Communicating with the public, being out as a scientist.

In the previous post, I noted that scientists are not always directly engaged in the project of communicating about their scientific findings (or about the methods they used to produce those findings) to the public.

Part of this is a matter of incentives: most scientists don’t have communicating with the public as an explicit part of their job description, and they are usually better rewarded for paying attention to things that are explicit parts of their job descriptions. Part of it is training: scientists are generally taught a whole lot more about how to conduct research in their field than they are taught about effective strategies for communicating with non-scientists. Part of it is the presence of other professions (like journalists and teachers and museum curators) that are, more or less, playing the communicating-with-the-public-about-science zone. Still another part of it may be temperament: some people say that they went into science because they wanted to do research, not to deal with people. Of course, since doing research requires dealing with other people sooner or later, I’m guessing these folks are terribly bitter that scientific research did not support their preferred lifestyle of total isolation from human contact — or, that they really meant that they didn’t want to deal with people who are non-scientists.

I’d like to suggest, however, that there are very good reasons for scientists to be communicating about science with non-scientists — even if it’s not a job requirement, and there are other people playing that zone, and it doesn’t feel like it comes naturally.

The public has an interest in understanding more than it does about what science knows and how science comes to know it, about which claims are backed by evidence and which others are backed by wishful thinking or outright deception. But it’s hard to engage an adult as you would a student; members of the public are frequently just not up for didactic engagement. Dropping a lecture of what you perceive as their ignorance (or their “knowledge deficit,” as the people who study scientific communication and public understanding of science would call it) probably won’t be a welcome form of engagement.

In general, non-scientists neither need nor want to be able to evaluate scientific claims and evidence with the technical rigor that scientists evaluate them. What they need more is a read on whether the scientists whose job it is to make and evaluate these claims are the kind of people they can trust.

This seems to me like a good reason for scientists to come out as scientists to their communities, their families, their friends.

Whenever there are surveys of how many Americans can name a living scientist, a significant proportion of the people surveyed just can’t name any. But I suspect a bunch of these people know actual, living scientists who walk in their midst — they just don’t know that these folks they know as people are also scientists.

If everyone who is a scientist were to bring that identity to their other human interactions, to let it be a part of what the neighbors, or the kids whose youth soccer team they coach, or the people at the school board meeting, or the people at the gym know about them, what do you think that might do to the public’s picture of who scientists are and what scientists are like? What could letting your scientific identity ride along with the rest of you do to help your non-scientist fellow travelers get an idea of what scientists do, or of what inspires them to do science? Could being open about your ties to science help people who already have independent reasons to trust you find reasons to be less reflexively distrustful of science and scientists?

These seem to me like empirical questions. Let’s give it a try and see what we find out.

What is philosophy of science (and should scientists care)?

Just about 20 years ago, I abandoned a career as a physical chemist to become a philosopher of science. For most of those 20 years, people (especially scientists) have been asking me what the heck the philosophy of science is, and whether scientists have any need of it.

There are lots of things philosophers of science study, but one central set of concerns is what is distinctive about science — how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc. This means philosophers of science have spent a good bit of time trying to find the line between science and non-science, trying to figure out the logic with which scientific claims are grounded, working to understand the relation between theory and empirical data, and working out the common thread that unites many disparate scientific fields — assuming such a common thread exists. *

If you like, you can think of this set of philosophical projects as trying to give an account of what science is trying to do — how science attempts to construct a picture of the world that is accountable to the world in a particular way, how that picture of the world develops and changes in response to further empirical information (among other factors), and what kind of explanations can be given for the success of scientific accounts (insofar as they have been successful). Frequently, the philosopher is concerned with “Science” rather than a particular field of science. As well, some philosophers are more concerned with an idealized picture of science as an optimally rational knowledge building activity — something they will emphasize is quite different from science as actually practiced.**

Practicing scientists pretty much want to know how to attack questions in their particular field of science. If your goal is to understand the digestive system of some exotic bug, you may have no use at all for a subtle account of scientific theory change, let alone for a firm stand on the question of scientific anti-realism. You have much more use for information about how to catch the bug, how to get to its digestive system, what sorts of things you could observe measure or manipulate that could give you useful information about its digestive system, how to collect good data, how to tell when you’ve collected enough data to draw useful conclusions, appropriate methods for processing the data and drawing conclusions, and so forth.

A philosophy of science course doesn’t hand the entomologist any of those practical tools for studying the scientific problems around the bug’s digestive system. But philosophy of science is aimed at answering different questions than the working scientist is trying to answer. The goal of philosophy of science is not to answer scientific questions, but to answer questions about science.***

Does a working scientist need to have learned philosophy of science in order to get the scientific job done? Probably not. Neither does a scientist need to have studied Shakespeare or history to be a good scientist — but these still might be worthwhile endeavors for the scientist as a person. Every now and then it’s nice to be able to think about something besides your day job. (Recreational thinking can be fun!)

Now, there are some folks who will argue that studying philosophy of science could be detrimental to the practicing scientist. Reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions with its claim that shifts in scientific paradigm have an inescapable subjective component, or even Popper’s view of the scientific method that’s meant to get around the problem of induction, might blow the young scientist’s mind and convince him that the goal of objective knowledge is unattainable. This would probably undermine his efforts to build objective knowledge in the lab.

(However, I’d argue that reading Helen Longino’s account of how we build objective knowledge — another philosophical account — might answer some of the worries raised by Popper, Kuhn, and that crowd, making the young scientist’s knowledge-building endeavors seem more promising.)

My graduate advisor in chemistry had a little story he told that was supposed to illustrate the dangers for scientists of falling in with the philosophers and historians and sociologists of science: A centipede is doing a beautiful and complicated dance. An ant walks up to the centipede and says, “That dance is lovely! How do you coordinate all your feet so perfectly to do it?” The centipede pauses to think about this and eventually replies, “I don’t know.” Then the centipede watches his feet and tries to do the dance again — and can’t!

The centipede could do the dance without knowing precisely how each foot was supposed to move relative to the others. A scientist can do science while taking the methodology of her field for granted. But having to give a philosophical account of or a justification for that methodology deeper than “this is what we do and it works pretty well for the problems we want to solve” may render that methodology strange looking and hard to keep using.

Then again, I’m told what Einstein did for physics had as much to do with proposing a (philosophical) reorganization of the theoretical territory as it did with new empirical data. So perhaps the odd scientist can put some philosophical training to good scientific use.

This post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog, and was prompted by the Pub-Style Science discussion of epistemology scheduled for Tuesday, April 8, 2014 (starting 9 PM EDT/6 PM PDT). Watch the hashtag #pubscience for more details.

*I take it that one can identify “science” by enumerating the fields included in the category (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, …) and then pose the question of what commonalities (if any) these examples of scientific fields have with no risk of circularity. Especially since we’re leaving it to the scientists to tell us what the sciences are. It’s quite possible that the sciences won’t end up having a common core — that there won’t be any there there.

**For the record, I find science-as-actually-practiced — in particular scientific fields, rather than generalized as ‘Science” — more philosophically interesting than the idealized stuff. But, as one of my labmates in graduate school used to put it, “One person’s ‘whoop-de-doo’ is another person’s life’s work.”

***Really, to answer philosophical questions about science, since historians and sociologists and anthropologist also try to answer questions about science.

The line between persuasion and manipulation.

As this year’s ScienceOnline Together conference approaches, I’ve been thinking about the ethical dimensions of using empirical findings from psychological research to inform effective science communication (or really any communication). Melanie Tannenbaum will be co-facilitating a session about using such research findings to guide communication strategies, and this year’s session is nicely connected to a session Melanie led with Cara Santa Maria at last year’s conference called “Persuading the Unpersuadable: Communicating Science to Deniers, Cynics, and Trolls.”

In that session last year, the strategy of using empirical results from psychology to help achieve success in a communicative goal was fancifully described as deploying “Jedi mind tricks”. Achieving success in communication was cast in terms of getting your audience to accept your claims (or at least getting them not to reject your claims out of hand because they don’t trust you, or don’t trust the way you’re engaging with them, or whatever). But if you have the cognitive launch codes, as it were, you can short-circuit distrust, cultivate trust, help them end up where you want them to end up when you’re done communicating what you’re trying to communicate.

Jason Goldman pointed out to me that these “tricks” aren’t really that tricky — it’s not like you flash the Queen of Diamonds and suddenly the person you’re talking to votes for your ballot initiative or buys your product. As Jason put it to me via email, “From a practical perspective, we know that presenting reasons is usually ineffective, and so we wrap our reasons in narrative – because we know, from psychology research, that storytelling is an effective device for communication and behavior change.”

Still, using a “trick” to get your audience to end up where you want them to end up — even if that “trick” is simply empirical knowledge that you have and your audience doesn’t — sounds less like persuasion than manipulation. People aren’t generally happy about the prospect of being manipulated. Intuitively, manipulating someone else gets us into ethically dicey territory.

As a philosopher, I’m in a discipline whose ideal is that you persuade by presenting reasons for your interlocutor to examine, arguments whose logical structure can be assessed, premises whose truth (or at least likelihood) can be evaluated. I daresay scientists have something like the same ideal in mind when they present their findings or try to evaluate the scientific claims of others. In both cases, there’s the idea than we should be making a concerted effort not to let tempting cognitive shortcuts get in the way of reasoning well. We want to know about the tempting shortcuts (some of which are often catalogued as “informal fallacies”) so we can avoid falling into them. Generally, it’s considered sloppy argumentation (or worse) to try to tempt our audience with those shortcuts.

