Home is Where The Redirect Link Leads

Hello, wonderful commenters, readers, and other-people-peering-at-this.

I’m writing with bittersweet news: G&H is moving, this time to a standalone location. I have adored being here. I have gotten to write next to some of my favorite people in the world, and it has been and important and warm and loving community. There aren’t grand reasons I’m moving–it’s just that as time has passed, I’ve been writing to an increasingly different audience, and having my own space seems an inevitable, but sad part of that.

So. With that, I’ll see you over here.

Teen Attends University, Can Now Tell You Her Experience Fits Erikson’s Developmental Model for Early Adulthood

I have talked a lot about graduating in the last months. I have technically finished classes at this point, and I’m in the thick of writing final papers and packing.

…and, I don’t have a good ending story for college. No elevator pitch. No pithy commentary.

College was a time of self-discovery, but honestly. Call the papers: Teenager Attends University, Has Revelations About Self? Hardly. This is not news, this is the default.

On June 6th, I’ll trade Evanston for Oakland, and on June 21st, I’ll be officially graduated.

and…that is all.

I think I’ll have more stories later. After all, my department’s building did have a Room of Requirement, I did find the original blueprints to NU, and I have lived with an extraordinary group of people.

But for now? I am turning in final papers and packing and registering for grad school classes. It feels a bit like finally picking up that book all of your social circle has been exclaiming over for months, and finding out that yes, it does have Those Characters, and yes they do Those Things, but it’s somewhat less exciting if everyone you know has already exclaimed it at you five times.

Monday Miscellany: New Data, Negative Results, Innate Differences

1. Psychologist has believed for years that at some point, psychology will vindicate his belief that the hot hand effect exists. When evidence does finally appear…he goes looking for disconfirmation

 You would think, then, that 15 years later I would feel vindicated. New data suggests that when you use much richer data than was available previously, the mythical hot hand effect appears to exist. But I don’t feel all that vindicated. In the meantime I’ve come to realize that while the hot hand effect may be real (in that it can be detected with mountains of very precise data) most of the time that I thought I had detected it, chances are it was just a pattern that looked like the hot hand, but was in fact just a statistical fluke. Because I’m human, I’m excellent at detecting patterns, whether or not they’re really there.

To learn more, I reached out to Michael Kraus (@mwkraus), a sports fan and a social psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, who has an interest in the hot hand research and was willing to share his reactions to the new findings. Here’s my interview with him, conducted recently over email:

2. “I think a good headline would be Experiment Finds Negative Results, what do you think? Hello…?” I <3 this psychology kick SMBC has been on

3. Good advice on ‘innate’ brain differences.  Even when you can demonstrate that the so-called ‘innate’ difference appears VERY early (if female babies distinguishing between faces more easily within a few weeks of birth, for instance), it’s hard to conclude that it’s innate. For instance, female babies also get different kinds of attention starting at/before birth. What if they’re getting more up-close exposure to faces, or men and women have greater differences in how they speak to girl babies, making the gender gap more obvious to female babies? Both of those could explain research finding that babies exhibit gender differences in facial recognition.

ETA: it’s not that I don’t think innate traits are possible, it’s that right now we don’t know enough to make such claims, and doing so tends to really be demonstrating a lack of creativity in thinking up confounds. 

4. On marriage equality and ‘assimilationist’ viewpoints. 

5. The wonderful thing about triggers. (The terrible thing about this post is that you will have the Tigger song stuck in your head ALL DAY.) And, relevant to about 342,391 bad articles I’ve seen recently, let me repeat a relevant line: YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.

6. Via Leah, waiting on the revolution in psychiatry.

Psychiatry today is like the field of genetics before Mendel,” announced a distinguished professor during an introductory lecture in the spring of our first year. What he meant is that psychiatry is still waiting for its big revolution. The allure of the field, he went on to suggest, is the anticipation of the magical discovery that, finally, will be like turning on a lamp in the middle of a darkened room.

7. I was at the Humanist Hub this weekend, and for Sunday service we read this piece. I offer it here because I found it touching and lovely the first time I read it, and again as I graduate.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.

Optimism, Priming

Second best thing about datasets on the internet: it weighs less.

[Early morning airport thoughts, mostly organized]

There’s been a great replication debate playing its way across psychology this year, heating up recently, and there are some particularly good things being said. Things that make me happier and more exclamatory about this field I love.

