Dec 6 2009

We are all pretty WEIRD

I have written before about my disdain for a lot of the pop psychology reported in the press *cough Oliver James*. I am sure that this does not represent a lot of the real research that goes on within the discipline but there does seem to be some fundamental problems within psychology that a few academics are finally shining a light on.

These fundamental problems include the lack of empiricism within the discipline (OK, fancy way of saying you’re making it up) which then feeds into implicit universal assumptions about human behaviour.

The problem with the lack of empiricism in psychology has been approached by Boon and Gozna in an article in The Psychologist which is a broad take on the subject and compares the disciple to other sciences.

observation1But I was also struck by how much psychological research is based on WEIRD subjects.

And by weird, I mean Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). A fairly recent paper in Behavioural and Brain Sciences (pdf) looked at how behavioural scientists routinely publish broad claims about human behaviour and psychology based entirely on people called Dave and Sarah who live in places like Tufnell Park and Happy Harbor (OK, that one’s where the Justice League hang out) and then assume that they are “standard subjects”*.

*These assumptions are not always made explicit but are often implicitly implied in the article headings and are certainly routinely translated into universal truths by the mainstream media.

The paper compares datasets from different populations and finds that not only is there variation but that WEIRD subjects are also particularly unusual compared to the rest of the species and are frequent outliers.

This has huge implications for the bad science reporting on gender and race.

To be fair I do think the public have a responsibility to think for themselves once in a while and ask themselves one simple question when confronted with a headline such as “Shopping styles of men and women all down to evolution, claim scientists” (don’t worry I’m coming back to this little corker later) and that question should be:

“Is it likely that this is true for all or half of the world’s population?”

It’s a simple question, not that taxing. But if it seems abstract then lets break it down into manageable bite-size chunks:

a) Is this likely to be true for all** females/males that I know?

b) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in this country regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

c) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in all nations, cultures, environments, and geo-political regions regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

**I’ll even allow for a statistically significant majority here.

If your answer to these questions is ‘Yes, [X] is likely to be true for half the world’s population’ then I’m afraid you lack of the facility of rational thought. I suggest you become a homeopath.

Some interesting points from the Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan paper:

  • A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of Psychology from 2003-2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and 96% of subjects were from Western industrialised countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett, 2008) reflecting the academics country of residence.
  • This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.
  • And a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

I was particularly interested in the section on spatial cognition because I mostly use my catchphrase ‘Oh, fuck off’, when reading about women not being able to read maps. The authors point to the variation in linguistic tools between societies:

Human societies vary in their linguistic tools for, and cultural practices associated with, representing and communicating (1) directions in physical space, (2) the color spectrum, and (3) integer amounts. There is some evidence that each of these differences in cultural content may influence some aspects of nonlinguistic cognitive processes (D’Andrade, 1995; Gordon, 2005; Kay, 2005; Levinson, 2003; Roberson, Davies, & Davidoff, 2000). Here we focus on spatial cognition, for which the evidence is most provocative. As above, it appears that industrialized societies are at the extreme end of the continuum in spatial cognition. Human populations show differences in how they think about spatial orientation and deal with directions, and these differences may be influenced by linguistically-based spatial reference systems.

So spatial cognition may be influenced by linguistic tools, or indeed may be influenced by other factors, but the fact that our research is using such a narrow and biased sample, the conclusions can at best be highly contextualised and at worst hugely flawed.

So if you come across an article saying women can’t read maps because of humans’ hunter-gatherer past (because of course it is always, always because of our hunter-gatherer past), it might be worth considering that other human populations don’t actually use A-Zs or EVEN Googlemaps and indeed wouldn’t describe directions in the same way as those in industrialised societies. So its unlikely that women, half the world’s population, are teh stupids and get themselves all in a tizzy when they have to get themselves somewhere.

I won’t go into the whole article, but it is fascinating so do check it out unfortunately some of their key references are behind a paywall. Grrrr.

