Friday, March 27, 2009

Why there is no such thing as science journalism.

Over at, Nobel winner Carl Wieman’s multi-part essay on what he thinks is wrong with science education has implications for science journalism too. The main focus of the third part is that students are often taught mainly factual knowledge and not ways to organize that knowledge or ways to monitor their thinking (metacognition). According to cognitive scientists all three are important characteristics of experts. We’re teaching science like it’s history but science isn’t a collection of knowledge. It isn’t even a discipline. It’s a method.

Bertrand Russell aptly pointed out that, “as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science,” referring to the study of the heavens, now known as astronomy, and the study of the mind, now psychology, as examples. The only thing that changed when these subjects made their transition was our ability to acquire “definite knowledge” which allowed testable predictions and the use of science as a tool.

When we teach facts and not metacognition we are ignoring the very substance of science: it’s not what we know (which can change) but how we know it. Are we really teaching science then or are we teaching the history of science? A semantic issue, maybe, but it blurs lines that are important. If we think science is a collection of knowledge, we’ll teach it like history. If we think it’s a method, we should be teaching more like Wieman is suggesting in his essay by focusing less on facts and more on thinking deeply about a smaller number of topics.

But can science journalism also help in this matter? If science is a method, is there even such as thing as science journalism? Like ‘science’ teachers, ‘science’ journalists are giving their readers factual knowledge about a field – the importance of which it is not my intention to undermine – but not much about the mental infrastructure it takes to look at the world in a scientific way. Reporting on methodology is one way this is addressed but doesn’t teach reader how to ask questions and devise a way to test those questions scientifically. Maybe it’s not up to science journalism to do this but the next question should then be: where else can people learn this type of thinking?

As public’s view of scientific issues becomes more important so does the urgency with which we have to address this deficiency in critical thinking. We aren’t going to create unity over climate change by telling people what to think, but how to interpret the scientific data and understand how it was collected. If there’s no place for people to learn scientific or critical thinking outside schools, is there any recourse, in terms of these issues, beyond hoping for another generation to think more critically than ours? There may not be time…

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Pretty Face: All you need to get elected...or become a sea captain.

Admittedly, I could be a smart alec when I was a kid. I distinctly remember the disdain I felt at 15 of having to wait another three years to be able to vote. I felt it was ridiculous to discriminate who got to vote and who didn't based on an arbitrary age when it would make more sense to subject all potential voters to a test and eliminate voters based on some qualification that I felt I probably had.

Turns out I may have been right that children should have the right to vote but for the wrong reasons. Although I thought many teens and even some children had sufficient mental faculties to vote, it may be that adults tend to use the same methods to pick their candidates that children do.

John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas report, in the February 27, 2009 issue of Science that all it takes to be successful in politics in an appealing face, a quality which children and adults appreciate in the same way.

Swiss participants were shown sets of two photos of candidates from past French elections (with which the participants were not familiar) and were asked to pick the photo with the most competent candidate in each set. Basing their notion of competence on a photo alone, the participants managed to pick the winning candidate most of the time suggesting appearances can play a big role in what we think of a politician.

The same sets of photos were shown to children who had just played a game recreating a Mediterranean sea voyage. When asked to pick which of the two photos they would prefer as their captain, not only did the children pick the winner most of the time, their choices were statistically the same as the adults' choices. This leads the researchers to speculate that children and adults use the same criteria to assess leadership ability in facial appearances.

Of course, it would be foolish to think that appearances are all that matter. Everyone old enough to have weathered a couple of elections can no doubt recall a time when a particularly savvy remark or gruesome gaffe either won or lost an election. Even beyond that, there are party affiliations that don't seem to vary even when the candidates representing different parties change from election to election.

What this research does suggest is that first impressions based on appearances can be difficult to change even when we have information more relevant to making our decision. Since I can't foresee elections where voters are deprived of photos of the candidates, we should all just try to be sure whomever we support politically is more than just a pretty face.

Hate the commercial. Love the interruption.

People will go to great lengths to avoid commercials. Many people illegally download their TV shows commercial-free. Others with TiVo take a legal roundabout by recording their show and starting to watch it 10 minutes after the start so they can fast forward through all the Pepto-Bismol and Ford truck commercials and watch their show virtually uninterrupted. Given the option for (legal) commercial-free TV, I'm sure most people would not only take that option, they'd probably pay more for it. Makes sense right?

