Random Samples and Standard Deviations 2

Random Samples and Standard Deviations 2

By Ryan Donlan, Ed.D., and Jeff Papa, Ph.D.

Standard Deviations

It is a particular joy for us this time of year to compile
and read the works of our annual Awards for Excellence in
Research honorees and, in so doing, try to detect an overriding
theme they might all share for purposes of informing
our Standard Deviations narrative.It’s much easier to
craft such a connective construct, of course, when we select
a particular issue’s theme in advance (as we did with the
Fall 2023 issue’s Animal Intelligence focus, for one good
example), but each Winter issue of the MRJ is filled with
such a variety of research approaches and conclusions that
it makes finding their conceptually connecting thread both
a challenge and a treat.
As we gathered and placed this issue’s articles on intelligence,
we debated in conversations over dinner, Zoom,
and text whether we could unearth a shared motif, a cogent
theme not too much of a reach and one satisfying our desire
for some sort of coherency.
Eventually, a trope emerged—a theme by its very nature
effortful to discern: Things Hiding in Plain Sight.
Our conversations moved us into a thematic and existential
duality in keeping with Gerard Way’s observation,
“It is often my nature to be abstract, hidden in plain sight,
or nowhere at all.”
We thus pose for you now two sides of a thematic coin,
the latter on which we took some artistic liberty among this
issue’s featured scientists: Things Hiding in Plain Sight and
Things Not Hiding Yet Escaping Plain View.
You’ll see in our wrap-up that something else emerged
from our discussions, too. Interestingly, award-winning
science seems to place upon us an obligation, at least we
think so.Please let us know if you do, as well.


Things Hiding in Plain Sight
We conceive things hiding in plain sight definitionally, as
objects or concepts that are right in front of us but not
obvious. Two different types of this hiding come to mind.

