At long last, we have arrived at the third and final post of my “Coming Out Trilogy.”
As promised, I want to focus this post on the role my struggles with depression and anxiety have played and continue to play in my interactions with my students, both in and out of the classroom.
My priorposts have covered the bleak statistics regarding depression and suicide rates among lawyers (nearly four times more likely to be depressed and six times more likely to commit suicide than the general public). Further, I also mentioned that many of our students are suffering from depression (32% by second semester first year and 40% by graduation). Although I have not found any specific data to support it, my guess is that an equal or (more likely) higher percentage of our students are also suffering from significant levels of anxiety.
In short, a third or more of our students are struggling with mental illnesses that are exacerbated (or triggered or caused or whatever word you most prefer) by the significant stresses of law school (and the various issues surrounding it, including -- to be frank – the cost, debt loads, and job prospects).* According to the research, if a person suffers a single incident of clinical depression, he has a 50% chance of experiencing another even if he takes antidepressant medication. After 3 incidents, there is a 90% chance of recurrance.** [I, for example, had my first (undiagnosed) bout of clinical depression in college and my first bout of anxiety (diagnosed) my first year of law school.] So, there is a very good chance that the depressed law students of today will be the depressed lawyers of tomorrow.
Our students need help to better understand the challenges of the profession they are entering: the potential for dissatisfaction, disillusionment, mental illness (including depression, anxiety and substance abuse), burnout, and more. When I left practice and started teaching, I promised myself that I would be open and honest with my students about my struggles and about the realities of law practice.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the Law and there were many, many aspects of practicing law that I loved (and at which I excelled). There were also aspects that I did not love (and tried my best to tolerate, sometimes less than successfully). I know, without reservation or qualification, that being a lawyer can be a highly rewarding career: emotionally, intellectually, and financially. If I was not honest with my students about the challenges of being a lawyer, however, I would be doing them a disservice.
Further, in my view, knowledge is power. With knowledge of the challenges and some of their causes, I figure my students will be better equipped to meet and overcome them.
In raising these issues with my students my basic goals are as follows: (1) to help destroy – via openness, honesty, and shamelessness – the very real stigma associated with mental illness in general and depression and anxiety in particular; (2) to make sure my students know that if they are struggling with depression or anxiety, they are not alone (even if they feel that way) and that there is no reason in the world for these illnesses to hold them back in any way; (3) to offer myself as a resource for any among them that are struggling; (4) to educate them about the challenges of practicing law; (5) to get them thinking about why they are in law school and what they want their lives in the law to be like (or if they even want a life in the law); and (6) to get them thinking, critically and proactively, about the different career paths, options, settings, locales and such available to those with law degrees, all of which can have a significant impact on their personal well-being.
So, what do I do? I talk openly and honestly about my struggles and experiences and I do so in class (in first year Civil Procedure). (Thanks to this series of posts, I now know I am not the only law professor in America who does this. Nancy Rapoport at UNLV does the same in her Contracts classes and there are, hopefully, others out there that do something similar.)
Of course, I do not do this on the first day of class. I am not that crazy.
You might think that the answer to this question is obvious. Obviously, it's your business, and yours alone, right? I mean, sure, maybe it would be considerate to discuss the potential ramifications of this activity with your partner. And you might want to consider the welfare of the bee. But other than that, whose business could it possibly be?
Well, as academic empiricists know, what others can do freely, they often require permission to do. Journalists, for instance, can ask potentially traumatizing questions to children without having to ask whether the risk to these children of interviewing them is justified by the expected knowledge to be gained; academics, by contrast, have to get permission from their institution's IRB first (and often that permission never comes).
So, too, with potentially traumatizing yourself — at least if you're an academic who’s trying to induce a bee to sting your penis in order to produce generalizable knowledge, rather than for some, um, other purpose.
Earlier today, science writer Ed Yong reported a fascinating self-experiment conducted by Michael Smith, a Cornell graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior who studies the behavior and evolution of honeybees. As Ed explains, when, while doing his other research, a honeybee flew up Smith's shorts and stung his testicles, Smith was surprised to find that it didn't hurt as much as he expected. He began to wonder which body parts would really smart if they were stung by a bee and was again surprised to learn that this was a gap in the literature. So he decided to conduct an experiment on himself. (In addition to writing about the science of bee stings to the human penis, Ed is also your go-to guy for bat fellatio and cunnilingus, the spiky penises of beetles and spiders, and coral orgies.)
