Archive for May, 2011


science (or possibly not-science) in context…

May 27, 2011

When I teach Research Methods, we spend the first week talking science – what is “science”, what distinguishes it from “not science”, how it works (or doesn’t work). A recent controversy captured a few of the points we encounter quite nicely.

First, here is a recent posting (the Google cache actually, as the original post was removed) at Psychology Today. It is written by Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist who holds a position at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In the posting, Dr. Kanazawa presents a series of analyses that he uses to support his claim that black women are less attractive than women of other races. As you might imagine, this is a controversial claim. Soon after it was posted, Psychology Today deleted the post , but a petition campaign emerged that is pressuring Psychology Today to both drop Dr. Kanazawa as a contributor and develop policies to avoid this type of posting in the future. That is the short story – it may seem simple on the surface, but this raises some very complex and difficult issues.

The first issue is whether the posting represented actual (good) science…

  • If you took a look at the cached version of the posting, it sure looks like science. There are graphs based on data. It is written by a fellow with a Ph.D.. The dependent measure of attractiveness is “objective”. However, the criticisms that have arisen have pointed out several problems: the measure is actually a subjective rating provided by the person administering the Add Health survey (the source of the data), Dr. Kanazawa only used some of the ratings (apparently of younger participants, not adult participants), and another analysis of the same data found no difference between the rated attractiveness of women of different races. These are all problems that severely limit the claims Dr. Kanazawa is making. The issues related to data analyses can be tricky (as we cover in Research Methods – different ways of summarizing and then analyzing a set of data can lead to different conclusions), but I am appalled that Dr. Kanazawa tries to sell an obviously subjective measure (one person’s rating of another person’s attractiveness) as an objective measure. If all of his analyses were correct, Dr. Kanazawa should really just say that other people think black women are less attractive. The source of this bias can then be examined. Personally, I consider attractiveness to be a social construct, so it is foolish to assert any measure of attractiveness can be objective. We can objectively measure aspects that might be related to attractiveness (e.g. symmetry or the relationships that exist between facial features), but I have never seen a measure of a construct like attractiveness that is free from bias.
  • Is this science? What is the theoretical framework that supports the hypothesis being tested in the study? Oh wait, is there even a hypothesis? Dr. Kanazawa begins his piece with the non-illuminating lead-in, “There are marked race differences in physical attractiveness among women, but not among men.  Why?” After this question, he presents his data. After he presents his evidence to support the difference in attractiveness, he begins conjecture. He decides it has to do with testosterone levels – black women have higher testosterone levels, so they are less feminine is his conclusion. Ok, so we have no hypothesis. A conjecture about what might be the cause of an analysis that is questionable in itself. No independent evidence about hormone levels (remember the only data is about rated attractiveness). This is not good science, and could possibly be classified in this case as pseudo-science – the posting looks like science, has the trappings of science, but is not grounded in the principles that guide science. Dr. Kanazawa has published numerous articles in a number of well-respected journals, he has an advanced degree and an academic position (although it is not in psychology department), but he is not maintaining adequate scientific rigor in this case.

I also was interested in this controversy because Dr. Kanazawa is a well-known evolutionary psychologist, and I have been trying to get a better handle on the scope and usefulness of this approach to understanding human behavior.

  • Dr. Kanazawa operates with a clear theoretical framework in place. He is an evolutionary psychologist that advocates for what has been called the “savannah principle” – human behavior is shaped largely by the experiences of our ancestors in the African Savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. Ok, that idea has been used to “explain” numerous behaviors such as our desire for fatty foods and why we prefer people who cheer for the same sports teams as we do (in-group bias), but what does it have to do with the study in question? I don’t know. I do think that some of his work has been problematic and suffers from some of weaknesses that plague much of the work being done in evolutionary psychology (for a lucid and interesting critique of evolutionary psychology check out Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology by Robert Richardson).

Finally, it is easy to criticize Dr. Kanazawa for publishing this post without proper scientific oversight (e.g. peer review – having other experts evaluate the work before it is made public), but this situation raises some complex and difficult issues.