How much space is there between the tempting cognitive shortcuts we try to avoid in our own reasoning and the “Jedi mind tricks” offered to us to help us communicate, or persuade, or manipulate more effectively? If we’re taking advantage of cognitive shortcuts (or switches, or whatever the more accurate metaphor would be) to increase the chances that people will accept our factual claims, our recommendations, our credibility, etc., can we tell when we’ve crossed the line between persuasion and manipulation? Can we tell when it’s the cognitive switch that’s doing the work rather than the sharing of reasons?

It strikes me as even more ethically problematic if we’re using these Jedi mind tricks while concealing the fact that we’re using them from the audience we’re using them on. There’s a clear element of deception in doing that.

Now, possibly the Jedi mind tricks work equally well if we disclose to our audience that we’re using them and how they work. In that case, we might be able to use them to persuade without being deceptive — and it would be clear to our audience that we were availing ourselves of these tricks, and that our goal was to get them to end up in a particular place. It would be kind of weird, though, perhaps akin to going to see a magician knowing full well that she would be performing illusions and that your being fooled by those illusions is a likely outcome. (Wouldn’t this make us more distrustful in our communicative interactions, though? If you know about the switches and it’s still the case that they can be used against you, isn’t that the kind of thing that might make you want to block lots of communication before it can even happen?)

As a side note, I acknowledge that there might be some compelling extreme cases in which the goal of getting the audience to end up in a particular place — e.g., revealing to you the location of the ticking bomb — is so urgent that we’re prepared to swallow our qualms about manipulating the audience to get the job done. I don’t think that the normal stakes of our communications are like this, though. But there may be some cases where how high the stakes really are is one of the places we disagree. Jason suggests vaccine acceptance or refusal might be important enough that the Jedi mind tricks shouldn’t set off any ethical alarms. I’ll note that vaccine advocates using a just-the-empirical-facts approach to communication are often accused or suspected of having some undisclosed financial conflict of interest that is motivating them to try to get everyone vaccinated — that is, they’re not using the Jedi mind trick social psychologists think could help them persuade their target audience and yet that audience thinks they’re up to something sneaky. That’s a pretty weird situation.

Does our cognitive make-up as humans make it possible to get closer to exchanging and evaluating reasons rather than just pushing each other’s cognitive buttons? If so, can we achieve better communication without the Jedi mind tricks?

Maybe it would require some work to change the features of our communicative environment (or of the environment in which we learn how to reason about the world and how to communicate and otherwise interact with others) to help our minds more reliably work this way. Is there any empirical data on that? (If not, is this a research question psychologists are asking?)

Some of these questions tread dangerously close to the question of whether we humans can actually have free will — and that’s a big bucket of metaphysical worms that I’m not sure I want to dig into right now. I just want to know how to engage my fellow human beings as ethically as possible when we communicate.

These are some of the questions swirling around my head. Maybe next week at ScienceOnline some of them will be answered — although there’s a good chance some more questions will be added to the pile!

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

In the previous post in this series, we examined the question of what scientists who are trained with significant financial support from the public (which, in the U.S., means practically every scientist trained at the Ph.D. level) owe to the public providing that support. The focus there was personal: I was trained to be a physical chemist, free of charge due to the public’s investment, but I stopped making new scientific knowledge in 1994, shortly after my Ph.D. was conferred.

From a certain perspective, that makes me a deadbeat, a person who has fallen down on her obligations to society.

Maybe that perspective strikes you as perverse, but there are working scientists who seem to share it.

Consider this essay by cancer researcher Scott E. Kern raising the question of whether cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins who don’t come into the lab on a Sunday afternoon have lost sight of their obligations to people with cancer.

Kern wonders if scientists who manage to fit their laboratory research into the confines of a Monday-through-Friday work week might lack a real passion for scientific research. He muses that full weekend utilization of their modern cancer research facility might waste less money (in terms of facilities and overhead, salaries and benefits). He suggests that the researchers who have are not hard at work in the lab on a weekend are falling down on their moral duty to cure cancer as soon as humanly possible.

The unsupported assumptions in Kern’s piece are numerous (and far from novel). Do we know that having each research scientist devote more hours in the lab increases the rate of scientific returns? Or might there plausibly be a point of diminishing returns, where additional lab-hours produce no appreciable return? Where’s the economic calculation to consider the potential damage to the scientists from putting in 80 hours a week (to their cognitive powers, their health, their personal relationships, their experience of a life outside of work, maybe even their enthusiasm for science)? After all, lots of resources are invested in educating and training researchers — enough so that one wouldn’t want to damage those researchers on the basis of an (unsupported) hypothesis offered in the pages of Cancer Biology & Therapy.

And while Kern is doing economic calculations, he might want to consider the impact on facilities of research activity proceeding full-tilt, 24/7. Without some downtime, equipment and facilities might wear out faster than they would otherwise.

Nowhere here does Kern consider the option of hiring more researchers to work 40 hour weeks, instead of persuading the existing research workforce into spending 60, 80, 100 hours a week in the lab.

These researchers might still end up bringing work home (if they ever get a chance to go home).

Kern might dismiss this suggestion on purely economic grounds — organizations are more likely to want to pay for fewer employees (with benefits) who can work more hours than to pay to have the same number of hours of work done my more employees. He might also dismiss it on the basis that the people who really have the passion needed to do the research to cure cancer will not prioritize anything else in their lives above doing that research and finding that cure.

But one assumes passion of the sort Kern seems to have in mind would be the kind of thing that would drive researchers to the lab no matter what, even in the face of long hours, poor pay, grinding fatigue. If that is so, it’s not clear how the problem is solved by browbeating researchers without this passion into working more hours because they owe it to cancer patients. Indeed, Kern might consider, in light of the relative dearth of researchers with passion sufficient to fill the cancer research facilities on weekends, the necessity of making use of the research talents and efforts of people who don’t want to spend 60 hours a week in the lab. Kern’s piece suggests he’d have a preference for keeping such people out of the research ranks (despite the significant societal investment made in their scientific training), but by his own account there would hardly be enough researchers left in that case to keep research moving forward.

Might not these conditions prompt us to reconsider whether the received wisdom of scientific mentors is always so wise? Wouldn’t this be a reasonable place to reevaluate the strategy for accomplishing the grand scientific goal?

And Kern does not even consider a pertinent competing hypothesis, that people often have important insights into how to move research forward in the moments when they step back and allow their minds to wander. Perhaps less time away from one’s project means fewer of these insights — which, on its face, would be bad for the project of curing cancer.

The strong claim at the center of Kern’s essay is an ethical claim about what researchers owe cancer patients, about what cancer patients can demand from researchers (or any other members of society), and on what basis.

He writes:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

Kern’s formulation of this interaction of rights and duties strikes me as odd. Essentially, he’s framing this as a question of whether people with families have a right to a career in cancer research, rather than whether cancer researchers have a right to have families (or any other parts of their lives that exist beyond their careers). Certainly, there have been those who have treated scientific careers as vocations requiring many sacrifices, who have acted as if there is a forced choice between having a scientific career and having a family (unless one has a wife to tend to that family).

We should acknowledge, however, that having a family life is just one way to “have a life.” Therefore, let’s consider the question this way: Do cancer researchers have a right to a life outside of work?

Kern’s suggestion is that this “right,” when exercised by researchers, is something that cancer patients end up paying for with their lives (unless they go into suspended animation while cancer researchers are spending time with their families or puttering around their gardens).

The big question, then, is what the researcher’s obligations are to the cancer patient — or to society in general.

If we’re to answer that question, I don’t think it’s fair to ignore the related questions: What are society’s obligations to the cancer patient? What are society’s obligations to researchers? And what are the cancer patient’s obligations in all of this?

We’ve already spent some time discussing scientists’ putative obligation to repay society’s investment in their training:

  • society has paid for the training the scientists have received (through federal funding of research projects, training programs, etc.)
  • society has pressing needs that can best (only?) be addressed if scientific research is conducted
  • those few members of society who have specialized skills that are needed to address particular societal needs have a duty to use those skills to address those needs (i.e., if you can do research and most other people can’t, then to the extent that society as a whole needs the research that you can do, you ought to do it)

Arguably, finding cures and treatments for cancer would be among those societal needs.

Once again the Spider-Man ethos rears its head: with great power comes great responsibility, and scientific researchers have great power. If cancer researchers won’t help find cures and treatments for cancer, who else can?

Here, I think we should pause to note that there is probably an ethically relevant difference between offering help and doing everything you possibly can. It’s one thing to donate a hundred bucks to charity and quite another to give all your money and sell all your worldly goods in order to donate the proceeds. It’s a different thing for a healthy person to donate one kidney than to donate both kidneys plus the heart and lungs.

In other words, there is help you can provide, but there seems also to be a level of help that it would be wrong for anyone else to demand of you. Possibly there is also a level of help that it would be wrong for you to provide even if you were willing to do so because it harms you in a fundamental and/or irreparable way.

And once we recognize that such a line exists between the maximum theoretical help you could provide and the help you are obligated to provide, I think we have to recognize that the needs of cancer patients do not — and should not — trump every other interest of other individuals or of society as a whole. If a cancer patient cannot lay claim to the heart and lungs of a cancer researcher, then neither can that cancer patient lay claim to every moment of a cancer researcher’s time.

Indeed, in this argument of duties that spring from ability, it seems fair to ask why it is not the responsibility of everyone who might get cancer to train as a cancer researcher and contribute to the search for a cure. Why should tuning out in high school science classes, or deciding to pursue a degree in engineering or business or literature, excuse one from responsibility here? (And imagine how hard it’s going to be to get kids to study for their AP Chemistry or AP Biology classes when word gets out that their success is setting them up for a career where they ought never to take a day off, go to the beach, or cultivate friendships outside the workplace. Nerds can connect the dots.)