1. Things can have qualities that deflect or defy our perceptions of them.
Lex Luthor, super villain of Superman infamy, once said in The Super-Revenge of Lex Luthor, “This abandoned island
prison is one of my secret lairs. It’s equipped with my most advanced weapons. Who would suspect I’d use a prison for a hideout?” Lex’s lair is a deceptive but concrete example of
hiding in plain sight.
Less literally but equally pertinent: The phrase can apply when someone’s outward personality deflects who they really are inside. Don’t we all have a friend, sibling, or relative
who lets another person’s charisma or persona hide
from them someone who will eventually become an illsuited partner? Sherlock Holmes (as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.) noted of such an encounter, “It’s so overt, it’s covert.” Groucho Marx, providing a parallel but characteristically
iconoclastic take, noted, “The secret of life is honesty
and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
And speaking of politics, we also have deflections on
effective leadership qualities, such as when a person’s introversion
is mistaken for a lack of leadership potential and
seemingly much better suited for the role of quiet follower.
Historically, theories of greatness relegate those who
are more subdued to tertiary status, lacking in the ability
to tower, telegraph, and titillate or have similar qualities
needed for ascension.But as former U.S. Congressional aide
Mike Lofgren noted, speaking on a more global scale, “The
state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight.”
Might acts of short-gamed altruism actually deflect
longer-gamed egoism, hiding in plain sight? Could the visible,
other-serving do-gooder secretly pine in Machiavellian
pursuit for some eventual “back-at-ya” good karma—
the boomerang effect of goodwill being really the opposite
of goodwill? We’re not sure, but we do understand Erin,
the constructed twin in Seanan McGuire’s sci-fi novel Middlegame, who says on the subject of hiding in plain sight, “It keeps people from looking at us too hard. No one with anything to lose would be sitting in Denny’s after
midnight, eating pancakes.”
Let’s turn to science for guidance here, specifically to the first of many research articles that inspired us this issue.
One of our award winners offers a scientifically sound
example regarding science’s potential to reveal how deflection
influences perception.
Bich Thi Ngoc Tran, et al., in “Expanding Gifted Identification
to Capture Academically Advanced, Low-Income,
or Other Disadvantaged Students: The Case of Arkansas,”
illustrates that standardized tests may more effectively
sort out who should be identified for gifted and talented program opportunities than current selection procedures.
Fabulous science, well-delivered.
Thinking of the pervasive negative narrative regarding
standardized testing, or at least testing viewed through
lenses of equity and opportunity, might we be looking more
closely at scientific findings such as our authors provide
to help make a positive difference through a reduction of
the deflection of something helpful hiding in plain sight—
namely, that standardized tests can be the good guys, too
(or that they are both the bad guys and the good guys)?
Consider our authors’ findings that roughly 30% of the
students in the top 5% in literacy and math were not actually
identified as gifted for purposes of school classification,
and that lower-income students were 50% less likely to be
identified.
Seems something is deflective in cultural conversation
and that broad, brushstroke criticism isn’t helpful. Could
using common metric assessments actually leverage access
to gifted-and-talented identification? Might standardized
tests be social justice tools, used for good?
Acknowledging Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ notion that
“Failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight,” it
could be that through good science such as our authors
proffer we can find possible solutions in something that is
commonly deflected but still of utility and right in front
of us. In Tomorrow Never Dies, James Bond accuses Elliot
Carver of being insane. Carver replies that, “the distance
between insanity and genius is measured only by success.”
While Carver was clearly very misguided in his goals, there
may be a kernel of truth in his general point that the same
data may be viewed wildly different, depending on how we
perceive or utilize it.
2. Things in our environment can take priority over our fields
of awareness.
Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders, says, “When do you
notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion.”To expand
on his (or Agatha’s) analogy, when something like the cushion
is in our foreground, it can obscure the whole of the
object in the interior or background, making it seem less
sharp and potentially painful.Porcupines operate on sort
of that same assumption: Their relatively nonthreatening,
cuddly appearance tends to deflect attention away from the
likely pain of their quill’s puncture.
Can things hide in plain sight because of perceptual
priority?
Clearly!
Take, for example, things that result in dismaying
distractions because they take priority in our heads while
driving—the music we’re accelerating to, our thoughts of
the previous or next hour, or whatever happens to be chiming
in on our cell.Tragedy often strikes a stretch of I-70 in
Indiana’s hinterland between where the two of us live in
the Midwest.How sadly often we see the long line of semis
stopped in their tracks miles out from the crest of each rolling
hill, inevitably turning our dinner of co-writing into
a commute-stopped parking lot.For those whose priorities
lie somewhere other than navigating the road in from
of them—cellphone surfing, Bluetoothed conversations, beverage handling—reality of their own demise is hiding
in plain sight each passing second as they careen cluelessly
toward the stopped traffic just over the next rise.
Other things take priority and, thus, hide reality.
Cognitive tunneling is another example, wherein the
risks and stresses of any circumstance elevate because we’re
too focused on our thoughts or what we’re doing and not
on what’s going on around us, resulting in inattentional
blindness.Qui-Gon Jinn (a Jedi Master, of course, and
student of the living Force) once famously said, “Your focus
determines your reality.” Yes, he was addressing Anakin at
the time, but that doesn’t detract from the statement’s truth.
We recall Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Duhigg’s narrative
regarding avoidable airline disasters in his book Smarter
Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.
Duhigg notes from aeronautic reports that for pilots
what is hiding in plain sight are other options available to
steady the plane in an emergency, yet they sometimes, not
often, fixate on certain things they cannot control, costing
lives. Their well-trained focus can blind them to potentially
lifesaving alternatives.
People can also be blindly unaware of their own behavior
while trying to be deceptive, when what they think they’re
