Good Reads: From investing in preschoolers, to moody America, to bogus peer review

This week's round up of Good Reads includes breaking the cycle of poverty at the preschool level, environmental challenges in Louisiana, the temperament of US regions, a tribute to Lou Reed, and the flaws of 'peer-reviewed' scientific papers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Preschoolers interact at Lexington Children’s Place in Lexington, Mass.

While congressional brinkmanship has hijacked much of the national dialogue, one issue transcends party lines and could narrow the increasingly cavernous economic divide. Universal preschool is “the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty,” Nicholas Kristof writes in a New York Times op-ed column.

“[T]his is one of those rare initiatives that polls well across the spectrum, with support from 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in a recent national survey,” Mr. Kristof reports.

“Look, we’ll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point,” Kristof argues. “We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end.”

The dirt on Louisiana

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was not the first time Louisianians caught the sharp end of Big Oil’s stick. Thanks to rich, natural, fossil fuel reserves and a cozy relationship between politicians and lobbyists, Louisianians have long lived, literally and figuratively, in the ash heap of the fossil fuel industry, Ken Silverstein writes in an article for Harper’s Magazine.

“In 2011, the [Environmental Protection Agency] noted that Louisiana had been laxer than almost any other state about enforcing federal regulations, blaming ‘a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry,’ ” he reports.

The industry-friendly regulatory culture has created a climate that supports reckless drilling with little regard for the effects on public health and the environment, Mr. Silverstein argues, citing well water that can power a lawn mower, crabs unfit for human consumption, and a 24-acre sinkhole.

The temperamental states of America

American political polarity gets a lot of attention, but a new study examining the variations in temperament across the country suggests that our perspectives are just as much a product of our environments as our political affiliations.

A multinational team of researchers surveyed more than a million people living in the 48 contiguous states over 13 years, Jeffrey Kluger and Chris Wilson report for Time magazine.

While the study suggests that geographic regions each have vastly different collective temperaments, it also finds some unexpected common ground. For instance, “temperamental and uninhibited” New Englanders and “relaxed and creative” West Coasters both strongly value openness.

“That simple idea might be the best message we can take from the study,” Mr. Kluger and Mr. Wilson write. “We’re less a nation of warring tribes and angry camps than we are a loud, boisterous, messy mix of geography, social history and the unpredictable X factors of human personality, all trying to make a go of things under the same national flag. In other words, we’re exactly what the Founding Fathers intended us to be.”

Farewell, Lou Reed

Occasionally, an artist comes along whose influence melts into the very pulp of the American songbook. Singer, songwriter, and former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed deserves such a rank, writes The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones in a tribute to Mr. Reed following his death late last month.

“Reed’s tendency toward structural simplicity married to noise, and a faith that no word was above his listener’s head, is at the root of so much music that I am scared to make a list, in fear of the counterlists that will point out everyone who is missing,” he writes.”

Mr. Frere-Jones suggests that musicians such as David Byrne and bands such as the Feelies, and the Pixies all contain echoes of Reed. “The measure of his influence and importance dwarfs the news item, the obituary, the tribute. He is everywhere,” he writes.

What’s the cost of open access?

Publication in a peer-reviewed journal certifies that the research followed proper ethical codes, used sound methodology, and demonstrated statistically significant results. It turns out, at least in the case of open-access journals, which charge researchers for publication rather than readers, that’s not always true, writes John Bohannon in Science magazine.

Under the fictitious name Ocorrafoo Cobange, Mr. Bohannon convinced 157 “peer-reviewed” journals to publish a spoof paper about a made-up study conducted at a nonexistent university. “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately,” writes Bohannon. “Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless. I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine.”

Bohannon suggests that fabricated peer review is just a whiff of “an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”

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