Surely anyone willing to argue that cancer researchers owe it to cancer patients to work the kind of hours Kern seems to think would be appropriate ought to be asking what cancer patients — and the precancerous — owe here.

Does Kern think researchers owe all their waking hours to the task because there are so few of them who can do this research? Reports from job seekers over the past several years suggest that there are plenty of other trained scientists who could do this research but have not been able to secure employment as cancer researchers. Some may be employed in other research fields. Others, despite their best efforts, may not have secured research positions at all. What are their obligations here? Ought those employed in other research areas to abandon their current research to work on cancer, departments and funders be damned? Ought those who are not employed in a research field to be conducting their own cancer research anyway, without benefit of institution or facilities, research funding or remuneration?

Why would we feel scientific research skills, in particular, should make the individuals who have them so subject to the needs of others, even to the exclusion of their own needs?

Verily, if scientific researchers and the special skills they have are so very vital to providing for the needs of other members of society — vital enough that people like Kern feel it’s appropriate to criticize them for wanting any time out of the lab — doesn’t society owe it to its members to give researchers every resource they need for the task? Maybe even to create conditions in which everyone with the talent and skills to solve the scientific problems society wants solved can apply those skills and talents — and live a reasonably satisfying life while doing so?

My hunch is that most cancer patients would actually be less likely than Kern to regard cancer researchers as of merely instrumental value. I’m inclined to think that someone fighting a potentially life-threatening disease would be reluctant to deny someone else the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or to savor an experience that makes life worth living. To the extent that cancer researchers do sacrifice some aspects of the rest of their life to make progress on their work, I reckon most cancer patients appreciate these sacrifices. If more is needed for cancer patients, it seems reasonable to place this burden on society as a whole — teeming with potential cancer patients and their relatives and friends — to enable more (and more effective) cancer research to go on without drastically restricting the lives of the people qualified to conduct it, or writing off their interests in their own human flourishing.

As a group, scientists do have special capabilities with which they could help society address pressing problems. To the extent that they can help society address those problems, scientists probably should — not least because scientists are themselves part of society. But despite their special powers, scientists are still human beings with needs, desires, interests, and aspirations. A society that asks scientists to direct their skills and efforts towards solving its problems also has a duty to give scientists the same opportunities to flourish that it provides for its members who happen not to be scientists.

In the next post in this series, I’ll propose a less economic way to think about just what society might be buying when it invests in the training of scientists. My hope is that this will give us a richer and more useful picture of the obligations scientists and non-scientists have to each other as they are sharing a world.

* * * * *
Ancestors of this post first appeared on Adventures in Ethics and Science

Kern, S. E. (2010). Where’s the passion?. Cancer biology & therapy, 10(7),655-657.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Careers (not just jobs) for Ph.D.s outside the academy.

A week ago I was in Boston for the 2013 annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Immediately after the session in which I was a speaker, I attended a session (Sa31 in this program) called “Happiness beyond the Professoriate — Advising and Embracing Careers Outside the Academy.” The discussion there was specifically pitched at people working in the history of science (whether earning their Ph.D.s or advising those who are), but much of it struck me as broadly applicable to people in other fields — not just fields like philosophy, but also science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The discourse in the session was framed in terms of recognizing, and communicating, that getting a job just like your advisor’s (i.e., as a faculty member at a research university with a Ph.D. program in your field — or, loosening it slightly, as permanent faculty at a college or university, even one not primarily focused on research or on training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) shouldn’t be a necessary condition for maintaining your professional identity and place in the professional community. Make no mistake, people in one’s discipline (including those training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) frequently do discount people as no longer really members of the profession for failing to succeed in the One True Career Path, but the panel asserted that they shouldn’t.

And, they provided plenty of compelling reasons why the “One True Career Path” approach is problematic. Chief among these, at least in fields like history, is that this approach feeds the creation and growth of armies of adjunct faculty, hoping that someday they will become regular faculty, and in the meantime working for very low wages relative to the amount of work they do (and relative to their training and expertise), experiencing serious job insecurity (sometimes not finding out whether they’ll have classes to teach until the academic term is actually underway), and enduring all manner of employer shenanigans (like having their teaching loads reduced to 50% of full time so the universities employing them are not required by law to provide health care coverage). Worse, insistence on One True Career Path fails to acknowledge that happiness is important.

Panelist Jim Grossman noted that the very language of “alternative careers” reinforces this problematic view by building in the assumption that there is a default career path. Speaking of “alternatives” instead might challenge the assumption that all options other than the default are lesser options.

Grossman identified other bits of vocabulary that ought to be excised from these discussions. He argued against speaking of “the job market” when one really means “the academic job market”. Otherwise, the suggestion is that you can’t really consider those other jobs without exiting the profession. Talking about “job placement,” he said, might have made sense back in the day when the chair of a hiring department called the chair of another department to say, “Send us your best man!” rather than conducting an actual job search. Those days are long gone.

And Grossman had lots to say about why we should stop talking about “overproduction of Ph.D.s.”

Ph.D.s, he noted, are earned by people, not produced like widgets on a factory line. Describing the number of new Ph.D.-holders each year as overproduction is claiming that there are too many — but again, this is too many relative to a specific kind of career trajectory assumed implicitly to be the only one worth pursuing. There are many sectors in the career landscape that could benefit from the talents of these Ph.D.-holders, so why are we not describing the current situation as one of “underconsumption of Ph.D.s”? Finally, the “overproduction of Ph.D.s.” locution doesn’t seem helpful in a context where these seems to be no good way to stop departments from “producing” as many Ph.D.s as they want to. If market forces were enough to address this imbalance, we wouldn’t have armies of adjuncts.

Someone in the discussion pointed out that STEM fields have for some time had similar issues of Ph.D. supply and demand, suggesting that they might be ahead of the curve in developing useful responses which other disciplines could borrow. However, the situation in STEM fields differs in that industrial career paths have been treated as legitimate (and as not removing you from the profession). And, more generally, society seems to take the skills and qualities of mind developed during a STEM Ph.D. as useful and broadly applicable, while those developed during a history or philosophy Ph.D. are assumed to be hopelessly esoteric. However, it was noted that while STEM fields don’t generate the same armies of adjuncts as humanities field, they do have what might be described as the “endless postdoc” problem.

Given that structural stagnation of the academic job market is real (and has been reality for something like 40 years in the history of science), panelist Lynn Nyhart observed that it would be foolish for Ph.D. students not to consider — and prepare for — other kinds of jobs. As well, Nyhart argues that as long as faculty take on graduate students, they have a responsibility to help them find jobs.

Despite profession that they are essentially clueless about career paths other than academia, advisors do have resources they can draw upon in helping their graduate students. Among these is the network of Ph.D. alumni from their graduate program, as well as the network of classmates from their own Ph.D. training. Chances are that a number of people in these networks are doing a wide range of different things with their Ph.D.s — and that they could provide valuable information and contacts. (Also, keeping in contact with these folks recognizes that they are still valued members of your professional community, rather than treating them as dead to you if they did not pursue the One True Career Path.)

Nyhart also recommended, especially the PhD Career Finder tab, as a valuable resource for exploring the different kinds of work for which Ph.D.s in various fields can serve as preparation. Some of the good stuff on the site is premium content, but if your university subscribes to the site your access to that premium content may already be paid for.

Nyhart noted that preparing Ph.D. students for a wide range of careers doesn’t require lowering discipline-specific standards, nor changing the curriculum — although, as Grossman pointed out, it might mean thinking more creatively about what skills, qualities of mind, and experiences existing courses impart. After all, skills that are good training for a career in academia — being a good teacher, an effective committee member, an excellent researcher, a persuasive writer, a productive collaborator — are skills that are portable to other kinds of careers.

David Attis, who has a Ph.D. in history of science and has been working in the private sector for about a decade, mentioned some practical skills worth cultivating for Ph.D.s pursuing private sector careers. These include having a tight two-minute explanation of your thesis geared to a non-specialist audience, being able to demonstrate your facility in approaching and solving non-academic problems, and being able to work on the timescale of business, not thesis writing (i.e., five hours to write a two-page memo is far too slow). Attis said that private sector employers are looking for people who can work well on teams and who can be flexible in contexts beyond teaching and research.

I found the discussion in this session incredibly useful, and I hope some of the important issues raised there will find their way to the graduate advisors and Ph.D. students who weren’t in the room for it, no matter what their academic discipline.

The quest for underlying order: inside the frauds of Diederik Stapel (part 1)

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee has an excellent article in the most recent New York Times Magazine (published April 26, 2013) on disgraced Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel. Why is Stapel disgraced? At the last count at Retraction Watch, 54 53 of his scientific publications have been retracted, owing to the fact that the results reported in those publications were made up. [Scroll in that Retraction Watch post for the update — apparently one of the Stapel retractions was double-counted. This is the risk when you publish so much made-up stuff.]

There’s not much to say about the badness of a scientist making results up. Science is supposed to be an activity in which people build a body of reliable knowledge about the world, grounding that knowledge in actual empirical observations of that world. Substituting the story you want to tell for those actual empirical observations undercuts that goal.