Cornell University’s Human Research Protection Program does not have a policy regarding researcher self-experimentation, so this research was not subject to review from their offices. The methods do not conflict with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 1983. The author was the only person stung, was aware of all associated risks therein, gave his consent, and is aware that these results will be made public.
As Ed says, Smith's paper is "deadpan gold." But on this point, it's also wrong.
In Part I of this little series, I laid out some of the statistics regarding the scope of the problem of depression and anxiety among lawyers and law students. Before I tell my story, I want to spend a little time talking about why these diseases are so prevalent among lawyers.
One of the more eloquent “whys” for the high incidence of depression among lawyers was contained in an opinion piece by Patrick Krill (a lawyer, clinician and board-certified counselor) that accompanied the CNN article on lawyer suicides. As Patrick put it, “lawyers are both the guardians of your most precious liberties and the butts of your harshest jokes[; i]nhabiting the unique role of both hero and villain in our cultural imagination….” Patrick explained that the high incidence of depression (and substance abuse, which is another huge problem) was due to a number of factors but that “the rampant, multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor.” Further, “there are also some personality traits common among lawyers — self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness -- that aren't always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.”
Patrick’s discussion of this issue really stuck a cord with me. Practicing law is hard. The law part is not that hard (that was the fun part for me), but the business side of law is a bear. Finding clients, billing time, and collecting money, are just a few aspects of the business of law of which I was not a big fan. Keeping tasks and deadlines in dozens (or hundreds) of cases straight and getting everything done well and on time is a constant challenge. The fear of letting one of those balls drop can be terrifying, especially for the type A perfectionist who is always terrified of making a mistake or doing a less than perfect job. Forget work-life balance. Forget vacations. Every day out of the office is another day you are behind.
Plus, as a lawyer (and especially as a litigator), no matter how good a job you do, sometimes you lose. That inevitable loss is made worse by the emotion that the lawyer often takes on from his or her client. Almost no client is excited to call her lawyer. Clients only call, of course, when they have problems. Those problems can range from the mild (for example, a traffic ticket) to the profound (like a capital murder charge). But whatever the problem, the client is counting on the lawyer to fix it. Every lawyer I know takes that expectation and responsibility very seriously. As much as you try not to get emotionally invested in your client’s case or problem, you often do. When that happens, losing hurts. Letting your client down hurts. This pain leads to reliving the case and thinking about all of the things you could have done better. This then leads to increased vigilance in the next case. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for some lawyers this leads to a constant fear of making mistakes, then a constant spike of stress hormones that, eventually, wear the lawyer down. The impact of this constant bombardment of stress hormones can be to trigger a change in brain chemistry that, over time, leads to major depression.
Depression is a subtle and insidious disease. By the time you are sick enough to recognize that you have a problem, your ability to engage in accurate self-evaluation is significantly impaired. It is a strange thing to know, deep down, that something is wrong with you but to not be able to recognize the massive changes in yourself. Helping yourself at that point is often impossible. Unfortunately, those suffering from depression become expert actors who are extremely adept at hiding their problems and building a façade of normalcy. Eventually, it takes all of your energy to maintain this façade. The façade becomes the only thing there is.
Depression is not a character flaw. It is not a weakness. It is not a moral failing. You cannot “just get over it.” No amount of will-power, determination or intestinal fortitude will cure it. Depression is a disease caused (in very basic and general terms) by an imbalance and/or insufficiency of two neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin and norepinephrine. In this way, it is biologically similar to diabetes, which is caused by the insufficiency of insulin in the body. As a disease, depression can be treated – and treated very effectively. But it takes time and it takes help – personal help and professional help.
And now we get to the personal part. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Last night, the ABA Section on Law School Accreditation and Review announced one of the most significant changes to law school accreditation standards in over twenty years. By a split vote, the Section voted to eliminate the mandated use of LSAT and GPA's in law school admissions. The majority decided that the pernicious effects of these indicators - and particularly, the way in which they easily facilitate law school rankings such as U.S. News - 0utweigh any value they might otherwise provide admission committees. The Committee was particularly troubled by the routine use of GPA's which have been shown to reflect more of an average of undergraduate performance while marginalizing high and low grades, as well as a student's median performance. The Committee also backed off its prior enthusiastic support of the LSAT, noting that it is only a small snapshot of how a student performs on tests. In lieu of the LSAT and GPA, the ABA urged law schools to look at the whole candidate, including both successes and failures.
