Archive for August, 2010

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whither altruism?

August 31, 2010

Introductory Psychology is full of theories. One of the ones that I thought had a solid grounding was the “inclusive fitness” theory. However, it appears the E. O. Wilson and colleagues are heading up a challenge to the notion of inclusive fitness – and it looks as though there will be a scientific throw down. Carl Zimmer does a nice job breaking down the basics over at The New York Times.

Basically, evolutionary theories are able to explain quite well how the behaviors of an individual reflect pressures to survive and pass on genetic material to later generations (known as evolutionary fitness).  However, sometimes (often?) individuals, humans and non-humans, will behave in such a way that they work against their own survival, but the actions can improve the likelihood of the survival of others. Prairie dogs will stand up and sound the alarm when a predator approaches – obviously fleeing immediately would be the behavior most likely to insure survival, but the prairie dogs seem to put themselves in harms way to alert the rest of the colony. The likelihood that any individual will commit to such an act seems to be related to how closely related they are to other members of the colony – more shared genetic material means a greater likelihood to engage in this sort of behavior. Parallel behaviors can be found in people – on the battlefield, in the supermarket parking lot, anywhere that one person puts herself or himself at risk to help others.

So, what difference does this make to the lowly Introductory Psychology instructor? Well, in every textbook I’ve perused in the past ten years, the explanation for why altruism exists rests on this idea that evolutionary pressures have helped to select out this tendency to put oneself at risk to help others, especially others that share genetic material. Without the notion of inclusive fitness – this idea of how altruism evolved is left rudderless. On the one hand, it is always a bit scary to realize that maybe, just maybe (assuming that the criticisms of inclusive fitness hold water – and there are a good number of folks who are criticizing the criticisms) something we thought we understood about human behavior wasn’t true. On the other hand, if the notion of inclusive fitness really is flawed and it is set aside – we clear the way for better, more appropriate theories about altruism to take root. Science is always on the move. That is  good thing, although now I’ll have to go back and revise my lecture notes…

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gedachte, pensée, gedanke, σκέψη, 思考, pensamiento, thought…

August 31, 2010

1. Language is fundamental to our experience.

2. Each language has its own quirks and rules. Different words and syntax.

So, in this case 1+ 2 = ? What is the relationship between the language we speak and the way we experience the world? A number of years ago, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis presented an interesting notion – that the language you speak fundamentally colors how you experience the world. In the intervening years, psychologists and linguists accrued lots of data indicating that the notion, although compelling, was not accurate. However, in the past ten years, the pendulum has swung back – new researchers, using new methodologies and asking new questions, are accumulating evidence that language can affect your experience.

An interesting topic – and here is an interesting read recently published in the New York Time’s Magazine. Enjoy.

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this or that – how can we tell?

August 30, 2010

Either students are more prepared for the challenges they will face in college (as proposed by recent release by ACT – click to see NPR article) or they are not prepared (click to see an alternative read on the same data).

This is one of the biggest challenges of dealing with data – the numbers themselves are often not the answer (except for simple questions like “how tall is Rupert Murdoch?”), but they allow us to come to some conclusion that is (hopefully) supported by the numbers. However, this often means that how we come to understand the data can be biased by our personal beliefs or perspectives on the situation. Sometimes the numbers can be used to support seemingly contradictory positions. The famous quote “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” (origin disputed) captures this sentiment nicely.

So, are students “more prepared”. Yes, if you compare the percentage of students this year passing certain benchmarks set by the ACT education division (these reflect the probability that the student would be able to achieve a B or higher in an introductory college course) to the percentage from past years. This year 24% of the students who took the ACT passed all four benchmarks compared to 23% last year. Are students not prepared? Yes, again. If less than one quarter of the high school graduates taking the ACT appear to be in a position to earn a B in four basic college courses (reflecting English, reading, math, and science), we have a problem. Note that many of these students will not actually go to college, and the standards will vary across the colleges they do attend, but these are not numbers to be proud of.

So, some interesting things to think about in terms of how we use data. And the current challenges we face in the educational system.

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New methods for answering old questions about the young ones…

August 19, 2010

Click on the photo to access the article on the New York Times website…

The article describes a new methodology for studying what information infants use as they navigate the world. Eye gaze has been a staple of developmental (and adult) research for years, so the assumption that what a child looks at reflects mental processing is not new. Advances in technology, however, have made it possible to use eye gaze measures in exciting new ways. Wearable eye-tracking systems have been developed that are small and light-weight enough that even infants can be outfitted. The system includes a camera that records the visual field and an eye-tracking device that records where in that visual field the eye is fixating. This represents an enormous advance as most infant studies previously relied on much more gross measures of eye gaze (e.g. undergrad assistants recording whether the infant looked at one display or another or how long the infant looked at a particular scenario). The use of eye tracking was largely relegated to studies that required the participant to hold still (not easy for any child, much less an infant) and only interact with information presented on a screen (not as ecologically valid as allowing the participant to move through the environment).

Now, the challenge is to devise sophisticated experimental scenarios (and accompanying psychological theories) that can take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by this advance in methodology.

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a morality tale featuring a morality researcher

August 15, 2010

As reported in the NY Times this past week (8/12/2010), Marc Hauser of Harvard University finds himself in trouble because of questions about the “truthiness” of data he used in several papers during the past decade. Oddly enough, some of his research considers issues related to morality.

There are a few angles that interest me. As a researcher, he is expected to adhere to certain standards related to how he handles and reports the data he collects. From the information becoming available, he did not meet those expectations. The NY Times article mentions that much of the problem could be tied to poor record keeping and a lax attitude towards verifying that the data reported in the articles matched the actual data collected. These are not things that should happen in a laboratory where rigor and proper procedure are practiced. It is also possible that experimenter bias was involved in some (or all) of the situations bing examined. This insidious beast can slip in undetected when a researcher lets his or her scientific guard down – not maintaining a healthy level of skepticism when considering one’s own work can lead to problematic distortions. Both of these situations (a lack of scientific rigor and succumbing to experimenter bias) are BAD, but for someone not familiar with the scientific process, they might not seem that bad… However, from the details emerging, there is the possibility that Dr. Hauser was a very BAD scientist – falsifying data and intentionally distorting his findings to fit with the ideas he wanted to put forward. This notion that he intentionally mislead his colleagues and others in his field is about as bad as it gets for a research scientist – he will no longer be able to publish or seek funding for his work, he will be effectively shut out from the scientific community.

So, how and why did this happen? I don’t know, but speculation is always good fun… One interesting possibility is that it relates back to the tension noted above – sometimes scientific transgressions can be considered bad but not quite BAD. If Dr. Hauser lost sight of the importance and necessity of holding himself to the highest ideals of the scientific method, he might have thought that his sleights of hand were not really all that bad and that the end justified his means – possibly in terms of his own career or maybe he saw himself helping to move the field forward. Either way, once he gave up on a rigorous adherence to the scientific method, he was betraying the all those who recognize the importance of science.

Anyhow, morality tales are never fun. There is always a moral involved after all. Hopefully, this particular tale will inspire some young scientists to stay on the straight and narrow when it comes to pursuing their own research.