This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.
Next up, David Dobbs of Neuron Culture.
How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?
Though mind and brain has probably been my steadiest and most frequent topic — and will almost surely be so now that I’m writing a book about genes and behaviour, I still think of psych and neuroscience as just one of several things I blog about.
They do seem in my wheelhouse, however. I went years without writing about psych or neuroscience, but when I started a few years ago, it felt as if I’d come home. Both my background and the nature of my interest in science areas make natural fodder for me. For starters, my mom was a shrink (no jokes, please), which probably played a role; my dad was a surgeon, and I’ve always been interested in that too.
Yet it scarcely requires having a shrink as a mom to take a keen interest in how people behave, or misbehave, for this is life’s fundamental puzzle. I don’t mean from just an intellectual standpoint. You must understand how people behave — and manage your own behavior accordingly — to survive and thrive. This holds for individuals and also accounts for humanity’s success, however mixed it is. Small wonder, then, that most of us take a keen interest in how others think and why they behave the way they do.
So that’s the behaviour. But why your interest in the sciences that study it?
Science constitutes our most serious and rigorous attempt to understand the world — and psychiatry, psychology, and now neuroscience make great material partly because they so often and starkly show science’s power and pitfalls. These disciplines are hard. The people who work in them, whether researching, treating patients or both, are trying to discern and treat enormously complex and opaque dynamics. Some do brilliant work. Others, both now and through the centuries, have come up with some really fascinating wrong ideas, some of them, like phrenology, hare-brained and obviously corrupt, and others, like Freudian psychology, more rigorous but in the end almost as badly flawed empirically. Freud created a brilliant, beautiful, and disciplined body of work — a gorgeously developed account of how we think and behave — that ultimately fails as science because you can’t falsify it. Meanwhile, Cajal was figuring out the neuron — and quietly laid a path now being followed to much greater effect.
At their best, these disciplines try to find empirical ways to understand human behavior, mood, and thinking, and to treat problems in the same areas. And even as we’re starting to get a few real insights into the brain, these disciplines offer one object lesson after another in the challenges and dangers of science. Take neuroimaging alone. You get brilliant people like Helen Mayberg, who uses imaging to create and test deep, complex, substantial ideas about how depression works. And you get others who claim they can read an fMRI and tell you whether someone is lying. And in between you encounter — sometimes starkly, sometimes subtly — every kind of intellectual, financial, cultural, and personal issue that generate what we call conflicts of interest — that is, the desires and motivations that pull scientists or medical people away from solid, empirically based science and practice and into murky terrain. Meanwhile you get the very cool technical solutions people devise, and the lovely long detective-story-level intellectual puzzles they solve.
All that, and a million alluring ideas about why we act, think, and feel the ways we do. There’s no end to the richness.
What’s your blog’s mission?
Same as my writing in general, only faster. I want to write about science, nature, medicine, culture, and — the big fun — how they overlap. Blogging lets me do this in quicker, more provisional takes. It lets me revise my provisional takes and respond more fluidly to other people’s provisional takes. It lets me elaborate or post sources on longform articles I’ve written for print. It lets me write about things I’ll deal with more deeply in my book on behavioral genetics — and on related issues I won’t have room for in my book. All that, and I can post YouTube mashups of Soviet soldiers dancing to hip-hop. I can write about curveballs and Sandy Koufax. Twice.
So I suppose the mission is to write seriously, to have and deliver some fun, and to participate in a range of conversations that are going on online.
Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?
I’ve really taken to Twitter, and it complements and feeds my blogging enormously. It provides an even faster, more fluid way to communicate and share ideas. And feeds me faster and richer than any other medium.
How does your blogging affect your day job?
I’m a freelancer, so my day job is what I make it. (That sounds so leisurely; it really means I work all day and then again at night. Though I do sometimes go fishing.) I used to view blogging as eating into my real job of writing. Now I see it more coherently as part of it. Though I do have to limit it, since it doesn’t pay — not directly, anyway.
What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?
Scienceblogs uses MovableType, so I’ve no choice there; I find it clumsy and would rather use WordPress instead. I use MarsEdit (a Mac program) to write most of my posts. I usually write on my big-screen iMac so I have plenty of working room for cutting and pasting and linking and such.
What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?
Read and heed Strunk and White, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and all three of the annual science writing anthologies. Read Strunk and White every year. And read your own stuff out loud (to yourself); you’ll be amazed at how quickly it exposes the lame passages.
Finally, read some history and philosophy of science and intellectual history — The Metaphysical Club; A Short History Of Nearly Everything; Newton and the Counterfeiter; Reef Madness; The Great Betrayal. Seeing how clumsy and wrong-headed even great scientists were in the past will help you develop a good bullshit detector — essential to any good writing, especially needed in writing about psychology.
What blogs do you read (list up to five)?
This is representative rather than most visited. A few I find particularly valuable, fun, or interesting lately are Not Exactly Rocket Science, where Ed Yong puts out a stunning combination of quality, quantity, and sheer WTF wonder; Vaughan Bell’s Mind Hacks, which offers a lovely combination of bullshit detection and previously undiscovered wonders; and some fine pairs: SuperBug and Speakeasy; Genetic Future and Gene Expression; Neuroanthropology and Neurophilosophy. The Loom. And for literary illumination, n+1, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, and the New York Review of Books. I could list another dozen quite easily, some it pains me to leave out.
What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)
Heavy on genetics lately. Recently or presently on my reading table: The Selfish Gene; Here is a Human Being by Misha Angrist, still in galleys; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Not By Genes Alone; John Cacioppo’s Loneliness; and James Schwartz’s absorbing history In Pursuit of the Gene — another one for that recommended history of science list.
And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?
I may be missing some early ones. But the one I like the most at present is probably Does depression have an upside? It’s complicated. I was responding to ‘Depression’s Upside,’ a feature in the New York Times Magazine in which my friend Jonah Lehrer presented, and largely sided with, an argument for the ‘analytic-ruminative’ theory, which holds that depression is adaptive because it creates a ruminative focus that generates valuable insight. I disagreed. But as I wrote the post, I realized I disagreed from a side-angle rather than head-on. I badly wanted to convey that, both because the evolutionary foundation of depression is highly important but tricky and multidimensional, and because I so value Jonah’s writing. I wanted to convey all that. And when I finished the post I felt I’d done pretty much what I’d hoped. This pleased me and still does, because the time constraints of blog posts make it hard to write clearly about such subtle and complex points — such things usually take me a while, for lo I am slow — and this time I felt I got it.
Now if I can just clean up the typos.