While the news was significant, the ABA did not outright prohibit use of such indicators. Instead, it suggested that schools might utilize other tests in addition to the LSAT, such as the GMAT, the GRE, and the fMRI. Similarly, the ABA identified other indicia of undergraduate success beyond the GPA, such as departmental honors, selective club membership, or generosity under difficult circumstances. The ABA seemed particularly interested in facilitating more direct communication between undergraduate institutions and law schools, suggesting the creation of a recommendation marketplace where law admissions committees and recommenders could engage in more dynamic and iterative process of reference creation and evaluation.
Reaction among professors has been muted, although Paul Campos, the Harold Camping Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, argued that this change was unlikely to reverse the trend of law schools admitting students based primarily on their ability to apply to law school.
Scamblogger critics called it yet another ABA sham. "I'll bet that everyone on that Committee is in the pocket of [Santa Clara law professor Stephen] Diamond", wrote one anonymous commenter at Lawyers, Guns and Bitcoins. And with an almost ritualistic incantation, the commenter added, "Brian Leiter is nothing more than a legal philosopher and quite possibly an oenophile."
Dan has kindly invited me to step back into the lounge for a bit.
What's on my mind is the Winter Olympics, and rankings.
As a part of Olympic coverage, we see the medal count rankings.NBC always uses total medal counts. Last night’s NBC ranking had the U.S. at No. 1 with 23 medals. But total medal count treats all medals as equal; if Ecuador had had 24 Bronze medals, it would have led the rankings.
But the mettle of a team is measured by metal, not just counts; Gold medals are better than Silver medals, which are better than Bronze medals. The rankings on the official Sochi website last night ranked Norway No. 1, even though it had only 20 medals.
Just in time for the "holiday," Twitter brings us #AcademicValentines. Not surprisingly, many of these tidings of love and joy center on tenure:
But for you academic commitophobes out there, you can always hedge your bets:
Ouch. Of course, many entries address scholarship strategy...
...and methodology (again, offered in the more and less committed varieties)...
...and the beloved peer review process:
There are even nods to scholarly citation styles:
Sure, but is she committed enough to convert to Bluebook? That's dedication. And speaking of Bluebook, and the legal academy's penchant for insisting that every factual claim, no matter how obviously true or otherwise universally accepted, be cited:
I'll end with another one of my favorites:
Anyway, check out the live updates under the hashtag, or this great storify of some of the best ones from the past few days.
From the truth is (a lot) stranger than fiction files comes this disturbing story, which interweaves—in ways that would be deemed implausible, if they appeared in a fiction manuscript—several of the topics I've written about here before: legal academia, human subjects research (sort of), reproductive technologies, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing, and preference heterogeneity.
Recently, a family—wife, husband, 21-year-old daughter—with an interest in genetic genealogy decided to avail themselves of 23andMe's DTC services. They received the results and were surprised to learn that the daughter is the biological child of the wife, but not the husband (and confirmed these results through clinical testing). So far, not so fantastic a story. Rates of non-paternity in the general population are traditionally said to be about 10%, although recent studies have suggested much lower rates. And the fact that the family discovered non-paternity through DTC genetic testing? Welcome to 2013.
The couple, it turns out, had had difficulty conceiving, and in 1991 had sought the help of Reproductive Medical Technologies, a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah. Several times, clinicians there inseminated the wife with her husband's sperm. Alas, no pregnancies resulted. They decided to give artificial insemination one final try and—success. Some twenty-one-years later, they reflected on their newfound knowledge of the husband's nonpaternity and figured that there must have been a mix up in the clinic. They imagined the life now perhaps being lived by another 21-year-old, created from the husband's sperm and another artificially inseminated client. Unfortunate though they are, accidental mix-ups in fertility clinics are known to happen.
In this case, the family took its nonpaternity results beautifully in stride; the daughter knows that the man who raised her is her "real" dad, and he knows that she is his "real" daughter. Indeed, the family decided to go further and seek out their daughter's biological father—and perhaps the husband's biological daughter. To do so, they used the other two major DTC genetic genealogy companies, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, to find close paternal relatives of the daughter. Searching for biological relatives through DTC genetic genealogy is increasingly common. Here's a great story about one adoptee's search, for instance, and only yesterday, I agreed to share my 23andMe profile with an adoptee looking for biological relatives. We're not quite yet at truth-stranger-than-fiction status yet.
