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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 18, 2006

A Scientific Aptitude Test?

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Posted by Derek

I've just spent some time reading a very enjoyable and interesting paper (PDF, and thanks to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution) from Shane Frederick at MIT's Sloan management school. He has a simple test that seems rather well correlated with a person's appetite for financial risk-taking and their ability to postpone a smaller immediate reward for a larger one in the future.

Frederick's test consists of what are basically trick questions. They're the sort of things that have an immediately obvious intuitive answer, but one which is (unfortunately wrong). These take a bit of mathematical and logical thinking to work out, but nothing advanced. You do have to be able to not just run with the first answer that comes in your head, though. (Not doing so, of course, requires you to be the sort of person who double-checks things, preferably from a different angle, before committing to them). Cognitive ability and patience have been linked before, both in the popular imagination and in a few studies that Frederick cites.

Update: there's a possibly confounding variable that I forgot to mention: perhaps the better students taking this test had already been exposed to these types of questions before as brain teasers. I know that this was the case with me; I recognized them as classic forms of not-the-obvious-answer questions. This gets back to the question of how much a person's test-taking performance is due to practice in taking tests. . .

He gave this test to a number of different groups, and his table of results is worth the download right there (I'll give you a hint - if you didn't know already, MIT is quite different from the University of Toledo). But as it turns out, the people who score very low and the ones who score very high on this sort of quiz also answer quite a few other questions differently. Frederick was checking their responses to choices such as "Would you rather have $100 now or $140 next year?" and "Would you rather have $100 for sure or a 75% chance at $200?". What he found was the high-scoring group heavily prefers to wait for the larger payout in the first question, and heavily prefers to take the risk in the second one. (The whole paper details a range of these, of varying levels of risk balanced with immediate or long-term attractiveness).

Another effect that's been noted in past studies is that people are much more willing to take a risk to avoid a loss, rather than taking an equivalent risk when there's a prospect of an equivalent gain. Update: Although this was what I had in my head, I originally had this backwards; thanks to Shane Frederick for pointing this out! His low-scoring cohort is hugely biased toward this mode of thought, Frederick finds, but the effect actually disappears in the high-scoring group. (He also confirms the results of several other studies, including the finding that women tend to be much more risk-averse than men in such situations).

I couldn't help thinking that his high-scoring group is also the group that makes the best scientists. Think about it: not going with the first thing that pops into your head, but always stopping to ask yourself if it's true or not. Checking it in different ways to see if you get the same answer. These are the habits of mind that a good researcher has - and I can tell you from personal experience that some of the least competent chemists and biologists I've known come from the opposite category.

You know the ones - the folks who get an n-of-one number in an assay and go running around telling everyone that they've found something wonderful, only to have to eat the whole thing (again) when it doesn't repeat. The set-up-the-reaction-first (and look in the library later) folks who have to pour even more reactions into the waste can than the rest of us do. Professor Frederick should run his next survey in the science hallways - perhaps we could separate the sheep from the goats.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


COMMENTS

1. Kay on January 19, 2006 9:11 AM writes...

Are you suggesting that pharma does not attract the best scientists? What does the strong desire for rule-of-five, rotatable bond counting, etc. tell us about the average pharma artisan?

Permalink to Comment

2. Marc on January 19, 2006 10:45 AM writes...

Kay: It tells us that they will disregard plenty candidates that don't look right while waiting a few months extra to get 40 $ more free cash.

Seriously, Many, but not all, of the questions are related to money, and time value of money. The results might be skewed by the fact that some of these students might be cash-strapped.

Sure, I would like 38000 in two months, not 34000 now. What if I really need some cash now, regardless of a 280% discount rate ?

This is an interesting study, and should be repeated with either with participants with sufficient disposable income, or with more of the non-cash questions, such as the tooth or massage questions in the study.

Permalink to Comment

3. SRC on January 19, 2006 12:16 PM writes...

Think about it: not going with the first thing that pops into your head, but always stopping to ask yourself if it's true or not. Checking it in different ways to see if you get the same answer.

This is basically a function of intelligence and imagination, isn't it?

The less clever do not conceive of the possibility that more than one solution may pass superficial examination.

Permalink to Comment

4. milo on January 19, 2006 1:07 PM writes...

"You know the ones - the folks who get an n-of-one number in an assay and go running around telling everyone that they've found something wonderful, only to have to eat the whole thing (again) when it doesn't repeat. The set-up-the-reaction-first (and look in the library later) folks who have to pour even more reactions into the waste can than the rest of us do. "

You know, I see this kind of carelessness all the time in my group. I am not sure if it is due to lack of oversight by the PI (an NAS member...) or if it is because a lot of people are working in fields they are not intimately familiar with. The stories I could tell...

I think everyone at some point or another has gotten carried away and done an experiment without quite thinking it all the way through, science can be very exciting sometimes. However the good scientists are the slow and careful ones, though. Sure they take longer, but you can have faith in their results.


What does the strong desire for rule-of-five, rotatable bond counting, etc. tell us about the average pharma artisan?

Does the bench chemist use these "rules" or are they more for management?

Permalink to Comment

5. The Novice Chemist on January 19, 2006 3:33 PM writes...

Isn't the fear of embarassment enough to keep people from announcing great results without reproducing them?

I don't know how that fits into this study...

Permalink to Comment

6. Derek Lowe on January 19, 2006 3:46 PM writes...

You'd think that it would be, but all I can say is that some people's capacity for embarrassment is a lot higher than average. I've seen the exact situation that I described, and more than once, unfortunately.

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