Clarity Is Rewarded, at Least Among Cave Experts

After Deirdre McCloskey published her classic “Economical Writing” in Economic Inquiry, Jack High published a critique in the same journal arguing that young economists would ruin their careers if they followed McCloskey’s advice to write clearly. High claimed that clear writing would be less published and economists who wrote more clearly would therefore be less likely to receive tenure. McCloskey published a rebuttal saying that clear writing was more likely to be published, to be read, and to help the writer receive tenure. But she added that even if she was wrong about that, we should try to write clearly because it is the right thing to do.

The study mentioned below provides some evidence to support McCloskey’s claim that clarity is rewarded.

(p. D2) . . . a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. The study focused on manuscripts written by scientists who study caves, . . .

They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication — with the public but also among scientists — suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.

For the full story, see:

Katherine Kornei. “Confused by All That Scientific Jargon? So Are the Scientists.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists.” Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The study discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Martínez, Alejandro, and Stefano Mammola. “Specialized Terminology Reduces the Number of Citations of Scientific Papers.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain (April 7, 2021)
https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2581.

The McCloskey classic article, and the exchange with Jack High, are:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

High, Jack C. “The Costs of Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 543-45.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Reply to Jack High.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 547-548.

How Chuck Yeager Acquired the ‘Right Stuff’: “I Worked My Tail Off”

(p. A1) Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation, who was the first to break the sound barrier and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” died on Monday [December 7, 2020] in Los Angeles.

. . .

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a (p. A23) Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

. . .

Mr. Wolfe wrote about a nonchalance affected by pilots in the face of an emergency in a voice “specifically Appalachian in origin,” one that was first heard in military circles but ultimately emanated from the cockpits of commercial airliners.

“It was,” Mr. Wolfe said, “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

In his memoir, General Yeager said he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the right stuff, since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.

“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

. . .

At a time when the administration of President John F. Kennedy was encouraging diversity in the Air Force, a former test pilot, Edward Dwight Jr., became the only African-American astronaut candidate at the school. But he was never selected for the astronaut corps, retired from the Air Force in 1966 and became a sculptor, specializing in bronze representations of heroic figures in Black history.

In July 2019, Mr. Dwight told the New York Times that General Yeager had never given him a fair chance. “Every week, right on the dot,” Mr. Dwight said, “he’d call me into his office and say, ‘Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you, and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.’ Calling me a boy, and I’m an officer in the Air Force.”

Responding to those remarks, General Yeager said that he had never told anybody that he would get Mr. Dwight out of the program, that he had not held weekly meetings with him, and that he had never called him “boy.”

But he did question Mr. Dwight’s ability. “Isn’t it great that Ed Dwight found his true calling and became an accomplished sculptor?” he wrote in an email.

. . .

In his memoir, General Yeager wrote that through all his years as a pilot, he had made sure to “learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment.”

It may not have accorded with his image, but, as he told it: “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. “Fighter Ace and Test Pilot Embodied ‘the Right Stuff’.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 9, 2020): A1 & A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated December 9, 2020, and has the title “Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Is Dead at 97.” The paragraphs quoted above about Edward Dwight appear in the print, but not in the online, version of the obituary.)

Tom Wolfe portrayed Yeager as the exemplar of the “right stuff” in:

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1979.

Yeager’s memoir is:

Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.

Humans Excel at Finding and Using Patterns

(p. 9) At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

. . .

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

. . .

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

For the full review, see:

Christine Kenneally. “Systematizers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Dec. 9, 2020, and has the title “Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?.”)

The book under review is:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Freireich on Chemo-Cocktail Cure for Childhood Leukemia: “I Thought About It and I Knew It Would Work”

(p. A20) Dr. Emil Freireich, a renowned cancer doctor and relentless researcher who helped devise treatments for childhood leukemia that transformed the lives of patients thought to have little hope of survival, died on Feb. 1 [2021] at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he had worked since 1965.

. . .

When Dr. Freireich (pronounced FRY-rike) started work at the N.C.I., in Bethesda, Md., in 1955, acute childhood leukemia was considered a death sentence. Entering the ward where the children were being treated, he recalled their hemorrhaging because their blood had virtually no platelets, the disc-shaped cells that clot blood.

. . .

Dr. Freireich, a hematologist and oncologist, tested his hypothesis that the lack of platelets was causing the hemorrhaging by mixing some of his own blood with some of the children’s.

“Would it behave normally?” he said in interview for an N.C.I. oral history project in 1997. “Sure enough, it did.”

