Dealing with the “scientific impotence” excuse

On “Five minutes with the discoverer of the Scientific Impotence Excuse“:

When people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings. They will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry [and embrace] the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science.

Anyone who seeks to educate, inform, or influence, take note of these techniques to avoid backfire or unwarranted discounting:

  1. Affirm people’s values first.
  2. Frame findings to be consistent with their values.
  3. Present findings in non-threatening ways.
  4. Speak with humility.
  5. Say “discover” instead of “disagree”.
  6. Decrease in-group/out-group salience.
  7. Provide an alternate target for negative emotions.
  8. Teach critical thinking and metacognition in safe settings.

What I really appreciated was the research-based guidance for how to address this resistance to scientific evidence, in the second section of the interview (as summarized above). Misunderstanding the distinction between evidence and belief contributes to the problem, but it may not be so obvious how to highlight that distinction productively. As Munro pointed out, Cohen, Aronson, and Steele’s (2000) research demonstrates one way to resolve this tension, as does some of his own research (which unfortunately didn’t get cited directly in the interview). I think this is an extremely important set of findings because it’s so tempting for people to come down hard on those who “just don’t understand,” lecturing authoritatively and perhaps conveying frustration or even attacking their perspectives.  Unfortunately, that can backfire. Instead, this research shows that a gentler approach can actually be more effective. I take heart in that.

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Bringing sex differences in the brain back down to size

On “Not so fast — sex differences in the brain are overblown“:

People love to speculate about differences between the sexes, and many brain imaging studies have reported sex differences in brain structure or activity. But these results may not withstand the the tests of larger sample sizes or improved analysis techniques, and it’s too soon to know what such research says.

Cordelia Fine. From Scanner to Sound Bite: Issues in Interpreting and Reporting Sex Differences in the Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2010; 19 (5): 280 DOI: 10.1177/0963721410383248

Key problems:

  1. Small, nonrepresentative samples.
  2. Insufficient understanding of “how neural structures contribute to complex psychological phenomena” (and runaway speculation).
  3. Popular writers misunderstanding or misinterpreting findings.
  4. Popular consumption equating “in the brain” with “innate” and giving undue weight to brain studies.
Interesting tidbits from the CDIPS article:

  • “The anterior cingulate, for example, is activated by so many tasks that one cognitive neuroscientist known to the author refers to this region as ‘the on button’ (Geoffrey Boynton, personal communication).”
    Hmm, I thought the ACC was the “oh, $@*&!” area.
  • One popular writer attempted to explain something by “working from an implicit metaphor of the brain as pinball machine”. Uh-oh, reasoning-by-analogy gone awry again!

How feeling a lack of control influences learning

Before you read any further, first think about a time that you felt in control of an important situation.

OK, got it? Now go ahead and visit “How people respond to feeling a lack of control” (Ed Yong’s summary and commentary on Whitson & Galinsky’s 2008 Science paper).

(I suspect the psychiatrists here will tell me that they already knew this phenomenon and have used it to help their patients develop healthier attitudes and more productive habits.)

I think it’s interesting to consider how this phenomenon could be related to Steele’s research on stereotype threat and Dweck’s research on beliefs about intelligence as fixed vs. malleable. Someone who feels less control over a threatening situation may be more susceptible to perceiving false patterns that interfere with deeper learning. Steele’s and Dweck’s (and their colleagues’) manipulations (of presenting them positive but not overly demanding stereotypes, or encouraging them to think of intelligence as malleable) strengthen students’ feelings of control. Such an approach could help learning, not just performance, and through a specific mechanism.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

Sprouts, the topology game

Topologists at play: the game of Sprouts

  1. Start with some dots on the paper. The more dots you have the longer the game takes so you will probably just want to start with two or three.
  2. Players take turns either connecting two of the dots with lines or drawing a line that loops back and connects a dot with itself.
  3. The lines can be straight or curved but they can’t cross themselves or any other lines.
  4. Each dot can have at most three lines connecting it.
  5. When you draw a line put a new dot in the middle.
  6. The first player who can’t draw a line loses.

Good game for kids to play after finishing a quiz, on a rainy day, or perhaps on a long car trip. They can even play a solitary version with two different colored markers.

Critiquing the research on sex differences and fetal testosterone

On “The Last Word on Fetal T: Rebecca Jordan-Young’s masterful critique of the research on the relationship between testosterone and sex difference“:

Try talking about whether single sex education is better for boys, or why there aren’t more female science professors at Harvard, or whether male financiers are innately more aggressive, and sooner or later someone will evoke that handy, biological explanation: fetal testosterone.

Gender differences exist along a continuum, their influences and causes subtle and complex, and more research still should be done.

P.S. A “continuum” does not imply a flat distribution.

Technology and the brain

Examining the benefits of technology on the brain…

Beyond paddling: children and technology

One of the most sensible articles yet published on children, technology and the brain has just appeared in the scientific journal Neuron. It’s titled “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse” and has been made open-access so you can read it in full online.