But Bhattacharjee’s article is fascinating because it goes some way to helping illuminate why Stapel abandoned the path of scientific discovery and went down the path of scientific fraud instead. It shows us some of the forces and habits that, while seemingly innocuous taken individually, can compound to reinforce scientific behavior that is not helpful to the project of knowledge-building. It reveals forces within scientific communities that make it hard for scientists to pursue suspicions of fraud to get formal determinations of whether their colleagues are actually cheating. And, the article exposes some of the harms Stapel committed beyond publishing lies as scientific findings.

It’s an incredibly rich piece of reporting, one which I recommend you read in its entirety, maybe more than once. Given just how much there is to talk about here, I’ll be taking at least a few posts to highlight bits of the article as nourishing food for thought.

Let’s start with how Stapel describes his early motivation for fabricating results to Bhattacharjee. From the article:

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high.

(Bold emphasis added.)

It’s worth noting here that other scientists — plenty of scientists who were never cheaters, in fact — have also pursued science as a quest for beauty, elegance, and order. For many, science is powerful because it is a way to find order in a messy universe, to discover simple natural laws that give rise to such an array of complex phenomena. We’ve discussed this here before, when looking at the tension between Platonist and Aristotelian strategies for getting to objective truths:

Plato’s view was that the stuff of our world consists largely of imperfect material instantiations of immaterial ideal forms -– and that science makes the observations it does of many examples of material stuff to get a handle on those ideal forms.

If you know the allegory of the cave, however, you know that Plato didn’t put much faith in feeble human sense organs as a route to grasping the forms. The very imperfection of those material instantiations that our sense organs apprehend would be bound to mislead us about the forms. Instead, Plato thought we’d need to use the mind to grasp the forms.

This is a crucial juncture where Aristotle parted ways with Plato. Aristotle still thought that there was something like the forms, but he rejected Plato’s full-strength rationalism in favor of an empirical approach to grasping them. If you wanted to get a handle on the form of “horse,” for example, Aristotle thought the thing to do was to examine lots of actual specimens of horse and to identify the essence they all have in common. The Aristotelian approach probably feels more sensible to modern scientists than the Platonist alternative, but note that we’re still talking about arriving at a description of “horse-ness” that transcends the observable features of any particular horse.

Honest scientists simultaneously reach for beautiful order and the truth. They use careful observations of the world to try to discern the actual structures and forces giving rise to what they are observing. They recognize that our observational powers are imperfect, that our measurements are not infinitely precise (and that they are often at least a little inaccurate), but those observations, those measurements, are what we have to work with in discerning the order underlying them.

This is why Ockham’s razor — to prefer simple explanations for phenomena over more complicated ones — is a strategy but not a rule. Scientists go into their knowledge-building endeavor with the hunch that the world has more underlying order than is immediately apparent to us — and that careful empirical study will help us discover that order — but how things actually are provides a constraint on how much elegance there is to be found.

However, as the article in the New York Times Magazine makes clear, Stapel was not alone in expecting the world he was trying to describe in his research to yield elegance:

In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’” Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.

The journal editors’ preference here connects to a fairly common notion of understanding. Understanding a system is being able to identify that components of that system that make a difference in producing the effects of interest — and, by extension, recognizing which components of the system don’t feature prominently in bringing about the behaviors you’re studying. Again, the hunch is that there are likely to be simple mechanisms underlying apparently complex behavior. When you really understand the system, you can point out those mechanisms and explain what’s going on while leaving all the other extraneous bits in the background.

Pushing to find this kind of underlying simplicity has been a fruitful scientific strategy, but it’s a strategy that can run into trouble if the mechanisms giving rise to the behavior you’re studying are in fact complicated. There’s a phrase attributed to Einstein that captures this tension nicely: as simple as possible … but not simpler.

The journal editors, by expressing to Stapel that they liked simplicity more than messy relationships between multiple variables, were surely not telling Stapel to lie about his findings to create such simplicity. They were likely conveying their view that further study, or more careful analysis of data, might yield elegant relations that were really there but elusive. However, intentionally or not, they did communicate to Stapel that simple relationships fit better with journal editors’ hunches about what the world is like than did messy ones — and that results that seemed to reveal simple relations were thus more likely to pass through peer review without raising serious objections.

So, Stapel was aware that the gatekeepers of the literature in his field preferred elegant results. He also seemed to have felt the pressure that early-career academic scientists often feel to make all of his research time productive — where the ultimate measure of productivity is a publishable result. Again, from the New York Times Magazine article:

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.

(Bold emphasis added.)

The sunk time clearly struck Stapel as a problem. Making a careful study of the particular psychological phenomenon he was trying to understand hadn’t yielded good results — which is to say, results that would be recognized by scientific journal editors or peer reviewers as adding to the shared body of knowledge by revealing something about the mechanism at work in the phenomenon. This is not to say that experiments with negative results don’t tell scientists something about how the world is. But what negative results tell us is usually that the available data don’t support the hypothesis, or perhaps that the experimental design wasn’t a great way to obtain data to let us evaluate that hypothesis.

Scientific journals have not generally been very interested in publishing negative results, however, so scientists tend to view them as failures. They may help us to reject appealing hypotheses or to refine experimental strategies, but they don’t usually do much to help advance a scientist’s career. If negative results don’t help you get publications, without which it’s harder to get grants to fund research that could find positive results, then the time and money spent doing all that research has been wasted.

And Stapel felt — maybe because of his hunch that the piece of the world he was trying to describe had to have an underlying order, elegance, simplicity — that his hypothesis was right. The messiness of actual data from the world got in the way of proving it, but it had to be so. And this expectation of elegance and simplicity fit perfectly with the feedback he had heard before from journal editors in his field (feedback that may well have fed Stapel’s own conviction).

A career calculation paired with a strong metaphysical commitment to underlying simplicity seems, then, to have persuaded Diederik Stapel to let his hunch weigh more heavily than the data and then to commit the cardinal sin of falsifying data that could be presented to other scientists as “evidence” to support that hunch.

No one made Diederik Stapel cross that line. But it’s probably worth thinking about the ways that commitments within scientific communities — especially methodological commitments that start to take on the strength of metaphysical commitments — could have made crossing it more tempting.

Intuitions, scientific methodology, and the challenge of not getting fooled.

At Context and Variation, Kate Clancy has posted some advice for researchers in evolutionary psychology who want to build reliable knowledge about the phenomena they’re trying to study. This advice, of course, is prompted in part by methodology that is not so good for scientific knowledge-building. Kate writes:

The biggest problem, to my mind, is that so often the conclusions of the bad sort of evolutionary psychology match the stereotypes and cultural expectations we already hold about the world: more feminine women are more beautiful, more masculine men more handsome; appearance is important to men while wealth is important to women; women are prone to flighty changes in political and partner preference depending on the phase of their menstrual cycles. Rather than clue people in to problems with research design or interpretation, this alignment with stereotype further confirms the study. Variation gets erased: in bad evolutionary psychology, there are only straight people, and everyone wants the same things in life. …

No one should ever love their idea so much that it becomes detached from reality.

It’s a lovely post about the challenges of good scientific methodology when studying human behavior (and why it matters to more than just scientists), so you should read the whole thing.

Kate’s post also puts me in mind of some broader issues about which scientists should remind themselves from time to time to keep themselves honest. I’m putting some of those on the table here.

Let’s start with a quotable quote from Richard Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Scientists are trying to build reliable knowledge about the world from information that they know is necessarily incomplete. There are many ways to interpret the collections of empirical data we have on hand — indeed, many contradictory ways to interpret them. This means that lots of the possible interpretations will be wrong.

You don’t want to draw the wrong conclusion from the available data, not if you can possibly avoid it. Feynman’s “first principle” is noting that we need to be on guard against letting ourselves be fooled by wrong conclusions — and on guard against the peculiar ways that we are more vulnerable to being fooled.

This means we have to talk about our attachment to intuitions. All scientists have intuitions. They surely help in motivating questions to ask about the world and strategies for finding good answers to them. But intuitions, no matter how strong, are not the same as empirical evidence.

Making things more challenging, our strong intuitions can shape what we take to be the empirical evidence. They can play a role in which results we set aside because they “couldn’t be right,” in which features of a system we pay attention to and which we ignore, in which questions we bother to ask in the first place. If we don’t notice the operation of our intuitions, and the way they impact our view of the empirical evidence, we’re making it easier to get fooled. Indeed, if our intuitions are very strong, we’re essentially fooling ourselves.

As if this weren’t enough, we humans (and, by extension, human scientists) are not always great at recognizing when we are in the grips of our intuitions. It can feel like we’re examining a phenomenon to answer a question and that we’re refraining from making any assumptions to guide our enquiry, but chances are it’s not a feeling we should trust.

This is not to say that our intuitions are guaranteed safe haven from our noticing them. We can become aware of them and try to neutralize the extent to which they, rather than the empirical evidence, are driving the scientific story — but to do this, we tend to need help from people who have conflicting intuitions about the same bit of the world. This is a good methodological reason to take account of the assumptions and intuitions of others, especially when they conflict with our own.

What happens if there are intuitions about which we all agree — assumptions we are making (and may well be unaware that we’re making, because they seem so bleeding obvious) with which no one disagrees? I don’t know that there are any such universal human intuitions. It seems unlikely to me, but I can’t rule out the possibility. How would they bode for our efforts at scientific knowledge-building?

First, we would probably want to recognize that the universality of an intuition still wouldn’t make it into independent empirical evidence. Even if it had been the case, prior to Galileo, or Copernicus, or Aristarchus of Samos, that every human took it as utterly obvious that Earth is stationary, we recognize that this intuition could still be wrong. As it happened, it was an intuition that was questioned, though not without serious resistance.

