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3 years out of date on the whole Dennis the dentist thing!

Paging Uri Simonsohn . . .

January 2014: Alice Robb writes, completely uncritically: “If Your Name is Dennis, You’re More Likely to Become a Dentist The strange science of how names shape careers.”

But look what you can learn from a quick google:

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 10.27.18 PM

Hmmmm, maybe worth following up on that second link . . .

More details here, from 2011:

Devah Pager points me to this article by Uri Simonsohn, which begins:

Three articles published [by Brett Pelham et al.] have shown that a disproportionate share of people choose spouses, places to live, and occupations with names similar to their own. These findings, interpreted as evidence of implicit egotism, are included in most modern social psychology textbooks and many university courses. The current article successfully replicates the original findings but shows that they are most likely caused by a combination of cohort, geographic, and ethnic confounds as well as reverse causality.

From Simonsohn’s article, here’s a handy summary of the claims and the evidence (click on it to enlarge):


The Pelham et al. articles have come up several times on the blog, starting with this discussion and this estimate and then more recently here. I’m curious what Pelham and his collaborators think of Simonsohn’s claims.

Too bad for the readers of the New Republic that Alice Robb didn’t think to do a Google search. Maybe Pelham’s claims are all correct, but it seems a mistake to report them uncritically.

No big deal, we all make mistakes, but I hope the New Republic can run a correction of equal length to the original article, explaining that the claim about names has been shot down, and also educating readers a bit on the uncertainties of this sort of scientific finding.


  1. One thing to remember is that google tunes its search results to the individual. It’s entirely possible your article doesn’t show up on the first page of a google search by Alice Robb.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure, but the real point is that as a journalist, Robb has the duty to look into a claim, not just report it as true just because it appeared in a scientific journal. Even if the refutation doesn’t show up as #2 in her particular Google search, she should look into a it a bit, not just be a mouthpiece.

      • Agreed of course, but it was a point worth mentioning since often the web is a fairly different place for different people due to these personalization factors but we don’t necessarily notice this fact as an everyday thing until we need to compare between two people’s views of the web.

  2. Paul Alper says:

    Andrew: Your blog of today is entitled
    3 years out of date on the whole Dennis the dentist thing!
    but in 2007 you wrote about the Nelson and Simmons crazy baseball study.

    Moniker maladies: when names sabotage success.

    “In five studies, we found that people like their names enough to unconsciously pursue consciously avoided outcomes that resemble their names. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players whose names begin with the strikeout-signifying letter K strike out more than others (Study 1).”

    The devastating critique by B.D. McCullough and Thomas P. McWilliams can be found at

    The contention by Nelson and Simmons is that a person whose name begins with the letter K [score card designation for a strikeout] is more likely to strike out than someone whose name begins with another letter because of some unconscious desire to fail. McCullough and McWilliams indicate that Nelson and Simmons are, to use your phraseology, employing “The garden of forking paths” as well as incorrectly calculating a particular test statistic. When calculated correctly, the curse of “K” disappears. No mention in either article was made of “F” or “W” as in fanned or whiffed, common argot in baseball parlance.
    I wrote about this in Chance News a couple of years ago

    and commented on Nelson and Simmons other studies. The second study refers to MBA academic performance at an unnamed institution. Looking at about 15,000 students, they claim, “As predicted, students whose names begin with a C or D earned lower GPAs than students whose names begin with A or B, F(4, 14348) = 4.55” yielding a p-value of “.001.” The effect size is teeny and somehow, those whose initials are E through Z actually have the highest average GPAs.

    The third study looks at 492,458 [!!] lawyers at 170 law schools. And fortunately for anyone named William who uses his nickname, Nelson and Simmons conclude, “It seems that people with names like Adlai and Bill tend to go to better law schools that do those with names like Chester and Dwight.”
    Paul Alper
    P.S. You have long been interested in how to measure small effects. Have you seen this “true believer” quotation regarding the Nelson and Simmons study?

    “The effect, of course, is not all-powerful. The strikeout rate for Kennys is only a sliver above that for Robertos, and the GPA gap is tiny—3.34 versus 3.36. But there is a saying in science that if you discover a way to levitate objects with your thoughts by one millimeter, you don’t focus on the millimeter—the size of the effect—but on the fact that something happened at all.”
    – Sharon Begley of Newsweek

    P.P.S. Given that Nelson and Simmons are colleagues of Uri Simonsohn, was their publication an elaborate inside joke about making the data say anything one wants? McCullough and McWilliams claim

    “Since NS would neither supply the data set they used, nor the SQL code that they used to create their data set, nor the code that they used to analyze the data set, we had to spend a substantial amount of time reverse-engineering their results. In the course of this reverse-engineering, we discovered several errors that we describe in the Appendix.”

    You have long advocated that researchers should make the raw data available to others. My recollection is that Simonsohn does as well.

  3. […] I got faked out by that one too. It was years before I saw the correction. And, years after that, the mistake was still being reported uncritically in the news […]

  4. […] Open quarterfinals last night, I think it might be time to accept that the dentists named Dennis people were onto something. Looking him up revealed that he was named after his great grandfather and not […]

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