Sep 17 2009

Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist’s report).

Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).

The debate didn’t really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline…

[thanks Kate Arkless Gray @radiokate]

What I found interesting is the sub-heading ‘ALERT TO ALL WOMEN’. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.

(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).

One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim ‘boys can’t get cervical cancer’, they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM – not the most rabidly feminist organisation I’ve ever come across.

My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson’s, and to some extent Goldacre’s, view that sometimes ‘sensationalism isn’t such a bad thing’, that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society’s prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.

This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips’ and Richard Littlejohn’s of this world, without having scientists ‘proving’ that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.

I’m not advocating censorship, I’m pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.

However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.

Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you’re lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical ‘health warnings’ to the end of the article – they’ll rarely be read.

Science reporting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it’s good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.

I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here’s some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
New Scientist
Nathan Chantrell
Skeptic Barista
And many many more.

Sep 15 2009

More Periods.

Further to an earlier period post (which interestingly has been the most commented on post both here and from friends in person) I’ve only just stumbled upon the fantastic blog by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

I particularly liked the post on the hidden nature of menstrual blood in film and TV as opposed to the graphic depiction of blood via fighting, shooting and crashing.

Oh, and having just moved into a new flat, THIS is the shelving unit I’ve been looking for!

Periods and science: a veritable wellspring of menstrual blood!

Jul 6 2009

CIA combine ill-treatment and pimping

There is a fascinating history of mad, bad and deeply unethical medical and scientific research. From experiments in Nazi Germany to the Tuskegee study in the USA where African American men were left untreated for syphilis so that the progression of the disease could be monitored. The study was only halted in 1972.

I just came across Operation Midnight Climax, which back in the 1950s used prostitutes on the CIA’s payroll to lure ‘clients’ back to a location where they were covertly given a range of substances including LSD so that the effects could be studied on non-consenting subjects. This was part of Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s mind control and chemical interrogation research programme.

Unfortunately, this kind of stuff does fuel the (more loony) conspiracy theorists and prove many of their theories right. Its also important to question the ethics of the individuals involved in this including the scientists and medical doctors. It being a State-run programme should not absolve them of their responsibilities. Of course this isn’t a thing of the past as doctors and scientists have been involved in the torture or ill-treatment of ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

But also, what of the women? Where are their voices in this? Their sexual exploitation was being done by the US Government. Just as ‘Comfort Women‘ were being shipped to ‘service’ soldiers by the Japanese Government during WWII and countless other examples of State sanctioned sexual exploitation of women.

The disclosures have rightly exposed this deeply unethical covert research. But how about some justice for the women used in this way by the CIA. I’m a little concerned that they’ll just get glamourised for TV….

Jun 28 2009

Made Up Science

The fab Rebecca from Skepchick.

See my earlier blog on L’Oreal’s use of SCIENCE to sell colourful fat to rub on your face. Oh, and how supportive of women is L’Oreal? Very. As long as you’re not black.

Jan 23 2009

Headlines and ‘dick fingers’

I’ve been ‘encouraged’ to post another blog by a blogger friend with too much time on his hands. But to be fair, he has alerted me to a very interesting link about ‘quotes’ in ‘newspapers’. That is, the quotation marks used in newspaper headlines which completely misrepresent the story and evidence in the piece. Typical headlines being ‘Finally, the scientific proof that ‘women lie about rape” etc.

What is important to understand is that most people only read the headline and first two paragraphs of each article in a newspaper. The facts involved which frequently contradict the headline, are therefore reserved for the final paragraphs.

This is used often about science stories, however, I just found a horrendous example in, guess where? The Daily Mail.

Here again is an issue of ‘facts’ and the Daily Mail’s inability to grasp them. According to an article on their website, a couple of paedophiles were able to abuse children ‘because of human rights legislation’.