Developing a capacity to question the obvious, and also to recognize and articulate what it is we’re taking to be obvious in order that we might question it, seems like a crucial skill for scientists to cultivate.

But, as I think comes out quite clearly in Kate’s post, there are some intuitions we have that, even once we’ve recognized them, may be extremely difficult to subject to empirical test. This doesn’t mean that the questions connected in our heads to these intuitions are outside the realm of scientific inquiry, but it would be foolish not to notice that it’s likely to be extremely difficult to find good scientific answers to these questions. We need to be wary of the way our intuitions try to stack the evidential deck. We need to acknowledge that the very fact of our having strong intuitions doesn’t count as empirical evidence in favor of them. We need to come to grips with the possibility that our intuitions could be wrong — perhaps to the extent that we recognize that empirical results that seem to support our intuitions require extra scrutiny, just to be sure.

To do any less is to ask to be fooled, and that’s the outcome scientific knowledge-building is trying to avoid.

“Are you going to raise the child picky?” Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 3).

This is the last part of my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview. Here is part 2 of the interview.)

In this segment of the interview, we talk about foodies as picky eaters whose preferences get respect and about how pickiness looks from the parenting side of the transaction. Also, we notice that culinary school might involve encounters with a classic Star Trek monster.

Janet D. Stemwedel: It does seem like there are certain ways to be picky that people will not only accept but actually look at as praiseworthy. “Oh, you’ve decided to give up this really delightful food that everyone else would wallow in!” I’ll come clean: part of the reason I’m vegetarian is that I have never cared for meat. Once I moved out of my parents’ house and not eating meat became an option, I stopped eating the stuff without any kind of impressive exercise of will. And, in restaurants that are big on fake meat, I’ll end up pulling it out of my soup. The waitrons will tell me, “Oh, don’t worry, you can eat that! It’s not meat!” And I’ll say, “I can eat it, but I don’t like it, so I won’t be eating it.”

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovich: You don’t need a meat substitute if the point is that you don’t like meat.

JS: Although veggie bacon rocks.

SL: Really? Bacon, man …

JS: It’s the holy grail, taste-wise, right?

SL: There’s a thought it could be more psychological than biological.

JS: Salt and fat.

SL: And a high concentration of nutrients that you’d need to survive in the wilderness. But also, there’s the happy memory of smelling it cooking on a weekend morning, not something the scientists discount. These are learned experiences.

JS: But a favorite food can become a food you can’t deal with if you eat it right before your stomach flu.

SL: Right. It just takes one time. Except for with my husband. He had eaten a pastrami sandwich earlier in the day, then drank a lot and threw up. And his reaction was, “Oh yeah, that was a good pastrami sandwich.” As it was coming up, this is what was going through his head!

JS: Not a very picky eater.

SL: He’s such a freak! He just doesn’t get turned off to foods easily. Although he does have his bugaboos, like bologna (maybe because he didn’t grow up with it) and cheese with apples. But anyway, the aspect of choice …

JS: Like being able to say, “I can’t eat that because the dietary laws of my religion forbid it,” which generally gets some level of respect.

SL: But then there are the foodies! And that seems to be a socially sanctioned way to be a picky eater. “Oh, I would never eat that!”

JS: “I would never drink that wine! That year was horrible!”

SL: Exactly! Or, “I don’t eat Wonder Bread because it’s full of preservatives!” Foodies can certainly be moralistic, in their own way, about what they will and will not eat. But it’s annoying when they’re like that.

JS: Because their picky preferences are better than yours.

SL: It’s obnoxious.

JS: Are there some foods you don’t regret being picky about?

SL: Well, there are some foods I still don’t eat, and I’m fine with that. Bananas and raisins are right up there, and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post detailing the reasons why I’m OK not liking bananas. They’re trying to kill me in various ways — they’ve got radiation in them —

JS: We can’t grow them locally.

SL: Due to their lack of genetic diversity, they’re going to doe out anyway, so it’s probably better that I never liked them. They used to come with tarantulas in them, back in the day.

JS: That’s extra protein!

SL: So, I could list a bunch of foods that I still don’t like but without regret. Braised meats? I just don’t like them. People go on and on about how great they are, but to me it’s a big mass of everything-tastes-the-same with none of it highly flavored enough for me. WIth stews I have the same kind of issue. I think I don’t regret not liking these kinds of food now because I recognize how far I’ve come. I like so many more things than I used to, and I can get by without it impacting my health or my social life. And, when faced with them at somebody’s house, I will eat something that has bananas or whatever in it. I’ve learned how to deal with it. But I won’t choose to have it myself at home.

JS: You won’t seek it out.

SL: But I am bringing some of these foods into my home, because I don’t want to prejudice my son against them. He likes bananas, sometimes, but often they’ll end up wasted. He’ll go through a phase where he wants them, and then another where he doesn’t want them. His interest level is at the point where I can buy two bananas at a time. I have had friends ask me, “Are you going to not feed him raisins?” Of course I’m going to give him raisins. I can touch the things!

JS: “Are you going to raise the child picky?”

SL: Right! So far, the kid likes okra, so I think we’re OK. But everything on the list I give in the book of foods I still don’t like, I have absolutely no problem not liking them, because it just doesn’t impact my life. There are just a few things out there I wish I liked more, because it would vary our diet more. For example, I don’t love green beans. I toss them with pesto sometimes, but I have just not found a way to make them where I love them. I don’t love peas either, except when Evvia does them in the summertime — huge English peas that come cold dressed with feta and scallions and dill (which I normally don’t like) and olive oil and lemon, and they’re only here for like three weeks. And they’re the best damn peas — that’s the only way I want them. The things I kind of wish I liked that I don’t, I’ve tried, and I’ll try them again, but it doesn’t really bug me.

JS: I wonder how much my regrets for the things I feel like I should be able to like but don’t are connected to the fact that I was not an especially picky eater as a kid (except for not liking meat). I kind of feel like I should like asparagus, but I don’t. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten it that I can’t even remember whether I can smell the funny asparagus metabolite in my pee.

SL: I didn’t like asparagus, and then I wanted to like it and found a recipe that worked, roasting it and dressing it with a vinaigrette and goat cheese. But then we ate a lot of it, and it was really good, and after a while I was noticing that I only ate the tips, not the woody, stringy bits.

JS: And that it still tasted like asparagus.

SL: Yeah. In the end, I tried it.

JS: For me, olives are another challenging food. I’m the only one in my household who doesn’t like them at all. So we may order a pizza with olives to share, but I’m going to pick all the olives off of mine and give them to whoever is nicest to me.

SL: How do you feel about the pizza once you’ve picked them off? Can you actually eat the pizza then?

JS: If I’m hungry enough, I can. I guess it depends. The black olive penetration on pizza is not as extreme as biting into a whole olive.

SL: No. I think the kind of olives they use for pizza are …

JS: Sort of defanged?

SL: Yeah. They’re just not as bitter as the whole olives you find.

JS: Are there foods you’ve grown to like where you still feel some residual pickiness? It sounds like asparagus may be one.

SL: Sweet potatoes and squash are two others I’m still on the fence about. I have to be very careful about how I make them. Lentils — maybe legumes more generally — are foods I don’t love unconditionally. They have to be prepared a certain way. Broccoli, too! I will only eat broccoli made according to the recipe I give in the book or, failing that, roasted but without the vinaigrette. Just because I like a food does not mean I fully accept every rendition of it. Speaking from a cook’s perspective, you just can’t disrespect vegetables. I will not eat broccoli steamed, I just don’t think it’s fair.

JS: Fair enough.

SL: I’m still pretty picky about how I like even the foods that I like.

JS: OK, death is not an option: a dish with a flavor you’re picky about and a good texture, or a dish with a texture you’re picky about and a good flavor?

SL: That’s so hard.

JS: You really want death on the table?

SL: It depends … How bad is the flavor? How good is the flavor?

JS: So, if the good is good enough, you might be able to deal with the challenging part?

SL: I think texture really gets me more. For example, I don’t have a problem with the flavor of flan or panna cotta. Very good flavors. Mango I’ve had, and the flavor is good, but it’s so gelatinous and slimy.

JS: To your palate, it’s wrong.

SL: Yeah. It just gets the gag reflex going for me more. But thinking about it now, I probably wouldn’t do bad flavor/good texture.

JS: So flavor might have a slight edge?

SL: Yeah. I’m thinking about stew: for me, bad all around. Everything is mushy and everything is one flavor, and it’s just very un-fun for me. But then there’s something like bananas, where my problem probably started as a texture issue, but because I disliked the texture so much, I started to associate the smell and the flavor with that texture, and now I don’t like anything banana flavored. I don’t like banana bread. I’ll eat it, but I don’t like it.

JS: And banana flavored cocktails would be right out.

SL: Auugh! Anything that’s a banana flavored cocktail is usually creamy too, and I have a problem with creamy cocktails. I used to be able to do the creamy cocktail in my youth, but now I think there’s something very wrong with them. Unless it’s got coffee.

JS: Did pickiness make culinary school harder?

SL: Yeah, it probably did. I noticed I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to eat certain things. If you’re picky, you do have to really steel yourself to touch certain things that you might not want to touch, like fish. In general, I don’t like handling raw chicken, although I love to eat cooked chicken. I don’t mind handling red meats at all. There’s more blood to it — chicken, by comparison, is more pale and dead looking. So yeah, being picky probably made culinary school more challenging, but I was so into food by that point that it overrode some of it. I knew I would have to eat stuff like veal, stuff that would be difficult for me, and that it would be embarrassing if I didn’t, because the chefs told us we would have to taste everything. I was totally scared about that. But, the fact that it was probably harder for me than it was for someone who was an unabashed lover of all foods probably made it more of a moral victory. Just like becoming a foodie in the face of pickiness, I knew I had to work harder at it. I wasn’t born that way, I had to earn my stripes by getting over a lot of hurdles.