presenting on the outside serves as their priority of intention.
Someone who knows that person well—or who is
just unusually intuitive or well-trained—might easily spot
his or her tell in a game of poker or his or her lie while
under interrogation, yet the person attempting deception
remains oblivious.Our inner truths always try to be
seen and heard, and for the keenest observers our leaked
mannerisms, gestures, or involuntary expressions will make
our truths plain.
In terms of how observations taking priority can hide
other things in plain sight, this issue’s award-winning
research by Joni Lakin and Johathan Wai, titled “Spatially
Gifted, Academically Inconvenienced: Spatially Talented
Students Experience Less Academic Engagement and More
Behavioural Issues Than Other Talented Students,” unveils
confounding data.
As the authors note, people not identified as gifted and
talented by common screening processes could total 2 to
3 million, particularly those who have abilities to “generate,
retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual
images”
For those who are overlooking the talents of these potential
millions, other things seem to be taking priority, such
as verbal reasoning and mathematical communication.
This is perplexing because society actually values the gifts
of our most talented in visualization and rotation (architecture,
urban planning, environmental aesthetics, etc.),
yet these skills are not the priority in schools, where again
verbal reasoning and mathematical communication take
precedence.
Students who solely have special spatial talents are
missed because screeners prioritize otherwise.Science has
something to say, and we might take note.
Things Not Hiding Yet Escaping Plain View
Flipping to the other side of our conceptual coin—from
things hiding in plain sight to our own version of the
obverse—we turned to finding examples of things that were
not hiding nor had any desire to conceal themselves but
nevertheless remained hidden. Again, we saw these examples
falling into two subsets.
1. Things can lack existential qualities needed for our
discernment.
Canadian poet, novelist, and literary icon Margaret
Atwood wrote, “I would like to be the air that inhabits
you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed
and that necessary.” Her lines made us think of the difficulty
we have in discerning some things necessary for life,
such as the air of which she speaks, but also of the more
pernicious dross that can hurt us, such as carbon monoxide,
which lacks scent or visibility. Not hiding at all, the
latter places many in harm’s way because it simply escapes
detection.
What about harbingers of good or bad times to come?We
often revel, or reflect sadly, on such episodes once they’re in
our life’s rearview mirror, yet why do we so rarely see the
portents as clearly in our windshield, prospectively?Barbara
Kingsolver, another Pulitzer Prize-winner, observed that
“It’s surprising how much memory is built around things
unnoticed at the time.” It seems to be the same sentiment
author Robert Brault was getting at when he advised us to
“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look
back and realize they were the big things.”The quotidian of
our lives is not hidden, but its significance can too easily
escape our notice until we reach a point that finds us wishing
we would have valued it more.
Subliminal messages might count here, too, as things
that aren’t exactly hidden yet also not visible, including
those either deliberately manufactured or made by coincidence.
At admittedly subtle levels of audibility, smell,
or vision, such messages are not truly hidden from our
deeper senses.In vinyl parlance, we might have to slow the
album intentionally to hear their whisper, but their intent,
really, is to have us hear them, sort of, and yet to not see
them coming.
In language, metaphor can act much the same way, as
Wit’s End author James Geary notes: “Metaphors hide in
plain sight, and their influence is largely unconscious. We
should mind our metaphors, though, because metaphors
make up our minds.”
In thinking about things that aren’t hidden but still
escape our view, another pair of award-winning researchers featured in this issue ask a provocative question. Scientifically,
we were drawn to, in their article, “Why Hasn’t the
Gifted Label Caught Up With Science?” In their article,
authors Michael Matthews and Jennifer Jolly note that the
gifted label has remained much the same for a century or
more while other terms for exceptionalities, such asspecial
education labels, have become more refined and nuanced.
So why, indeed?
No one has hidden this labeling persistence. Matthews
and Jolly’s detailed,historical analysis clearly shows how the
term “gifted” has remained static while others have evolved
dynamically.We admit that, prior to reading their work, the
phenomenon they probe had in fact remained out of view
to us, and we’re quite involved in education.
Matthews and Jolly further note a general disinclination
of schools to adopt researched best practices for students
identified as gifted. It’s not really hidden what schools do
with gifted students.Could it be education’s prevailing realities
are the result of a simple lack of discernment because
things have always been the way they are, as clear as open
air yet a metaphorical monoxide in the shadow of one’s
school experience?
The authors’ research inspired another thought: While
not at all hiding it as an exceptionality, there seemingly
has been no impetus to give giftedness visibility as the
14th special education category. Imagine how if it were
identified as No. 14, giftedness would be more deserving
of a mandate to leverage services with potential to help
to students nationwide.Could the discernment-clouding
problem be a subliminal message, metaphor, or drumbeat
that things are OK with students who are gifted, a matter
of leaving “well enough” alone?
Science is providing a conversational springboard, one
potentially long overdue.
Yet another award-winning article featured here, “Motivational
Pathways Underlying Gifted Underachievement:
Trajectory Classes, Longitudinal Outcomes, and Predicting
Factors,” discusses pathways to underachievement that are
not hidden even though the understanding behind them
might be.
In their research, authors Alicia Ramos et al. studied
two distinct motivational belief patterns leading to disengagement
and underachievement in school, one characterized
by vulnerable self-perceptions (which they call the
Maladaptive Competence Beliefs pathway) and the other
characterized by low value for school and academics (the
Declining Value Beliefs pathway). Their findings confirm a
central tenet of the Patterns of Underachievement Model—
i.e., there are different motivational pathways that contribute
to underachievement, yes, but there also is “developmental
heterogeneity” in motivational development.
Their conclusion, essentially, is now that the pathways
are not hidden and light is being shed, science seems to
call for more of a hands-on-deck approach in helping those
who develop along pathways divergently.