Enter a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Leif Nelson and his colleagues had participants in the study watch different types of TV with or without commercials. Contrary to what we might intuitively believe, the people who watched a rerun of Taxi with commercials enjoyed it more than people who watched it without. The same was true of people who watched an animated short with commercial interruption. When they showed people a nature documentary, not only did the presence of commercials make people enjoy the documentary more, they were more willing to donate to nature charity afterwards.

If all this leaves you scratching your head, there is an explanation. As you watch TV you become more and more adapted to the show leaving you enjoying each second less than the previous one. Interruptions, whether in commercial form or otherwise, break up this pattern and can renew your interest in the show. This also explains why shows that are more complex and difficult to adapt to don't show the same positive effect of interruptions.

So feel free to continue hating commercials as much as you did before, but learn to love the interruption.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Horseback riding anonymous: inquire here.

Governments don't regulate which type of pleasure is preferable to others. They can't legislate that liver pate is better than hot dogs or that the opera is better than Def Leppard. What they can regulate is harm. If something pleasurable is dangerous or addictive (illegal drugs, cigarettes, alcohol), then they can regulate it as a patriarchal or economic gesture (especially in Canada where the government foots the medicare bill).

But are those really the only criteria involved when condemning those kinds of activities? David Nutt of the University of Bristol suggests that might not be the case. In a paper in the Journal of Pharmacology, he explores how a harmful addiction he calls equasy can be just as harmful as the popular nightclub drug ecstasy. After a compelling account of a woman's struggle with brain damage caused by equasy and stat after stat about its dangers (e.g. one in every 350 episodes of equasy results in acuteharm whereas that number for ecstasy is one in every 10000), I was ready to call my local Minister to tell him about this mystery drug. Well not really, I already knew the punchline because it was plastered across the blogosphere: Equasy stands for EQUine Addiction SYndrome - also known as horseback riding.

Nutt isn't suggesting we regulate equasy as rigorously as ecstasy, he simply wants us to question what is actually going on here. Surely mothers of teenagers would be up in arms if there was an uncriminalized drug out there with the same harmful effects as equasy but horseback riding itself will no doubt survive this one man inquiry unscathed.

In this light, criminalizing ecstasy but not equasy seems to be a blatant value judgment of the kind governments are not supposed to do. But why only pick on drugs? Why not criminalize video games? Studies have shown loss of sensitivity to violences and lack of empathy to others feeling pain. Maybe it has to do with the irreversability of taking drugs? You can turn off a video game but you can't do the same with a high. Just a guess.

Another study examining binge-drinking released recently demostrated that it can have beneficial effects as well as the standard harmful effects was received with controversy. The researchers found that binge-drinking could increase social connections and reduce inhibitions which may be important in a country like England (the location of the study) where in professional settings, inhibitions are exceedingly high. This study is not an endorsement of binge-drinking, it merely examines some positive aspects of what's generally perceived as a negative behaviour. What's the harm in that?

The bottom line is that there are some behaviours that we examine using preconceptions that are so strong that rather than incorporate new, factual information into our model of the world, we'd rather just ignore it. Sound familiar? Climate change...evolution...politics...I'm sure this is something we are all guilty of on one level or another. I know I am.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stuart Mclean with some solemn advice

It's a small guilty pleasure that I rarely like to admit, but I subscribe to Stuart Mclean's podcast. For those unfamiliar, he's a Canadian storyteller (some would replace 'a' with 'the') who's known for traveling the country and fictional stories about a husband who, despite faultless intentions, never seems to get it right. It's light-hearted feel is usually a good note to end the day on.

I was about to do that tonight when, rather than being lulled to sleep by a Stuart's somehow soothing staccato, I was stirred by an unexpected political message. Political, yes, but served with the same amount of tact and friendliness that characterizes the relationship between Sam and Morley, his literary puppets. This is the kind of opinion I'd like to read in the place of Rex Murphy's confused but more often pointless column in the Saturday Globe and Mail.