JS: It was a bigger deal because you overcame more adversity to get there.

SL: I think it meant more to me personally.

JS: Did you find that some of the stuff you learned in culinary school gave you more tools to deal with your own pickiness?

SL: Oh, yeah, because it just taught me better methods of cooking things that maybe I didn’t yet know. And, it really made me fearless about adding salt. Roberta Dowling was the director of the school, and nothing was ever salty enough for her. I started calling her the salt-vampire. There was a character on —

JS: Star Trek! I know that one!

SL: For every dish she tasted, she’d say, “Needs more salt,” even if we added all the salt the recipe called for. She tried to get us to recognize that the recipe was just a guideline. And salt really does do a lot for food. People who are not so confident in the kitchen get infuriated by “salt to taste,” but it really is all about your personal taste. What’s going on inside your mouth is so different from what may be going on in someone else’s, which means only you can determine whether it’s enough salt.

JS: Does pickiness look different when you’re on the parental side of the transaction.

SL: Yes. It’s so frustrating! It’s so, “Oh my God, don’t be like me!” I know my mom was like, “Whatever. You guys were picky. I wasn’t worried about it.” The doctor was like, “Give ’em vitamins.” I do think that writing the book, especially the chapter on children, relaxed me. On the other hand, I feel the same way a lot of other picky eaters who are parents feel: I’m just a little bit more conditioned to understand what they’re going through and not push it. But I have to be careful, because sometimes you can still fall into “No, no, no! I know you think you don’t like it now, but really, just try it and you’ll like it.” I have to remember that it’s him and what tastes good to him and what he wants to do. Later on in life, if he changes his mind about whatever it is he doesn’t like this week, great. This week he told me he didn’t like grilled cheese. My response was, “You’re no son of mine! How does a person not like grilled cheese? It was always there for me.”

JS: I think the right answer to, “I don’t like grilled cheese, Mom,” is “More for me!”

SL: Exactly! But yeah, it’s a very different perspective on pickiness. But again, I’m probably more conditioned to be understanding about it than a non-picky parent who gets a picky child might be. They just don’t even know what it’s like.

JS: It’s an interesting thing as they get older. Until this school year, I was the school lunch packer of the house for both of my kids, and I’d get the complaints along the lines of, “Why do you pack us stuff we don’t like?” Of course, I’d say, “OK, tell me what you would like,” but then within a few months they’d be sick of that. This year, I’m still packing my older kid’s linch, since she has to get out the door early to catch a bus, but my 11-year-old has been making her own lunches, and I catch her making these sandwiches that two years ago she would have claimed she didn’t like any components of them at all. The other day, she made a sandwich on home-baked whole wheat bread with a honey-mustard marinate she dug out of the back of the fridge, and smoked gouda, and arugula. I said, “I didn’t know you liked those things.” She said, “Me neither, but they were here, and I tried them, and they were good.” Another day, she made a sandwich with some homemade lime curd, and the parent in the vicinity said, “What about some more protein on that?” so she put some peanut butter on that sandwich and later reported that it tasted kind of Thai.

SL: Of course it did!

JS: I’ll take their word for what they like (or don’t like) this week, but that’s not going to stop me from eating other stuff in front of them, and if it smells or looks good enough to them and they say, “Can I try some of that?” maybe I’ll be nice and I’ll share.

SL: That’s the way to do it, no pressure but you keep offering the stuff, exposing them to it but not getting hurt feelings if they don’t like it.

JS: And ultimately, who cares if the kid ends up liking it? If it’s less hassle for me, one less fight? I have enough fights. I don’t need more fights.

SL: You don’t really need the bragging rights, either. “Oh, my kid is so rarefied!” Who cares?

Scientific knowledge, societal judgment, and the picky eater: Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 2).

We continue my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview.)

In this segment of the interview, we ponder the kind of power picky eaters find in the scientific research on pickiness, the different ways people get judgmental about what someone else is eating, and the curious fact that scientists who research picky eating seem not to be picky eaters themselves. Also, we cast aspersions on lima beans and kale.

Janet D. Stemwedel: Are there some aspects of pickiness that you’d like to see the scientists research that they don’t seem to be researching yet?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: There was the question of whether there are sex differences in pickiness, which it seems like maybe they’re looking into more now. Also, and this is because of where I am right now, I’d really like to see them look into the impact of having early examples of well-prepared food, because I have a hunch this might be pretty important. I’m pretty sure there’s no silver bullet, whether you’re breast-fed or formula-fed or whatever. It can make parents feel really bad when they get a long list of things to do to help your kid not be picky, and they do everything on the list, and the kid still ends up picky. But I’d like to see more of the research suggesting that it’s not just early exposure to food but early exposure to good food. I’m also intrigued by the research suggesting that pickiness is not a choice but rather a part of your biology. Lots of my friends who are gay have likened it to coming out of the closet and accepting that who you are is not a choice. I’d like to see more pickiness research here, but maybe it’s not so much about the science as the sociology of finding acceptance as a picky eater. Also, I’m not sure the extent to which scientists are taking the cultural aspects into account when they study pickiness — you figure they must. I am sick of people throwing the French back at me, saying, there’s this book written by the mother who raised her kids in France, and her kids were not picky, so, generally, kids in France are not picky. And I’m thinking, you know, I’m willing to bet that there are picky kids in France, but they just don’t talk about it. Scientifically speaking, there’s a high probability that there are picky eaters there.

JS: Right, and their parents probably just have access to enough good wine to not be as bothered by it.

SL: Or maybe their stance is just generally not to be bothered by it. Jacques Pepin said to me, “We just didn’t talk about it.” His daughter liked some things and disliked others, and he said, “You know, when she decided she liked Brussels sprouts, we didn’t get down on the floor to praise God; we just didn’t talk about it either way.” It doesn’t become a thing in the family. Parents today are so educated about food and nutrition, but it can have bad effects as well as good effects.

JS: We have the knowledge, but we don’t always know what to do with it.

SL: I’m hoping that scientists will be able to take all that they’re learning about the different facets of pickiness and put that knowledge together to develop ways to help people. People have asked me whether hypnosis works. I don’t know, and the scientists I asked didn’t know either. But there are people looking for help, and I hope that what the scientists are learning can make that help more accessible.

JS: Something occurred to me as I was reading what you wrote about the various aspects of why people like or don’t like certain flavors or different textures. I know someone who studies drugs of abuse. During the period of time just after my tenure dossier when in, I detoxed from caffeine, but I kept drinking decaffeinated coffee, because I love the taste of coffee. But, this researcher told me, “No, you don’t. You think you do, but the research we have shows that coffee is objectively aversive.” So you look at the animal studies and the research on how humans get in there and get themselves to like coffee, and all the indications are that we’re biologically predisposed not to like it.

SL: We’re not supposed to like it.

JS: But we can get this neurochemical payoff if we can get past that aversion. And I’m thinking, why on earth aren’t leafy greens doing that for us? How awesome would that be?

SL: They don’t get us high. They don’t give us the stimulant boost of caffeine. I think what your researcher friend is saying is that the benefit of caffeine is enough that it’s worth it to learn how to handle the bitterness to get the alertness. I started out with really sweet coffee drinks, with General Foods International coffees, then moved on to Starbucks drinks. I can finally drink black coffee. (I usually put milk in it, but that’s more for my stomach.) I can actually appreciate good coffees, like the ones from Hawaii. But, it’s because I worked at it — just like I worked at liking some of the foods I’ve disliked. I wanted to like it because the payoff was good. With greens, the only payoff is that they’re good for you. I reached a certain age where that was a payoff I wanted. I wanted to like Brussels sprouts because the idea of actually healthful foods became appealing to me. But there are plenty of people I know who are picky eaters who couldn’t care less about that.

JS: So, if there were more reasons apparent within our lifestyle to like leafy greens and their nutritional payoff, we’d work harder when we were in junior high and high school and college to like them? Maybe as hard as we do to become coffee drinkers?

SL: Sure! I’m trying very hard to like kale.

JS: Me too! I feel bad that I don’t like it.

SL: I know, right?

JS: I feel like I should — like a good vegetarian should like kale.

SL: Well, everyone’s trying to like it, and I’ve found some ways of liking it. But, what’s the payoff for kale? Obviously, it’s very good for you, and it’s supposed to have some specific benefits like being really good for your complexion, and cleaning out your liver. Have another glass of wine? OK, if you eat your kale. But again, “good for you” is a weird kind of payoff.

JS: It’s a payoff you have to wait for.

SL: And one you’re not necessarily always going to see. I’ve been told that eating lots of salmon also has health benefits, but I just don’t like salmon enough to eat enough of it to see those benefits.

JS: Heh. That reminds me of the stories I heard from our pediatrician that you’ve probably heard from yours, that if you feed your baby too much strained carrot, the baby might turn orange and you shouldn’t be alarmed. And of course, I was determined to sit down and feed my child enough carrots that weekend to see if I could make that happen.

SL: I’ve never seen that happen. Does it really happen?

JS: Apparently with some kids it does. I tried with mine and could not achieve the effect.

[At this point we got a little sidetracked as I offered Stephanie some of my Gigantes (baked organic Gigante beans with tomatoes, leeks, and herbed feta). I had ordered them with some trepidation because someone on Yelp had described this as a lima bean dish, and I … am not a fan of lima beans. The beans turned out to be a broad bean that bore no resemblance to the smaller, starchy lima beans of my youthful recollection.]