…as well as the potential drawbacks of its overuse.

Your Brain on Computers – Studying the Brain Off the Grid, Professors Find Clarity

Five scientists spent a week in the wilderness to understand how heavy use of technology changes how we think and behave.

(Unfortunately, they confounded a natural landscape with being unplugged, but presumably the real research being planned would address that.)

Gender and STEM fields

In spite of research demonstrating equal math skills between the genders…

Females are equal to males in math skills, large study shows

The mathematical skills of boys and girls, as well as men and women, are substantially equal, according to a new examination of existing studies.

Nicole M. Else-Quest, Janet Shibley Hyde, Marcia C. Linn. Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 2010; 136 (1): 103 DOI: 10.1037/a0018053

…we still have a gender gap in STEM occupations.

Can Legislation Fix the U.S. Science Gender Gap?

In 1972, when Mae Jemison was just 16 years old, she arrived at Stanford University, where she intended to pursue a degree in engineering. But it wasn’t long after arriving in Palo Alto that she learned that the university’s science departments weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about her as she was about them.

I’m particularly intrigued by the suggestion of linking tenure to improving outcomes among women and minorities. Diversity in experience and thinking helps everyone, not just the previously-marginalized or underrepresented.

In-school vs. non-school factors

From How to fix our schools, in which Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, critiques Joel Klein’s and Michelle Rhee’s approach of focusing only on firing incompetent teachers as a means to improve schools:

“Differences in school quality can explain about 1/3 of the variation in student achievement. But the other 2/3 come from non-school factors.” In-school factors go beyond teacher quality: school leadership, curriculum quality, teacher collaboration. Non-school factors include economic consequences of parental underemployment, such as geographic disruption, malnutrition, stress, poor health.

Drawing inferences from data is limited by what the data measure

In “Why Genomics Falls Short as a Medical Tool,” Matt Ridley points out how tracking genetic associations hasn’t yielded as much explanatory power as hoped to inform medical applications:

It’s a curious fact that genomics has always been sold as a medical story, yet it keeps underdelivering useful medical knowledge and overdelivering other stuff. … True, for many rare inherited diseases, genomics is making a big difference. But not for most of the common ailments we all get. Nor has it explained the diversity of the human condition in things like height, intelligence and extraversion.

He notes that even something as straightforward and heritable as height has been difficult to predict from the genes identified:

Your height, for example, is determined something like 90% by the tallness of your parents—so long as you and they were decently well fed as children. … In the case of height, more than 50 genetic variants were identified, but together they could account for only 5% of the heritability. Where was the other 95%?

Some may argue that it’s a case of needing to search more thoroughly for all the relevant genes:

A recent study of height has managed to push the explained heritability up to about half, by using a much bigger sample. But still only half.

Or, perhaps there are so many genetic pathways that affect height that it would be difficult to identify and generalize from them all:

Others… think that heritability is hiding in rare genetic variants, not common ones—in “private mutations,” genetic peculiarities that are shared by just a few people each. Under this theory, as Tolstoy might have put it, every tall person would be tall in a different way.

Ridley closes by emphasizing that genes influence outcomes through complex interactions and network effects.

If we expect education research and application to emulate medical research and application, then we need to recognize and beware of its limitations as well. Educational outcomes are even more multiply determined than height, personality, and intelligence. If we seek to understand and control subtle environmental influences, we need to do much more than simply measure achievement on standardized tests and manipulate teacher incentives.

Analogies between pharmaceutical development and education

In “Research Universities and Big Pharma’s Wicked Problem,” neuroscientist Regis Kelly draws comparisons from the manufacture of biofuels to the development of new pharmaceuticals, suggesting that both are

a “wicked” problem, defined conventionally as a problem that is almost insoluble because it requires the expertise of many stakeholders with disparate backgrounds and non-overlapping goals to work well together to address an important society problem.

He then critiques the pharmaceutical industry for its imprecise knowledge, poor outcome measures, and lack of theoretical grounding:

The key issue is that we are far from having biological knowledge at anywhere close to the precision that we have engineering knowledge. We cannot generate a blueprint specifying how the human body works. … The pharmaceutical industry usually lacks good measures of the efficacy of its interventions. … We also lack a theory of drug efficacy.

His recommendations for improvement target the above weaknesses, in addition to endorsing more collaboration between researchers, engineers, and practitioners:

The pharmaceutical industry needs a much more precise blueprint for the human body; greater knowledge of its interlocking regulatory systems; and accurate monitors of functional defects. It needs clinical doctors working with research scientists and bioengineers.

If we in the education field continue to seek analogies to medicine, then we should heed these criticisms and recommendations. We too need more precise understanding of the processes by which students learn, greater knowledge of how those systems interact, and better assessment of skill and understanding. We also need closer collaboration between educational researchers, learning-environment designers, school administrators, and teachers.