I strongly suggest downloading this podcast, especially if you're Canadian, and mulling over Mcleans' thoughts about what's missing in Canadian culture.

Until I find an easier way to download this podcast you'll have to follow these instructions:

1) Open Itunes
2) Go to the itunes stores and type "vinyl cafe stories"
3) Click "CBC Radio: Vinyl Cafe Stories" under where it says podcasts
4) Listen to Feb. 14 "Official languages"

Let me know what you think...

Monday, February 16, 2009

I think I can't...

It is known as Parkinson's law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Basically, if you think a task will take a week, you'll find a way, maybe not consciously, to make it take a week. If you think it will take three days, you'll do it in three days.

Michael DeDonno, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University, has shown that Parkinson's law might need to be expanded: It's not only the time you have but how you perceive that time - whether you feel like you have enough time or not.

163 participants were asked to perform the Iowa Gambling task. In the IGT, they are presented with four decks of cards on a computer screen. When they flip cards over they can either win or lose money based on the card. They are told that two of the decks are "good decks" (i.e. decks that are more likely to win them money) and the other two decks are "bad decks". The task is to decided which decks are the good ones and which are the bad ones while only flipping over one card at a time. Over the course of 100 trials, it was determined how much time the participants needed to complete the task.

The participants are then broken up into two groups: one that is told they have enough time to complete the task and another that is told they won't have enough time. Then each of these groups is split in two again with one half being given less time to decide between each card selection than the other half.

Surprisingly, the groups that were told they would have enough time performed better than the group that was told they wouldn't have enough time regardless of whether they actually had more or less time. This means that participants will less actual time (less time between choosing cards) but more perceived time (told they would have enough time) performed better than those with more actual time and less perceived time. Another example of the brain trumping reality! Maybe trumping is too strong a word but it certainly has the upper hand!

DeDonno says that his research could have impacts on fields like standardized testing (SATs, MCATs and GREs) as well as in the medical fields. He wonders if doctors who feel they don't have enough time to spend with patients make poorer decisions simply because of the pressure.

This whole situation adds a whole level to the argument that worrying about a deadline you can't change is not only useless, it may hinder your ability to make it! I suggest we all take a lesson from Scotty, the engineer in the original Star Trek. Figure out how much time it will take to fix something then tell the captain it will take twice that time.

Information on research drawn, in part, from:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Car Talk as part of the science curriculum?

Why not? This Saturday morning NPR call-in car repair show has over 150 times more fans on Facebook than Science Friday, NPR's science show - and they demonstrate, one caller at a time, how to apply the scientific method to everyday problems (most often, but not limited to, car repair and relationship advice). Science Friday will always, for obvious reasons, be a better place to go for science news but if you want to hear the scientific method executed equisitely, I suggest tuning in. It even seems to be really popular with the college professor crowd (either that or college professors' cars break down more often!)

Firstly, the breadth and depth of their knowledge is enough to rival any botanist or other taxonomist. (Yes, I realize there are many more species than makes of car but you get the point.)

Secondly, they gather up as much evidence as they can from the caller (in comedic fashion too I might add) and formulate a hypothesis. Ray, the younger brother, even has an ability to tease information out in a distinctly House MD-esque fashion.

Lastly, and here's the best part, when possible they devise simple binary experiments (with yes/no answers) to test their hypotheses so the caller knows what they're talking about when they go in to get it fixed.

This is just a tongue in cheek suggestion with the bigger point that we don't have to look to the chemistry or physics lab to teach the scientific method (not that there's anything wrong with those two, just that they're not for everyone). We are surrounded by an often less formalized but maybe more palatable form of it, which should be used so we can get through to everyone!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Journalists' Bible supported by evidence

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is, in an almost literal sense, the Leviticus of journalism but its legitimacy may be based on more than conformity or lyrical style.

Previous research indicated that using a negative word such as 'not' in the middle of a sentence could make it more difficult to understand. In a new study published in Psychological Science, Nieuwland and Kuperberg demonstrate that if a negative word is "useful and informative" the sentence is as easy to understand as a positive statement. In other words, they demonstrate that if a negative word is "useful and informative" the sentence is not more difficult to understand than a postive statement. Did you find one of those two last sentences clearer than the other?

