Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Missing the target

I suppose it's natural enough, but people are always looking for a magic bullet.

Doesn't matter what part of the human condition you're talking about.  Improving health, losing weight, gaining muscle, learning something new, increasing stamina, boosting libido... just listing all of the examples would be a post in and of itself.  I get it, you know?  Most of these are frustrating and difficult to cope with.  For myself, I can't tell you the number of times I've been out for a run, and at about mile three have cursed my age and poor physical condition and the entire universe that came together in such a way as to make me completely suck at running, and wished fervently that there was some kind of supplement I could take that would magically reduce my average mile-time to below eight minutes and leave me grinning cheerfully as I cross the finish line, instead of the reality of ten-minute miles being a victory and crossing the finish line sweaty and breathing hard and swearing that I will never, ever, ever sign up for a race again.

But human nature being what it is, I also tend to go home and immediately look for more races to sign up for.  People are strange.

The reality is that all of those battles we fight are battles for a reason.  They require consistent hard work to overcome.  So all the panaceas you see advertised on social media -- promising long life, six-pack abs, endless energy, and a screaming hot sex drive -- are very, very likely to be ripoffs, trying to capitalize on the natural human tendency to look for an easy solution.  It's like the old joke about the guy in New York City who asked a passerby how to get to Carnegie Hall, and was told, "Every day -- practice, practice, practice."

That was why I gave a skew glance at an announcement a couple of years ago that researchers in Australia had developed a new type font that improved memory by making it a little more effort to read.  Dubbed "Sans Forgetica," it takes the letters, slants them to the left, and creates diagonal breaks -- so it confuses the eye enough to make the brain stay focused while reading it.

"The mind will naturally seek to complete those shapes and so by doing that it slows the reading and triggers memory," said Stephen Banham, who studies typography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

And indeed, studies by Banham et al. indicated a small improvement in information retention -- 57%, over the 50% retention when the same information was written in Arial.

"When we want to learn something and remember it, it’s good to have a little bit of an obstruction added to that learning process because if something is too easy it doesn’t create a memory trace," said study co-author Janneke Blijlevens.  "If it’s too difficult, it doesn’t leave a memory trace either. So you need to look for that sweet spot."

Sounds plausible, doesn't it?

There's only one problem with the claim.

It doesn't work.

A team of researchers at the University of Warwick (UK) and the University of Waikato (New Zealand) released a paper this week about a set of four experiments with 882 test subjects, over twice the number used in the earlier study.  They made four conclusions from the data:
  • Sans Forgetica is, indeed, harder to read than Arial.
  • Asked to recall pairs of words in one font or the other, people tended to remember the ones in Arial better than the ones in Sans Forgetica.
  • When tested on recall of factual information from paragraphs written in either font, there was no significant difference in the retention between the two fonts.
  • When tested on depth of understanding of information, once again there was no difference observed.
So, to put it simply: Sans Forgetica makes reading a pain in the ass for no good reason.

Study lead author Andrea Taylor put it in a little more genteel fashion: "Our findings suggest we should encourage students to rely on robust, theoretically-grounded techniques that really do enhance learning, rather than hard-to-read fonts."

Sad to say, there's no easy road to better recall and comprehension.  Difficulties in the human condition are difficulties for a reason; if they were easy to solve, there wouldn't be so many people worried about them.  Magic bullets, unfortunately, are almost guaranteed to miss the target.

And now, I better get out there for my daily run.  Maybe mile three will be easy today, but I'm not counting on it.  All I'm honestly looking for is a marginal improvement, day to day.

Practice, practice, practice.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. maybe they needed to put the diagonal breaks through Comic Sans for it to work. The anger people will have over having not only force their minds to put the letters together, but for it to be Comic Sans as well might add the extra memory-enhancing effect as it is seared into their minds. LOL!