The AncestryDNA testing yielded a predicted second cousin for the daughter, and the family made contact. The second cousin was at a loss to explain their genetic connection, except to note that her first cousin, an only child now deceased, had lived in Salt Lake City at the time and told the family that he'd been a sperm donor. When she shared his name—Thomas Ray Lippert—and an older picture of him, the husband and wife recognized him as Tom, who had worked at the front desk of the fertility clinic as well as in the back, as a technician. The wife
remembered [Tom] proudly displaying dozens of photos of babies behind his desk, boasting that he had helped all of their parents conceive. Looking at all of those beautiful babies and Tom’s confidence gave [the wife] hope that she and [the husband] could have the baby that they so desperately wanted as well. She never could have imagined how far Tom apparently would go to “help” couples conceive. [The husband] too remembered him and recalled thinking that Tom was a bit odd when he handed him the sample receptacle and the magazine.
Admittedly, discovering that someone in the fertility clinic substituted his sperm for the husband-client's is slightly more fantastical, but hardly unheard of in the real world. Tom's mother, still living, consented to genetic testing, which confirmed that Tom was indeed the daughter's biological father.
What happens next, however, reads like the kind of fantastical plot elements that would get a fiction manuscript tossed.
The latter book features some of law profs' favorite predictable irrationalities, including the endowment effect, framing, and hyperbolic discounting. Pictured here is anchoring bias (or, in the book's preferred nomenclature, reference dependence). As someone who thinks the law doesn't always leave sufficient space for altruism, and that in general legal academia has tended to overemphasize bounded rationality (and, to a lesser extent, bounded will-power) while overlooking the interesting implications for law and policy of bounded self-interest, I was particularly pleased to see that the book includes a discussion of preferences for fairness and competitor orientation. H/T Cass Sunstein on the Twitters.
done before, I thought I’d offer up some recent highlights from my Twitter feed that may be of
interest to TFL readers but escaped notice. Alors, in no particular order:
— First up is an
interesting draft by USC economists Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo, The neurobiology
of opinions: can judges and juries be impartial? The authors draw on
neuroscience to model belief formation and decision-making by judges and
juries, concluding that “early cases in a judge's career may affect his
decisions later on, and that early evidence produced in a trial may matter more
than late evidence,” and that “the distribution of preferences in a jury
affects the way information is interpreted by individual jurors.”
— Anyone who has
been paying attention knows that adjuncts get a raw deal. But this
adjunctreally got a raw deal. (To
be fair, her former institution may have been distracted by more
— In (much)
lighter news (which you will need after you read about the adjunct), I give you The
Hotness-IQ Tradeoff in Academia. The philosophers, apparently, are to be congratulated. Alas,
legal academia is not represented, although perhaps that’s for the best; I fear
that the law types may have ended up below the line with their med school
counterparts (a placement that suggests that such faculty are even dumber
than their physical appearance would have predicted).
— I’ve always
thought that the 1L curriculum could do with some informal logic. And with An Illustrated Book of Bad
Arguments, it really couldn’t be easier. Come to think of it, I’ve found
myself on the business end of the Guilt By Association fallacy (illustrated right) more than once while workshopping a paper. So maybe we could
all use a refresher course.
— UNC and Harvard
have apparently both seen the light and (consistent with a pending proposal by
federal regulators) largely taken away from IRBs responsibility for assessing
information privacy risks and given
that responsibility to actual IT experts. What’s that adage about a
thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
— Maybe this is
only an issue for those of us who work in or near the sciences, but you know
those emails you get inviting you, on behalf of your Extraordinary Contribution
to a field (often, one in which you have contributed precisely nothing) to be the Most
Honored Speaker at some random conference? You guys know that those conferences are fake, right? Well, this
guy didn’t get the memo, and boy is he (rightly) pissed.
I noted last week that the intersection of Michigan law and the Bankruptcy Code provided some interesting questions about the scope of the Supremacy Clause, the Tenth Amendment, and federalism generally. On a more lighthearted note, the Wall Street Journalreported today that the bonds issued for construction of the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument (which featured briefly in Jack Nicholson's About Schmidt) would get $50,000 on a $20 million tab. That's .0025%. But it's worse than that: The initial issue was for $60 million, which was voluntarily written down by the bondholders to $20 million in 2002. Talk about haircuts!
But on a positive note, "'Not many bonds were sold locally,' Joel Johnson, the foundation board’s chairman, told Bankruptcy Beat."