To start, two years ago, Daniel Kahneman wrote an open email to social psychologists who were doing priming research. Priming makes intuitive sense: it’s the idea that if I show you a bunch of gory and violent scenes, and then give you one of those fill-in-the-letters tasks with B_ _ _D, you’re more likely to answer with BLOOD than, say,  BREAD. Of course, it fits in with nearly everyone’s sense of the world that Early Stuff impacts Later Stuff. Okay, perhaps less intuitive: does giving you a hot cup of coffee (rather than an iced coffee) make you think of me as more warmly? [Spoilers: the data seems fragile, but I will view you more warmly if you give me coffee.]

Priming is catchy–the stuff of easy headlines and whole swaths of self-help books. But individual priming effects don’t seem to replicate well at all, and this part does not make it into bestsellers. Quoth Kahneman (whose book, Thinking Fast and Slow, cites a fair bit of priming research):

For all these reasons, right or wrong, your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research. Your problem is not with the few people who have actively challenged the validity of some priming results. It is with the much larger population of colleagues who in the past accepted your surprising results as facts when they were published. These people have now attached a question mark to the field, and it is your responsibility to remove it.

[...]

My reason for writing this letter is that I see a train wreck looming. I expect the first victims to be young people on the job market. Being associated with a controversial and suspicious field will put them at a severe disadvantage in the competition for positions. Because of the high visibility of the issue, you may already expect the coming crop of graduates to encounter problems. Another reason for writing is that I am old enough to remember two fields that went into a prolonged eclipse after similar outsider attacks on the replicability of findings: subliminal perception and dissonance reduction.

Hi. Yes. I would be one of those young people who would like a field I adore to avoid train wrecks.

Next up, the Many Labs Replication Project, round one, in which thirty-six psych labs collaborated to replicate thirteen findings.

Of the 13 effects under scrutiny in the latest investigation, one was only weakly supported, and two were not replicated at all. Both irreproducible effects involved social priming. In one of these, people had increased their endorsement of a current social system after being exposed to money3. In the other, Americans had espoused more-conservative values after seeing a US flag4.

Social psychologist Travis Carter of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who led the original flag-priming study, says that he is disappointed but trusts Nosek’s team wholeheartedly, although he wants to review their data before commenting further. Behavioural scientist Eugene Caruso at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who led the original currency-priming study, says, “We should use this lack of replication to update our beliefs about the reliability and generalizability of this effect”, given the “vastly larger and more diverse sample” of the Many Labs project. Both researchers praised the initiative.

Curious about how Many Labs is conducting their replication? Oh, here’s all their materials and datasets.

As replication efforts continued, there was some pushback. Simone Schnall, the lead author on With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments, was not best pleased by her experience. Brent Donellan defended the replication work. The replication researchers offered their email exchanges to shed more light.

(I want to add my sheer delight that I can download the datasets and materials used and flip through the email exchanges and read the blogs of the researchers, without perching myself on the physical doorsteps of all of the people involved. The internet is a wondrous thing.)

There has been further blogging and discussing and debating since, but I want to highlight this comment by Dave Nussbaum, part of which is excerpted below:

My guess is that the vast majority of people in social psychology (and beyond) could probably be characterized as believing the following things, to vary degrees.

1. There are shortcomings in the current research practices in our field. We are not necessarily unique in this way, but if our goal is to try to get a better understanding of what’s true, we have to improve. This is true in several areas, including, but not restricted to reducing p-hacking and other questionable research practices, publishing null results, and increasing the amount of direct replication that we do. [...]

2. There is a collective action problem whereby it’s difficult for many individuals, particularly at early stages in their careers, to unilaterally decide that they will forego methods that will improve their productivity, particularly when it can be tantalizingly easy to rationalize one’s behavior in various ways.

3. We want the “revolution” to be peaceful and fair. Our assumption is, perhaps somewhat naively, that everyone has been acting in good faith. Improving research practices should not come at any individual’s expense (although there may be inevitable collateral damage, it should be minimized whenever possible). That means that we shouldn’t single out a single person who is one of many adhering to norms that should be changed.

