How many people has Dolly Parton killed?
Links & updates for Summer 2023
My friend Ethan Ludwin-Peery (coauthor of Things Could Be Better) has a new Substack called Mod 171, where he's writing about psychology and how to teach it. Ethan is one of the best and most original thinkers I know, and Experimental History would not exist without him. Check him out!
I kind of assumed that John F. Kennedy was like “hey guys let's go to the moon” and every American was like “woo yeah let's go to the moon!” but apparently most Americans were not in favor of the Apollo program at the time. The biggest critique was that the money could be better spent helping the millions of Americans who lived full-time on Earth, rather than the handful of Americans who lived part-time on the moon. See Gil Scott-Heron's “Whitey on the Moon”:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the Moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the Moon)
Ten years from now I'll be paying still.
(while Whitey's on the Moon)
Speaking of the moon, apparently there are more motorcycle crashes during full moons. The authors speculate this is because motorcyclists go “wowee, look at the moon!” and then crash. Supporting their claim, there are more motorcycle crashes during “supermoons,” when the moon looks especially cool.
I'm skeptical of this finding—why focus only on motorcycle crashes, rather than all vehicles? Are motorcycle dudes uniquely gaga for the moon? The authors admit that the effect is too small to detect in the UK, Canada, and Australia. In the UK, at least, that's perhaps because, as I've written before, Britons despise the moon. I shamed them for it back then, but perhaps they were merely practicing good road safety.
And speaking of traffic fatalities, you know those big electronic billboards on the highway that say things like “DRIVE SAFELY—THERE HAVE BEEN 4,000 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR”? There's some evidence that those messages increase traffic deaths:
Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this campaign causes an additional 2600 crashes and 16 fatalities per year in Texas alone, with a social cost of $377 million per year.
The authors suggest that people get distracted thinking about crashing their cars, and then they crash their cars. To their point, the effect gets bigger when the sign reports more fatalities and is thus, presumably, more distracting.
I guess this finding is plausible, and the stats seem to check out—the effects don't appear before the sign is visible, and they're strongest right after the sign. But if a single sentence can have such a noticeable effect, what about all the billboards that crowd the sides of the highway, with their bright colors and distracting messages? In other words, HOW MANY PEOPLE HAS DOLLY PARTON KILLED?
I've been enjoying’s Church of Reality series, which explores the mystical beliefs of legendary scientists. My favorite so far is on Barbara McClintock, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who apparently gained her field-changing insights by having visions of herself inside a big kernel of corn. Plus:
She had a Yogi-like ability to control pain. When she went to the dentist she assured him not to worry about inflicting pain because, by an effort of mind, she would not feel any. This piece of information may have raised the dentist’s eyebrows, but the result was as she predicted.
I keep coming back to this essay by the historian Ada Palmer about how progress happens. The best part is Chapter 5, where she describes how she has her students simulate a papal election from the late 1400s. Each player gets a historically inspired role, from a powerful cardinal to a lowly attendant, and they conspire, negotiate, vote, and ultimately elect a pope and fight a war. She writes:
So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs.
I find this very insightful, and even a little moving. Yes, it's impossible to overcome the great forces of history. But even the puniest person can tilt the future one way or the other.
Everyone agrees that open-access scientific articles are great. What most people don’t know is that “open-access” often means that the authors paid the journal to make their article freely available. As in, the journal was going to make money charging readers, but it charges the writers instead. And those writers are usually paying with federal grant money. So “open access” is really “government scientific funding goes directly to for-profit publishers.”
How much money are we talking here? Sam Gershman, a neuroscientist at Harvard, estimates that it’s millions of dollars per week. Just as one data point, getting Nature to make The Illusion of Moral Decline open-access cost a jaw-dropping $12,000. This is truly one of the greatest scams of all time.
RECENTLY ON EXPERIMENTAL HISTORY
In case you missed it, I wrote a piece in The Atlantic about how I ruined two birthday parties by signing up to do escape rooms with strangers. I also wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about my moral decline paper.
I was pretty impressed by the fact-checking that both publications did. For example, in the draft I sent the NYT, I claimed that cooperation rates in economic games had increased 10% since 1956. They requested the paper I got that number from, and they read it and sent me an email saying, “Um actually it looks like it's 8%?” and they were right. This is about 1000x more thorough and helpful than any peer reviewer has ever been.
THE ILLUMINATI LOVE THE ILLUSION OF MORAL DECLINE
Speaking of that moral decline paper, it's now one of the top 100 most-discussed scientific papers ever, adjusting for age. It's been covered by the Washington Post, featured on CBS, discussed on Radio Atlantic, and retweeted by Bill Gates. Which is exciting! (Still waiting for Gates to send me my complimentary mind-control nanobots.)
Some people call all of this “science communication,” but I hate that term because it lets scientists and scientific journals get away with being bad at transmitting knowledge. For more of this rant, see my conversation with social psychologist Andy Luttrell on his Opinion Science podcast.
PAYING YOUR RENT IS A CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Meanwhile, Nature Human Behavior asked me to write a short piece on the future of academic publishing, which you can read here.
This piece has a weird backstory. The editors at the journal asked me to disclose any conflicts of interest, and I told them that people can sign up for paid subscriptions to support my blog and get access to additional content, but all of my scientific work is free and publicly accessible. I figured this was so obviously not a conflict of interest that I almost didn't mention it, especially because they found me through Experimental History in the first place. But apparently it was a big surprise, because they rescinded their offer, claiming they wanted to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
I told them I thought their decision was pretty odd. Scientists write for the public all the time, and they make money doing it. How is this any different? Plus, Nature Human Behavior is itself supported by paid subscriptions!
I guess this worked, because they then un-rescinded their offer and the piece is now out. But the whole experience was bizarre. Did you know that some universities pay you a bonus for every article you publish in a high-status journal, or that some will dock your pay if you don't publish enough? (The premise of every tenure-track job, of course, is that you'll get canned if you don't produce enough papers.) If we're going to be serious about conflicts of interest in scientific publishing, perhaps we should include disclaimers like “Professor Dinglebat published this paper so he could afford his daughter's private school tuition,” or “Dr. Glorbulon's department told her she wouldn't get tenure unless she got three papers out in the next year, so she threw this one together.”
SUBSCRIBE TO EXPERIMENTAL HISTORY, GET $$$
Speaking of which, if you're not a paid subscriber, you missed my three-part series on negotiation that wrapped up recently:
I spent the past two years teaching negotiation to MBA students at Columbia Business School, and this series is my way of taking everything I know and making it useful to anybody, not just the people who are going to go work at Goldman Sachs or Rainforest Removal LLC or wherever. I'm really proud of these posts, and I'm willing to bet that learning the basics of negotiation will ultimately save you more than 10x the cost of a subscription. (That's certainly been true for me—right after I started teaching the class, I saved a couple thousand dollars by negotiating a dispute with my landlord, which I never would have done otherwise.)
STILL ACCEPTING LIZARDS
In my last post (An invitation to a secret society, OR: why you should be a lizard), I mentioned starting a Discord for people doing science outside of traditional institutions. That Discord is now going strong. If you want an invite, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also offered to help out anyone doing independent scientific projects as best I can, and I’ve heard from a number of people so far. Keep ‘em coming!
My most common response has been, “Just do it, write it up, and put it on the internet.” I think people are far too worried about getting everything perfect. The sooner you put something out there, the sooner you can find people who are interested in the same thing. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to quit. Just post!
FINALLY, ONE YEAR AGO ON THE BLOG
I’ll be hanging out in the comments, so jump in if you want to chat about anything.
Unlike certain icons of popular music, Experimental History has never killed anyone