Tag Archives: polymath

Reliable Lie Detection Cues

We mistakenly attribute fidgeting, stuttering and avoidance of eye contact as outward signals of mendacity, suggests recent research into lie detection, showing that these are some of the least accurate ways to predict whether or not someone is lying.

Instead, the most reliable way to tell if someone is lying is by listening carefully:

Professor Richard Wiseman […] says that common sense is the lie-buster’s best weapon, and affirms that it is aural rather than visual clues that are key.

Wiseman’s 1994 experiment […] had 30,000 participants watching or listening to two interviews he conducted with Robin Day. In one, Day told the truth; in the other he lied. Viewers could not spot the lie: there was a near-50/50 vote. Radio listeners, however, achieved over 70 per cent accuracy.

“Lying taxes the mind,” Wiseman explains. “It involves thinking about what is plausible. People tend to repeat phrases, give shorter answers, and hesitate more. They will try to distance themselves from the lie, so use far more impersonal language. Liars often reduce the number of times that they say words like ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’. To detect deception, look for aural signs associated with having to think hard.”

According to the Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, another side-effect of lying that forensic interrogators will look for is the avoidance of verbal contractions – using “I am” instead of “I’m” and so on.

For Continuous Learning and Generalisation

Stating that our “reality is out of date” and coining the term “mesofacts” for those pieces of knowledge that pass us by unawares, Samuel Arbesman shows why continuous learning and generalisation are advantageous behaviours–or at least that specialisation to the degree that it is currently encouraged is outdated.

Slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling. […]

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

So what’s this I hear about Pluto?

Gladwell on Education, Hiring, Journalism

I haven’t read (m)any of Malcolm Gladwell‘s articles in the past 6 months as they’re all, well, a bit homogeneous. Plus, if there are any fascinating revelations that I really should hear about I’ll undoubtedly discover them (in a much-condensed form) in many other places rehashing his content.

This interview with Malcolm Gladwell—where he discusses education, hiring and journalism—is typically Gladwellian and worth your time, however.

On education:

If I were [the United States Secretary of Education], I’d think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. […] It’s not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they’re highly functional in certain areas. So I’ve always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other.

On teaching and hiring practises:

Certain kinds of predictions are impossible. If you want to find out if someone can do the job, you have to let them do the job. We should be experimenting with people too. I feel very strongly about the notion that if you want to find the best teachers, you let everybody into the profession, monitor them for two years, and then pick the 10% that are the best. That’s how you do it, and that’s completely the opposite of the way we do it now. Right now we’re acting out a fiction, which is that we can tell whether someone’s good at this enormously complex thing called teaching before they’ve ever taught.

And the single piece of advice he would offer to young journalists?

The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. […] Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

I particularly like that penultimate sentence: The role of the generalist is diminishing. It puts me in mind of this previous post on the end of the polymath and the downside of scientific progress (that I’ve just updated to include a link to the quoted post).

via @sgourley

The Downside of Scientific Progress

Scientific progress is making most ground-breaking academic achievements occur later on in researchers’ lives. This in itself is not a bad thing, of course, but could it be signalling the end of the polymath (or the intellectual polygamist, as Carl Djerassi would prefer it be called)?

Back in the early 19th century you could grasp a field with a little reading and a ready wit. But the distinction between the dabbling and doing is more demanding these days, because breaking new ground is so much harder. There is so much further to trek through other researchers’ territory before you can find a patch of unploughed earth of your own.

Slightly under half of [Nobel laureates] did their path-breaking work in their 30s, a smattering in their 20s—Einstein, at 26, was unusually precocious. Yet when the laureates of 1998 did their seminal research, they were typically six years older than the laureates of 1873 had been. It was the same with great inventors.

Once you have reached the vanguard, you have to work harder to stay there, especially in the sciences. So many scientists are publishing research in each specialism that merely to keep up with the reading is a full-time job. “The frontier of knowledge is getting longer,” says Professor Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society […] “It is impossible now for anyone to focus on more than one part at a time.”