This is in fact a story about two paedophiles being rightfully imprisoned for their awful crimes none of which had anything to do with human rights legislation. The prosecuting lawyer then said in passing that if they ever were released (and they had been jailed indefinitely) they should not be allowed to live together but this may be impossible as he believes “that may offend human rights legislation”.

There is then a string of comments to this article from, well, thick Daily Mail readers, talking about repealing the Human Rights Act.

Firstly, this pair has been imprisoned indefinitely. They will only be released when they are no longer a threat to society and if they have severe personality disorders that makes them abuse children, they may never get out.

Secondly, they may not both get out or get out at the same time.

Thirdly, the problem is that they are paedophiles not that they live together.

Fourthly, they are not a risk to each other so it is unclear under what law they could be separated.

Fifthly, the headline is based on the passing comment of one man and has no evidence to back it up.

Sixthly, they are not using the Human Rights Act to overturn a bail condition that they not live together, given that they are both in prison and not getting out.

Some comedian I saw recently called this kind of Daily Mail reaction the ‘What Next’ syndrome, i.e. “Speed cameras? What next, we’re all going to be micro-chipped and an electric current sent through our bodies whenever we near the speed limit?” Answer: No.

“What next, human rights legislation actually encourages paedophiles to abuse children?” Answer: No.

What next, the Daily Mail actually accurately reports a story on science, women, asylum seekers, gays, human rights, or Europe? Answer: No.

NB. Dick fingers: the gesture indicating quotation marks.

Jul 21 2008

Abortion: a matter of science

This may seem a bit out of date to cover the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but is it still going through Westminster and the dark forces are still trying to use it as a way of restricting women’s access to abortion.

One of the main areas of ‘debate’ is whether advances in science require a change in the abortion laws. I say ‘debate’ because there is scientific consensus on the issue and it is those with a ‘moral’ perspective who are trying to create allusion of a debate.

So is there a case? Well not according to the medical establishment. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, neither known for their radical feminism, have both submitted evidence to Westminster’s Science and Technology Committee in support of the 24 week time limit and a liberalisation of access to abortion in the first trimester.

So where are the medics and scientists marching in the streets asking for the law to be changed? Well, there have been submissions to the Science and Technology Committee advocating time limit restrictions from medical professionals who have not declared their religious affiliations. Luckily the press can do this for us:
Guardian Blog

The majority of them are activists from the Christian Medical Fellowship, an organisation which is opposed to abortion (unlike most Christians) and has already made a submission.

The scientific case hinges on the principle of the “viability” of the foetus outside the womb. It is claimed that foetuses that have been born prematurely at 24 or 22 weeks have be kept alive by science. As stated by the BMA, it is only a fraction of births at this gestation that survive, and most of those are severely disabled. However, then we have a conflation between the theoretical viability of a foetus at 22 weeks and the viability of a foetus that a woman chooses to abort at this time.

Women get a scan at 20 weeks which can show up problems with the pregnancy. Obviously we can’t be certain, but it is very very likely that those being terminated at this late stage have serious problems. Lets remember that 20 weeks is half way through a pregnancy, women would have a very good reason for going through what is a particularly invasive surgical procedure. Either the foetus is in fact not viable or these are particularly vulnerable women. Restricting their rights further is hardly the answer.

Which brings us back to the question, why are we talking about time limits? Suspicions rise further when we start looking at how many abortions we are actually talking about – in Scotland out of over 13,000 abortions carried out in 2006, 62 were between 20-24 weeks. That represents 0.5% of all abortions. So why exactly are we seeking to change the law for a fraction of a percentage (or around 1% UK-wide) of all abortions?

Because this is a tactic, part of a wider strategy to chip away at the right to abortion. Banning by increment. This isn’t my wild paranoia; this is exactly the course of action taken by the Anti-Choice movement in the USA. Restrict women’s access to abortion a bit at a time until it is effectively banned in some States and restricted to 13 weeks in others.

Advances in science do not change the principle that women must have control over their own body and must never be forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy.