Tuesday, October 9, 2007

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but its sinking

I'm taking another hiatus from the blog. I don't seem to be able to keep up well with classes I'm teaching and classes I'm taking. This is the first full-time teaching semester I'm also working on coursework for a master's in philosophy...and all of my writing time is devoted to finishing papers in those classes. No time for the blog this semester. Sorry. I'm just so sure you'll miss it. Title reference here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Still too busy to get stuff done. I want to talk about it.

Article: Talk Therapy Pivotal for Depressed Youth

A talking cure for depression called cognitive behavior therapy appears to cancel the risk of suicidal thinking or behavior associated with taking antidepressant medication, according to the most comprehensive and long-running study to date of depression treatment among adolescents.

Well, sure. But talk therapy is so much more darn difficult than medication! And insurance doesn't like to cover it. Darn.

Friday, September 28, 2007

I'm "blog-neutral" because I'm supporting another blog

Offset away our guilt

If we can buy ‘carbon offsets’ for our environmental missteps, why not for our other sins?

My favorite:

The Pilates Offset. Spending more time in the gym might be the best way to combat America's growing obesity crisis, but if you can't make it, don't worry. A Pilates Offset purchased from a local gym would absolve you of any of the weighty responsibility for obesity in America. With the offset, you would be paying for other people to become physically fit. Their increased buffness would neutralize your expanding waistline, and you would be "fat neutral."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Slate.com is doing a series on Sex & Science (and culture)

Sex and More Sex

Today and tomorrow, we'll publish a series of articles that examine the unavoidable presence of sex in science and culture.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I keep making these "To Do" lists but nothing gets crossed out

I've been too swamped to comment on any of the following articles, all very interesting:

Shy on Drugs

It may seem baffling, even bizarre, that ordinary shyness could assume the dimension of a mental disease. But if a youngster is reserved, the odds are high that a psychiatrist will diagnose social anxiety disorder and recommend treatment.

Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

Many explanations have been offered to make sense of the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of medical wisdom — what we are advised with confidence one year is reversed the next — but the simplest one is that it is the natural rhythm of science. An observation leads to a hypothesis. The hypothesis (last year’s advice) is tested, and it fails this year’s test, which is always the most likely outcome in any scientific endeavor. There are, after all, an infinite number of wrong hypotheses for every right one, and so the odds are always against any particular hypothesis being true, no matter how obvious or vitally important it might seem.

This Is Your (Father’s) Brain on Drugs

A SPATE of news reports have breathlessly announced that science can explain why adults have such trouble dealing with teenagers: adolescents possess “immature,” “undeveloped” brains that drive them to risky, obnoxious, parent-vexing behaviors...We know the rest of the script: Commentators brand teenagers as stupid, crazy, reckless, immature, irrational and even alien, then advocate tough curbs on youthful freedoms...More responsible brain researchers...caution that scientists are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work...Why, then, do many pundits and policy makers rush to denigrate adolescents as brainless? One troubling possibility: youths are being maligned to draw attention from the reality that it’s actually middle-aged adults — the parents — whose behavior has worsened...What experts label “adolescent risk taking” is really baby boomer risk taking. It’s true that 30 years ago, the riskiest age group for violent death was 15 to 24. But those same boomers continue to suffer high rates of addiction and other ills throughout middle age, while later generations of teenagers are better behaved. Today, the age group most at risk for violent death is 40 to 49, including illegal-drug death rates five times higher than for teenagers.

Title reference here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

In case of fire...

I’ve just noticed that in the new building where my office is located, next to the elevator down the hall is a sign reading: “In case of fire, do not use elevators. Use stairs.” This is on the first floor of a two story building. The only place the stairs and elevators lead from the first floor is the second floor, where there are no exits. Can anyone imagine a circumstance where there’s a fire in the building, a person is on the first floor, and it would be in his or her best interest to use the stairs to go to the second floor with no exits? Shouldn’t the sign read: “In case of fire, use neither the stairs nor the elevators. Get the hell outside.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

To love, and to be loved...Let's just hope that is enough

Article: Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

As an aside, its funny the author leads with "biologists" advocating the evolution of morality, given the entire article is based on work by a social psychologist at UVA. I'm a really big fan of that psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, but I think he's reasoning poorly with his current position, which he describes himself here. The argument that morality may be influenced by evolved mechanisms is a pretty common current position, and I'd guess most psychologists would agree with the claim. In his article he writes (and I agree with him):

(I)t seems to me that the zeitgeist in moral psychology has changed since 2001. Most people who study morality now read and write about emotions, the brain, chimpanzees, and evolution, as well as reasoning.

Where I fault Haidt is his refusal to differentiate clearly among (1) morality, (2) religion, and (3) social conventions. And I think part of that deals with not differentiating between moral psychology and moral philosophy. But when failing to do that, he fails his entire argument. Consider: He notes that people throughout the world make moral judgments that don't simply relate to harm and fairness. He says:

Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality...you've got to include...that morality is in large part about binding people together.

He is correct that people care deeply and morally about such things, but he gives no reason why such respect can't be dismissed as social convention. He says it can't. Why not? It appears because he's not differentiating morality from social convention. But if that's the case, why argue there is such thing as morality at all? It appears morality, in his view, is anything people care deeply about. He notes food taboos. If "Don't eat shellfish!" (because, indeed, God Hates Shrimp) is anything besides a religious dictate and a social convention, I can't see it. Certainly, it can't be seen as a moral principle in any reasonable argument. Thus, of course, his point that morality can be described as he does is correct. But moral philosophy is not about just describing how people make moral judgments. It's about how people *should* make moral judgments. Don't eat shellfish? Come on. One thing he's doing in defining morality poorly, I think, is taking descriptive moral judgments and saying they constitute reasonable moral thinking because they "bind and build" relationships among people. This again blurs moral judgments from religious or social dictates. He includes in the "binding and building" judgments of morality:

It seems that the moral domain (is) also about...issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.

Again, I don't deny that, descriptively, many judge "respect for authority" as a moral virtue. That's why the Bible says children should obey their parents and slaves their masters. And, agreed, these things do "bind and build" loyalty to groups. But are they moral? No. It's just people confusing moral judgments with social norms or religious dictates. Respect for authority as moral? Dr. Haidt, you're a damn social psychologist. Tell Stanley Milgram respect for authority constitutes morality. So, what is Haidt's definition of morality? He says:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

I'm not sure it is a good definition, again, because I don't see how it is different than certain social customs or relgious dictates that have the same goals of "regulat[ing] selfishness and mak[ing] social life possible." Even, though, if I accept that definition, I'm confused by his earlier statement that "menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods" are moral concerns. I can see some instances: Sexuality to limit rape or procreate. Respect for elders because we're physically helpless as infants so "because I said so!" better work sometimes. But menstruation? Moral judgments about menstruation "regulate selfishness and make social life possible"? Really? And respect for Gods? That's not a religious or social custom? And, again, God Hates Shrimp. In the end, Haidt makes some odd political comments that are addressed well in the first article, and he ends up saying:

“It is at least possible that conservatives and traditional societies have some moral or sociological insights that secular liberals do not understand.”

