Scrabble makes you . . . good at Scrabble

Scrabble doesn't make you smarter, but it can re-wire your brain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This week, we got another great example of how science stories are often misinterpreted by the media. Articles in the Calgary Herald, Global News, and MSNBC all touted a new Canadian study which they say shows that ‘Scrabble makes you smarter.’ If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. (To their credit, the folks at CBC appear to have done their homework.) However, the study’s real conclusion is no less interesting: it provides further evidence that the human brain can re-wire itself even into late adulthood.

The first step in getting past media hype is to look at the peer-reviewed article itself. (Happily, the good folks at Memory and Cognition have been kind enough to make this particular work open access, thanks guys!) From the abstract:

The results of a series of cognitive assessments showed that the Scrabble players and control participants differed only in Scrabble-specific skills.

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The Fanged Frogs of Sulawesi

Fanged Frog
A researcher shows the fang - technically bony odontoid processes - of one of the 13 species of fanged frog from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Credit: McMaster Daily News/Rafe M. Brown

Despite a name that sounds like it came from a bizarre horror film, the fanged frogs of Sulawesi are not particularly dangerous. In fact, the exact function of the fangs – technically bony odontoid processes – isn’t really known. “They could be used for defence, although it’s not clear that that’s true,” says Ben Evans of McMaster University “They certainly don’t bite you when you catch one in your hand.” What Evans does know is that these unusual critters are a perfect example of the evolutionary process of adaptive radiation.

Evans is an evolutionary biologist who has spent years studying the biogeography of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. “Sulawesi is interesting because it’s near some large islands, but it’s biogeographically very distinct,” he says. “A remarkable and precipitous faunal divide occurs between Sulawesi and Borneo, which is famous in biogeography. It’s called Wallace’s line.” Alfred Russell Wallace, a well-known biologist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, worked extensively in the Indonesian archipelago, using it as a model system to understand the processes that affect biodiversity worldwide.

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Canadian Science: By The Numbers

Regular readers will note that I’m fond of touting the high quality of Canadian science despite our many perceived handicaps as a nation (smallish population, widely separated institutions, latent inferiority complex, etc.) But how, I hear you virtually ask, can I possibly know this is true? Is there any data to back up this claim? Well, smarty pants, it turns out there is. is an arm of Thomson Reuters that keeps tabs on trends in published science papers and their impact on the scientific community, as measured by the number of citations. Periodically, they do a retrospective of papers from a certain country, comparing their quantity and impact to the world average. As it happens, this week they featured the True North Strong and Free.

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