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Seth RobertsRSS Feed of this column.

I am a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of Read More »


In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Gary Taubes argued that epidemiology does not provide a good basis for health decisions — it is often wrong, he claimed. By “wrong” he meant experiments were more pessimistic. Things that seemed to help based on surveys turned out not to help, or help much less, when experiments were done. A 2001 BMJ editorial disagrees:

Because Gary Taubes is probably the country’s best health journalist, his article in today’s NY Times Magazine (”Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?”) about the perils of epidemiology especially interested me. It’s the best article on the subject I’ve read. He does a good job explaining what’s called the healthy-user bias — people who take Medicine X tend to make other healthy choices as well. Does wine reduce heart attacks? Well, probably — but people who drink more wine also eat more fruits and vegetables.

An interesting Economist article about sex differences in a visual task calls an evolutionary explanation a “just-so story.” I don’t know if the late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary theorist, Harvard professor, and “one of the most influential and widely-read writers of popular science of his generation” (Wikipedia), invented this form of dismissal, but certainly he was fond of it. Here, for example:

A friend of mine has started to wonder how to find scientists he will feel comfortable working with. For the past year, he has been working in a lab in a very prestigious institution. He wrote me about it:

The director of my lab is a very successful scientist. She is also director of the research facility. Our personalities blended well initially, but then we grew apart. She is very nice, very busy, and impressively ambitious. Despite her genuine desire to be nice, honest, and good teacher, her ambition is supreme — above honesty and integrity from my point of view.

Robin Hanson’s excellent essay in Cato Unbound is a proposal to cut medical spending in half. The evidence suggests that this would do little harm and it would help us focus on more helpful activities. I like the way this article summarizes the RAND experiment, searches for the right metaphor, and answers objections.

I had a long correspondence with Deirdre McCloskey about what she and Lynn Conway did to try to ruin Michael Bailey. Most of it is on her website. The most interesting part was at the end.

She wrote:

Dear Professor Roberts:

Anyone who is chilled by being challenged intellectually, I suppose you agree, doesn't belong in intellectual life.