Field of Science

Broken but not yet Dead

I became fairly ill on my last trip to Russia in August. The disease itself was fairly nasty if generally treatable, though it came with a not insignificant chance of developing fatal complications. Meanwhile, it took me a day to convince any of my friends that I was sick enough that I needed to see a doctor (they all wanted me to take various berries or herbs instead). Having gotten one friend on board, it took him a day to find a hospital that was open (one was closed because of a power outage, and several were open but all the doctors were on vacation). I eventually got to a doctor who gave me the necessary meds. Within a few days my fever was low enough I could get around reasonably well, and though I still felt like shit for a few weeks after that, I was able to fly home on schedule.

I was reminded of this story by Dr. Isis's harrowing account of her recent, nasty bout of mosquito-born infection. Her story is much more compelling than mine (one reason I didn't have a full post on mine before) and worth reading in its own right. What I picked up on in particular was the following:
Health care in the United States might be broken, but at least we have health care.  I spent the last two weeks teaching medical school in a country where much of the population doesn't have access to running water and access to fresh food is limited.  41% of children under four are iron deficient.  There are 60 times more low birth weight infants per capita than in the United States.  There is a hospital in the capitol city, but no CT, MRI, or dialysis. It has two intensive care beds. Nine ambulances service the entire country.  Medical record keeping is problematic and there is a shortage of technicians, doctors, and nurses.
That's absolutely true. It's also a reminder, though, that things broken -- if left without repairs too long -- eventually decay away. Right now it is nice that our (American) health care system is still better than that in the developing world ... but it's worrisome that it's not as good as that in the rest of the developed world. If we wait long enough without fixing it we may wake up one day and find that we are no longer in the developed world.

If this seems far-fetched, consider that among developed nations, we're in the middle or back of the pack in health care, primary education, income equality and especially Internet infrastructure. In most of these areas (perhaps not primary education) we've beens steadily losing ground for decades (we're also losing ground in fields where we're still technically ahead, like science). If that continues, we will eventually be left behind.

Apply to Graduate School?

Each year around this time, I try to post more information that would be of use to prospective graduate students, just in case any such are reading this blog (BTW Are there any undergraduates reading this blog? Post in the comments!).

This year, I've been swamped. I've been focusing on getting a few papers published, and most of my time for blogging has gone to the Scientific-American-Mind-article-that-will-not-die, which, should I ever finish it, will probably come out early next year.

Luckily, Female Science Professor has written a comprehensive essay on The Chronicle of Higher Education about one of the most confusing parts of the application process: the pre-application email to a potential advisor. Everyone tells applicants to send such emails, but nobody gives much information about what should be in them. Find the essay here.

I would add one comment to what she wrote. She points out that you should check the website to see what kind of research the professor does rather than just asking, "Can you tell me more about your research," which comes across as lazy. She also suggests that you should put in your email whether you are interested in a terminal master's. Read the website before you do that, though, since not all programs offer terminal master's (none of the programs I applied to do). Do your homework. Professors are much, much busier than you are; if you demonstrate that you are too lazy to look things up on the Web, why should they spend time answering your email?

For past posts on graduate school and applying to graduate school, click here.

Understanding and Curing Myopic Voting

The abstract from a recent talk by Gabriel Lenz of MIT:
Retrospective voting is central to theorizing about democracy. Given voters’ ignorance about politics and public policy, some argue that it is democracy's best defense. This defense, however, assumes citizens are competent evaluators of incumbent politicians' performance. Although little research has investigated this assumption, voters' retrospective assessments in a key domain, the economy, appear flawed. They overweight election-year income growth in presidential elections, ignoring cumulative growth under the incumbent. In this paper, I present evidence that this myopia arises from a more general “end bias” in retrospective assessments. Using a three-year panel survey, I show that citizens' memories of the past economy are inconsistent with their actual experience of the economy as they reported it in earlier interviews. They fail to remember the past correctly in part because the present shapes their perceptions of the past. I then show similar behavior in the lab. When participants evaluate economic and crime data, I again find that election-year performance shapes perceptions of overall performance, even under conditions where the election year should not be more informative. Finally, I search for and appear to find a cure. Presenting participants with cumulative information on performance (e.g., total income growth or total rise in murders during incumbents’ terms) cures this myopia. On one hand, these results are troubling for democracy because they confirm citizens’ incompetence at retrospection. On the other hand, they point to a remedy, one that candidates and the news media could adopt.
That's a remedy as long as the candidates and news media don't simply lie about the fact. Good luck with that one.