  • Science does not occur in a vacuum (a point I’ve noted in earlier posts). As mentioned above, there is a petition for Psychology Today to remove Dr. Kanazawa from its contributors. There is also a petition for his removal from the faculty at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This episode is not exclusively an academic debate (although many of Dr. Kanazawa’s critics point to the lack of scientific rigor in this work). Psychology Today is a “respected” (although not my personal opinion) public resource for information about psychological issues, and many of his critics are upset that by allowing the article to be posted, Psychology Today is giving weight and credence to his potentially hurtful conclusions. This is not the first time Dr. Kanazawa has drawn public ire – he has published work proposing that problems faced by African nations reflect the lower intelligence of their populations, and he has another blog post entitled “Are all women essentially prostitutes?” – and he does not shy away from advocating that science has to sometimes ask difficult questions (here is an article entitled “10 politically incorrect truths about human nature” that provides some insight into his views – note that again it is published in Psychology Today, so there is not a fully independent critique and evaluation of the claims he makes). So, should he lose his position and essentially be banished from academia because his ideas have upset a lot of people? I’d say no. Science has to proceed independently from social mandates. However, I strongly believe that his position, and the weight given to his ideas, should be called into question because of the seemingly poor quality of some of his work and his lack of respect for the responsibility he has as a scientist. We deal with this in Research Methods – the interplay between societal concerns and scientific inquiry – and it is not an easy topic to grapple with because there is no easy answer. Science has to be unfettered, but scientists have to be aware of and sensitive to the social and ethical implications of what they do. There should be research exploring issues like intelligence and attractiveness and how groups of people who differ along various dimensions (gender, race, education, socio-economic status) differ (or don’t differ) with regard to those constructs. However, because these topics can have very real implications for how we think about ourselves and each other, they have to be studied with extra rigor and thoroughness. Poorly executed analyses with questionable conclusions being posted to Psychology Today blog is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I think it is interesting that one of Dr. Kanazawa’s first publications [Kanazawa, S. (1992) Outcome or expectancy?: Antecedent of spontaneous causal attribution. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 659-668] explores the notion of causal attribution. For someone who has studied how people reason about the world, some of his research shows a surprising lack of sophistication in how he chooses to interpret the data. Just saying…


the kind of things that keep me up at night…

May 26, 2011

The Unconscious Has a Mind of Its Own – Association for Psychological Science.

I’ve been doing a bit of writing about how goals play a role in conceptual acquisition. Fun stuff which hopefully I’ll get a chance to share down the road some. The topic has brought me closer and closer to issues related to consciousness (cue the creepy organ). As a result, this recent study caught my eye.

So, let’s start there. I just said that study “caught my eye” – did I (the free-will toting me) willfully direct my attention to this study because of my interests? Or is there some whirring and buzzing processing occurring within me, over which I have no control, and it latched onto this study and brought me (the conscious me) along with it? In case you didn’t know, there is a bit of debate going on among psychologists about what is “consciousness” and what it is for (I’ll blame those pesky social psychologists for stirring up this hornet’s nest). At one end of the spectrum, you have folks who believe, often just an assumption really, that conscious experience reflects exactly the cognitive processing that is on-going, and that we (as in the conscious we) are ultimately in control of that processing. For instance, I will now tell myself to type the word “frog”. Frog. See. I (the free-will me) thought of something and then action followed. At the other end of the spectrum, there are folks that believe that conscious experience is simply that, an experience. Much like you may see a movie, you experience consciousness, but you are just along for the ride. As much as you might want to shout at the actor on the screen to not open the door (especially when the serial killer lurks on the other side), you have no real opportunity or power to actually change the course of the ongoing action. There is a lot out there on this debate (I especially have enjoyed reading some of Daniel Dennett‘s ideas, not that I fully agree with or understand them, mind you). Hopefully, you can see why this keeps me up at night.