2. When things are not at all hiding yet still unseen, it could be because we have an incapability to discern things existentially.
“Utopia has a way of hiding in plain sight,” notes David
Hopper, author of In Spirit & Truth.
One might question whether we can discern things
we have not yet experienced, such as utopia, or if such
phenomena might simply be ill-defined based on the limits
of our capabilities.This reminds us a bit of our Fall 2023
issue’s column comparing humans to aliens and, similarly,
animals to humans.There we discussed, without indictment,
an incapability to discern, as we now do here.
The metaphysical nature of time makes it a good place to
start on the topic. In her book Simply Magic, Mary Balogh
has a character ask, “Have you noticed … how we live much
of our lives in the past and most of the rest of it in the
future? Have you noticed how often the present moment
slips by quietly unnoticed?”We might well ask ourselves
the same, as well as this most basic follow-up: Is the notion
of time’s movement (from past through present to future)
discernible or not (series of relationships, before-this, with-this, after-this)? One really does not know for sure.We can
only conjecture, which many philosophers certainly have done (including the notable ProfessorL. Nathan Oaklander
in his 1984 book Temporal Relations and Temporal Becoming:
A Defense of the Russellian Theory of Time).
Another example of things not hiding but escaping plain
view is the movement of subatomic particles in a solid
surface.Our “experience” of these particles is one largely
akin to faith; we know they’re there but can’t see them.
From our perspective, they feel and act solid.And certainly,
if we bopped each other over the head with a table leg,
it would not feel like a bunch of swirling protons and electrons;
it would hurt.
Andrew Thomas, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: The
Simple Link Between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics,
doesn’t speak specifically to table legs, but he does address
things being existentially indiscernible based on where we
currently are, noting, “The first theme is ‘connectedness.’
Quantum mechanics tells us that there is no such thing as a completely isolated object: objects are connected. The
impression of separateness is just an illusion.”
A final example of things that are not at all hidden yet
existentially undetectable includes sounds audible only to
other creatures and colors outside our scope of awareness—
the shrill of a dog whistle, the spectrum of light not observable
by humans yet detectable to instruments and other
animals.Such manifestations of physiology have no desire
to stay off radar; they simply are because of what they are.
Among this issue’s collection of prized research we find the thread of things we cannot perceive existentially included in “The Effectiveness of Current Interventions to
Reverse the Underachievement of Gifted Students: Findings
of a Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review.”Authors
Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, et al. found no evidence that
underachievement interventions significantly improved academic performance of gifted underachievers, but they did note gains in psychosocial outcomes and motivation.
The results make us wonder why we have defined underachievement
in this student population as an academic
problem in need of academic interventions. Could it have
other existential elements? The authors shine a light on new research possibilities, such as connections between underachievement
and perfectionism, conflicts in affiliation and
achievement, cognitive challenge, and engagement.
Their meta-analysis and systematic review suggests we might systemically be incapable of seeing things more clearly
because we’re instead looking for precipitating factors and other elements that make sense to us. In short, as practitioners we’re trying yet falling short of what we can accomplish with elevated scientific mindfulness. In gifted
education, now might be our opportunity to evolve, to take
an existential do-over with an elevated sense of newfound
awareness of cause and effect, or even indirect, non-local
influence.
Another example from our winner’s circle of research is
Rahmi Luke Jackson and Jae Yup Jung’s “The Identification
of Gifted Underachievement: Validity Evidence for
the Commonly Used Methods.”
Making inroads in discernment, the authors studied five
commonly used methods to identify gifted underachievement,
with only one making the cut as more optimal than
the others after scientific analysis: the simple difference
method, which not only can discern whether gifted underachievement
is present but also to what degree, thereby
paving the way for possible provisions for such students.
This study reminds us of the need for keen and careful
external eyes working to discern what is working and what
is not in the world around us if our goal is to make positive
differences.
Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “The truth is that
the first changes are so slow they pass almost unnoticed,
and you go on seeing yourself as you always were, from the
inside, but others observe you from the outside.”