Here's the grammar nerd part: I doubt if their study was timed to coincide with Elements' 50th anniversary but their study echoes exquisitely point 15 which reminds actual and aspiring writers to "put statements in positive form" further recommending that the word not be reserved for denial and not evasion. Though Strunk and White prefer positive statements, they support the use of negative words when they are used for negation, where they are informative, and not evasion where they sometimes deliberately vague.

From Strunk and White:
Ixnay on the 'He was not very often on time.'
Thumbs up to ' He usually came late.'

Nieuwland and Kuperberg tell us:
Ixnay on the 'Vitamins and proteins aren't bad for your health.' (evasion)
Thumbs up to 'In moderation, drinking red wine isn't bad for your health.' (negation)

I love it when science and culture agree.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

New Years is a time to forget about the present

New Years is a very peculiar time of the year. We could easily just ignore it the way we ignore the changing of the months but then again there’s something different about the changing of the year. There will always be more Decembers but 2009, the year that is just beginning, will only happen once. We have no opportunity to go back and change a year once it’s over. Maybe that’s why we do things that we don’t normally do during the rest of the year, namely, dwell on the past and speculate about the future.

If you picked up any newspaper over the holiday season it will no doubt include at least one “Top ten of 2008” list whether it be books, movies, moments in sports or politics. Or if you were like my friends and I on New Years Eve, we thought back about the high and low points of the previous year and looked ahead to a year that, for many of us, will have new and exciting experiences. But how well do our picture of the past and future actually correspond with the way things happened or will happen? Psychologists have demonstrated that our ability to recall the past or predict the future is not a keen as we would like to think.

We often like to think of our memories like a camcorder that records images with almost perfect fidelity. Our memories don’t operate like this because we would quickly be overwhelmed by the amount of detail. Even what we would consider rather simple images are rich in detail that we tend to overlook. People who have extraordinary memories, the ability to remember what they ate and wore everyday for decades, often feel burdened by this ability. Our perception and memories have many filters designed to help us pull out pertinent information from all the details. In this way, these filters help us deal with large amounts of information but sometimes they leave us with gaps in our memories that we fill ourselves, sometimes with false memories.

There have been a multitude of different studies that have demonstrated that it is actually not that hard to create false memories. In one experiment, participants were presented a list of words with a theme such as “water”, “ice”, “wet”, “dark” and “freeze”. When later asked to recall whether certain words were part of the list, participants tended to falsely remember words that weren’t on the original list if the words had some connection to the words on the list like “cold”. This may not seem very surprising but these false memories can cause changes in behaviour. Another study falsely suggested to participants that egg salad had made them sick when they were children. When asked to participate in another study four months later (which they claimed was unrelated), a significant portion of the participants showed a strong aversion to egg salad sandwiches. Researchers have even planted memories of getting lost in the mall as a child, being saved by a lifeguard and being the victim of an animal attack. These people start off with very little “memories” of these events but can often, after a couple interviews, recall quite a bit of detail about an event that never happened. At the extreme, many people who claim to have been abducted by aliens can show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when listening to someone else describing an alien abduction.

If you are doubting your ability to recall the past, I’m about to throw another curveball your way: our ability to predict the future also has some problems. Research in psychology has shown that people have a tendency to overestimate the value of something in the present and underestimate the value of something in the future and the cost of something in the future. For example, one study gave people the choice between a cheaper air conditioner that used more energy (therefore more expensive to operate) and a more expensive model that used less energy. People tended to choose the first one, even though they knew that they would save more money with the second one because they underestimated the costs in the future. This behaviour is what makes us eat that last piece of cheesecake: we think we’ll enjoy that piece of cake more now than if we eat it later. It also causes us to make the mistake of indulging in something now before we actually pay for it, clearly the case with credit card debt. But costs don’t necessarily have to be financial. Smokers tend to underestimate the cost to their health whether it be unhealthy lungs or lung or throat cancer at the extreme.

Another strange thing that people do is assume that they’ll have difference values or preferences in the future. Dan Gilbert does a wonderful job of explaining other people’s research at his recent TED conference. Simply put, people would rather have 50$ today than 60$ in a month but if you ask these same people whether they’d prefer 50$ in twelve months or 60$ in 13 months, they pick the latter. What makes people think that after 12 months goes by we won’t want that 50$ then. Waiting a month for 10$ should be the same whether it is now or a year from now.