Further testing, done to persuade his skeptics at the cancer institute, proved him right.

. . .

. . . Dr. Freireich’s most important and most enduring achievement was in using a combination of drugs to send leukemia into remission. He explored options in chemotherapy with several N.C.I. colleagues, including Dr. Emil Frei III, who was known as Tom.

They made an aggressive assault on childhood leukemia by devising a cocktail of four drugs that would be administered simultaneously — a technique similar to the three-drug regimen used to treat tuberculosis — so that each one would attack a different aspect of the physiology of the cancer cells.

“It was crazy,” Dr. Freireich told Mr. Gladwell. “But smart and correct. I thought about it and I knew it would work. It was like the platelets. It had to work!”

But not without peril and concern. Some of the children nearly died from the drugs. Critics called Dr. Freireich inhumane for experimenting with his young patients.

“Instead, 90 percent went into remission immediately,” he told USA Today in 2015. “It was magical.” But temporary. One round of the cocktail was not enough to eliminate all the cancer, so Dr. Freireich and his team treated them with the drugs monthly for more than a year.

. . .

Dr. Freireich compared his early fight to cure childhood leukemia to being in a battle in which he and the N.C.I. team had an alliance that was “forged under fire.”

To cure cancer, he added: “Motivate people and give them the opportunity. People are innately motivated. Nobody likes to be lazy and do nothing. Everybody wants to be significant.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Emil Freireich, 93, Pioneering Researcher and Cancer Doctor, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 13, 2021): A20.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Feb. 8, 2021, and has the title “Emil Freireich, Groundbreaking Cancer Researcher, Dies at 93.”)

Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter to Freireich in Gladwell’s book:

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Quiet, Modest Steinsberger Said Scientists Should “Be Interested in Learning About Nature,” Not in Seeking Prizes

(p. B12) Jack Steinberger, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for expanding understanding of the ghostly neutrino, a staggeringly ubiquitous subatomic particle, died on Saturday [Dec. 12, 2020] at his home in Geneva.

. . .

In 1988, The Economist said Dr. Steinberger “enjoys a reputation as one of the finest experimental physicists in the world.” The magazine continued, “In a field full of flamboyance and a fair bit of arrogance, he is a quiet, modest man; something of a physicist’s physicist.”

As if to prove the point, Dr. Steinberger told a meeting of Nobel laureates in 2008 that scientists should “be interested in learning about nature,” not prizes.

“The pretension that some of us are better than others,” he said, “I don’t think is a very good thing.”

For the full obituary, see:

Douglas Martin. “Jack Steinberger, Physicist Awarded a Joint Nobel Prize, Is Dead at 99.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 17, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Jan. 20, 2021, and has the title “Jack Steinberger, Nobel Winner in Physics, Dies at 99.”)

The Curious Still Have a Lot to Learn

(p. 22) Earlier this week, and more than 2,700 feet underwater by the northern Great Barrier Reef, a remotely operated vehicle named SuBastian engaged in a stare-off with a burrito. That’s what the creature looked like from a distance: an untoasted cylinder floating eerily upright in the ocean’s twilight zone, like takeout from Triton.

. . .

When Dr. Vecchione got a good look at the image, he knew exactly what it was: Spirula spirula, or the ram’s horn squid. Spirula is the only living squid to have an internal coiled shell, which it tucks under the fleshy flaps of its rear end, according to Jay C. Hunt, a biologist at East Stroudsburg University. The squid can also emit lime-green light from a large photophore, also located on its behind.

. . .

Although the Spirula sighting may be a scientific first, it did not make a strong initial impression on the researchers onboard. “We’ve seen bobtail squids and dumbo octopuses where we say, ‘Wow, this is the cutest thing,’” Ms. Cornet said. “This one was weird-looking, and looking at us with its weird eye.”

Perhaps even more surprising than the creature’s cameo was its strange positioning. Scientists had always assumed that Spirula swam with its head pointed down and its gas-filled bottom in the air. When Dr. Vecchione caught living Spirulas in trawl nets and plopped them in cold water onboard, the “sort of alive” squids always floated rump-up, he said.

This hypothesis made sense; the squid’s gas-chambered shell buoyed it like a nautilus, after all. But it raised another question. Deeper-living creatures often point their photophores downward, disguising their silhouettes from predators lurking below. Beaming a green light toward the sky, on the other hand, serves no clear purpose. “This is neither common nor does it make sense,” Dr. Vecchione said.

But the Spirula caught on camera was clearly head-up, suggesting that its downward-gazing photophore was most likely used for counterillumination after all. “This makes sense,” Dr. Vecchione said.