****
When we conceived this column, we were comfortable
with the duality of our theme, yet we discovered in drafting
and editing that when science speaks, intuition might
best step aside and allow new discovery to take center stage.
In our case—and in a way parallel to the themes deviating
thoughtfully throughout this issue—we now present by way of conclusion what is known as a BFO—a Blinding
Flash of the Obvious—a third thing.
It’s this: Some things are not hiding in plain sight.They
are not even attempting to hide. They are, instead, standing
right there squarely in front of us.
And we all can see them.
Thus, we now round out our final deviation, with . . .


When It Is, What It Is
Two groups of scientists brought us scientifically delightful
affirmations that we might say are BFOs called when it
is and what it is.
First, Matt Brown et al. ask, “Can You Ever Be Too Smart
for Your Own Good? Comparing Linear and Nonlinear
Effects of Cognitive Ability on Life Outcomes.”The authors
note that, despite assertions to the contrary, there’s really no
downside to having greater cognitive abilities than others
throughout life.Some say it does not really matter or is
actually harmful beyond a certain point, but these award
winners just didn’t find that to be true.
Quacking and flapping, scientifically of course, it
appears the duck is the duck, in concurrence with Thomas’
notion in Hidden in Plain Sight that “We see beauty in
simplicity because we can see its underlying efficiency.”
Additionally, Valentin Emslander and Ronny Scherer’s
“The Relation Between Executive Functions and Math
Intelligence in Preschool Children: A Systematic Review
and Meta-Analysis” reveals that in all three subdimensions
of inhibition, shifting, and updating, neither children’s age
nor gender moderates these relations.
In other words: It is what it is.
Good science demonstrates.

And . . .
This journey—through things hiding in plain sight and
things not hiding yet still hidden—forces a nagging question
as we near the end of this piece: Do we have an obligation
to go looking?
For things hiding, that is.
Well, it’s a worthwhile concern because asking new questions
on topics and situations that have long been the way
they have been might bring about repercussions for those of us poking the beast’s belly (true for humble columnists
such as ourselves, so how much greater the concern for the
gifted scientists who are asking the ever-bold questions and
following where science leads).
Leo Tolstoy said, “Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.”
With this, the answer to our question on obligation
seems coupled with a need for careful and prudent travel—building upon the good of what has been established and with a concession that folks are typically trying to do the
best they can; in doing so, we’re bringing new insights and making worthy creations that become part of who we are and what we do. Chemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, as shared by Thomas, is
known to have said, “Scientific discovery consists of seeing
what everyone else has seen but thinking what no one else has thought.”
We applaud our 2023 Awards for Excellence in Research winners for doing just that, and we thank them for the
opportunity (and hopefully latitude) to provide what we
have conceived again this year as a thematic confluence of
their efforts, with slight turn of mind and allowable deviation worthy of the value of our MRJ readership.