SL: I’ve never actually seen those lima beans fresh, just in bags in the frozen section.

JS: And assuming they still taste like we remember them, who would get them?

SL: Well, my husband is the kind of person who will eat anything, so he might. But you can also take limas and puree them with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil and make a white bean spread. If I had to eat limas, that’s what I’d do with them. Maybe add a little mint. But I wouldn’t just eat them out of the bag, not even with butter.

JS: They’re not right.

SL: No.

JS: With so many different kinds of beans, why would you eat that one?

SL: There’s a reason why Alexander, of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, had lima beans as his hated food. But, there are scientists at Monell working on flavors and acceptance of food — trying, among other things, to work out ways to make the drug cocktails less yucky for pediatric AIDS patients. They’re working on “bitter blockers” for that. (Maybe that could help with lima beans, too.) Anyway, getting Americans to eat more healthy foods …

JS: There’s probably some pill we could take for that, right?

SL: Hey, I thought we could do that with vitamins. Then I heard Michael Pollan saying, basically vitamins are pointless. (I still take them.) It’s tricky, because lots of people eat primarily for pleasure, not for health. I’m not sure why we have to see the two as being in opposition to each other; I enjoy food so much now that I find pleasure in eating foods that are good for me. But there are also plenty of people who just see food as fuel, and don’t find it any more interesting or worthy of discussion than that.

JS: At that point, why not just stock up on the nutrition bars and never do dishes again?

SL: When Anderson Cooper came out as a picky eater on his talk show, he said, “I would rather just drink my meals. I would rather have a shake.” His reaction to food was at the level where he wasn’t interested in anything more than that, at all. He’d rather go for convenience.

JS: That seems OK to me. That’s not how I am, or how the people I live with (and cook for) are, which means I can’t just blend it for meals, but that’s how it goes.

SL: For people who are like that, and know that they’re like that, if drinking meals is what works for them, that’s great. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be that way, but then again, I say that not really knowing what it’s like to be them instead of me.

JS: Do you think that interest in the causes of pickiness is driven by the amount of judgment people attach to picky eaters?

SL: Certainly, that’s my interest in it. I don’t think that’s necessarily why the scientific community is interested in it — I mean, I don’t think it bothers them very much, except in terms of understanding the psychological effects that are connected to pickiness. But yes, let’s talk about how food is the subject of judgment in general — especially among people in the Bay Area, among foodies.

JS: “Are you really going to eat that?! Do you know where that’s from?”

SL: Right, or “I won’t eat anything that wasn’t grown or raised within a 90 mile radius.” We have so many levels at which we judge what someone else is eating. My personal motivation for writing this book was to shed light on this topic because of the judgment that I saw picky eaters experience. For a while, I wouldn’t even admit my past as a picky eater. I had become a foodie and I was out here reinventing myself, but I kept my mouth shut about things I didn’t like until other people around me were admitting that they went through a picky stage of their own. Whenever I’ve written about pickiness online, the comments end up having a lot of people sharing their own stories. It seems like everyone can relate to it: “This is what I don’t like, and here’s why …” or, “I never thought I’d find anyone else who didn’t like this food for the same reason I don’t like it.” I’ve found that people can bond just as much over hating foods as they do over liking them. Let’s face it, food is often about community, so discussions of things we hate and things we love can be equally interesting to people. Even if you have the Pollyannas who say, “Who really wants to talk about something as unpleasant as what we don’t like?” guess what? We all dislike things.

JS: How many of the scientists who do research on the different aspects that contribute to pickiness outed themselves as picky eaters to you? Or do you think the scientists who study this stuff seem to be less picky than the rest of us?

SL: None of them really admitted to me that they were picky eaters. And I would ask them point blank if they were. One of the scientists working on the Duke study, Nancy Zucker, told me, “No. I ate everything as a kid, and I still do.” And, she told me her mom did some really weird things with food because her job was to sample products. The other scientist I spoke to on the Duke study admitted to not really liking tomatoes, but that was the extent of her pickiness. I got the sense from Dr. Dani Reed at Monell that she loves food and loves to cook. There were some foods, like organ meats, that she hadn’t quite accepted but that her friends were trying to get her to like. But, not a whole lot of people in this scientific community admitted to me that they were picky. I’m now thinking through everyone I interviewed, and I don’t recall any of them expressing food issues.

JS: I wonder if that’s at all connected with the research — whether doing research in this area is a way to make yourself less picky, or whether people who are picky are not especially drawn to this area of research.

SL: A lot of them would admit to having family members or friends who were picky. So then you wonder if they might have been drawn to the research because of this need to understand someone in their life.

JS: Maybe in the same way that losing a family member to leukemia could draw you to a career in oncology, having a family member who ruined family dinners by not eating what was on the plate draws you to this?

SL: Quite possibly. By and large, the scientists I spoke to about pickiness were so non-judgmental, probably because they’ve been studying it in various forms for various reasons. The rest of us are just now talking more about it and starting to notice the research that’s been amassed (on children, or breast feeding, or “inter-uterine feeding” and what they’re “tasting” in the womb). Since Monell is the center for research on taste and smell, they are used to journalists asking them about picky eaters. They’re also used to being misquoted and having the journalists’ accounts of the science come out wrong. (For example, they hate the word “supertaster,” which the media loves.) I got the impression that they were very non-judmental about pickiness, but none of them really described themselves as picky to me — and I asked.

JS: Maybe the picky eaters who are scientists go into some other field.

SL: Maybe. Maybe they don’t want to be involved with the food anymore.

JS: “Get it away from me! Get it away from me!”

SL: Seriously! “I lived it; I don’t need to study it!”

JS: Do you think having a scientific story to tell about pickiness makes it easier for picky eaters to push back against the societal judgment?

SL: Oh yeah. Lots of interviewers I’ve spoken to have wanted to tout this book as the science of picky eating — and let’s face it, it’s not all about the science — but people want to latch onto the scientific story because, for the lay person, when science hands down a judgment, you kind of just accept it. This is how I felt — you can’t argue with science. Science is saying, this is why I am who I am. Having scientific facts about pickiness gives you the back-up of a big-brained community, we can explain at least part of why you’re the way you are, and it’s OK. When parents can be given scientific explanations for why their kids are the way they are —

JS: And that the kid’s not just messing with you.

SL: Right! And that it’s not your fault. It’s not that you did something wrong to your kid that made your kid a picky eater. We’re really talking about two communities of picky eating, the parents of kids who are picky, and the adults who are picky eaters, and both those communities are looking for science because it’s as solid a thing as they can find to help them get through it.

JS: But here, we loop back to what you were saying earlier, as you were discussing how there’s potentially a genetic basis for pickiness, and how this kind of finding is almost analogous to finding a biological basis for sexual orientation. In both cases, you could draw the conclusion that it isn’t a choice but who you are.

SL: Exactly.

JS: But when I hear that, I’m always thinking to myself, but what if it were a choice? Why would that make us any more ready to say it’s a bad thing? Why should a biological basis be required for us to accept it? Do you think picky eaters need to have some scientific justification, or should society just be more accepting of people’s individual likes and dislike around food?

SL: Well, a psychologist would say, the first thing a picky eaters needs to do is accept that that’s who she is. Whatever the reason, whether their biology or their life history, this is who they are. The next thing is how does this impact you, and do you want to change it? If it’s something you want to change, you can then deal with it in steps. Why do we need to know that it’s not a choice? Because you get judged more for your choices. Let’s face it, you also get judged for who you are, but you get judged far more if you make what is assumed to be a choice to dislike certain foods. Then it’s like, “Why would you make that choice?” But there might also be a bully-population thing going on. There seem to be more people who like food of various kinds than who dislike them; why are they the ones who get to be right?

JS: Good question!

SL: And then there are discussions about evolution, where maybe not liking a particular food could be viewed as a weakness (because in an environment where that’s what there was to eat, you’d be out of luck). Sometimes it seems like our culture treats the not-picky eaters as fitter (evolutionarily) than the picky eaters. Of course, those who like and eat everything indiscriminately are more likely to eat something who kills them, so maybe the picky eaters will be the ultimate survivors. But definitely, the scientific story does feel like it helps fend off some of the societal criticism. Vegetarians and vegans already have some cover for their eating preferences. They have reasons they can give about ethics or environmental impacts. The scientific information can give picky eaters reasons to push back with that stronger than just individual preferences. For some reason, “I just don’t like it” isn’t treated like a good reason not to eat something.

Can science help the picky eater? Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 1).

This summer, I reviewed Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate by Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic. This month, with the approach of the holiday season (prime time for picky eaters to sit with non-picky eaters at meal time), Stephanie and I sat down for lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto to talk about pickiness while sampling foods that had previously been in our “no go” categories. (For me, this included dolmathes, for Stephanie, grilled octopus.)

In this segment of the interview, we discuss some of what scientists think they know about pickiness and why it matters. We also dip our tasting spoons into the steaming cauldron of early upbringing and cultural influences on the foods we like or don’t like, and chew on the idea that a kid’s pickiness can be developmentally appropriate.