Agreed. Just tell me whether we're talking about moral insights or sociological insights. And don't just describe whether the insights are common within a society. Tell me whether they constitute moral constructs. That's where we need to address the difference between moral psychology and moral philosophy. For example, moral psychology is useful in answering whether different cultures view obedience to authority as a moral virtue. But only moral philosophy can address whether obedience to authority is indeed a moral virtue. When Haidt talks about "morality" I can't tell which he's discussing. Until we differentiate these thing, I think the argument is useless. Title reference here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I wish I could do it this well

This is why I'm a part-time blogger, rather than a science journalist. I really like William Saletan, who does slate.com's "Human Nature" series. Here, he offers a near flawless critique (I say "near" not because I can spot flaws, but because perhaps others could) of a recent study that made the news rounds lately: Rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid. I wish I could do it that well.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tell me about your manual

This is an excellent op-ed article about the DSM (the "Bible" of mental disorders): Mind Over Manual

EARLIER this summer, the American Psychiatric Association announced that a 27-member panel will update its official diagnostic handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The fifth edition, which is scheduled to come out in 2012, is likely to add new mental illnesses and refine some existing ones.

The author does, I think, a good job with both the strengths and the weaknesses of the DSM, and offers a nice recent history. She also notes the inherent problems with all diagnoses of mental disorders:

(T)here is a deeper problem: despite the great progress being made in neuroscience, we still don’t have a clear picture of the brain mechanisms underlying bipolar illness — or most other mental illnesses...Why aren’t we closer to understanding the relationship between manifest illness and its underlying causes? One obstacle is the staggering complexity of the brain.

Included, too, is some legitimate criticism of the checklist-approach to the DSM, ending with:

An updated manual, however, is unlikely to transform treatment substantially — after all, revising diagnoses is still just another way to describe mental conditions we don’t fully understand.

Granted there are few conditions that result in diagnoses that we fully understand, and thus in most cases diagnoses is "just another way to describe...conditions" of all sorts. Still, a nicely done article.
Disclaimer: I am a big fan of the the author's last book, One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance - as well as the co-author of that book, Christina Hoff Sommers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Everyone's a little queer...can't he be a little autistic

Let's say a wife gets pissy with her husband and says its because of hormones. How should the husband respond? How might his hormones affect him? I'll admit, I'm getting confused. First, we've this recent study about autism: Testosterone may be the key to autism - which argues:

New research shows that male hormones in the womb are linked to social and emotional skills in childhood

It discusses research supporting the claim that fetal testosterone level relates to characteristics of autism. They followed kids and found that those who were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero had more characteristics of autism (though none actually had autism):

(B)oys and girls who had higher levels of foetal testosterone were significantly more likely to have a large number of autistic traits.

The researcher's call it the "extreme male brain" hypothesis of autism, arguing that autism is about an intense interest in patterns (they call it systems) and lower social skills. They say the following:

The extreme male brain hypothesis (is that) girls tend to show better empathy and boys tend to have a stronger interest in systems. Children with autism seem to have an exaggerated version of typical male preferences. They have a strong interest in systems and have difficulty empathising.

This is where I get confused, because higher levels of fetal testosterone are recognized to affect other characteristics, too. They note that in utero testosterone is functional on birth order:

There is some evidence, for example, that mothers who have previously conceived several sons expose subsequent foetuses to higher levels of male hormones.

So, what is this related to? Homosexuality. This article notes, for example: Having older brothers a factor in boys becoming gay. All right, then, let's look at homosexuality and fetal hormone levels. This article (about finger length), notes:

(G)ay men did appear...to have been exposed to higher levels of fetal androgens...(The) findings point more toward gay men as hypermasculinized.

What's going on? It seems that higher levels of masculinizing hormones increase the probability of men being (1) hypermasculized, (2) gay, and (3) autistic-like less empathic. Can that be? The social stereotype is clearly that women like gay men because they're so in tune with their feminine side, which would seem to mean hyperfeminized (not hypermasculinized) and more empathic than normal men. Hell, there are books and books and books about it. Maybe it's time to admit we don't know dick about hormones and behavioral characteristics (although continued research is encouraged). Note, for fun, the first article's comment about correlations and third variable explanations:

Professor Baron-Cohen cautioned that the results do not prove that the link between male hormones and autistic traits is causal – both could be the result of something else

Title reference here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sex sells...to college students!

Just a quick note on this article: Results of new study hard to swallow from JMU's student newspaper.

They didn't just pick a fine title for an article about the health effects of oral sex, but also a fine picture. The Chronicle of Higher Education would be proud. Anyway, a study suggested:

Those who engage in oral sex with more than six partners throughout their lifetime are up to nine times more likely to develop the cancer.

Standard statistical response:

Freshman (name withheld) agreed, adding that she didn’t understand the correlation between the number of oral sex partners a person has and throat cancer. She said that thought the number of times someone engaged in the act would be more of risk factor.

Really? College students who don't understand correlations? Ah, she probably understands them, just doesn't care. More commonly, adults who might understand the data, but feel it is irrelvent to them:

“I don’t think it will change anyone’s behavior,” she said. “It’s one of those statistics that you hear and forget about because it doesn’t affect your daily life.”

Just like them statistics about smoking and lung cancer. The nasty little statistics don't affect our lives.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Meet me at the bike racks and bring your lunch money!

New study about the bullying problem: Psychometric Properties of the Peer Interactions in Primary School (PIPS) Questionnaire. This is a study testing the quality of a new instrument to measure bullying. The authors state:

“One problem (with previous research) is the lack of a psychometrically sound instrument for the measurement of bullying and victimization.”

The old surveys weren't any good, so they’ve created a new survey. Psychometric soundness refers to the instrument's reliability and validity. There are several ways to assess an instrument's characteristics, but, in general, reliability refers to the instrument's consistency (do people get consistent results if they take it more than once? do interpreters assess a subject's score in the same fashion?), while validity refers to the instrument's ability to measure the behavioral or mental construct it purports to measure. How do we know it’s valid (validity is the important part, because reliability is much easier to come by)? Simple:

“Significant Kruskal-Wallis tests of relationships between PIPS scales and items on the Olweus Bullying/Victimization Questionnaire and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire supported concurrent validity.”

What this means is this: They compared subjects' scores on the new instrument to scores on other instruments designed to measure the same construct (bullying). Subjects' scores on the instruments were similar. So, we know our new instrument overcomes the problem of a “lack of a psychometrically sound instrument” because our instrument relates well to all those other psychometrically unsound instruments. Go team.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

It's wrestling's fault...until it's a wrestler!

Article: Benoit's Brain Showed Severe Damage From Multiple Concussions, Doctor and Dad Say
An article discussing brain damage said to occur to the wrestler who killed his wife and kid this summer. I have great respect for neuroscience, and the things neuroscientists have found about the brain over the past few decades is truly amazing. That said, it's important to be critically skeptical of "brain imaging" comparisons. The article includes a picture comparing images of Benoit's brain to that of a "healthy" brain, and reads:

The tests...show that Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient.

Certainly, there's debate about what can be determined by brain scans. This article, though, paints an interesting picture.