Although the photophore mystery may now be solved, a right-side-up Spirula would seem to have a balancing problem, with the squid’s body mass precariously balanced on its buoyant shell. “When you design an R.O.V. you don’t put the heavy stuff on top and the floats on the bottom,” Dr. Lindsay said.

For the full story, see:

Sabrina Imbler. “A Squid Seen in the Wild, Perhaps for the First Time.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, November 8, 2020): 22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 31, 2020, and has the title “‘They’re Calling You on the Squid Phone’.” In the last sentence of the first paragraph quoted above, the phrase “like takeout from Triton” appears in the online, but not the print, version.)

“Exhilaration and Loneliness of Pioneering Thought”

(p. A15) In “The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English Polymath and a French Polyglot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz recount Thomas Young’s and Jean-François Champollion’s competing efforts toward decipherment.

. . .

The authors are chiefly concerned with Young’s and Champollion’s approaches to the hieroglyphic riddle. Rarely have I seen the false starts and blind alleys, firm beliefs and 180-degree recalibrations, exhilaration and loneliness of pioneering thought captured so well. On the other hand, not every reader will match Champollion’s stamina or persevere through the book’s densest thickets. Dramatic touches are few. Champollion probably didn’t, as commonly reported, faint at the moment of his triumph. And Young was no swashbuckler. Indiana Jones hates snakes. Young hated idioms.

If “The Riddle of the Rosetta” won’t be coming to screens anytime soon, its achievement is no less admirable. For nearly 500 pages we are invited to inhabit the minds of two of history’s finest linguists.

For the full review, see:

Maxwell Carter. “BOOKSHELF; Found In Translation.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, September 18, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 17, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Riddle of the Rosetta’ Review: Found in Translation.”)

The book under review is:

Buchwald, Jed Z., and Diane Greco Josefowicz. The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English Polymath and a French Polyglot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

2016 Law Requires FDA to Move to Mining Real-World Data and Away from Costly and Slow Clinical Trials

(p. A1) Drugmakers are trying to win drug approvals by parsing vast data sets of electronic medical records, shifting away from lengthy, and costly, clinical trials in patients.

. . .

For the companies, the use of real-world data can cut costs and shorten drug-development times. Instead of finding trial subjects, companies simply mine hospital and doctor files for cases where patients already took a drug in routine medical care, looking for changes in blood pressure, tumor size and other readings to see if the medicine is helping or causing a side effect.

. . .

(p. A2) . . . for rare diseases especially, it can take a while to even enroll enough patients in studies. And their cost can limit the number of trials that companies can fund, drugmakers say.

A 2016 law required the FDA to explore greater use of real-world data, and the agency is developing standards to assess the reliability of different data sources and which kinds of decisions the data support.

“Real-world evidence should not be a means toward dropping standards, but rather a mechanism to have more efficiency in evidence generation while maintaining standards,” said FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, a former executive at health-data firm Flatiron Health.

A market has emerged in recent years for digital drug-use information. Iqvia Inc., which tracks prescription and health data, has about a dozen projects under way, said Nancy Dreyer, the company’s chief scientific officer of real-world evidence.

For the full story, see:

Peter Loftus. “Drugmakers Mine Data to Avoid Clinical Trials.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019): A1-A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 23, 2019, and has the title “Drugmakers Turn to Data Mining to Avoid Expensive, Lengthy Drug Trials.”)

Mathematical Disciplines Need the “Re-injection” of “Empirical Ideas”

(p. C4) Mathematicians have faced a similar choice between pure and applied work for millennia. In his 1940 book “A Mathematician’s Apology,” G.H. Hardy made a hard-core case for purity: “But is not the position of an ordinary applied mathematician in some ways a little pathetic?…‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one.”

On the other hand, John von Neumann rebuked purity in his 1947 essay “The Mathematician”: “As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source…it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing,…whenever this stage is reached, the only remedy seems to me to be the rejuvenating return to the source: the re-injection of more or less directly empirical ideas.”

I think von Neumann has the better of this argument. In his own career, he used his mathematical talents to pioneer fields like game theory and computer science, leaving a titanic legacy, practical as well as intellectual.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Beautiful, Impractical Physics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020): C4.

(Note: ellipses in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 29, 2020, and has the same title as the online version.)

The John von Neumann essay mentioned above is:

Neumann, John von. “The Mathematician.” In Works of the Mind, edited by Robert B. Heywood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 180-96.

