Coburn anti-NSF report misleading, factually incorrect

Todd Gureckis was one of the scientists whose research was mocked and deemed de-fundable by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). But Gureckis says Coburn's report is not just misleading, much of it is flat-out inaccurate. Gureckis has posted a series of FAQs that explain what he and his research partners really studied, how they were funded, and why funny-sounding research is more important than you might think.

2. Did Coburn or his staff even look at the scientific paper in question?

Rather than examine the actual peer-reviewed research paper (Gureckis, T.M. and Goldstone, R.L. (2009) How You Named Your Child: Understanding The Relationship Between Individual Decision Making and Collective Outcomes. TopiCS in Cognitive Science, 1 (4), 651-674. available for download here), the Coburn report exclusively references a USA Today article written by an individual not involved in the original research. This news story is not an authoritative source on the contributions of our scientific paper. It would be like referring people to a left-wing blog to describe Coburn's stance on political issues instead of letting them look at his own voting record or website.

The Coburn report exclusively references a USA Today article written by an individual not involved in the original research.

Had those developing this report actually looked the research paper they were criticizing, they would know that we were not specifically interested in baby names except in so far as they offer a unique opportunity for studying such the impact of social influence on decision making. We all know that iPhones are popular but the underlying reasons for this cultural success is distorted by the role that advertising budgets and existing computer technologies play in determining which ideas win out and which die off in the consumer marketplace. In contrast, the popularity of names is more organically determined by processes of social influence (there is no company out there trying to convince you to name you child something in particular). Baby names thus represent an important and relatively "pure" empirical test of theories of cultural transmission and social influence in large groups.

The Coburn report makes it seem as though this research spent money to determine the frequency and popularity of names. Fortunately, this data was provided for free by the Social Security Administration which has recorded and published the most popular baby names in the United States since the 1880s (freely available here: Many of the popular websites that analyze naming trends rely on the same data source. Any NSF funds used toward this effort paid exclusively for the statistical/mathematical analysis of this data. In fact, in the context of a discussion about government waste, this is a great example of government efficiency since data collected for one purpose (issuing social security cards), which would have been very expensive to collect otherwise, turns out to be very useful to NSF and NIH supported peer-reviewed science.

Note that many researchers agree that this data is unique for studying the interactions of individual decision making and social behavior. Similar analyses on the same data set were nearly simultaneously reported with our paper in esteemed peer-reviewed journals like Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Berger & Le Mans, 2009), the Proceedings of the Royal Academy (Hahn & Bently, 2003), among other peer-reviewed journals (Bentley, Lipo, Herzog, & Hahn, 2007; Fryer & Levitt, 2004) and naming trends and patterns have been extensively studied and discussed by economists (Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner in the best selling book Freakonomics) and sociologists (Stan Lieberson in A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashion, and Culture Change). The work we published was peer-reviewed in a journal by scientific experts and went through multiple revisions with extensive debate.

Our paper reports novel findings which suggest a refinement of leading theories of cultural transmission of ideas. The report gets the basic finding from our research wrong when it claims our conclusion was the tautology "popular names are popular with parents." If only it was so simple. One prediction of the idea that "popular names are popular" would be that the most popular names would never change from year to year (the same popular names would keep being popular). In fact, the historical record provided by the Social Security Administration shows that there has been dramatic changes in the popularity of names over the last few years. Our paper proposes and evaluates possible reasons for these changes in time. Our theory is rigorous and mathematically specified, and may thus be used by other researchers studying the cultural transmission of other ideas (such as political ideologies, health-related habits and decisions, or purchasing decisions). The ideas in the paper borrow from recent mathematical theories of human decision making and learning and well as cultural transmission and cultural evolution.

As authors, we made a concerted effort to communicate the broader impacts of this work to the public at large. The paper is available for free from my website (, and NYU and Indiana University jointly issued a very nice press release with details and discussion about the merits of the paper which went far beyond the third-party source the Coburn report extensively quotes (the USA Today article).