After almost 30 years, researchers have not developed any standardized tool for diagnosing or treating psychiatric disorders based on imaging studies.

Why the difficulty in using brain image comparisons?

(B)rains are as variable as personalities. (For example) ... researchers have found that people with schizophrenia suffer a progressive loss of their brain cells: a 20-year-old who develops the disorder, for example, might lose 5 percent to 10 percent of overall brain volume over the next decade, studies suggest. Ten percent is a lot, and losses of volume in the frontal lobes are associated with measurable impairment in schizophrenia, psychiatrists have found. But brain volume varies by at least 10 percent from person to person, so volume scans of patients by themselves cannot tell who is sick, the experts say. (emphasis mine)

The same reasoning based on brain variability applies to brain activity images, too. I know nothing of Benoit's brain, and when the doctor claims, "This is something you should never see in a 40-year-old" - referring to his brain characteristics, I have not reason to doubt his claim. Also, the doctors have an interesting theory, based on studying the brains of others who've suffered concussions and later killed themselves:

(They) theorize that repeated concussions can lead to dementia, which can contribute to severe behavioral problems.

So, I don't mean to be critical of the doctors. But most people will look at the brain images and feels there's a huge difference, when, in reality, unless one is well-trained in reading such images, and one has huge amounts of comparison data, the images shown in the news story mean nothing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Perils of Big Government!

Article: BeliefWatch: Reincarnate

China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.

How do you think they'll regulate that? IRS agent? Police?

Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.

Original Research: National Trends in the Outpatient Diagnosis and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder in Youth

There has been a recent rapid increase in the diagnosis of youth bipolar disorder in office-based medical settings. This increase highlights a need for clinical epidemiological reliability studies to determine the accuracy of clinical diagnoses of child and adolescent bipolar disorder in community practice.

How rapid of an increase? Forty-fold. Wow. Of course, then, debates:

But the magnitude of the increase surprises many psychiatrists. They say it is likely to intensify the debate over the validity of the diagnosis, which has shaken child psychiatry.


Some experts say greater awareness, reflected in the increasing diagnoses, is letting youngsters with the disorder obtain the treatment they need.


Other experts say bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed. The term, the critics say, has become a catchall applied to almost any explosive, aggressive child.

Perhaps the following, from the original research, can shed some light:

(M)ost youth (90.6%) and adults (86.4%) received a psychotropic medication during bipolar disorder visits, with comparable rates of mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants prescribed for both age groups.

If you build drugs, they will come. (Title Reference)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

...an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity...

This is kind of cool. This author, about whom I know nothing, is writing about how academic writing is so boring. He claims it is boring because it doesn't follow "the basic rule of decent writing." He decides to tell us what that rule is, and leads in this way:

And, indeed, it appears there is a basic rule, but, because I am, after all, an academic too, I must introduce it to you by means of a distinction.

That's seven (7) commas for twenty-nine (29) words. Wow. Maybe that the rule. Lots of commas. I don't know...maybe he's joking. But, I can't, even with effort, identify the, and it only might be potential, parody.
Title reference here.

What does "spiritual but not religious" mean, anyway?

NPR had a program on today about "Positive Psychology" - a movement (if that's an accurate term) started in large part by Martin Seligman. I've always like Seligman. The NPR story, available through the link as audio only, leads like this:

Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on positive human traits, is seen by proponents as an alternative to what they think is traditional psychology's preoccupation with negativity. Sounds harmless, but some people worry about the major financial backer of the movement, as well as the movement's spiritual aspects.

This intrigued me, because I hadn't really seen any strong criticisms of it. The story suggests a couple things that skeptics point to, which actually seem to be summarized in this article from the summer:

(One critic) has no problem with happiness per se. What irritates her is the notion that point of view is all that matters when it comes to changing the world around us – as if switching from the proverbial glass half empty to one that is half full, we could actually change the world.

All right, I guess I can understand that. But I can't necessarily see the problem with trying to get people to be more optimistic, as well as changing their behaviors. If phrased this way, it makes a bit more sense (note that one primary critic of the movement also works at Penn, the same university as Seligman):

James Coyne, a scientist at University of Pennsylvania who studies patient adaptation to chronic illness and treatment, recently disproved claims that an upbeat attitude slowed the progression of the disease. He believes the clinical insistence on a hopeful attitude and “the will to live” in cancer wards can often make sick patients feel worse. “People start to see it in terms of blame and if the cancer spreads it's somehow their fault.”

Still, I suspect in some sense that optimism is helpful. The second major criticism, noted in both the NPR story and the linked article, seems most odd to me:

But not everyone is happy about (a major source of funding) – (...) the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that has also donated more than $11-million to the study of “unlimited love,” “forgiveness” and “gratitude” – into the world of ideas.

The Templeton Foundation funds a ton of "spirituality research" and, for some reason, this seems to upset some critics. I just don't know why. Researchers have to get their money somewhere. It'd be one thing if the Templeton Foundation had a history of trying to bias research. But they specifically do not. Results from a study the foundation funded last year found that prayer had a negative effect on recovery from heart surgery. With very little doubt I say that this is not what the foundation wanted, but the study was published nonetheless.

So, why the concern with the source of funding, unless there is some reason to believe the source is biasing study results?

Oh, and this'll maybe bring me to my next post, about Tiki Barber.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Oh God, Post 2

Article: Thinking About God Leads To Generosity, Study Suggests

Thoughts related to God cultivate cooperative behaviour and generosity, according to University of British Columbia psychology researchers.

It's quite interesting research, clearly describes the experimental and control groups, highlights random assignment, and the description of the commonly used "priming" process makes something often unclear pretty darn clear:

Priming is an experimental procedure used by cognitive and social scientists, mainly in psychology and economics, to obtain indicators of social tendencies by implicitly inducing relevant thoughts. As priming operates largely outside explicit awareness, subjects are unlikely to consciously revise their behaviours...groups were randomly assigned to the religious prime or to the control group. Participants in the religious prime group were given a word game and had to unscramble sentences (using spirit, divine, God, sacred and prophet). Those in the control group were given the same task with non-spiritual words.

The researchers are asking a cause-effect question, which requires experimentation:

This is a twist on an age old question -- does a belief in God influence moral behaviour?

Here's something that interests me. The researchers found that religious primes resulted in moral behavior, but found that secular primes of social justice and civic responsibility affected morality equally:

In the second study the researchers also investigated the strength of the religious prime relative to a secular prime. They used concepts of civic responsibility and social justice to prime subjects (with target words civic, jury, court, police and contract) and obtained almost identical results.

I wonder why the title of the article is all about God, and the results about secular primes are hidden within the article? Really, couldn't they have titled it, "Thinking About Civic Responsibility Leads to Generosity, Study Suggests"?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

I talk trash to psyche 'em out!

When I first started the PhD program at Florida State, I was in the sport psychology program. I left after one semester, but still find it interesting. Also, it seems to be one of the areas of psychology that others find intriguing. So, here's an interesting article about that:

Before Triathlon, Psychologists Calm Athletes’ Fears

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Go Cardinals!

A friend points out the following article from Pew Research: How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science The article attempts to address some conflicting survey results: First: Americans approve of science:

(M)ost people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

Second: Most Americans do not accept evolution:

42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form...Moreover, in the same poll, 21% of those surveyed say that although life has evolved, these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only a minority, about a quarter (26%) of respondents, say that they accept evolution through natural processes or natural selection alone. (emphasis mine)

And third, most Americans acknowledge that scientists accept evolution:

(N)early two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution.

How does the author try to reconcile these apparently conflicting beliefs?

The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

He appears to be right. He notes that only 14% of those who don't accept evolution do so because of evidence. Most do so because of religious convictions.

(O)nly 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

All of this is well and good. People have a right to believe whatever they want, evidence be damned! As Stephen Colbert has noted, "The problem with evidence is that it doesn't always support your opinion." Still, are there any drawbacks to the fact that most Americans will ignore scientific evidence for faith? The author seems to think not:

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.

But he ignores a very important point he himself brought up. He starts the article by noting:

(R)eligious convictions limit many Americans' willingness to accept...certain types of scientific research, such as the potential use of embryonic stem cells for medical treatments.

Here's where I get pissy. Believe whatever you want for whatever reason, but don't use those beliefs to impact my life. If your beliefs are going to impact my life, you oughta have some evidence. My family has a history of Alzheimer's. Some scientists believe stem cell research can offer insight to a potential cure. But many can't do the research they'd like due to the faith of most Americans. (I understand that it's possible to be opposed to stem cell research based on evidence or political principles, but the argument is probably better that most who oppose it are opposed due to religion.)

Let me give an example describing why I'm pissy about this: If I start failing students because my faith in voodoo dolls tells me it is "true" that they cheated on their exams, those students deserve to be pissy and have every right to demand evidence. If I were to say I have "faith" that they cheated despite any evidence, they oughta tell me the same thing I want to tell people whose beliefs impact the ability of scientists to do stem cell research: Kiss Hank's Ass! Ultimately, I think the author lays out some interesting data. I'm just not as convinced as he seems to be that there's little conflict between science and religion in the US. Especially as it relates to evolution. Obscure title reference: Sister Martha Carpenter of St. Peter Indian Mission School told fans of the Arizona Cardinals on Wednesday, "God told me this year that the prayers are going to work."

The fireman's blind, the conductor's lame

Article: Ex-Astronaut Will Plead Insanity

Captain Lisa M. Nowak, the former astronaut and naval officer who confronted a romantic rival at the Orlando airport in February, will plead insanity at her trial on assault and kidnapping charges, according to a notice filed on Tuesday in state circuit court in Orlando.

Her attorney says:

Even the most naive observer should recognize that Lisa Nowak’s behavior on Feb. 5 was uncharacteristic and unpredicted for such an accomplished person with no criminal record or history of violence

Well, sure. But does doing something out of character make you insane? Really? Oh, and they're bringing in the celebrity "She's insane!" guy.

A Houston psychiatrist, Richard Pesikoff, who provided a defense diagnosis in the case of Andrea Yates, a Houston mother who killed her children, is expected to testify on Captain Nowak’s behalf, the filing states.

Title reference here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Once again...I choose Hopsicles!

I just found out that Benjamin Libet, one of the most famous neuroscience researchers to investigate the question of free will, died last month. Sad. He was a free will stud. His most famous research study basically found a gap in time between our conscious awareness to perform an act and the brain activity associated with it. The brain activity comes first. For many, that research meant that free will is an illusion. But the guy who did the research disagreed. According to him:

(H)is experiments showed that if his subjects were told not to move a finger, or to stop moving it, their conscious will would maintain complete control - "could veto it and block performance of the act," as he described it.

Besides, recent research might suggest that fruit flies have free will. If they got it, you gotta think we got it. The study, from May 2007, involved placing fruit flies in containers with no stimuli to which to respond. The fruit flies, though, made left and right turns that, statistically, were not random. The flies’ behavior, then, was neither the result of their biological nature, nor responding to their environment. One of the researchers claimed:

We show free will ‘can’ exist, but we do not ‘prove’ it does…Our results eliminate two alternative explanations of this spontaneous turning behavior that would run counter to free will, namely randomness and pure determinism.

I guess it should be noted that this is the nature of all science. You don't 'prove' anything. You simply eliminate alternative (testable) explanations.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I still choose hopsicles

These two articles address the same recent study by researchers investigating the relationship between happiness and freedom of choice..

"People's ability to be an agent, to act on behalf of what matters to them, is fundamental (to happiness)"

Let's play a game. You have to follow the links:
This is from the APA site: How happy are we? Danes are an 8.2, but Americans only a 7.4
This (same article, best I can tell) is from the USA today: Researchers: Choices spawn happiness
Let's forget the research for a second. Note the stock photo the USA today chose for the article. Is it me, or does it suggest that if a young guy has his choice among hot, mud-wrestling chicks in bikinis, he'd be happier? I don't think that really was the point of the research.
Anyway, here's a good article on how researchers study happiness.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Beer and a shot

I'm all right with guns. Nothing against 'em. I really like venison. Used to have unlimited access in Colorado; Now I wish I knew someone I could pay to shoot me a deer. See, I'm all right with guns. I even know some students want guns on campus. We allow it at BRCC, with solid argumentation (state laws are such that we can't do anything to prevent non-students from having guns; seems unfair to prevent students but not visitors). That said, in the name of consistency, is it unreasonable to ask that the state regulate beer no more that it regulates guns? I want my hopsicles! Story goes like this - Some restaurant out near DC started serving frozen beer popsicles. But that goes against government regulations.

Special agent Philip Disharoon says the law requires beer to be served in its original container, or served immediately to a customer once it is poured from its original container.

So it's easier to get a gun at a gun show ("children under 12 are FREE") than it is frozen beer in a restaurant. Yea for Virginia!

I feel blue

Follow-up on the "pink and blue" gender preference blog post from last week right here. They can cover it far better than I can, but I can at least say "I called it!"

It’s worth being critical and thoughtful about these stories, not because it’s fun to be mean: but because that’s what the authors would want, and also because stories about genes and culture are an important part of the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are, our sense of personal responsibility, and the inevitability in our gender roles.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I left my chemically imbalanced brain in my locker

Article: ADHD Ads Target Back-to-School Crowd

Parents shopping for pencils, book bags and new clothes for their kids may be tempted by recent advertisements to add yet another item to their back-to-school cart -- a prescription for an ADHD drug.

Although I can understand concerns about children and prescription drugs for psychological characteristics, the critics here seem somewhat off-base. Says one:

"This kind of ad is obviously not pushing for better teaching, better schools or more counseling, but it is pushing for the easy fix, the drug solution."

With all due respect...duh. Ads for McDonalds are not pushing for purchases from Burger King. The ad is pushing a product. That's what ads do.

On a related note, this is an interesting article about buying back to school clothes. Why do you need Ritalin if you're leaving your brain in your locker, anyway?

Friday, August 24, 2007

It is true because I say it is true. I say it is true because it is true.

Article: Shedding Light on Shyness

In the study, eight male high school shooters, including the two students responsible for the attack at Columbine, were analyzed based on personal and social factors noted in newspapers and the FBI document titled "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective."...The researchers examined 10 different characteristics of cynical shyness and found that the school shooters fit this profile.

So, it appears from the article (although I haven't seen the original study) to be the following:
(1) They found a bunch of characteristics common amongst high-school "shooters"
(2) Then, they compared high-school "shooters" to these characteristics
(3) Finally, they found that high-school "shooters" fit the characteristics...
...common amongst high-school "shooters"

Wow, that's fascinating. (Maybe I misunderstood? I suspect the researchers somehow developed the criteria of "cynical shyness" some other way. Would be nice if the article said what that was.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Take ten paces, turn, and draw a picture

Article: School Suspends Boy for Sketching Gun

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - School officials suspended a 13-year-old boy for sketching what looked like a gun, saying the action posed a threat to his classmates..(School) district spokesman Terry Locke said the crude sketch was "absolutely considered a threat," and that threatening words or pictures are punishable.

Keep in mind. We're not talking about "drawing" a gun from a holster. Nope. "Drawing" a gun on paper. If the kid had a sausage rather than a picture of a gun, they'da had to pry that sausage from his cold, dead hands.

A 12 year old British boy has been arrested and charged for throwing a two-inch long cocktail sausage at another person.

Medication, good. Functioning, bad.

Article: Schizophrenia Drug for Youths

The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the drug Risperdal for treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in children and teenagers.

All well and good. Not sure if the following is a typo or not.

Bipolar disorder causes wide swings in mood, energy and ability to function.

Well, by all means. Let's try to eliminate the ability to function in children and teenagers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Science is good, until you hurt me feelings

Article: Criticism of a Gender Theory, and a Scientist Under Siege

In academic feuds, as in war, there is no telling how far people will go once the shooting starts. Earlier this month, members of the International Academy of Sex Research, gathering for their annual meeting in Vancouver, informally discussed one of the most contentious and personal social science controversies in recent memory.

This is a bit a doozy, and I followed it closely for a bit. It's interesting in two ways: First, academics are so damn petty. Second, though, when scientists disagree with other scientists, the debate, I'd hope, would be scientific. Politics shouldn't be involved. Indeed, when politicians get involved, scientists get all pissy (correctly).

When when the topic is sex, though, all that goes out the window. Here's the deal. Psychologist (Bailey) writes a book suggesting a pretty darn Freudian theory of transgendered individuals.

In his book, he argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women.

This theory upsets some people. That's cool. That's what science is all about. Keeping throwing out your evidence, critique the evidence of others. But it got ugly.

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field...If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

In defense, one critic said:

“Nothing we have done...overstepped any boundaries of fair comment on a book and an author who stepped into the public arena with enthusiasm to deliver a false and unscientific and politically damaging opinion”

As I see it, there's the problem: If you can argue the theory is "false and unscientific" then do so. But whether it is "politically damaging" should be completely irrelevant.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tell me about your mother's bomb

They discussed it. And they decided APA psychologists can still participate in interrogations. They just can't be mean about it.

After a raucous debate about what role - if any - psychologists should play in U.S. government interrogations of terror suspects, the American Psychological Association voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to reject a measure that would have in effect banned its members from those interrogations.

I'm just guessing here, but I'll bet the primary difference of opinion exists between those psychologists who think of themselves as part of a "helping profession" (that is, helping people help themselves, rather than helping people torture others), and those who, likely for good reason, don't.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Random 'Human Sexuality' article

Pet camel kills Australian woman
I have no comment. (thanks Joe)

Psychologists can indeed torture

Study: Why girls prefer pink:

“This is the first study to pinpoint a robust sex difference in the red-green axis of human color vision,” says (a) co-author of the study. “And this preference has an evolutionary advantage behind it.”

It's the first week of the semester and I'm trying to get people to take psychology seriously. If this isn't torture, I don't know what is.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I didn't spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called "mister," thank you very much

The first blog post of the semester will be short. The APA is again debating whether they approve of psychologists participating in interrogations of military prisoners. Thus far, the APA has approved. They're voting again this year. An interesting recent article addressing some of the prominent psychologists involved comes from Vanity Fair. Article link here. But the author sets out her agenda as follows:

I was attempting to explain why psychologists, alone among medical professionals, were participating in military interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

And therein lies the rub (or whatever that nifty phrase is). Why would she think of psychologists as "medical professionals"? Why would her editor allow such terminology? Indeed, many psychologists are mental health professionals. But so are social workers, school counselors, and art therapists. Hell, I'm a psychologist and former APA member, but I ain't no stinking medical professional.
Rather than thinking of psychologists as "medical professionals" I offer the following: Professional manipulators. Sadly, that might make them perfect for military interrogations.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thanks to you, I've quit blogging like Jesus

I'm going on hiatus. I'd planned on taking the summer off of blogging, but that was to be a couple weeks away. Then the whiny ass mother fucker (WAMF) went on his rampage at Tech. Here in the valley, that hit home both figuratively and literally. I got angry. I hope a lot of people got angry. The hiatus stems from other anger, though. I immediately called out the fact everyone will use the event to confirm their existing beliefs. I didn't think I'd get so angry about that, though. But I did. Lots of anger. As I was waiting for Nancy Grace to blame the Duke LaCrosse team for the VT shooting (has that happened yet?), and for Jerry Falwell to blame the ACLU and lesbians (the "god hates fags" retards did, indeed, blame gays), I started about 10 different blog posts. I never finished because I became too angry. I started posts criticizing the anti-gun people; the pro-gun people, the violent media people; the anti-Thomas Szasz people; and the anti-feminist people; the anti-anti-God people (if only the US hadn't forsaken god!); and the people who never pointed out WAMF clearly, in part, was inspired by the Bible, name-checking Jesus as frequently as he did the Columbine shooters. Finally, I realized it was me at whom I was angry. Me. I wasn't any different. Each blog post I'd started was the same as everyone else's - I was just using the event to confirm my pre-existing beliefs. Damn, I hate that. So I'm going on hiatus. I'll be back in either July or August. I'll leave with this unrelated link:

Slate.com this week is doing a series on brain science. I suspect it'll be excellent.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm right and you're wrong!

Quick post: I previously suggested looking out for the confirmation bias in response to the VT shootings, especially regarding gun control. This article, False Lessons from an Atrocity, articulates it better than I could:

It used to be that a shocking act of gun violence would invariably elicit a chorus of demands for tighter gun control laws. How things have changed. Now an episode like that invariably elicits a chorus of demands for tighter gun control laws and a chorus of demands for looser gun control laws. What the reactions demonstrate is that no matter what happens, people are very good at finding confirmation for what they already think. (emphasis mine)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Anyone want a cookie?

Interesting first-person article and book review on eating disorders (Starved to Perfection). For the most part, I think it's well done. Provides some interesting statistics. Here's my one-liner. The book reviewed (Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body), evidently includes the the following quote to help explain the commonality of eating disorders:

“We are the daughters of feminists who said, ‘You can be anything,’ and we heard, ‘You have to be everything.’ ”

Perhaps, to an extent true. Childhood, parental relationships, etc. Yup, they all have an effect. But the article's author really shows her feminism at the end:

Over the course of the past three decades, men have been pursuing unnatural bulk and women exaggerated thinness, as if the world were such a small and symbiotic place that the weight they gain is the weight that we must lose, as if we need to minimize ourselves to make room for them.

