My shelfie… Marcus Munafo

Professor of Biological Psychology, University of Bristol

Cigarettes are Sublime
Richard Klein (1994)
Much of my career has focused on cigarette smoking, and in particular how to help people stop smoking. Even in the relatively short period since I completed my PhD, smoking rates have declined dramatically in the UK as a range of tobacco control policies such as standardised packaging and the ban on point of sale displays have been introduced. But the social context of smoking – why people smoke – is easy to lose sight of. Richard Klein wrote Cigarettes are Sublime as therapy when he stopped smoking. It is simultaneously an analysis of popular culture and an ode to cigarettes. It reminds me of the human and social aspect of my work, which can so easily be reduced to numbers and biology.

The Concept of Mind
Gilbert Ryle (1949)
My undergraduate degree was in psychology and philosophy – in fact, I originally wanted to just study philosophy, but at the university I went to I had to do it with something else and chose psychology. Despite ultimately pursuing psychology as my main subject, I’ve always remained interested in philosophy, particularly in the context of my work on reproducibility. Ryle’s Concept of Mind has always fascinated me because of the extent to which it challenges us to think critically about the concepts we use. As a biological psychologist, the question of how mental states arise from biological activity is central to my work, and one for which there are no clear answers (yet!).

How to Lie with Statistics
Darrell Huff (1954)
For several years I have been interested in reproducibility issues in science. Perhaps this can be traced back to How to Lie with Statistics, which my mother gave to me before I went to university. Written by a journalist, it is a highly accessible introduction to simple errors that can be made when reporting and interpreting statistics. We continue to wrestle with the problem that our statistical training, as a profession, is uneven. Perhaps even more importantly, current incentive structures in science arguably act against the proper use of statistics – we are supposed to discover ground-breaking insights, and we are rewarded for publishing eye-catching results whether or not they are likely to be true.

Black Box Thinking
Matthew Syed (2015)
I’m fascinated by the culture of academia, which in many ways remains rooted in the 19th Century. Current debates around reproducibility, diversity, and bullying and harassment can all be understood as cultural issues. Perhaps we can learn better ways of working from other industries. For example, in any human endeavour there will be human error, but the structures and cultures we work in can either exacerbate or mitigate those errors. Black Box Thinking describes how the aviation industry – which, probably more than any other, is acutely aware of the need to mitigate human error – achieves this through a robust and healthy attitude towards failure, and a culture of openness. We should take note.

James Kerr (2013)
One of the cultural problems that I think we have in academia at the moment is that it remains a very individualistic enterprise. I’ve always found this uncomfortable – an important theme throughout my career has been building teams, including a period where much of my spare time was spent coaching elite athletes. Legacy describes how the New Zealand All Blacks has retained its position at the pinnacle of world rugby for decades, and is arguably the most successful sporting team of all time. Academic research groups could learn from their approach – instilling core values, empowering early career researchers, and creating a culture where it is the team, not the individual, that succeeds.

Radical Candor
Kim Scott (2017)
One of the challenges that senior academics face is that they often have little or no training in the key day-to-day skills they need – personnel management, project management and so on. This includes having difficult conversations. Radical Candor describes the need to ‘challenge directly’ (i.e. not shy away from speaking hard truths), whilst also ‘care personally’ (i.e. make it clear that this is done to help the person grow and develop). We should give feedback to our teams in a way that drives excellence whilst creating a culture of openness and honesty. Perhaps we need to move to a culture where we spend at least as much time developing these broader skills, as well as our skills as scientists.

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