Costs and Difficulties of Clinical Trials Delay “Most Promising Experimental Drugs”

(p. A6) As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc in the United States and treatments are needed more than ever, clinical trials for some of the most promising experimental drugs are taking longer than expected.

Researchers at a dozen clinical trial sites said that testing delays, staffing shortages, space constraints and reluctant patients were complicating their efforts to test monoclonal antibodies, man-made drugs that mimic the molecular soldiers made by the human immune system.

As a result, once-ambitious deadlines are slipping. The drug maker Regeneron, which previously said it could have emergency doses of its antibody cocktail ready by the end of summer, has shifted to talking about how “initial data” could be available by the end of September [2020].

And Eli Lilly’s chief scientific officer said in June that its antibody treatment might be ready in September, but in an interview this week, he said he now hopes for something before the end of the year.

“Of course, I wish we could go faster — there’s no question about that,” said the Eli Lilly executive, Dr. Daniel Skovronsky. “I guess in my hopes and dreams, we enroll the patients in a week or two, but it’s taking longer than that.”

For the full story, see:

Katie Thomas. “Clinical Trials of Drugs For Virus Are Delayed By a Swamped System.” The New York Times (Saturday, August 15, 2020): A6.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 14, 2020, and has the title “Clinical Trials of Coronavirus Drugs Are Taking Longer Than Expected.”)

Bayesian Updating, Not Clinical Trials, Is Key to Advancing Medical Knowledge

(p. D8) In the early pandemic era, for instance, airborne transmission of Covid-19 was not considered likely, but in early July the World Health Organization, with mounting scientific evidence, conceded that it is a factor, especially indoors. The W.H.O. updated its priors, and changed its advice.

This is the heart of Bayesian analysis, named after Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century Presbyterian minister who did math on the side. It captures uncertainty in terms of probability: Bayes’s theorem, or rule, is a device for rationally updating your prior beliefs and uncertainties based on observed evidence.

. . .

As Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard, noted on Twitter, Bayesian reasoning comes awfully close to his working definition of rationality. “As we learn more, our beliefs should change,” Dr. Lipsitch said in an interview.

. . .

But there is little point in trying to establish fixed numbers, said Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida.

“We should be less focused on finding the single ‘truth’ and more focused on establishing a reasonable range, recognizing that the true value may vary across populations,” Dr. Dean said. “Bayesian analyses allow us to include this variability in a clear way, and then propagate this uncertainty through the model.”

. . .

Joseph Blitzstein, a statistician at Harvard, delves into the utility of Bayesian analysis in his popular course “Statistics 110: Probability.” For a primer, in lecture one, he says: “Math is the logic of certainty, and statistics is the logic of uncertainty. Everyone has uncertainty. If you have 100 percent certainty about everything, there is something wrong with you.”

By the end of lecture four, he arrives at Bayes’s theorem — his favorite theorem because it is mathematically simple yet conceptually powerful.

“Literally, the proof is just one line of algebra,” Dr. Blitzstein said. The theorem essentially reduces to a fraction; it expresses the probability P of some event A happening given the occurrence of another event B.

“Naïvely, you would think, How much could you get from that?” Dr. Blitzstein said. “It turns out to have incredibly deep consequences and to be applicable to just about every field of inquiry” — from finance and genetics to political science and historical studies. The Bayesian approach is applied in analyzing racial disparities in policing (in the assessment of officer decisions to search drivers during a traffic stop) and search-and-rescue operations (the search area narrows as new data is added). Cognitive scientists ask, ‘Is the brain Bayesian?’ Philosophers of science posit that science as a whole is a Bayesian process — as is common sense.

. . .

Even with evidence, revising beliefs isn’t easy. The scientific community struggled to update its priors about the asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19, even when evidence emerged that it is a factor and that masks are a helpful preventive measure. This arguably contributed to the world’s sluggish response to the virus.

. . .

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, wrote in a letter to the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

In the Bayesian world, Cromwell’s law means you should always “keep a bit back — with a little bit of probability, a little tiny bit — for the fact that you may be wrong,” Dr. Spiegelhalter said. “Then if new evidence comes along that totally contradicts your main prior belief, you can quickly ditch what you thought before and lurch over to that new way of thinking.”

“In other words, keep an open mind,” said Dr. Spiegelhalter. “That’s a very powerful idea. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be done technically or formally; it can just be in the back of your mind as an idea. Call it ‘modeling humility.’ You may be wrong.”

For the full story, see:

Siobhan Roberts. “Thinking Like an Epidemiologist.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 4, 2020): D8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “How to Think Like an Epidemiologist.”)