I am a true feminist. I completely believe in equal rights for women. But a common criticism of some feminists is their need to explain all female "bad" behavior as somehow a function of men. Yeah, women have no choice but to have eating disorders because men are getting bigger. What we need is some man to come along and argue the opposite: We poor men are obligated to gain all that weight you malicious women are losing. What the hell. If all we gotta do is make shit up, with no supporting evidence, we can make it up to look like women are to blame, too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Told ya so.

Questions remain after worst U.S. shooting rampage. I'll bet they only remain on the surface. Pay attention. For many, many commentators, there will be no real questions. They'll know the answers. Watch for two themes: (1) The hindsight bias. Yup, it's really obvious now things should've been done differently. Certainly, it's okay to criticize how the situation was handled. But remember everything's 20/20 in hindsight. (2) The confirmation bias. Specifically on gun laws. Stance A: Gun laws need to change, so less people have guns. Then these things won't happen. Stance B: Gun laws need to change, so more people have guns. Then these things won't happen. Keep an eye out. The same, tired arguments won't be hard to find.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Waiting for you, my wife, my mate...My hard long shaft, deep in your fissure

Abstinence education doesn't prevent teenagers from having sex? Gee, I always thought it would work. I always figured people had sex because their teachers hadn't told them otherwise. Conclusions Are Reported on Teaching of Abstinence reads:

Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress...The federal government spends about $176 million a year promoting abstinence until marriage...Bush administration officials cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study...

So, money for the ineffective programs. Money to study the ineffective programs. Suggestion: Don't make any conclusions about the money we spend. Makes you feel good on tax day.

Title quote from poem on this page ("A long time coming"). From this page.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Let me count the ways

Feeling a bit swamped lately, with what seems little time for blogging. Might go with some one-liners as the semester winds down and I try to keep the old noggin' above water. Here's the article, about sex difference in dating: How Don’t I Love Thee? Nothing all that revolutionary - study indicates: men are less picky, strongly influenced by looks. Women are more picky, strongly influenced by income. My favorite line regarding the ever-present self-serving bias - of roughly 20,000 subjects:

Fewer than 1 percent rated themselves as having “less than average looks.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love.

Ah, the science of sex. Love it. Lust it. Whatever. Birds Do It. Bees Do It. People Seek the Keys to It. I swear I just said this in class yesterday:

An understanding (of sexual desire) could hardly come too soon. In an era when the rates of sexually transmitted diseases continue to climb; when schools and parent groups spar bitterly over curriculums for sex education classes; when the Food and Drug Administration angers both religious conservatives and women’s groups by approving the sale of the morning-after pill over the counter but then limiting those sales to women 18 years or older; and when deviations from the putative norm of monogamous heterosexuality are presented as threats to the social fabric — at such a time, scientists argue that the clear-eyed study of sexual desire and its consequences is vital to public health, public sanity, public comity.

'Course, we scientists start with defining our terms. More difficult than it appears:

“We throw around the term ‘sexual desire’ as though we’re all sure we’re talking about the same thing...But it’s clear from the research that people have very different operational definitions about what desire is.”

Overall, a great article reviewing the current status of sexology. What a word. Sexology.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Preparing for the judge by practicing on Mom & Dad: "Sorry. My brain made me do it!"

Here's another newspaper psychology article making sure we all understand that's it is never, EVER, our fault. It's always our brain. Expert: Risky teen behavior is all in the brain. I'm all right, I suppose, with the argument that it's all in the brain, if that's the route you want to go. But if you go there, I'm not sure how you somehow separate the argument into teenagers and adults. Teens' behavior is a result of brain activity, but adults' behavior is not? Psychologist specializing in teens says:

"Kids will sign drug pledges. They really mean that, but when they get in a park on a Friday night with their friends, that pledge is nowhere to be found in their brain structure. They're missing the neurologic brakes that adults have."

Let's apply such an argument to different "risky" behavior undertaken by many an adult. Dennis follows the logic:

Adults will sign marriage contracts. They really mean that, but when they get in a bar on a Friday night without their spouses, that contract is nowhere to be found in the brain structure. Must be they're missing the neurologic brakes that other adults have.

What exactly is the position the article is taking? Teens' behavior is all in the brain. Then...what? Some time around 21 we all develop some metaphysical soul providing free will to overcome our brains?

Listen, I understand what the psychologists/researchers/neuroscientists are saying: The frontal cortex "connects" neurologically to the limbic system as we age, perhaps tempering the emotional "instincts" of the limbic system with some logic & reasoning regulatory functions. But is that what the title of the article is conveying? From this particular perspective, *ALL* risky behavior is in the brain.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Thowing it out with the bathwater

You know how I'm always harping about having principles and applying them consistently, otherwise you're simply making random noises with your head? This articles provides an excellent analysis of a particular moral issue (stem cell research), and a critique of arguments not based on no moral principle (which are the crappiest of all moral arguments), but on an inconsistently applied moral principle. First, it identifies the common moral principle on which those opposing funding of stem cell research base their arguments:

(T)he unimplanted human embryo is already a human being, morally equivalent to a person

'Course, this isn't a scientific question - can't be tested to be right or wrong. So, for it to be used well in arguments, it needs to be applied consistently. The article notes several inconsistencies, but the most striking can be summarized as follows: If embryonic stem cell research is indeed tantamount to "the taking of innocent human life" (as President Bush has said), then it's the same as infanticide. And IF that, THEN...

If harvesting stem cells from a blastocyst were truly on a par with (infanticide), then the morally responsible policy would be to ban it, not merely deny it federal funding. If some doctors made a practice of killing children to get organs for transplantation, no one would take the position that the infanticide should be ineligible for federal funding but allowed to continue in the private sector. In fact, if we were persuaded that embryonic stem cell research were tantamount to infanticide, we would not only ban it but treat it as a grisly form of murder and subject scientists who performed it to criminal punishment

Whatever your position, the article serves as an excellent example of critiquing others' arguments in an intellectual fasion.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Oral sex & the lower drinking age - revistied

A colleague of mine sent a "no way was that on The Chronicle" e-mail in response to a previous post. Here's the larger screenshot.

I'm shocked, I tell you. Just shocked!

Depression overdiagnosed? No! I just can't believe it. Next thing they'll say is that ADHD is overdiagnosed. It just can't be true.

About one in four people who appear to be depressed are in fact struggling with the normal mental fallout from a recent emotional blow, like a ruptured marriage, the loss of a job or the collapse of an investment, a new study suggests. To avoid unnecessary diagnoses and stigma, the standard definition of depression should be redrawn to specifically exclude such cases, the authors argue.

Call me whatever you want, as long as you give me my pills! Full study here.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Sex sells...so lower the drinking age

If you had to guess, what would you say that photo is for? It's an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education, probably the most well-respected news source for information on higher education in the US. The article the photo links to? A debate on whether it would be wise to lower the drinking age to 18. Would that increase, decrease, or have no effect on oral sex?