Detroit bondholders beware: Matters could be worse. Much worse.
Yes, I have a daughter who's One Direction crazy. So I had to go through the fairly substantial effort required to figure out what doesn't seem to be anywhere else on the web: the hours of the Philly 1D store. The store is open until July 28, 2013. It's at 1518 Walnut St. And its hours are Monday to Saturday, 11-7. Sunday, 11-6. Consider this a public service - for Lounge readers everywhere!
North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a glorious place to live. Besides the benefits of three major research institutions within a half-hour of each other (UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and NC State), it’s warm, green, diverse, friendly and overflowing with great food and culture.
But living in a college town can have its dangers. This week’s police blotter in Chapel Hill reports that a developer building a small residential enclave near my neighborhood has had the development’s new street sign stolen off the pole three times since January. The new street: Road Less Traveled. For those who took the Road Less Traveled, I want to know: Did it make all the difference?
This is what happens when people read. Poetry corrupts; good poetry corrupts creatively.
Nice little bit from artist Vi Hart over at Brain Pickings. Taming the Trolls. A little uncomfortable psychoanalysis in the piece if negative comments get you down (which they do me from time to time). Brain Pickings is a great site and offers lots of wonderful tidbits of interest to academics and non-academics alike -- most of which have nothing to do with trolls and such.
So last night, the Twitterverse discovered, seemingly by accident, that today at noon, Jonah Lehrer will make his first public appearance since his spectacular fall from grace after admitting not only to self-plagiarism but also to borrowing from other writers (including his friend Malcolm Gladwell) without attribution and fabricating interviews and sources. His appearance will come in the form of a keynote address at the Media Learning Seminar 2013, sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The organizers of the event report that Lehrer will give a typically Lehreresque talk on the neuroscience of decisionmaking, including the decisions that led him to defraud his readers. In case you aren't in Miami, it's your lucky day: the event, including Lehrer's talk, is being livestreamed here.
As some have pointed out (see the comments, too), this was a pretty soft launch for what organizers are only now saying, after Twitter and its many angry fellow science writers discovered Lehrer's scheduled appearance, will include a mea culpa from Lehrer. The fact that the conference bio of Lehrer makes no mention of his misdeeds, including the fact that the publisher of his most recent book, Imagine, took the unusual step of recalling all copies of the book, does not inspire confidence that either the Knight Foundation or Lehrer initially intended this to be a thoughtful, appropriately contrite reflection on what happened. Lehrer's former colleague, collaborator and friend, the science writer David Dobbs, for one, is pretty angry. He says that he and others he knows are owed, but have not received, apologies from Lehrer, and he has pressed the conference organizers to put a few questions to Lehrer today.
As for Lehrer's anticipated discussion of the neuroscience of plagiarism and fabrication, I confess that my expectations are low. I've always thought that by far Lehrer's biggest sin was not his self-plagiarism, his more traditional plagiarism of others' work, or even his fabrication of Dylan quotes. Reusing text from his blog in a New Yorker post is between Lehrer, his God, and the various people who paid him for unique content, but I can't get very worked up about it on behalf of his readers. And as for his "old fashioned" plagiarism, that is, of course, a serious misdeed, but Gladwell readily forgave his friend, and Dylan, not surprisingly, doesn't seem to care.
As a serious consumer of social science and one interested in how it is produced and communicated, for me, Lehrer's biggest sin will always be the poetic license he took with science in the name of crafting a sexy and sellable just-so story. (Lehrer's fellow science writers who were denied the opportunities Lehrer has been given, in part because they insisted on engaging in careful and responsible — but less sexy — science communication are also victims of this sin.) You can read more about that here. (Disclosure: Lehrer's interlocutor in this exchange, and in an earlier New York Timesbook review of Imagine, is my husband. I also watched with some irritation as Lehrer came close, as the scandal unfolded, to blocking publication of their interview. Discount accordingly.)
Update: The archived video of Lehrer's talk is here (the conference organizer begins moving in the direction of an introduction to Lehrer at around the 1:00:30 mark, and Lehrer himself starts at around the 1:03:30 mark). As others have remarked, the paralells to Lance Armstrong's mea-culpa-cum-comeback are hard to miss. Also of note: the giant screen behind Lehrer scrolling live tweets, most of them critical of him. No doubt the $20,000 Lehrer was paid for the talk helped ease the pain.