Janet D. Stemwedel: The first question I have is about the expectations you had when you set out on this project, researching the book, about what you were going to learn about the science — whether you started out thinking science probably had a nice, neat explanation for why people are picky eaters, of whether you started out with the assumption that it was going to be a big old complicated thing?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: I did not think science had the big answer, honestly. I thought science could answer the supertaster question for me personally, but that was the only answer I expected to get. In the meantime, I knew that I could ask scientists and psychologists and psychiatrists questions along with that. But I knew from what I was aware of already, the articles out there — I mean, they’re usually pop-culture articles, and they don’t always tell the science correctly or fully — I knew that science had some answers. I knew that there were so many avenues that could be explored, I really didn’t expect there to be a full answer. What I found, though, were more possibilities, like “this could be a possible reason — being a supertaster could be a reason, but it’s not the only reason.” Being exposed via breast milk — which I was not; I was a formula-fed baby — is maybe linked to being less picky, so maybe being formula-fed contributed to my pickiness. You’re never going to get an answer with 100% agreement behind it, because it’s still evolving. And science, as evidenced by Duke doing this study, for the adults at least, they don’t know what’s causing it, they just know that there are a lot of contributing factors. And, when they’re looking to treat it, it’s more like, “Well, let’s get really in-depth into what the possibilities might be that contribute to it, and let’s try to fix them” on sometimes just the psychological level.

JS: It’s an interesting kind of thing that something that goes along with studying a phenomenon like being a picky eater is the scientists saying, “And we’re going to fix it!” Like it’s something that needs to be fixed rather than just part of normal human variation. Why problematize it?

SL: Well, Dr. Nancy Zucker at Duke said what they worry about — less in my case, personally; more other people’s cases — they’re finding, if you’re a child, your development could be affected if you have what they call severe food refusal. They left the adults alone for a while, but now they’re discovering that maybe adults’ health and social lives are severely impaired by this problem, because they’re not eating the things maybe they’re supposed to be eating that can extend their lives or make them healthier, or if they don’t want to go out to dinner with friends and family, if they don’t want to be around friends, that’s a problem. So, that’s why they want to “fix” it, or at least help.

JS: So, it’s not necessarily, “We will find the picky eaters. They will all be cured. It will be a happy utopia.”

SL: I think the picky eaters have to want the help to be “cured”. While I got over it, I don’t believe that there’s going to be a cure. It’s very individualized. You really have to want to get over it, and to be fair to picky eaters who have it worse than I do, I don’t mean to say that all picky eaters want to live that way. But you have to have a very strong impetus to push you to do it. It’s a really scary thing. A lot of picky eaters will tell you it’s not a won’t, it’s a can’t. They can’t get over it.

JS: You interacted with lots of scientists who study many different aspects of pickiness in lots of different ways. You discovered that it’s complicated. Is your sense that the scientists feel like they may be getting near a place where things start seeming less complicated, where things start falling into place? Or was your sense, talking to them, that every corner they turned, they found a new way that it’s more complicated?

SL: I think the second. I think that as they gather information, especially about the adult picky eaters — because the adults are more forthcoming about what they don’t like and why or what they remember; you don’t necessarily reason with kids when you’re trying to treat them, you just treat them — so I think that they’re finding more nuances. It’s not just about the individual foods at all. It’s the reasons, if they can figure them out. So I think, when I spoke to scientists about my own personal experience and how I feel like I got past it, for some of them that was new information. To hear about my reactions to foods, or how I went to culinary school, some of it was like, “Oh, that makes sense. You learned how to cook and that demystified the food. That makes sense, on a psychological level, that that could have helped you.” But I think it’s still such a mystery because many people struggle with how to explain a dislike. You have to be pretty introspective to do it, and you may just be unable to explain it. “I don’t know why I don’t like it; I just don’t like it. I don’t know if it’s the texture or the flavor or what.” Some people haven’t thought very hard about it. They just know they don’t like it. I’m not sure it’s that complicated of a thing, except that humans are so complicated, and pickiness is more of an internal than an external issue. That makes it pretty complex.

JS: So scientists aren’t even expecting that it’s going to end up shaking out to be like three main ways to be picky.

SL: You know, I don’t know, because when I asked Dr. Zucker, who was heading up the Duke study, what they hoped to achieve, she was very careful to say that they were in the beginning stages of just assessing information with this online survey. I will say, they were surprised at the response. I’m remembering she said in a radio interview we were both part of that she expected around 3,000 people to fill out this form, and they got like 30,000. So I think the breadth of that response, what they’re learning about how many people out there might classify themselves as picky, as having food issues — and again, they were just amassing the information, they hadn’t yet begun to process it. Maybe they’ve started that now. Because I will say, also in that same interview, I always asked the question, is there a difference between men and women. That could have been something, potentially, I talked about in the book. Although I didn’t write about it, I personally found that of the people I’ve met who are former picky eaters, who have gotten past it, more are women than men. Men I’ve met who are picky eaters seem to just be OK with their state. They deal with it and they don’t really need to change it. We could go into philosophical reasons about women being social, or feeling judged, to explain why they might be more likely to try to get past it. But anyway, when I asked if there’s a difference between men and women, [I found out] there are studies with kids found that males may be more likely to reject a new idea than females. But Dr. Zucker did say in this one interview that they are starting to find out that there might be a difference between the sexes in pickiness itself. I wanted to talk to her about it more, but I couldn’t on the radio. Anyway, some interesting correlations are emerging.

JS: But then untangling what’s going on with those, whether it’s genes or environment, figuring out if there’s a cultural component to it …

SL: Whether there’s a cultural component is something I’ve been asked about a lot in interviews. It was something I did not feel equipped to cover, because it was just so big. I could have taken on the history of picky eating — it was something my editor wanted me to do — but I wasn’t even sure how to begin tracking the history of it. On the cultural side of it, you get a lot of people saying, “Well, in India babies eat spicy foods.” Yeah, they do; that’s what’s there, what they’re used to. That’s their normal. But I also had someone tell me about being an American in North Korea, working (yes, it can be done). They went out to lunch with their Korean counterparts, and the menu had a western side and a Korean side. The western side was all pastas, pizzas, whatever, and the Koreans at the lunch thought that was absolutely disgusting food. So, it’s all about what you’re used to. It’s not that Americans are predisposed to be picky because we live in this huge country of largesse. People in different countries are going to have different reactions to different kinds of food. What might be gross to someone who’s never had Japanese food before almost certainly has an American counterpart that someone in Japan would find gross. It’s a huge topic that I couldn’t even begin to get into.

JS: It makes you wonder. I would not describe my own upbringing as full of lots of different styles of food, or of foods from lots of different cultural traditions. My parents were from the midwest. I was growing up basically in the ’70s and ’80s, and that was not necessarily a time of astounding creativity among home chefs.

SL: Not just in the midwest, it wasn’t anywhere. I’m from Minnesota, and I grew up the same time you did. It was a lot of frozen vegetables for me. Badly prepared.

JS: With the hell boiled right out of them.

SL: Right! So there was no way they were going to end up being anything good. Now, I could blame Minnesota for our lack of access to better food, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who grew up in California —

JS: And it was the same thing?

SL: Yes. She said, “We just didn’t have the same access that we do today.”

JS: Huh!

SL: She’s a former picky eater turned foodie and food writer, and she said it wasn’t until she went to college that she was opened up to more food. Maybe it is all about what your parents are bringing home. My husband grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and his mom always loved to cook, so she sought out the best recipes and there was more of that emphasis for him; even if they didn’t always have access to non-frozen vegetables, there was an attempt. I grew up on Chinese food and Vietnamese food, because we had a lot of it around, and I loved it, but I didn’t grow up around stuff I love now, like Ethiopian food or Afghan food. In this day and age, even in the midwest, there are more corner grocery stores that are going to have the ingredients, there are more restaurants, there’s more of an emphasis on the food culture than when you and I were growing up.

JS: Maybe that will have an impact on our kids. But, then again …

SL: It’s one thing that might help.

JS: Yeah. I have a kid who, as a two-year-old, cried inconsolably when, after her third helping of garlic broccoli, we ran out (and couldn’t get more, since it was Sunday, and the Thai restaurant down the street that we had gotten it from was closed). We said, “Child, you are not supposed to like broccoli this much!” And before that, when she was a baby, of course, every time my head was turned at the playground, she’d eat a handful of sand, I think just on principle. So, not what I would have called a super-picky child. But now, for her, there’s like a 15 minute window in which she’ll count a banana as ripe.

SL: I don’t blame her!

JS: And beyond that, she says, “It makes me gag.”

SL: Bananas are pernicious!

JS: It’s hard to know how much of this has to do with this is where her palate is right now (and it’s a moving target), and how much of it is, here’s a way to stick it to the parent.

SL: Speaking personally, I was the middle child, so I was always trying to be good. I was not ever trying to piss off my parents or run counter to them. And even my older sister, who was more the rebel, rebelled in other ways. I will say she became a vegetarian for a while, maybe to make a point — she was a teenager — but I also believe it was to avoid certain foods that neither of us liked. Speaking as a kid who grew up picky, I never consciously thought of my pickiness as a way to thwart my parents. I hated fighting with them about it.

JS: Yeah, I’m not even sure this would be a conscious thing. Once they’re thirteen, they don’t even know all the ways they’re trying to fight authority.

SL: Sometimes they’re disagreeing just to disagree.

JS: I think it’s part of demonstrating that you’re an autonomous human being; you have to reject every good idea that comes out of your mother’s mouth.

SL: Which is exactly what they’re doing around eighteen months. This is why it’s normal to see picky eaters at toddler age. It’s developmentally appropriate — they should be picky eaters. It’s the first time they can take control and say “No” and “You can’t put this in my mouth because I can now feed myself.” So yes, I learned that they’re little teenagers when they’re toddlers, with the same kinds of hormonal fluctuations going on.

JS: Well, it’s totally fun to get to do that twice with each child. Development kind of sucks.

SL: Yeah.