March 7, 2021

Mental models

A scientific journal’s injustice; the true payoff of deliberate practice

A few things worth checking out: 03-07-2021

Read Time 4 minutes

Here are a few things I think are worth checking out:

 

How a scientific journal’s ‘grotesque overreaction’ inflamed the contentious debate over Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug (STAT, 8 February 2021)

This STAT article describes the controversial punishment of three researchers by the academic journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia for prematurely sharing a paper they submitted for publication. Their situation intersects with the quest to approve the Alzheimer’s disease drug aducanumab. In their paper they opposed the drug’s approval, a conclusion that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel independently came to as well. The lobbying process for aducanumab has been emotionally charged. A mainstay supporter of the drug is the Alzheimer’s Association, which coincidentally (or not) owns Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The STAT article includes further context to suggest the possibility that the Alzheimer’s Association may have influenced the authors’ punishment.

Here is what happened: The three researchers submitted their paper to the academic journal, presenting a case against aducanumab’s approval. The paper was in the public domain prior to the FDA committee meeting, which took place sometime in November. The paper was accepted and published by Alzheimer’s & Dementia, but the journal claims that one of the authors prematurely shared a link to the paper from his Twitter account. When he posted the tweet, the journal replied and asked him to take the tweet down, saying it was embargoed. Following the journal’s request, the author took down the tweet, but we located it here (using internet archive). The chain of events gets a bit more confusing because at the time of the author’s tweet sharing a link to the paper, the journal had already posted the paper on its website as an “early view.” This generally means that the article is published online, before the print edition of the journal is published. Indeed, the author claims that he thought he could share the early view link to the paper. Considering that citation guides instruct on how to properly cite early view articles, early view papers are clearly publicly accessible in most cases. Taking that into consideration, it seems reasonable that the author thought he could share the link, unless the journal stipulated that he had to wait. The way I read the story, it seems like an honest misunderstanding in which the author thought he could share the paper link without copyright infringement.  

All went quiet for a few months after the mishap; there was no further issue raised by the journal. Then, two months later, Alzheimer’s & Dementia informed the authors that they were guilty of an “ethical violation” and were put on a two-year publishing probation. The violation was for tweeting a link to the paper, which the journal says violated the author’s copyright agreement. The punishment given to the authors stated that if they are to submit research to the journal in the future, they will need a statement from each of their parent institutions, verifying the disclosure of any conflicts of interest. 

A few months ago, I shared a Q&A with Richard Isaacson following the FDA panel’s decision not to approve the drug. The committee concluded that there was not enough clinical evidence in support of aducanumab’s efficacy and the final decision about its approval will come sometime in June. As for the authors’ punishment, I suggest reading the story to come to your own conclusion about the circumstances of the decision.

 

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The Queen’s Gambit and the myth of the chess genius (Daily Maverick, 09 February 2021)

The Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit presents thought-provoking themes interwoven with a narrative of a young girl who is passionate about the game of chess. It was recommended to me by many people, but for some reason I kept avoiding it until my wife insisted I check out “just the first episode.” Most miniseries fail this test for me, but not this one. One episode in and I was hooked (just like Ted Lasso, but let’s save that for another day). 

This sociological commentary about chess brings some of the show’s themes to the foreground for discussion. These themes include using substances to enhance cognitive ability, the ensuing controversy around the (perhaps glorified) representation of drug use, and the gender inequality in the world of the game and its culture. The show is obviously layered and complicated. It mirrors chess that way. 

One of the themes the article discusses is the meaning and evolution of the word “genius.” The article notes  that “genius” was first associated with elite performance in the 18th century to distinguish a capacity that is innate as opposed to nurtured. As the etiology goes, “talent” was considered something that many people have and can be fostered. On the other hand, “genius” is inborn, or hereditary. It became tied to theories of IQ score and individual difference, and it became deeply associated with chess. The article notes the conflation between notions of being a chess “grandmaster prodigy” and an “innate genius.” 

Rather than delving into what “genius” is, I am more intrigued by how the idea of what is a genius is confused with the product of incessant drive and commitment. “Breakthrough” performances that make a boy or girl “wonder” come after countless hours of hard work. The article anecdotally references Bobby Fischer, often considered a chess genius, who spent six years honing his craft before he had a performance for which the public deemed him a “boy wonder.”  This supports the notion that hard work may often drive performances that look like a stroke of genius as opposed to something inborn. 

It may be true, too, that hard work is not enough on its own either. In my conversation with David Epstein, we discuss how the 10,000 hour rule of diligent work to master something doesn’t really seem to hold up. Even so, at least in my mind, putting in the time of focused attention and deliberate practice is more about progressing to new and more challenging places than it is reaching an endpoint of mastery—whatever that means in a given domain. Even if I am determined that the hard work will “pay off”—that it will lead me to become whatever it is that I want it to be—no one really knows what can happen. That’s also why you have to get into the arena, lay it on the board, and see what unfolds.

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  1. Hi Peter,
    I agree with you, I have always found it interesting how people are often ready to label someone a genius based on their accomplishments, without taking into consideration the commitment to hard work and dedication that took them there. I find that the metric of intelligence is a very slippery one, impossible to truly gauge accurately, without considering all the factors of curiosity, drive, commitment and opportunity.

  2. With respect to ‘genius’… I ran across an interview with the magician Teller.
    A favorite quote that I have picked up from that article is:
    “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonable expect.”

  3. Hi Peter –
    I think you are spot on about deliberate practice. In the late George Leonard’s wonderful book Mastery: The Keys To Success and Long Term Fulfillment, he writes about the importance of “falling in love with the plateaus” in one’s deliberate practice. With perseverance & a little luck, at some point one will leap to a higher level of skill and those moments are sweet and expansive. But those moments, like the tougher ones, are transient. It’s the grounding in the dedicated practice that sustains the sense of well being and helps guard us against becoming a complete whacko.

    Thank you for your good work.

  4. Peter–Thanks for this great content, but the STAT article is behind a paywall. Why link to content your readers can’t access? Or, why not at least warn readers that the content is restricted?

    Otherwise, TY for your insights and for sharing your knowledge.

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