The commentative or reflective footnote: lost art and lost science.

Don’t know where to put that thought? Put it in a commentative footnote!
This is a writing tool invented long ago (see Anthony Grafton’s EXCELLENT The Footnote: A curious history) that is way underused in writing science! You can comment on

  • methods
  • personalities
  • ideas
  • theories
  • problems
  • words
  • history
  • future directions
  • references
  • other parts of your thesis (endophoric citations)

Some students report that their thesis advisors frown on this technique.  This might mean they are merely naive about writing.  But even if you can’t keep your footnotes in your final version, the commentative footnote is a way for YOU to write reflectively about your own area of expertise and to develop your own voice.

On using a wiki: one month’s experience

We’ve used the The Methodological Annex wiki through for six weeks, a total of 22 articles relating to methods used in our weekly Immunology journal club. Here are some preliminary observations:

  • It takes me (as administrator) about 30-45′ each week to set up the wiki structure.  I do this to maintain a certain structure and because I have the categories in mind as I write the questions. (So far I retained administrator control over the “entry” point page that lists all the articles  and their questions.  )
  • Few students have made use of the wiki to write up their answers (which are given orally each week in a seminar following the journal club). Since TMA itself is voluntary, there is no way to require student entries to the wiki and there is so far little incentive to do so.
  • The wiki is straightforward with standard wiki features.  There’s a minor odd feature that if you highlight a text to make a link, the wikia will replace it automatically with other text, so that you have to go back and edit it back to what you want. It should accept the highlighted text as default.
  • The chief impediment to getting students to write to the wiki I think is that it takes additional time to write up and edit a wiki.
  • A second impediment has to do with copyright issues.  Under the doctrine of fair use, it is appropriate to take tables and figures from copyrighted works for display in a one-time teaching seminar, but not for repeated use or in a stable public forum. This means that figures would have to be redrawn. In most cases, students actually use the whiteboard for diagrams- so is is non-trivial to post them to the wiki.
  • One solution to the copyright issue would be to take the wiki private, using the wiki feature of Blackboard, for example.

Stanley Fish on “Plagiarism is not a big moral deal”

need to comment on this opinion piece by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish

: brought to my attention by Jim Good.

Where is the Question Mark? comment on “creative madness”

An e-zine from The Faculty of 1000 with an article entitled “creative madness” brought my attention an article by the same name by Richard Grant in The Scientist. In short, a paper by de Manzano et al. (Thinking outside a less intact box: thalamic dopamine D2 receptor densities are negatively related to psychometric creativity in healthy individuals. . PloS One, Vol. 5, No. 5. (17 May 2010), e10670.) reports that the concentration of dopamine receptors in the thalamus is inversely correlated (r=-64; reported p(Bonferroni) =0.017) with a measurement of “divergent thinking” but is unrelated to a measurement of IQ. Since the thalamus has been previously implicated in a variety of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, and because measurements of creativity have been positively correlated in the past with “schizotypy” and “psychoticism” in healthy adults, this observation supports a new hypothesis (presented by de Manzano et al) that a relative deficit of dopamine D2 receptors is the mechanism beneath a purported positive correlation between “creativity” and “madness”.
Such a concordance seems to me to belong to Common Knowledge and is closely allied with the motif of “the mad scientist”; I wonder if it is true? (See an article in Psychology Today by Hara Estroff Marano for a brief critique of this culture motif).
Regardless of the validity of the widely assumed concordance between madness and creativity, the article by de Manzano did not address it experimentally, but propose it as an hypothesis. But as their experimental findings make their way toward the popular press, witness the transformation: a conjecture raised by an experimental finding becomes the subject (“Creative Madness”) complete with a compelling image
which reinforces the stereotype. Even though both Grant’s article and the extract of it by The Faculty of 1000 do indicate (if one reads carefully) that the connection between D2 receptors and mental illness is merely hypothetical, the tenor of both are that de Manzano eet al has now explained a known fact. But, call me divergent, it seems to me that they have merely proposed an hypothesis to explain an hypothesis.
Here is my posting to The Scientist:
Where is the question mark?
by John Rodgers

[Comment posted 2010-08-09 08:58:28]
“and de Manzano suspects that the mentally ill may have similar receptor patterns.”

The paper appears to be interesting and important. It reports an unexpected finding using a new technique that leads to a fascinating and testable hypothesis which if true seems important and even if false will be heuristically important.

However, the title of the blog entry “Creative madness” without a question mark, propagated by the Faculty of 1000’s recent email, if picked up by the popular press (and it seems to be designed This seems to be an example of how an interesting and plausible speculation, labeled as such by the investigator, still drives the headlines, and this is what the public-including in this case other scientists- hears. The good news: the public is interested in what scientists do. The bad news: the public becomes misinformed once again about what scientists do, and what they have done.

The very brief comments in the introduction and discussion of by de Monzano et al. seem to take as a fact that creativity and madness are positively correlated, yet this might be too simplistic a view (see for example the blog by Estroff Marano at LINK

The authors find a strong positive association with the thalamus, supporting one of their initial hypotheses, but did not detect the negative correlation with the striatum based on several previous findings cited by the authors.

The authors of the original article say “It is thus tempting to suggest that dopaminergic modulation of neurotransmission mediated through dopamine D2-receptors could be one of the mechanisms which associate creativity with positive psychotic symptoms.”

That IS an interesting hypothesis, and the paper provides supportive observations for it. But we should remember that hypotheses have implied Question Marks, and responsible science journalism should carry them forward. If science journalists writing for scientists do not, then how can we ever hope that journalists writing for the public will?
– John Rodgers

Read more: Creative madness – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences

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