Update 2: Image above is an ironic screen shot from Poynter.org, which first reported Lehrer's fee, which Knight is referring to (also ironically) as an "honorarium."
Update 3: Aaannd...updated title to reflect that the speaker in question is in fact Jonah, not Johan, Lehrer.
For readers desperate to confirm that Katie Holmes, actress and ex-wife of Scientologist Tom Cruise, is headed to law school, I have very good news: there has never been a better year for the daughter of Toledo attorney, 67 year old Martin J. Holmes Sr. to attend law school. I trust that, if she is going to learn to think like a lawyer, she'll head to the family law school: the University of Toledo College of Law. Her dad and her brother (the Junior, of course) are both graduates of UT and both practice in Toledo.
I assume that having survived all the law-talk over the dinner table, as a kid, she'll get boffo LSAT scores and win a generous scholarship. (Shoot: she got a 1310 on her SAT's and could have attended Columbia University. She didn't, of course, and now she's going to have to complete 3/4 of her college degree first in order to go to an ABA accredited law school. Alternatively, she could attend the California accredited Southern California Institute of Law, which seems to admit people with no virtually no undergrad coursework, so long as 90% of the coursework that does exist is nonvocational. But she should be forewarned that the school is boasting a 0% pass rate on the California bar recently.)
In any case, she may not want to spend a ton on her legal education so she can stash away most of the $400K in annual child support she receives so that Suri's 529 plan will be nicely stuffed when it's time for her to head to college. At the current pace, Suri's tuition at Columbia - should she be accepted and choose to attend - will be $84,702 per year in 2024, when she turns 18. Of course, she could save a ton of money by attending a state school - say, the University of Toledo - for her BA. At $43, 335 per year, it's sure to be a bargain!
To those faculty hiring
committees who asked me to explain my PhD dissertation, Finitude, Transcendence, and Ethics:
Sartrean-Niebuhrian Resources for Understanding Difference and Dominance, in
layman’s terms: I regret that this
explanation is coming so late, but here
it is, using only the most commonly used 1,000 words in the English
Riener (follow him @criener), an
enterprising psychology professor, has begun a Tumblr, Up Goer Your PhD, collecting
doctoral dissertation abstracts written in layman’s terms, as described above.
His project is a riff on this brilliant
layman’s diagram of Saturn 5, otherwise known — when one is limited to the most
common 1,000 words — as “Up Goer 5.” People using Up Goer to explain a variety
of other complicated concepts can be found on Twitter at #UpGoerFive.
Many Up Goer projects turn out to be hilarious, and they’re fun to create, too.
But there’s a serious point
here as well. Jargon (including technobabble, neurobabble, and other babbles) can
be efficient shorthand when conversing among other experts. But let’s be frank:
it can also conceal some serious B.S., not only from our readers, but also from
ourselves. Why? We often believe that we understand concepts better than we
actually do — sometimes called the Illusion
of Knowledge (disclosure: the interviewee is my husband), or the Illusion
of Explanatory Depth. Many studies have found that people often overestimate
how well they understand complex phenomena (even distinct from general
overconfidence bias). In one set of experiments,
subjects were often unable to draw a functioning bicycle, despite having
previously reported that they understood bicycle mechanics. In another,
subjects displayed similar overconfidence in their understanding of devices,
procedures, natural phenomena, and movie plots.
In addition to being fun, being forced to “up goer”
your writing on a complicated subject is an extraordinarily useful exercise. It’ll
keep you honest. Try it with this handy
text editor that lets you type your layman’s explanation into a box, and
tells you when you’ve used a verboten word. When you’re done, there’s a button
to click that lets you permalink your Up Goer creation and tweet, Facebook, or
blog it — but the button only appears when you have avoided all verboten words.
In some contexts, this could also be an excellent teaching tool. Give it a try:
it’s harder (and more illuminating) than you think.
Postscript 1: The original dissertation abstract from which I was working is here. It's been a while since I wrote it, and I confess that as I began to up goer it, even I wasn't sure, at points, exactly what I'd been talking about. (When you live and write long enough, I suppose you have this out-of-body experience more and more often.) With some effort and recollection and the help of the Up Goer text editor, however, I satisfied myself that my dissertation was not, in fact, B.S. There was a there, there after all. On the other hand, I now sort of feel like my 5-year-old could have written it. Tradeoffs.
Postscript 2: A bit of nerd humor about empirical versus non-empirical methods.