Bad News for Science Funding

NIH expects to have to cut the percentage of grant applications that are funded from 20% to a historic low of 10%. Let's point of for the moment that 20% was not very high, but 10% is rough. The expected outcome is that some labs will close, and those that don't will have to do less research, if for no other reason than that they will spend more time writing grants and less time doing real work (guess who pays the researcher's salaries while they write grants: NIH. So this also means that less of the money in the remaining grants will go to actual research).

The reason for the expected cutback is the Republican vow to cut discretionary civilian spending to 2008 levels. I understand living within one's means. I have a fairly frugal household (in graduate school, my wife attended a university-sponsored seminar on how to manage on a graduate student budget, only to discover that the recommended "austerity" budget was considerably more lavish than ours; we promptly started eating out more). But focusing on discretionary spending seems like someone $100,000 in debt clipping coupons: it's maybe good PR but as a solution to the problem, it's hopeless. This graph says it all:

Go ahead and cut all discretionary spending: you get a 16% reduction in the budget (which is in the neighborhood of our current deficit) at considerable cost. So maybe the coupon example isn't the right one. This is someone who, with a $100,000 debt, lets his teeth rot in his mouth because he's saving money on toothpaste.

New Language Experiment for Bilinguals

I'm not sure I've ever blogged about a conference past the first day. I'm usually too tired by the second day. BUCLD is particularly grueling, running over 12 hours on the first day and near 12 hours on the second. Plus the parties.

I do want to point folks to one thing: Thomas Roeper, Barbara Zurer Pearson and Margaret Grace, all of the University of Massachusetts, are running an interesting study on quantifiers (words like all, some, each, and most). One interesting thing about this study is that while language researchers very often exclude non-native speakers and bilinguals, the researchers are very interested in comparing results from native and non-native speakers of English. Right now, they're looking for people who learned some language other than English prior to learning English.

The study is here. They are particularly interested right now in getting data from non-native English speakers. There is a raffle that participants can win (details are on the site).

Boston University Conference on Language Development: Day 1

BUCLD is one of my favorite conferences, not least of which because it takes place every year just across the river. This year has been shaping up to be a particularly good year, if the first day is any indication.

Ben Ambridge (w/Julien Pine & Caroline Rowland) gave an excellent talk on learning semantic restrictions on verb alternations. Of all the work Steve Pinker has done, I think his verb alternation work is the least well-known, but it's also probably my favorite work, and it's nice to see someone systematically revisiting these issues, and I think Ambridge is making some important contributions.

Kenny Smith (w/Elizabeth Wonnacott) presented a really neat proof-of-concept involving language evolution, showing that you can get robust regularization of linguistic systems in a community of speakers even if none of the individual learners/speakers have strong biases to regularize the input. This was a really fun talk; one of those talks that makes one reconsider one's life choices ("should I be studying language evolution?").

Dea Hunsicker (w/Susan Goldin-Meadow) presented new analyses of an old home-sign corpus, looking at evidence that this particular home sign had noun phrases. Home-sign, for those who don't know it, is an ad-hoc mini sign language often developed by deaf children who don't have exposure to a developed sign language.

If I had to pick a best talk, I'd pick Erin Conwell's talk (w/Tim O'Donnell & Jesse Snedeker) on the dative alternation, in which she sketched an explanation of why, although double-object constructions are overall more frequent that prepositional-object constructions, the latter seem to be more productive in early child language. But I may be biased here in that Erin is a post-doc in the same lab as me.

There were a number of other good talks today that I saw -- and many that I didn't -- which deserve mention. I'd write more, but it's late, and there's another full day coming up tomorrow.

Seriously ambiguous pronouns

The intro to Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles goes something like:
In the future, my son will lead humanity in the war against Skynet, a computer system programmed to destroy the world. It has sent machines back through time, some to kill him, one to protect him.
The only reading I get on this is that "it" refers to Skynet, and thus Skynet has sent machines back to kill John Conner as well as protect him. So I'm only a few episodes into Season I on Netflix Instant, so perhaps I'm about to find out that Skynet is playing some weird kind of Robert Jordan game, but I suspect rather the writers wanted "it" to refer to "the war". I can get that reading if I squint, but it seems incredibly unnatural.


The best thing I can say about the last two years is that Democrats have made real investments in science. After eight years of stagnant or falling funding, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Luckily, Republicans are back to suck the air (and life) out of us again. After the complete clusterfuck that was the Bush administration, I don't know why anyone would be willing to call themselves a Republican, much less vote for one. But if I knew everything about human nature, I wouldn't have to run experiments. 

I wish Obama and the Dems had been doing more to fix up the wreckage left behind by Bush, but at least they don't seem hell-bent at destroying the economy. I hope you all enjoyed the respite.

In the meantime, vote. Just in case.

For previous posts and more details on Republican and Democratic science policies, read this, this, this and this, among others.