I think (poorly), therefore I am (easily manipulated)

A great article on green tea and the representative heuristic: Can Green Tea Save Your Soul?

"(S)tudies" indicating a pattern of weight loss...allow green tea to be sold as a psychic cancellation stamp on essences we love and know to be bad for us in excess...(Thus)...the success of Starbucks' Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino, which also uses matcha, green tea in pulverized form. A "venti" has 560 calories if you hold the whipped cream. (The unappreciated business genius of Starbucks is not charging $4 for a latte but rather giving adults permission to drink milkshakes, on the pretext that they are merely tea or coffee.)

Standard psychology analysis: Heuristics are simple rules or strategies for solving problems and making judgments. Heuristics require very little thought – just the selection of the rule or strategy and an application of it. Advertisers and news media can manipulate thinking by using our heuristics against us. The representativeness heuristic is a tendency to assume commonality between objects of similar appearance.  How might advertisers use this to their advantage? Consider some common catch-phrases used by advertisers for food: 100% Natural; Low-Carb; Low-Fat. These terms mean something to us. So, when we come across a new product with one of these terms associated with it, we tend to evaluate the new product based on our understanding of other products that have used these terms.

Thus, tie the idea of "green tea" into a 560 calorie afternoon snack, and you got your people thinking the equivalent of a "Slimfast" meal replacement, rather than a McDonald's milkshake.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

Philip Zimbardo, famous psychologist behind the Stanford Prison Study, has a new book coming out. So he's making the rounds of talk shows (he was on the Daily Show last week) and newspapers. He's one of the most famous "nurture" psychologists of all time. He speaks recently in this interview:

QUESTION: You keep using this phrase “the situation” to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?
ZIMBARDO: That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The “situation” is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.

I should note that there are critics (one of my favorite authors, included), who think the famous Stanford Prison Study does NOT explain Abu Ghraib (there's a follow-up here).
And as an aside, most academics have come to call the famous Prison research a "study" rather than an "experiment" - no group comparisons, really. No random assignment. No placebo. Just a note to keep in mind.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"Doctors are trained to spot bullsh@t"

This "Bad Science" article, The Pill Problem, comes from the UK, making it an interesting contrast to the current state of the US. It notes, specifically, that in the US, pharmaceutical companies do an excellent job with "direct to consumer" advertising ("Ask your doctor about..." type ads), but that such ads have historically been blocked in the UK. The author worries that they may begin coming out there, and highlights the standard problem with such ads:

Doctors are trained to spot bullshit...Pharmaceutical companies produce next-level, postgraduate bullshit. Drug reps brandish literature that is the comedic parallel of the promotional stories you get in the media for supplement pills, but the tricks are far more complicated: they cherry pick the literature - looking only at the positive studies - they use surrogate endpoints - a blood test rather than a stroke - they use inadequate controls - a lower dose of the competitor’s drug.

It also notes specifically how psychological problems are, perhaps, the easiest to target with "Ask your doctor about..." ads. And it notes it sure would be nice if there was somebody "advocating against (the)...pill mentality."

Pills are seductive and easy, especially for problems with a strong psychological or social component; but the tragedy is...there is nobody advocating against this disempowering pill mentality: only different groups, some of whom claim to be “alternative”, squabbling over who can sell the most pills.

I guess, to an extent, Oprah does. But she does so by advocating silly, nonsensical, meta-spiritual hogwash as an alternative. By the way, good morning to you:

Monday, April 2, 2007

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

This article does a great job discussing the "culture of fear" and the availability heuristic:

Although statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have marched steadily downward since the early 1990s, fear of these crimes is at an all-time high. Even the panic-inducing Megan's Law website says stranger abduction is rare and that 90% of child sexual-abuse cases are committed by someone known to the child. Yet we still suffer a crucial disconnect between perception of crime and its statistical reality. A child is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as kidnapped by a stranger, but it's not fear of lightning strikes that parents cite as the reason for keeping children indoors watching television instead of out on the sidewalk skipping rope.

It's reasonable to be afraid of things. But don't let others tell you what to fear. Or do. Whatever.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Feeling immoral? Ask your doctor about a new medication...

Why do I even bother blogging on this stuff, when others can say what I want to say so much better than I can:

Brain damage, evolution, and the future of morality.

I started on the topic last week. I planned to get to it. As is often the case, I was beaten to the punch.

Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They're in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby's face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it? If you're normal, you wouldn't...But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would.

Well, damn it all. Guess that's why I'm starting a new graduate program in philosophy this month. Maybe I can be the first on my block to write about this stuff.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Please don't wake me, no don't shake me, leave me where I am...

There's an interesting series over at Slate.com this week on sleep. Sleep and dreams have been of interest to psychologists throughout the discipline's history. Freud was most interested in dreams and their meaning (the meaning of dreams summarized briefly: You're a pervert). Nowadays it's the topic of REM sleep that leaves all the researchers bewildered. The series (Why do we sleep?) covers a lot of recent research into the topic. Of note is the insightful critique of researchers who focus too much on one theoretical orientation:

(Marcos) Frank is an important mediator—and incisive critic—in the debate about sleep and memory. He argues that behavioral researchers are in danger of hitting a "dead end" with contradictory findings on which parts of sleep enhance what kinds of memories. But he also finds fault with cell-level work that associates sleep with a particular molecular or genetic effect but doesn't show how that matters for the animal.

And, by the way, Yes, the series does address why guys usually wake with morning wood.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

And the next Darwin Award finalist is...

I don't mean to sound too insensitive, but this stuff has been going on, and recognized, for some time.

(The teenager) was found by his mother last Oct. 28, clinically dead, suspended on a rope he had slung across a bunk-bed frame. He had pushed his neck onto the rope...aiming to achieve a surging rush as his brain was starved and then replenished with blood just before the point of unconsciousness.

Yeah, somehow the kid came back to life. Science and medicine are great and all. But teenagers are going to do stupid things. Anyone who doubts that genes detrimental to survival are less likely to pass from one generation to the next is going to have trouble explaining this one.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dad was a drinker...

This article, Genetic Link To Heavy Substance Abuse In Teenagers, suggests:

Family and community experiences play an important role in whether teenagers experiment with alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, but genetic influences become more important for progression to heavy substance use

The article doesn't provide much data. The researchers studied 1200 pairs of twins, totaling 2400 total subjects. The results seem to be as follows:
86% tried alcohol = 2064 33% had alcohol "problems" = 800
58% tried cigarettes = 1392 24% were "heavy smokers" = 576
22% tried marijuana = 528 38% of those used it more than 6 times = 200
I've little doubt the statistics demonstrate that more variability in "heavy substance abuse" is accounted for by genetic factors than environmental factors, although it's impossible to tell with the data provided in the brief article. But what interests me is this quote by the lead researcher:

"The strong link between starting smoking and going on to heavier use suggests that public health strategies should concentrate on stopping teenagers from experimenting with cigarettes in the first place. By contrast, given the large numbers who try alcohol without developing a problem habit, it may be that drink strategies should focus on those at risk of heavy use. However, young people should still be warned against drinking too much, because of the risk of accidents and fights."