Random Samples


■ Leila Reddy et al., in “Human Hippocampal Neurons Track Moments in a Sequence of Events,” published in the
Journal of Neuroscience, posit that neurons contained in the
human hippocampus represent temporal information. The
authors believe that these neurons could have a key role in
organizing human understanding of what happened, when,
and in what order.Also in the realm of human perception,
research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
found that contact between speakers of different
languages can affect how color is perceived or described.
This work demonstrates that when native speakers of a
language encounter another language that divides colors
into more categories than their native tongue, those speakers
begin to do so as well. In the research, Tsimané people
(whose language does not distinguish between blue and
green) who acquired Spanish as a second language began
to classify blue and green as separate colors.More about
this can be found in “Concepts Are Restructured During
Language Contact: The Birth of Blue and Other Color
Concepts in Tsimané-Spanish Bilinguals” in the journal
Psychological Science. (Note: This reminds us somewhat of
being asked by a native Mandarin speaker to assist her in
understanding the difference in English between “particularly”
and “especially.”)


■ In their PeerJ article “Electric Organ Discharge From
Electric Eel Facilitates DNA Transformation Into Teleost
Larvae in Laboratory Conditions,” Skaki et al. relayed that
electric eels may have the ability to transfer genetic material
via electric shock.The authors placed zebrafish larvae into
a medium along with DNA encoded for fluorescence and
then exposed the larvae to electric eel discharge.The resulting
zebrafish exhibited greater fluorescence than a control
group, suggesting that this type of genetic transfer could
possibly occur in nature.Continuing in the animal category,
Chongxi Lai et al. utilized a novel machine-brain interface
and found that rats possess the ability to imagine events.
This finding is reported in their article “Volitional Activation
of Remote Place Representations with a Hippocampal
Brain-Machine Interface,” published in Science.


■ Dario Cecchini et al. have devised new scenarios for
making moral judgments, beyond the well-known “either/
or” choice of the trolley problem.While the scenarios still
largely involve traffic behavior choice scenarios, these
researchers propose seven new scenarios to consider, which
they believe are more realistic and useful than the simple
trolley question.Their work can be found in AI & Society in
the article “Moral Judgment in Realistic Traffic Scenarios:
Moving Beyond the Trolley Paradigm for Ethics of Autonomous
Vehicles.”Continuing in the realm of artificial intelligence,
researchers at the University of Cambridge placed
physical restraints on AI systems, similar to those placed
on the human brain, and found that these restraints ultimately
led the AI systems to develop efficiency features
not unlike those found in complex organisms.These findings
are reported in Nature Machine Intelligence in an article
titled “Spatially Embedded Recurrent Neural Networks
Reveal Widespread Links Between Structural and Functional
Neuroscience Findings.”


■ In “Cardiac Activity Impacts Cortical Motor Excitability,”
Esra Al et al. find there are specific points during the
human heartbeat cycle in which the body responds differently
to stimulation.Writing in PLOS Biology, the authors
suggest that this finding may lead to improved treatments
for conditions such as stroke or depression.Meanwhile,
Yanpei Huang et al. report that human subjects spending
one hour learning to use a third, robotic arm were able to
complete tasks (tasks requiring more than two arms) just
as effectively as two-armed subjects working with a partner.
Read more in IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine
and Biology, where researchers ask the question, “Can
Training Make Three Arms Better Than Two Heads for
Trimanual Coordination?”


■ Ran Wang et al. devised complex neural networks and
then utilized those networks to recreate human speech from
brain recordings.The authors described the efforts needed
to replicate human brain-speech activity, which requires
multiple brain networks working together in a process
of feeding information forward while also receiving and
processing feedback.This work can be found in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences in the paper titled
“Distributed Feedforward and Feedback Cortical Processing
Supports Human Speech Production.”Moving to a
study of a somewhat less complex organism, Jan Bielecki
et al. found that jellyfish—which have no central brain—
can learn from experiences and alter their behavior based
on those experiences.These results are detailed in Current
Biology in an article titled “Associative Learning in the Box
Jellyfish Tripedalia Cystophora.”

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