Tania Lombrozo

About a dozen years ago, as I was preparing to leave Cambridge, Mass., for Berkeley, Calif., I took to carrying around a small camera on my walks to and from work and home.

I was hoping to capture something about the place and my time there before setting off for the West Coast.

During the past two years, fake news has been a frequent topic of real news, with articles considering the role of social media in spreading fake news, the advent of fake videos and the role these play in the political process.

Something less well-known, though, is that fake news has also become a topic of scientific investigation.

On March 7, 1907 — almost 111 years ago to the day — the English statistician Francis Galton published a peculiar observation.

At a county fair held in Plymouth, 800 visitors had participated in a competition to guess the weight of an ox. While most people's estimates were too high or too low — falling an average of 37 lbs. away from the true weight of 1,198 lbs. — the median of everyone's guess was off by only 9 lbs., or less than 1 percent of the true weight of the ox.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

At a conference last week, I received an interesting piece of advice:

"Assume you are wrong."

The advice came from Brian Nosek, a fellow psychology professor and the executive director of the Center for Open Science. Nosek wasn't objecting to any particular claim I'd made — he was offering a strategy for pursuing better science, and for encouraging others to do the same.

A couple of years ago, at the peak of my children's reluctance to eat vegetables, I decided to try an experiment.

When the kids arrived home from daycare one afternoon, I had bowls of colorful vegetables cut up and ready to go: crunchy red and yellow peppers, bushy little florets of broccoli, tomatoes and mushrooms and olives. I gave them each a cheese pizza base to "decorate" for dinner, and they gleefully complied. My older daughter made a face with olive eyes, broccoli hair, and a bright, red-pepper mouth. My younger daughter loaded on veggies by the fistful.

Two recent books, one a manifesto by British classicist and Cambridge professor Mary Beard, the other a work of fiction by novelist and game designer Naomi Alderman, address — in different ways — the difficult relationship between women and power.

When are women's voices heard? When and how do women have influence in public and private spheres?

As many families prepare for a visit from Santa, some are facing questions about the jolly old man in the red suit.

The fact that children will (sometimes) accept counterintuitive claims, like the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, has led some theorists to marvel at their willingness to take others at their word.

Stephen Jay Gould famously described the relationship between science and religion as one of "non-overlapping magisteria," with science restricted to facts and theories about the empirical universe, and religion to questions of moral meaning and value.

This is one way to understand the relationship between science and religion: two compartments with a solid wall between them, fixed and non-porous.

But it's by no means the only, or even the most popular, approach.

In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce describes the mind as "a mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain," engaged in a futile attempt to understand itself "with nothing but itself to know itself with."

In the world of Facebook, relationship status comes in a few flavors: "married" and "divorced," "single" and "it's complicated." When it comes to science, relationship status has its own varieties: love and hate, comprehension and confusion.

Some of these relationships reflect values and emotions, while others are epistemic: They reflect what we know or understand about science.

What's the relationship to science that we should be aiming to achieve? And why does it matter?

"The Good Place," an NBC comedy just beginning its second season, starts with a quirky premise.

Do mass shootings, like the tragic event in Las Vegas on the evening of Oct. 1, change people's minds about gun control?

From a policy perspective, we can ask whether changes in gun regulations would likely affect the occurrence of mass shootings and other forms of gun violence. (We certainly should be asking these questions.)

Curiosity is a familiar feeling among people.

But as soon as we scrutinize that feeling, curiosity reveals itself to be a complex emotion indeed. Just ask yourself: Is curiosity a positive feeling or a negative feeling? Is it more like frustration or more like anticipation? Is it a painful reminder of what we don't (yet) know, or a thrilling beacon towards what we might soon discover?

To appreciate that some questions are better than others, it helps to consider a few examples of questions that are bad.

To find them, try playing Twenty Questions with a young child. In trying to guess an animal, a young child might ask: Is it a koala? Is it an elephant? (Not: Is it a mammal? Does it live in Africa?) These are bad questions in the sense that they're unlikely to yield an efficient solution to the problem of discovering the animal one's adversary has chosen.

Early-childhood and elementary school programs reflect a diverse set of commitments about what children ought to learn, and about how they ought to do so.

Some focus on academic preparation and advancement, with extra attention to reading and mathematics. Some emphasize social-emotional development and community values. Others tout their language classes, or their music program, or the opportunities for children to engage in extended projects of their choosing. Some praise structure and discipline; some prize autonomy and play.

A few years ago, my daughter requested that her nightly lullaby be replaced with a bedtime story.

I was happy to comply, and promptly invented stories full of imaginary creatures in elaborate plots intended to convey some important lesson about patience or hard work or being kind to others.

The gold standard for establishing a causal relationship — between, say, a drug and some health outcome — is a randomized controlled trial, or RCT.

RCTs are powerful for a few reasons.

Those of my generation have seen enormous advances in speech recognition systems.

In the early days, the user had to train herself to the system, exaggerating phonemes, speaking in slow staccato bursts. These days, it's the system that trains itself to the user. The results aren't perfect, but they're pretty darn good.

A new paper by philosophers Dominik Klein and Matteo Colombo, forthcoming in the journal Episteme, defines a mystery as something that cannot be explained.

This definition doesn't stray too far from our everyday usage. The first definition of mystery to appear on a Google search, for example, is "something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain."

As June comes to an end, so do many events associated with Pride Month, a month-long celebration of sexual diversity and gender variance — often geared towards increasing the visibility of the LGBTQIA community, as well as combatting stigma and advocating for equal rights.

Last week at the supermarket, my daughter pulled me aside to choose a Father's Day card for her daddy.

Helping her read the cards was easy; explaining them to her was not (especially the funny ones). So when we got home, I did what any scientifically minded parent would do: I looked to the scientific literature for answers. I was lucky enough to find a journal article published just this month on the neurobiology of fatherhood. It clarified quite a lot.

One of the challenges that can arise in communicating science and other forms of scholarship to non-experts is the jargon involved.

How many people can confidently explain the meaning of broadband asymmetric acoustic transmission, mural lymphatic endothelial cells, or graded incoherence (to borrow some phrases from recent journal publications)?

CRISPR, 5 Ways

Jun 5, 2017

CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is the basis for a revolutionary genome-editing technology that allows researchers to make very precise modifications to DNA.

The implications are enormous — not only for the treatment of disease, but also for genetic engineering and scientific research more broadly.

When I first became a professor, I was 26. And female. (I'm no longer 26 but still female.)

Two years ago, when my children were 1 and 4, I "found" the following poem with the help of Google's autocomplete search function:

Today, with children now ages 3 and 6, I decided to repeat the experiment:

What I take away: First, motherhood is hard. That's just what the data suggest.

Drawing the boundary between science and pseudoscience isn't always straightforward.

Amid the clear extremes is a murky territory occupied by bad science, fraudulent science, and sometimes even religion. Is creation science, for example, an example of bad science, pseudoscience, or something else entirely?

Last Saturday, a powerful earthquake struck the Philippines.

It was first reported as having a magnitude of 7.2; this was later corrected to 6.8.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands of people across the country joined the March for Science, an event that the official website described as "the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments."

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