I understand that there was a higher percentage of smokers with smoking "issues" than drinkers with drinking "issues." But the data provided seem to indicate there are more young people (as a whole) with alcohol "issues" than smoking "issues" (800 to 576). If the goal is to help the greatest number of people, it seems odd to try to prevent smoking altogether while simply trying to prevent "heavy" alcohol use. I guess it probably doesn't help the alcohol cause with this article coming out a week later, Alcohol Worse Than Ecstacy, According To Proposed 'Matrix Of Harm' For Drugs, which states:

A new study...proposes that drugs should be classified by the amount of harm that they do...The new ranking places alcohol and tobacco in the upper half of the league table. These socially accepted drugs were judged more harmful than cannabis, and substantially more dangerous than...LSD, 4-methylthioamphetamine and ecstasy.

For the life of me, I can't figure out how to read the table. But the article makes you wonder whether, as the first article suggests, "it may be that drink strategies should focus on those at risk of heavy use."

Disclaimer: I found my drug of choice early on in life. Fortunately, it was alcohol, which is arbitrarily legal (or arbitrarily not illegal, depending on how you look at it).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gimme drugs, gimme drugs, gimme drugs

Here's a sort of follow-up to a previous post: Girl's overdose death raises questions.

Rebecca — who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorder, or what used to be called manic depression — died Dec. 13 of an overdose of prescribed drugs, and her parents have been arrested on murder charges, accused of intentionally overmedicating their daughter to keep her quiet and out of their hair.

It's so depressing I'm not going to get into it again. One thing I can tell is this: The state believes it is the parents' fault. The parents, and their lawyer, seem to think it's anyone's fault but theirs. It seems a bit late to ask these questions (though I'm obviously not faulting the journalist for asking them):

Can children as young as Rebecca be accurately diagnosed with mental illnesses? Are rambunctious youngsters being medicated for their parents' convenience? And should children so young be prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs meant for adults?

All I can say is, it's a good thing the kid was only drugged into a zombie-like stupor. If the kid was fat, the state obviously would've intervened.

Title reference here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Speak the Truth, James!

Here's a fascinating story about how modern science helped a soldier father a child two years after dying in Iraq. The article's author reflects:

I realized K.C. (the mother) and Benton (the child) will always have to cope with Brian's death (the father). But I also saw that this boy who K.C calls a "miracle" is, in the end, a happy kid with a dedicated mom. And for Benton, it seemed, even though his dad died two years before he was born, his father was, in a sense, present in his life.

I think it's a touching story. I'm waiting patiently for James Dobson to express outrage and scorn. I'm sure he'll agree this is bad for the "nation at large." Heck, it was only a few months back he said:

A father, as a male parent, makes unique contributions to the task of parenting that a mother cannot emulate...Isn't there something in our hearts that tells us, intuitively, that children need a mother and a father?...In raising these issues, Focus on the Family does not desire to harm or insult (people). Rather, our conviction is that birth and adoption are the purview of married heterosexual couples...We should not enter into yet another untested and far-reaching social experiment...The traditional family, supported by more than 5,000 years of human experience, is still the foundation on which the well-being of future generations depends.

I suspect James won't "raise these issues" in this particular case. For some reason, I'm guessing he won't feel this example is as worthy of his criticism, although his argument obviously applies.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My brain made me do it!

Fascinating recent articles on the brain and morality. Although not technically "related" to each other, this one, The Brain on the Stand, could be considered the umbrella article. It deals with issues facing the judicial system resulting from information gathered from recent neuroscience. One important question brought up is the relationship between the brain, responsibility, and criminal behavior.

“Some sort of organic brain defense has become de rigueur in any sort of capital defense,” (forensic psychologist Daniel Martell) said. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants’ brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves.

If someone's brain made them do it, is it appropriate to punish them? This question, as it relates to free will, is addressed by Joshua D. Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard:

“To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain...If that’s right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you’re rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control.”

That "something beyond (your) control" is your brain. If it causes your behavior, free will does not. Of course, if there's no free will, there's no responsibility. I like responsibility. Thus, here's my hero from the article, Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania:

“There’s nothing new about the neuroscience ideas of responsibility; it’s just another material, causal explanation of human behavior...I’m a thoroughgoing materialist, who believes that all mental and behavioral activity is the causal product of physical events in the brain...(but)...So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible (emphasis mine). Since all behavior is caused, this would mean all behavior has to be excused...Even if (someone's) amygdala made him more angry and volatile, since when are anger and volatility excusing conditions? Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”

This all leads to the next article, Study Finds Brain Injury Changes Moral Judgment. Which leads to this article highlighting the debate between thinking of morality as a result of biological factors (the brain and evolution) and thinking of morality as a result of the distinctly human characteristic of reasoning: Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior. I'll try to get to those issues later.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Don't worry, be ha....SLAP! Don't say it. Don't you dare say it!

Wow, I really like this Sonja Lyubomirsky woman discussed in an article in the April 2007 issue of Scientific American.

An experimental psychologist investigating the possibility of lasting happiness...she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be "intentional activity," mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation's downward pull.

Interpretation: After nature (genes) and nurture (circumstances), you still got free will ("intentional activity"). Couldn't have said it better myself. Some intriguing points from the article: Note that she worked with the original Learned Helplessness guy: "Martin E. P. Seligman, the father of positive psychology"

On doing empirical research that basically investigates Albert Ellis's REBT claims:

Psychologists have long known that different people can see and think about the same events in different ways, but they had done little research on how these interpretations affect well-being.

Dr. Lyubomirsky's conclusion:

The biggest factor may be...realizing that sustained effort can boost (happiness). "A lot of people don't apply the notion of effort to their emotional lives...but the effort it takes is enormous." (emphasis mine)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I don't like it. So I'm taking my ball and going home!

Big week in morality. Sadly, reasoning never fits in to the discussion. The sequence is always pretty much the same. It starts with someone (Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) saying a behavior is immoral:

“My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain things, certain types of conduct that are immoral…I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral, and that we should not condone immoral acts.”

Next, someone (Senator John Warner [Rep. VA]) disagrees:

“I respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the chairman's views that homosexuality is immoral.”

Finally, someone (the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) demands an apology:

General Pace must offer an immediate and unqualified apology for his remarks

Just once, only once, I'm begging, please, ONE TIME, won't someone ask the simple question: Why is the behavior in question immoral? Why is it that when it comes to morality, people don't seem to think they need a "reason" for their beliefs? Is morality simply a matter of opinion? That's what the general now says:

In expressing my support for the current (don't ask, don't tell) policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct

I find the people who are most likely to call others "immoral" are the same to use the phrase "moral relativism" as an insult. But if people don't feel the need to provide a reason for their position on morality, and fall back on the "it's my opinion" stance, doesn't that simply mean morality is relative to whatever your opinion is? Hey, everyone has a right to an opinion. But some opinions suck.
Come on, general, what's your criteria for judging a behavior immoral? Hey, Senator Warner, you got some criteria for judging a behavior immoral, and have you found that homosexuality doesn't fit that criteria? And hey, SLDN, do you really need an apology from everyone who offends you?