Now that this holiday season has drawn to a close, we have all started to live more in the present again. While we’re living with resolutions we made in the past about things we want to do in the future, it’s not a bad idea to keep in my mind our memories and abilities to predict our future selves aren’t perfect.

Could it be Christmas everyday?

Christmas is a time for happiness. So much so that it feels like the holiday season is an entirely separate entity from the rest of the year. Families, friends, food and festivities fill our lives and happiness sets in as a consequence. Why do we feel so much happier over the holidays and is there a way to continue that happiness throughout the whole year?

Of course there’s no clear answer to that question, despite what a number of self-help books might want you to think. There is no road easy road to happiness but there may be some signposts along the way.

Dan Gilbert is a professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University and he’s spent a good portion of his time studying happiness and why people are so bad at making choices that will make them happier.

If asked how you’d feel about winning the lottery tomorrow or becoming paraplegic, most people would have the good sense to say that winning the lottery would make you feel really good and that losing the use of your legs wouldn’t feel very good at all and, of course, they’d be right. Where we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy is the degree to which certain events are going to make us feel good and how long those feelings will last.

One tendency that creates these bad decisions is that we focus too much how something will make us feel and forget that other events in our lives will impact our mood. An example of this is an avid sports fan who overestimates how good a win will make him feel because he ignores all of the other sources of stress and unhappiness in his or her life. A win for your sports team may make you feel good in the short term, but if you have looming deadlines that feeling can be rather shortlived.

What helps us deal with this inability to make the best choices, Gilbert argues, is that we have the machinery necessary to produce happiness ourselves – that sometimes we can be just as happy not getting something we want as actually getting it. Though this is initially hard to believe, allow me to persuade you, if only partially, by summarizing an experiment Gilbert did with some colleagues to support his point.

His experiment involved showing six prints of Monet paintings to different participants. Each participant was asked to rank the prints from their favourite to their least favourite at which point they were told that they could have one of the prints to take home but the could only choose from their third and fourth most preferred prints. Most participants choose the one they ranked third and were sent home. At some point in the future, the participants were shown the prints again and asked to rank them in terms of preference once more. The participants tended to rank the one they chose, the third one, higher than they did initially and they ranked the one they rejected lower than they did before.

One of two things could be happening here. The first possibility is that the participants have convinced themselves that they liked the own better simply because they own it. In essence, they don’t necessarily like it better than they did before but they are pretending to. This is similar to what we think people do when they buy something expensive but aren’t quite satisfied. They feign happiness. The second possibility is once the participant has made their choice they have actually changed their preferences and are genuinely happier. They have “synthesized” their own happiness by changing their preferences.

Gilbert, in order to show that the second possibility is actually quite a plausible one, conducted the experiment again but using patients which, for one reason or another, have lost the ability to form short term memories. The experiment was the same as before. They asked the participants to rank the prints, told them they could have one and that they would be getting it in the mail in a couple weeks. They left the room for a half hour, reentered and did the same task again. The participants could not, when asked, pick the one they had chosen in the first task, demonstrating that they had no recollection of the print they had chosen. Amazingly, these participants responded in the same way as the first study. They tended to rank the one they chose higher than before and ranked the one they rejected lower. Because they couldn’t remember which one they chose the first time they couldn’t be simply pretending to be happier. They had synthesized happiness by changing their preferences – and they didn’t even know it!

As with any experiment like this, it’s important to not blow the results out of proportion but we can take some solace in our ability to create happiness. We tend to overestimate how we will be affected by things in the future due, at least in part, to the fact that we can synthesize happiness. A number of studies have shown that people think they are going to feel worse after painful medical procedures than they actually do. Even the initial example I presented between a lottery winner and a paraplegic demonstrates this. One year after either winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs, members of both categories report being equally happy with their lives. As Gilbert expressed in a recent interview on the Stephen Colbert show, this insight isn’t meant to be like a self-help book, they’re only meant to help you identify the ways in which people make bad decisions which is likely to help make future decisions.