This, especially #2, seems true to me. I don’t think I’m wrong if I propose that psychologists (the academic kind, not the couch kind) trade on their reputation. As young researchers, you have to build that reputation. Maybe you do a thesis project in your undergrad, get listed as an author in research from the lab you’re working in. On your way to a graduate degree, more of this. Get a position in academia? You’re working to get noticed–studies that are published and cited are the means* to that end. And somewhere along the way–I distinctly remember this happening to me, and have watched it happen with peers–you notice that perhaps you’re not so confident in your results. Or you’re not entirely sure you’d expect your findings to appear outside the laboratory. And…what then? Academia is not entirely known for possession of wiggle room.

And while I don’t think anyone produces deep thoughts at 3:11 am in Midway Airport, I do think this: replication projects are starting to snowball. I just created an Open Science Framework account, where I can poke around through pre-registered hypotheses and look at results because they’re out there. I have spent too much of this week reading these debates and papers and replications because a half-decent wifi connection means you can. We, young and squishy science that psychology is, are creating a culture of accountability and openness. We are trying, perhaps not as well as we could, but trying nonetheless, to make this a painless transition: an adventure of “look! new knowledge!” and not “you were Wrong and you should feel Bad!” Onwards!

 


*I worked very hard not to make a stats joke out of this.

Can Can Can

[Somewhat more rambly post, still frantically packing and finishing finals]

I’ve noticed something recently, about this phrase:

Can you do something for me?

There are two ways this phrase can go.

Can you do something for me…[by never doing this thing that I hate that you've been doing?]

and

Can you do something for me? [because I bet you had no idea this could be helpful, and I wanted to let you know, but also, you can say no to doing it!]

The first is unintentionally passive-aggressive: masquerading as the innocuous request that the second one actually is.

And I’m completely guilty of this. “Can you do something for me?” is how I trained myself to start asserting boundaries. It was the nice way to retroactively tell someone that their behavior had hurt me. I was being polite! I was leveraging my way into telling someone I wanted them to change their behavior! “Can you do something for me?” was a way to start the conversation that still gave me an out–I could chicken out and ask them to pass the potatoes, you know. I wasn’t really starting a Scary Conversation That Might Make Them Mad, I was just making it slightly more possible.

Can you do something for me?

Yeah, sure!

Can you not say that thing near me? It’s a huuuuge trigger, and I end up really distraught.

And I learned to start making boundary requests! But at the same time, I learned to have the gut-punch of fear any time an innocuous conversation opened this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if my friends started to feel this way too.

And this is the opposite of my goal! I want to have easy and clear communication, not shift the fear!anxiety to phrases that I also use to make normal requests. I’m not sure how to prevent myself from doing this in the future: this process was a step up from not saying anything at all, and the next step is not using a misleading opening. I’m not sure I could have leaped from Step One to Step Three.

‘Just do it’ is a successful strategy for some, and might have worked for me. I’m hesitant to advocate it though; the thing about Just Do It is that people who can’t Just Do It will nod and then carry on there merry way not doing it.

Monday Miscellany: Everything, Ems, Eggs

1. Three different relationship stories, one important principle.

Whoever injected our collective brain with the idea that love is something we earn by making ourselves want only smaller, appropriate, manageable things needs to come here and fight me, with fists. Because I want EVERYTHING. I want love, I want great sex, I want great kissing, I want to be able to relax and laugh with my love, I want us to both contribute financially to the household as well as we are able, and when the time comes I want to stand up in front of the people I care about and say “You bet I do” and sign that “meaningless” piece of paper. I want those things without apology. Without limit. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of you for wanting those things, too. I can’t promise you that someone is out there who wants those things and wants them with you (I don’t control that, just like I can’t make people kiss better or clean the toilet when it’s their turn) but my own life has given me lots of reasons to be optimistic on your behalf.

2. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Do bring analysis of artificial brains to a new video game that lets you pause time in gunfights.

3. Two Eggs

Because nobody likes to think about the fact 
that perhaps we are all playing with fire
that perhaps The American Dream 
(and by this I mean weight loss)
is nothing but a smokescreen.
That perhaps shrinking oneself successfully
does not actually move mountains,
paint your soul in bright gold,
or part the seas.

That perhaps making ourselves disappear
won’t fix the real problems
our good intentions will never
pave the path to heaven.

Tomorrow when I wake up
I am going to breathe in the morning air
and thank the universe for poppyseed muffins,
ice cream bars
whole milk
full fat butter

I am going to change the world

and fry two eggs for breakfast.

4. Desexualizing disability

5. I’ve been a hug supporter of the Many Labs replication project, so it’s interesting to see this play out: Simone Schnall, whose research didn’t replicate and Brent Donellan, who was part of the team testing it debate their respective sides. Two things I got out of this: nuance is important, and it’s a wonderful sign that this debate is accessible to anyone. These are blogs! This is High (Science) Drama that I can read and think about…and so can you! Two, I feel excellent about timing my ceiling effect post. If my post was confusing, Schnall gives a short and excellent summary:

Let me try to illustrate the ceiling effect in simple terms: Imagine two people are speaking into a microphone and you can clearly understand and distinguish their voices. Now you crank up the volume to the maximum. All you hear is this high-pitched sound (“eeeeee”) and you can no longer tell whether the two people are saying the same thing or something different. Thus, in the presence of such a ceiling effect it would seem that both speakers were saying the same thing, namely “eeeeee”.

5. I think the most interesting consideration Science of Eating Disorders has given me is a healthy respect for pro-ana [pro-anorexia] sites as harm-reduction techniques. Here’s a piece on men in pro-ana.

6. I wrote some about the Bems this year; both Sandra and Daryl. So, it’s with a heavy heart that I note that Sandra Bem died this week. Discussion of parenting decisions aside, this quite a loss gender research, feminism, and psychology.

While still a young researcher, Ms. Bem was an expert witness in two national sex discrimination cases, one of which started in Pittsburgh.

In 1969, NOW filed a complaint against The Pittsburgh Press for its practice of segregating its classified job listings under “Male Help Wanted” and “Female Help Wanted” columns.

The male column included many more opportunities for jobs and advancement while the female column contained only a narrow range of typical women’s jobs of the time.

To bolster NOW’s case, the Bems did a simple study in which they showed that female CMU students were more likely to apply for male-oriented jobs if the listings were alphabetical rather than categorized under sex.

The case ultimately ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 ruled 5-4 against the Press.

Seeing the Ceiling

Say I want to settle the question of who’s more moral, atheists or the religious. I’ve got a lab and a grant and some spare time, (A girl can dream, can’t she?) so I set up the experiment that will solve the question once and for all.

Say I bring a bunch of religious people and a bunch of atheists into my lab. I’ve got two research assistants, one of whom plays as if they’re a participant too. So each time someone, religious or atheist comes into the lab, they sit down next to a stranger (my research confederate), and I call them both into the lab together. They sit down, sign lots and lots of consent forms, and do some silly tasks. None of these tasks matter, they’re just there to distract the participants from realizing what I’m actually paying attention to. At the end of doing all the questionnaires, the confederate stands up, and ‘accidentally’ lets and expensive looking watch fall. Without appearing to notice, they leave the room. I see the watch fall and in a distressed voice, ask the real participant if they don’t mind going to the next room and giving the ‘participant’ his watch back, since I’m so busy entering the data.

Now, the real participant could take the watch, walk into the next room, sprint past the fake participant, and leave with a nice new watch. They are, after all, holding onto a watch, I am looking at my computer and entering data, and the ‘participant’ appeared not to notice they’d dropped a watch.

They could.

But most of them don’t. It doesn’t matter if the participant is religious or an atheist, they tend to pick up the dropped watch, walk into the next room, and give it back to our confederate in this experiment.

Case closed, says I! Religious people and nonreligious people are equally moral! After all, they had equal rates of watch-stealing (that is, none at all).

Not so fast, says you. Practically nobody will steal a watch when you’re just sitting there watching* them! You’re there at your computer, the fake participant is in the next room, and you have their name from participant registration and the consent forms! This is a terrible measure of morality–you have to be fantastically immoral to fail this test! In fact, what you’ve done is determine that nonreligious people and atheists have equally low levels of Horribly Immoral and Brazen Watch Thieves.

In fact, says you (why you’ve come into my laboratory to shout at me, I’m unsure), atheists are more moral! If you made this study more complicated–made it easier to steal the watch without suffering consequences, fewer atheists would steal the watch. You’re wrong, says my religious lab assistant! Fewer religious people would steal the watch!

