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"Great Tits" can be a Serious Topic

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Self

Check out a blog that wins the Oscar for the category: Most Engaging Titles in a Serious Documentary

A few years back, I heard a brilliant talk by a graduate student named Rob Kurzban. The fellow was working with Leda Cosmides at UCSB, and given the guy’s age, barely out of his teens, he struck me as surprisingly self-confident, you might even call it arrogant. Since then, a few years have passed, and I’ve come to appreciate that Kurzban’s self-confidence is well justified. The guy is brilliant, thoughtful, and well-read. He can be very direct in expressing his opinions, but I find it easy to take, because he seems to be right most of the time, and he’s funny (in that east coast sometimes sarcastic kinda way).

Kurzban, who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a coauthor of one of my favorite Very Serious Papers in Psychology (an eloquent Psych Review paper clearly up much of the confusion about what is called "mental modularity"). He also occasionally blogs for Psychology Today, and is the Uberblogger for Evolutionary Psychology. Just this morning, I was perusing his postings there, and was struck with his ability to combine a grabby title with serious and thoughtful commentary about serious topics. Kurzban has the ability to talk about these very serious topics in that breezy way that is only possible for a small intellectually elite subset (which includes his brilliant graduate school mentors Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who are eminent evolutionary psychologists).

To be honest, I only went there because in nervously checking amazon.com to see whether anyone had yet bought any copies of a recently released book of mine, I was relieved to find that the answer was yes, and that whoever was my second customer had "Also Bought" Kurzban’s recently published book: Everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. I have yet to read the book, but after I finish this, I’m going to head over to my local bookstore and pick up a copy, partly because Nature magazine says he uses “humour and anecdotes” to reveal “how conflict between the modules of the mind leads to contradictory beliefs, vacillating behaviours, broken moral boundaries and inflated egos.” But the other part of it is that in taking a serious gander at Kurzban’s blog, it becomes clear that the verbal abilities I’ve observed in his conference presentations translate to his use of the written word (and that, sad to say, is most often not the case among serious intellectual types). A key part of his skill is an ability to use his wit to spray a hoseful of excitement onto an otherwise dry topic.

For example, check out a few of his blog titles:

Great tits: The evolutionary advantages. Kurzban notes that he is talking about “the birds, not the other things.” But don’t turn your television dial yet! As someone who has seen Great Tits through his binoculars, I can say that they are as beautiful as “the other things,” and that this story deals with one of those features of adaptive design that is equally worthy of attention.

What the decision letter should have said. In this clever blog, Kurzban re-reviews a scientific paper on a controversial topic that was accepted, and published. The paper was a critique of Clark and Hatfield’s classic study in which experimenters approached members of the opposite sex with the line “I’ve seen you around campus, and I find you attractive. Would you like to sleep with me?” Clark and Hatfield found enormous sex differences, the critique argues men and women aren’t really different, and Kurzban takes some fun pokes at the shaky logic of the critiquer’s arguments (there's a lot to misunderstand about evolutionary psychology, and even "experts" make some silly mistakes)

If pee, then Stroop. According to Kurzban: “There are, sadly, so few opportunities to discuss research on urinating, I thought I should take advantage of this one” (about a recent paper in the journal Psych. Science).

Modularity, my dear Watson. Here Kurzban asks the question: “What makes IBM’s Watson so smart?”

Let me add that I know there are those who might argue about the merits of using a sensationalistic headline involving “Great Tits” when one is really talking about serious topics like avian evolution and adaptationism. For some, the use of sexual innuendo or a reference to urinating might be slightly offensive, and might taint a serious scientific discussion. But I’d argue otherwise. Putting aside the (serious) question of why any allusion to attractive breasts is considered inappropriate in the first place, I think it’s quite OK to exploit the name of a European songbird to draw people’s otherwise overloaded attention to a serious question. And there’s a big difference between Howard Stern’s use of sexual innuendo as an end in itself and a little word play by intellectual nerds. But whaddu I know, I’m from New Yawk, where the line between appropriate and inappropriate is set somewhere just west of the visible horizon.

P.S. Speaking of serious topics and sensationalistic titles, my book "Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature." was just released today (May 1).  I was delighted to discover that the book was not only picked for the Scientific American book club, but is also available on iTunes, right alongside the Beatles and U2 (well, OK, not right alongside).  

For more info, and some praise by some of my favorite writers, check out:

www.sexmurdermeaningoflife.com

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.

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