Nonetheless, we can indulge these results a little and know that we have the ability to make it a little more like Christmas everyday. Maybe the poem “Everyday is Christmas” is referring to synthesized happiness when it says, “Every day is Christmas /with a beauty deeply cast/ When you find it doesn't matter/ if you're first or if you're last”

Medicine for your “19th nervous breakdown”

Would you believe me if I told you I knew of drug that was used to treat depression, pain, high blood pressure, can increase your endurance and even make you smarter? I know I’d be interested if not also a little skeptical. What if I went on to tell you that it has no known side effects, it doesn’t interact negatively with any other medications, and it’s impossible to overdose on it. Getting a little more skeptical? It isn’t even taken orally. In fact, I would advise against taking it orally. Rather, its health benefits are transmitted through vibrations in the air. I can almost hear the skeptical groans at this point but it gets even better. It can be obtained for free, almost all Canadians have some in one shape or another, and some readers may be taking it right now while reading this!

At this point, I hope most of you are demanding that I reveal the identity of this mystery medicine. My last hint, and one that should surely give it away, is that it comes in many different varieties: classical, pop, and jazz among many others. Of course, I’m talking about music.

We tend to think of music as a leisure activity – something that has no inherent benefit beyond making us feel good but music and medicine have been inextricably linked to each other for millennia. In ancient Greek mythology the god Apollo was the god of both music and healing. Many cultures saw health as a delicate balance in the body of four humours or temperaments and if this balance was disturbed, music could be used to restore it. Nineteenth century American general and senator probably said it most clearly: “Music’s the medicine of the mind.” Maybe we should start thinking about music in this way. After all, if all the health benefits of music I mentioned were available in pill form, I’m sure most people would take it daily.

Many people already have an intuitive understanding that music can be good for the mind. After all, we often select music to reflect the mood we’re in. But music may not only reflect the mood we’re in, it may also affect the mood we’re in. Depression, a condition that affects over 100 million people worldwide, has shown some improvement in people receiving music therapy which can be any combination of singing, dancing or listening. Its affect is best when used in conjunction with other conventional treatments but can help alleviate some of the symptoms such as disturbed appetite, sleeplessness and low self-esteem. One study found that listening to one hour of music a day reduced depression by up to 25%. It can also help you sleep better. Listening to 45 minutes of soft music before bed can help increase the quality of sleep by up to a third.

Music not only treats the mind but can help us manage pain. Music has been shown to reduce the amount of sedative required during surgery, a testament to a practice that has been used since the Romans. Researchers thought they could reduce the amount of sedative required in surgery by simply blocking loud and stressful noises related to surgery such as dropping metal instruments into a can. They gave patients headphones with either white noise to block out the noise of the surgery or their favourite music. Surprisingly, the white noise had no effect on how much sedative the patients required but those listening to their favourite music required less. Music has also been shown to reduce pain in those suffering from chronic pain and to reduce stress associated with other medical procedures such as eye surgery or colonoscopies.

Even cardio-vascular health can have strong responses to music. Listening to your favourite music can make the blood vessels in your heart dilate which increases blood flow to your heart. Stressful music has been found to have the opposite effect. Another study found that music with faster rhythms tended to increase heart rate and breathing rate and that alternating slower and faster rhythms can reduce stress and induce relaxtion. When the right music is selected for joggers, it can improve their endurance by up to 15%. While listening to music, joggers are less aware of their fatigue making exercising a far more positive experience.

Although music can improve physical and mental health, it can also compound the negative effects of some behaviours. A researcher in France conducted a study by observing how quickly patrons of a bar consumed beer and how long they tended to stay depending on how loud the music was. Unsurprisingly, considering the sound level in most bars, loud music made people drink faster and stay longer. Other research has shown that loud music can worsen the damage that drugs like ecstasy can do.

When we are sick we tend to get hung up on cures that come from little pill bottles and forget that treatments can come in different forms. I’m still no less awed by the fact that music, which only reaches us through small vibrations in the air around us, can have such a large impact on our mental and physical health. It demonstrates how deeply engrained music is within us. So if you find yourself stressed out or in pain for whatever reason, pop some Ray Charles or Rolling Stones into your stereo, sit back and take it in. Medicine never sounded so good.