And all the while, I sit there in puzzlement, because I did this study, right? And I was testing for morality, right? Everybody agrees that stealing a watch is Bad and not stealing a watch is Good.** And my research assistants sit there in outrage, because OBVIOUSLY the [religious/atheists] would be more moral if you made the test harder!

This, dear readers, is the ceiling effect. My bar (or ceiling) for Moral Person is far far too low. Everyone returns the watches, but there’s no way to distinguish between the ones who give the watch back and then glare at puppies on the walk home and the ones who return the watch and wander over to the soup kitchen to volunteer.

Take another, real life example. Jacob says men are better at math than women. Elizabeth says this is clearly false. (Both of them are grievously oversimplifying ‘math’, but we’ll let them get away with it.)

Elizabeth points out that This Math Test (TMT, an official exam given to every high school student in our fictional universe) shows that men and women don’t differ significantly. Therefore, men and women are basically about the same in math ability.

Jacob disagrees. He claims that this test is too easy–that men and women do score the same on the TMT, but that doesn’t mean they have the same ablities–the test is too easy. After all, says he, standardized tests hardly examine the highest possible skill level–they cover basic material. He claims that Elizabeth is just demonstrating the ceiling effect–when you give people a really hard test, men outscore women. Jacob is actually right, but this gap is rapidly shrinking, and men also are overrepresented on the other end–with unusually low math performance.*** (Third section after the abstract, here)

And these ceiling debates play out in a number of parts of psychology research. (And in case you didn’t have enough architecture metaphors in your life, we also have the floor effect.) Here’s a more complicated version of the gender-ceiling issue. You can have sparkling methodology, a huge and representative sample base, but if you’re creating a test with a ceiling problem…you might get entirely unhelpful, or worse, misleading, answers.

This is the best and worst of psychology, for me. That there’s always just a little bit more than the research, always a little bit more to debate and argue and question. Maybe the study is too old, maybe you got a weird subset of the population. Maybe the rats are afraid of the gender you always use for research assistants. Maybe there’s a ceiling. Or a floor.


*sorry, this was unintentional.
…mostly.

**That one girl who stole the watch in order to sell it for medication to save her dying father was dismissed as an outlier. 

***Basically, men have higher variance of performance: they’re some of the best and worst performers. Women have a narrower bell curve of math performance. 

Annotated Psych Links

…exactly what it sounds like.

Every once in a while I start to think we’re getting somewhere concrete on this whole braining thing, and then I’m reminded that our method looks a lot like “poke it with a stick and see what happens.” Or, you know, “poke it with a deep brain stimulator and see if we accidentally change your music preferences.”

Meta-analyses, psychology, and Doing It Right

My colleagues and I have successfully pushed for formalizing what was previously informal and inconsistent: in conducting a meta-analysis, source of funding for an RCT should routinely be noted in the evaluation using the Cochrane Collaboration  risk of bias criteria. Unless this risk of bias is flagged, authors of meta-analyses are themselves at risk for unknowingly laundering studies tainted by conflict of interest and coming up with seemingly squeaky clean effect sizes for the products of industry.

Of course, those effect sizes will be smaller if industry funded trials are excluded. And maybe the meta analysis would have come to a verdict of “insufficient evidence” if they are excluded.

My  colleagues and I then took aim at the Cochrane Collaboration itself. We pointed out that this had been only inconsistently done in past Cochrane reviews. Shame on them.

They were impressed and set about fixing things and then gave us the Bill Silverman Award. Apparently the Cochrane Collaboration is exceptionally big on someone pointing out when they are wrong and so they reserve a special award for who does it best in any given year.

I was recently shown Data Colada, the blog of Leif NelsonJoe Simmons, and Uri Simonsohn. There are thoughtful and easy-to-read pieces on the interaction of variables, effect size measurement in the lab, and….researching people who take baths in hotel rooms.

On ‘Bad Media’ and Bingeing

[Content note: eating disorders]

I still think about this article on writing about eating disorders:

Ginia Bellafante put it well a few years ago, in a book review for the New York Times:“Anorexia is a disease of contradiction: it demands both discipline and indulgence …. The anorexic disappears in order to be seen; she labors to self-improve as she self-annihilates.” Bellafante describes the condition as “an intellectualized hallucination.” That concise definition is better than any I’ve read, and it points to the conflicted way in which we talk about the disease: our intention is critical, but our language is celebratory.

I don’t have a good answer to the main premise–that we are too easily awed and worshipful of deprivation, even when we try to talk about the horrors. I’m wary of overusing the word ‘fetishize’, but it does seem to fit, drawing closer and closer as we write about the horror. Moths and flames, you know.

And I don’t want to object to writing more articles about eating disorders–but there’s a definitive trend in what aspects of eating disorders we talk about. Mainly, we talk about the ones we can link to Big Societal Problems–supermodels and photoshop are making us all want to be unrealistically thin! Young girls are feeling pressure earlier and earlier to diet! And this seems to result in prioritizing a certain kind of story.

Nearly every article about eating disorders ever will describe in painful, clear detail how someone (usually a girl) deprives themselves. 
How they think about it, the tricks they use, how good it feels. 
And nobody ever manages to write about bingeing, though most people who deprive binge as well, and most people with an ED end up wandering through diagnoses. Several targeted google searches for eating disorder articles, and I couldn’t find a intimate interview. No first-person stories that centered around bingeing–the purging afterwards, sure, the bouncing-back into depriving, sure, but not the gripping, hollow, band-around-your-chest feeling of bingeing. 

It’s nice that you want to write those articles about eating disorders, and I’m all in favor. But please, let’s not talk about how bad it is that Other, Bad Media glorifies disordered behavior when all you’ll write about is the stuff that makes you skinnier.

Monday Miscellany: Masterpost, Metaphors, MOVING

Housekeeping Note: I move to the Bay Area for the summer, beginning June 6th. I have a MASSIVE AND SCARY list of things to do before then, and posts will be slightly shorter. If you live there, lovely! I will be deeply sleep deprived for at least several days, but will be around through the middle of August, at which point I will be moving to Boston. 

1. A LOT of people seem to be messaging therapists as a result of this series of posts, so I’m relinking to the Guide to Getting a Therapist Masterpost. Yes, I’m linking to my own stuff in my link round up. I can do what I want!

2. I want to think about this more, but it has been making me think already, so I throw it open to you for thinking Thoughts about.

3. With full credit to Erica for suggesting I might enjoy them, this series of books ate one weekend and threatens another. Start with Steerswoman.

A fantasy with an underlying theme that sets rationality and science against the unknown world of magic and superstition. The heroine is a steerswoman, one of a group of mapmakers and fact collectors who is intrigued when she discovers some blue stones embedded in trees.

4. Statistical handwavery to claim you’ve created a test for suicide risk. Nopenopenope.

5. Publication bias.

6. “When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.

7. I recant my snottiness (undeserved, nose-in-air snottiness!) about Listening to Prozac, and recommend it. The first chapter or two seemed to have Kramer using fuzzy and odd definitions of ‘drugs’ and ‘personality’ (hence, snottiness) but I enjoyed all of the following sections, and it’s one of the quickest and easiest-to-read summaries of how we ended up with antidepressants I’ve read. I do not have a psychiatry background at all; I think laypeople will find this approachable and easy to read.

8. I know just enough about code and recall just enough of my Arabic lessons to tell you that this Arabic programming language is NEAT. (h/t Leah)

9. A spectacular article on the life of a fact-checker. (h/t Ed Yong)

One of the first stories I ever fact checked was about paleontology in a big city. The text was a little over 1,000 words. The editor handed me a thick envelope full of papers, notes, and newspaper clippings for reference. All this paper and ink had gone into making two pages of a magazine. I learned that fact checkers also act as last-ditch reporters: There were still more questions that the editor needed me to answer — details like “What did the paleontologists dig out of the ground first?” (Answer: snails, and along with it the mind-pop reward of tracking down a good detail.)

[...]

Sometimes the metaphor is all wrong, and I’m left to triage. Once I was fact checking a line that went something like this: “If you were to scythe off a human head, the carotid arteries would shoot blood five feet up.” The first source I contacted, a doctor, said, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried that.” The writer emailed me the calculation — blood pressure is 120 millimeters of mercury, equal to the pressure of 62 centimeters of water. I contacted a forensics expert, just to be sure. On paper, the pressure of that artery is enough to shoot blood five feet up. But the body is not a freshman-year physics problem. Sever a neck, and the blood vessels collapse and the nervous system shuts down.

“Immediately?” I asked the expert. He sent me a link to some videos, all with one common search term: “beheading.” Indeed, there was no shooting blood.