ravitch says the film gives the impression that charter schools work so well because they hire truly excellent teachers. She counters with a study indicating “teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains.” While teachers may be essential to the success of any school, other factors like curriculum, student background, as well as family income and support of student schoolwork are more important. According to research cited by Ravitch, “…about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors.”

I view Ravitch’s critique as a corrective to the depiction of charter schools in Waiting for Superman. The film is clearly designed to persuade viewers of their superiority. However, it does so by ignoring evidence that raises doubts about their effectiveness.

This is a common strategy in most persuasive campaigns. Yet there is much evidence that demonstrates presenting both sides of an argument is more effective. This approach not only enhances the credibility of the source, but also the strength of the message.

What is common to the effective charter and public schools that can account for their successes? To answer this question Ravitch points to the very excellent public education systems in Finland, Japan, and Singapore, widely recognized to be “high-performing” systems. She asserts they have “….succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”

These school systems often have a national curriculum that not only includes the basic skills of reading and math but also incorporates programs in the humanities, sciences, foreign languages, history, etc. They also have strong teacher training programs. Perhaps they can do all this so successfully because they are small countries with a fairly homogeneous population. Nevertheless, they represent an instructive model for those dedicated to designing more effective public education programs in this country.

I admit I have not read the reports cited by Ravitch. Rather my intent has been to report her views and thereby suggest a reconsideration of Waiting for Superman. In addition, I have not read the extensive literature comparing the effectiveness of charter and public educational programs. My account is based on secondary sources and the view of my informant who has read those studies and tells me that Ravitch’s claims are essentially correct.