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Mother’s Little Helper, the Brainstem

Psychologists have known for a long time what seems pretty obvious intuitively: that given two routes to achieve the same reward, a person will take the easier path.

But Not TWO Miles...

For example, if you were to ask a person to walk a mile to get a thick, juicy steak or ask them to walk two miles to get the same thick, juicy steak, it’s pretty obvious that most people would take the easier way to the food.

This has been codified as the Law of Less Work:

If two or more behavioral sequences, each involving a different amount of energy consumption or work, have been equally well reinforced an equal number of times, the organism will gradually learn to choose the less laborious behavior sequence leading to the attainment of the reinforcing state of affairs. — Clark Hull, Principles of Behavior (1943)

By analogy, and probably by common sense as well, it seems likely that we do the same with mental work as well.

However, it’s not that easy to make the leap.

Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is an example of that rare science book that sets me on a new way of thinking. That’s not to say I found it perfect — there is much to disagree with between its covers, some of which I will abstract here — but for framing and displaying the Big Questions that guide us as scientists, it has few parallels.

It seems the only uninterrupted (read: Internet-free) time I have to read is on airplanes. The time between boarding and achieving cruising altitude, and the mirror-image process of landing, is a time that all electronic devices are stowed, and therefore a perfect time for an old-fashioned, paper and pasteboard book.

I was sitting on the plane to Seattle, engaging in my usual practice of “eavesdropping” on what the person to my right was reading.

It was the book Bringing Up Boys by James Dobson. The passage at the top of the page he was reading (page 15, to be precise) said:

“Think for a moment about the above quotes from Steinem, Greer, and the other early feminists. Most of them were never married, didn’t like children, and deeply resented men, yet they advised millions of women on how to raise their children and, especially, how to produce healthy boys. There is no evidence that Steinem or Greer ever had any significant experience with children of either sex. Isn’t it interesting that the media (to my knowledge) never homed in on that incongruity? And isn’t it sad that these women were allowed to twist and warp the attitudes of a generation of kids?”

What I was reading was like a sort of Ode on a Grecian Urn of Nonsense, a perfection in stupidity. How did Dobson know that early feminists “deeply resented men” and “didn’t like children”? That damn mainstream media dropped the ball again, by refusing to expose the perfidy of people fighting for basic human rights. I’m not even sure what the evidence is for either Steinem or Greer “advis[ing] millions of women on how to raise children”. Sure, I know they wrote on the subject, but as an adolescent at the time, I don’t recall a lot of my peers’ parents following Greer’s advice to raise us like Tahitians. I don’t recall a single lavalava being worn to classes in my high school.

Iodine-131 in US Milk: Cause for Concern?

A good friend who trusts my judgment (silly rabbit) has asked me to comment on a recent blog report that screams, “Japan Nuclear Iodine Radiation in San Francisco Milk over 2600% Above EPA Drinking Water Limit”.

Now, I’m as concerned as the next guy (maybe more so) over contamination from the Fukushima reactor accident. But I don’t find reports like this one to be very helpful. Let me count the ways.

1. “Japan Nuclear Iodine Radiation” doesn’t make much sense to me.

2. There is no such thing as “San Francisco Milk”. In point of fact, there aren’t even any dead people in San Francisco, much less dairy farms.

3. “Over 2600%” sounds so much scarier than “over 26 times”.

4. Milk ain’t drinking water.

5. Call me a curmudgeon, but for years I’ve felt the way in which news is delivered is even more important than the content of the news. This blog is littered with ads for radiation treatments, scare headlines, lots of typos and out-and-out misstatements (e.g. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and not “University of Berkeley” so I’m pretty sure there is no such institution).

It was a good opportunity for me to go and take a look at the data. Here’s what I found. But first, some background on radiation and why we’re concerned about iodine-131 (also shown as 131I, a shorthand I’ll use here).

When a reactor accident or above-ground nuclear test occurs, a number of radioactive isotopes are given off. Radioactive decay occurs when the number of positively-charged protons and/or the number of non-charged neutrons in the nucleus are more than this structure can support. The picture here shows nuclear fission, but a number of other types of radioactive decay occur that don’t make for as violent a picture.

Liberally Thinking: Red Brain, Blue Brain

I was at a dinner party, held at a huge mansion lit with gaslamps. We were in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in one of the most conservative states in the union. But this was a party filled with liberals, and the whole enterprise had a feel like we were teenagers who had taken over someone’s parent’s house while they were away on a European vacation.

Sandra Irby had a conversational point to make, an amuse bouche for the group of a half-dozen of us huddled around a Louis XVI coffee table. “I know stupid conservatives, and I know smart conservatives.”

We all nodded at the “smart conservatives” part. Some of my best friends could put William Buckley to shame in the brains (and political orientation) department.

“But I don’t know any stupid liberals. Do you?”

“Teddy Kennedy,” I offered, citing his fatal error at Chappaquiddick.

Edward Kennedy leaves court at Edgartown, surrounded by state troopers. Source: AP.