The study is interesting because it takes aim at one of the strongholds of consciousness. One of the ideas out there is that the unconscious is important, but that conscious processing is necessary for the really “hard thinking”. Sure, the unconscious processing can cue us to information or shape how we interpret some incoming information, but when it comes to the difficult processing, like integrating meaning across objects and scenes, the conscious processing is ready to take over. The study by researchers at Tel Aviv University shows that the story may be a bit different. Participants viewed scenes in a way that was designed to curtail conscious perception of the images. However, they reacted faster to incongruous scenes (someone placing a chessboard into an oven) than congruous ones (placing food into an oven), indicating that the unconscious processing was sufficient to integrate the scene (the objects and background in the images) in terms of its meaning. This interpretation fits with the ideas proposed by several researchers (check out some work by John Bargh and Ap Dijksterhuis for some stuff that could keep you up at night) about the importance of unconscious processing. It still leaves some important cognitive real estate for conscious processing (dealing with the incongruous information), but it does shift the debate, and not in the favor of those who have held out that conscious processing is the pinnacle of human cognition.

Reading the article though, a couple of issues came to mind. The first is related to “doing science” (research methods students should pay attention these concerns). The interpretation the authors provide relies on the methodology (continuous flash suppression) achieving the proposed disruption of conscious processing. I am not a vision scientist, so I don’t have the expertise to make any meaningful critique of the methodology, and I recognize that there is a growing literature (although currently limited) that addresses the use of this methodology. Still, before I fully accept these findings, I need to do some reading about CFS and how its effectiveness at knocking out conscious processing. Also, the authors have made their stimuli available on-line so the stimuli used in the study (the congruous and incongruous images) can be evaluated, and possibly used, by other researchers. This kind of sharing and openness is essential to the scientific process. It specifically allows others to evaluate whether the only difference between the two types of images is the relations that exist between the objects and background in the image. If other differences exist – something as simple as luminance or amount of detail – that could relate to the differences seen in responses, critically changing the interpretation that can be made of the results. The second issue is more related to the “keeps me awake at night” aspect of the study. One could look at this kind of research and say, “So what?”. Or, one could look at it and wonder at what it tells us about our mind. Or, one could consider what it means about how we operate in the world. Our behaviors. The supposed focus of psychology. This is much trickier, but an earlier study pops to mind. Three years ago, Voh and Schooler (2008) published a study illustrating how exposing participants to ideas that challenged the notion of free-will resulted in an increase in “immoral” behaviors (cheating on a test and taking money that was not earned). You can also check out this link to an article by a social psychologist that gives the research and its implications a more thorough treatment. Anyhow, as unconscious processing takes on more and more of what we have considered to be the realm of conscious, willful processing, we have to sync these ideas with what we think about free-will, personal responsibility, such and so forth… Fascinating. I’ll be up tonight thinking about it.


finding a niche and doing some good…

May 12, 2011

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Successful Aging – Science Careers.

Point One:

This morning we had the Senior Psychology Brunch –  a chance to drink some coffee, eat some snacks, and chat with the graduating psychology students. It is an exciting time for the students as they embark on the next phase of their lives. It is also exciting for those of us who have played some role in their development the past four years. A recurring topic during the event was – “What next?”. Some of the students had very specific plans for graduate school or a job, others were less sure. Regardless, I emphasized that the critical thing to do was to “stay alert” to both opportunities and interests that develop over the course of the coming years. We tend to applaud those who have it “figured out”, who are ready to tell us exactly how their lives will play out in the future. However, from my own experience and seeing examples like the one reported in this article, I have come to believe that this hypothetical state of “having it figured out” is an illusion. Our lives and the world around us is constantly changing, so the best thing to do is ready yourself for this state of flux and make the most of the challenges and opportunities that arise. This article made me think about this because “the psychology of aging” was a very small domain thirty years ago when Dr. Steverink began her journey. Her academic studies and the research career she has pursued emerged along with the field. Now, there seems to be a much greater awareness of and interest in adult development and aging. The work being done in this area is interesting (see below) and important, and if she had sat down thirty years ago and “figured it all out” she may not have had the chance to be doing the interesting and important work she is currently engaged in.

Point Two:

The work being done on the psychology of aging is fascinating stuff. I have always been captivated by developmental studies that examined the cognitive and social growth of children – becoming a parent early in my graduate studies had something to do with this. I am more and more appreciating the other end of the developmental spectrum. I don’t have much to say specifically about the work being done by Dr. Steverink on aging and well-being (although it seems to be helping people which is always a positive), but I do like the inter-disciplinary nature of much of the work being done on aging. I think I’ll have to find some more specific work to comment on at a later date, but if you are interested in the psychology of aging, below are a few links to explore: