Making a correlation into a story

If you have a burning interest in the correlation between health and education, you are a nobler, higher-minded person than me. But notice how Gina Kolata, in the NYT, grabs our attention:

It was 1999 and a Columbia University graduate student, Adriana Lleras-Muney, was casting about for a topic for her doctoral dissertation in economics. She found an idea in a paper published in 1969. Three economists noted the correlation between education and health and gave some advice: If you want to improve health, you will get more return by investing in education than by investing in medical care.

It had been an inflammatory statement, Dr. Lleras-Muney says. And for good reason. It could only be true if education in and of itself caused good health.

But there were at least two other possibilities.

Maybe sick children did not go to school, or dropped out early because they were ill. Or maybe education was a proxy for wealth, and it was wealth that led to health. It could be that richer parents who gave their children everything, including better nutrition, better medical care and a better education, had children who, by virtue of being wealthy, lived longer.

How, she asked herself, could she sort out causes and effects? It was the chicken-and-egg problem that plagues such research.

The answer came one day when Dr. Lleras-Muney was reading another economics paper. It indicated that about 100 years ago, different states started passing laws forcing children to go to school for longer periods. She knew what to do.

â??The idea was, when a state changed compulsory schooling from, say, six years to seven years, would the people who were forced to go to school for six years live as long as the people the next year who had to go for seven years,â? Dr. Lleras-Muney asked.

All she would have to do was to go back and find the laws in the different states and then use data from the census to find out how long people lived before and after the law in each state was changed.

â??I was very excited for about three seconds,â? she says. Then she realized how onerous it could be to comb through the state archives.

Notice what Kolata is doing here: First, she “primes the pump” — she gives us a tidbit of information about the potential link between education and health care. Then, she sets up the key mystery: How can you tease out the effects of education (on health) from other variables? Then, she gives us the revelation (unfurled slowly, so that we have a moment of snap-insight like the researcher) that THE RIGHT DATA EXISTS! And finally, before we get too comfortable, she tells us that the research task is going to be onerous…

This is good writing, but not just good writing. It is a great example of how to structure and sequence ideas to build interest. There is a little dash of Grisham in this piece. Kolata is building a “knowledge gap,” a term coined by the behavioral economist George Loewenstein. Loewenstein said that when people point out gaps in our knowledge, it actually causes us discomfort, like an itch that we want to scratch. (See the “Unexpected” chapter of the book.) Kolata is luring us along by telling us just enough to make us want the answer to something, then giving us the answer (almost), then setting up another mystery, etc.

If Kolata can do this for health care correlations, you should be pretty confident about your ability to do it with your own ideas.

Google’s hiring process

Saul Hansell has an interesting NYT piece on Google’s use of unorthodox interview techniques, like challenging applicants with brainteasers and asking people, “Have you ever made a profit from a catering business or dog walking?”

There is a brief mention in the piece of an earlier recruitment campaign that Chip and I think was ingenious Here’s the challenge for a recruiter: How do you lure in the right people while deterring the wrong people? One way to do that is to talk: “Google is looking for the brightest, most motivated technology whizzes in the universe!”

A better way to do it is to tease. Imagine a black equation on a white billboard (better seen than described). More precisely, an equation + a “.com” text string. No other markings. No clue as to why there’d be an equation on a billboard, or who was responsible for it. The “.com” ending hinted that if you could crack the equation, and then add a “.com” to the end of your answer, you’d be rewarded somehow. This is a great example of making an idea stick via a “curiosity gap.”

The answer led to another riddle. Eventually, having made the cut, you’d find out that Google was behind the mystery, and you’d arrive at a page where you could submit your resume to Google.

What a smart way of enticing the right people–people sufficiently analytical to solve a rather tough riddle–while remaining invisible to the wrong people.

Non-sticky titles

Phil Dusenberry, an advertising luminary, wrote a book that, by all accounts, was well-written, insightful, and full of fascinating industry scuttlebutt. It should have been a big hit. But first the book had to be titled. And, after a long series of negotiations and compromises, the parties involved decided to name the book “Then We Set His Hair On Fire.” And they used an illustration on the cover that looked like a cartoonish version of the top half of George W. Bush’s head.

This is cleverness that isn’t core. “Finding the core” is something we obsess about in the Simple chapter of our book. The title of a book is a great example of a message that should be core (i.e., it should be symbolic of the most important message the author wanted to communicate). An opaque title can kill interest in a good book.

So what do you do when you get an idea wrong the first time? You fix it. The happy ending: In the paperback version, the publisher nixed the Bush-esque illustration and renamed the book, “One Great Insight Is Worth a Thousand Good Ideas.” Which book do you want to read?

Here’s John Moore’s take on the before & after. Don’t forget to read his Money Quotes.

P.S. It was called “Then We Set His Hair On Fire” because of the Michael Jackson – Pepsi incident. No doubt you already made that connection. Ahem. And the graying white man on the cover may or may not be Phil Dusenberry, but either way, it seems weird, because unless you’ve made the Michael Jackson link, you kind of expect Phil’s hair to be on fire.

How do you demonstrate ignorance? Go to the source.

Imagine it’s your belief that American policymakers cannot possibly formulate effective policy in Iraq because they lack fundamental knowledge about the region and its players. You believe it’s as loony as someone writing an NFL game plan without knowing a cornerback from a quarterback. Except with stakes that are radically higher.

How would you get this message across? The most common approach would be to discuss the complexities of the region — thus demonstrating that YOU understand the issues — and to illuminate the ways in which our current policies ignore those complexities.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, has come up with a much better approach. He doesn’t focus on what he knows. He focuses on what politicians don’t know. And it is shocking enough to stick.

Here’s Maureen Dowd relating an interview [subscriber only] that Stein conducted with Silvestre Reyes, who is the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee:

Stein … asked [Reyes] whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” the lawmaker guessed.

As Mr. Stein corrected him in the article: “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an Al Qaeda clubhouse, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.”

Mr. Stein followed up with a Hezbollah question: “What are they?” Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.

“Hezbollah,” he stammered. “Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish?” (O.K. ¿Que es Hezbollah?)

Sounding as naked of essentials as Britney Spears, the new intelligence oversight chief pleaded that it was hard to keep all the categories straight. Thank heavens Mr. Stein never got to Syrian Alawites.

Stein had articulated his approach in an earlier Times op-ed entitled, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” He explains why he has resorted to playing “gotcha” — asking lawmakers basic questions like, “What is Hezbollah?” — to prove his point. Stein points out: “After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?”

Stein is upending a belief that we have, which is that lawmakers in important positions know vastly more than we do. It isn’t surprising that most Americans don’t know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni. But it’s SHOCKING that a policymaker, in the intelligence community, wouldn’t. It violates our conviction that the right people in the right positions know the right info. That unexpectedness, and the sense of betrayal that accompanies it, is why this idea will stick, and it’s why lawmakers will be scrambling to learn the answers to these questions. And if the threat of public shaming turns out to be a more powerful motivator than a public servant’s sense of obligation, then bully for Stein for engineering the approach.

Making calories stick

Do people know how many calories they should be consuming on a daily basis to maintain their weight? And do they have an intuition about how many calories are in the food items they’re consuming?

No and no, according to this interesting NYT article. Many restaurants in New York City will soon have to display calorie information on their menus. But, in the absence of the necessary context, the data may not have much impact. Nutrition professor Marion Nestle sums it up nicely: “The idea of a calorie is a very abstract concept,” she said. “People have some vague idea that it involves energy and is somehow related to weight gain, but they have no idea what it means in relation to food. You can’t tell how many calories you’re eating by looking.”

Case in point: The Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion has 1,800 calories. And that’s supposed to be an appetizer. (Which is disappointing, because I adore the Bloomin’ Onion. But if I’m going to blow 1,800 calories on junk food, I’d look no further than 9 warm Krispy Kreme doughnuts. To each his own.)

In the first chapter of our book, we discuss an analogous case. The CSPI had discovered that a medium-sized bag of movie popcorn had 37g of saturated fat. So what? Is that good or bad? If bad, how bad? The CSPI found an ingenious way to communicate the unhealthiness of the movie popcorn without resorting to a lesson on daily fat allowances and that sort of thing. (We won’t give away the ending in case you want to read the chapter.)

So far, the government’s efforts to communicate basic information about calories have been ineffectual. The reporter, Kim Severson, gets in a nice zinger: “Trying to find out how many calories one should eat at mypyramid.com, the government’s latest effort to help the public interpret its Dietary Guidelines, is an exercise in frustration. Plug the word “calories” into the search engine and 254 entries pop up. After clicking through a few dozen, it seems easier to just give up and go out for a doughnut (180 calories).” My thoughts exactly.

The Food Pyramid is wondrously non-sticky. Preposterously non-sticky. After I plugged in my age, sex, and exercise habits, I was given the following helpful information:

  • Aim for at least 4.5 whole grains a day
  • Aim for 8 teaspoons of oil a day
  • Have 2 ½ cups of “orange vegetables” weekly

Well, great, that clears it all up.

Who, on earth, thinks about their daily food intake in terms of the number of “teaspoons of oil” it contains? Who can define half a grain? Are you kidding me? I’m surprised they’ve left out the helpful advice about ensuring a daily intake of at least 10,000 IU of Vitamin A…

Concreteness—one of the six principles of sticky ideas—is what’s needed here. Here’s what I’d suggest: Given my recommended caloric intake, show me 6 daily menus – including pictures! – that would fit my budget. Paint a picture for me, using real-world products: “Dan, if you eat Dannon yogurt and coffee for breakfast, a Taco Bell quesadilla for lunch, and a can of Wolf-brand chili for dinner, you’re good.” And then, by way of comparison, show me 6 daily menus that will make me 10 pounds fatter at the end of the year. If I could see these kinds of real-world menus, I could start building an intuition about what’s “appropriate” for me. 8 teaspoons of oil leaves me intuition-free.