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 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'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'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 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 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 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 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