Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Phil Papers research tool

A long-standing and useful intiative for people who work in the Philosophy of Mind (no, really, some do) is MindPapers - a categorised bibliography with links to original versions, and some citation data, and fairly simple tools for collaboration in extending and refining the database. The editors of that project, David Chalmers & David Bourget, both at ANU, have now unleased a more ambitious project with a wider scope, which is PhilPapers. This version abandons the focus on Philosophy of Mind, and adds a range of tools including ones for "accessing the articles and books online wherever possible, for discussing them in discussion forums, for classifying them in relevant areas of philosophy, for searching and browsing in many different ways, for creating personal bibliographies and personal content alerts, and much more." (From Chalmers' announcement.)

This is generally good. Although it's gosh darned bizarre to me that the project isn't inclusive of science on the same and related topics. You know, that stuff people do with evidence, and experiments. The stuff that you can't do from the armchair. Those philosophers and their zany antics...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I am not a horse

In case anyone was wondering, I am not the "Doctor Spurt" that won the Satsuki Shō horse race in Japan in 1989. We are not even related.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mouse Agility

I saw this at Of Two Minds. It's pretty cool. (Confession, I watched it, and am blogging now, at a conference, so I watched it silent-like.) Also, it's worth watching with an earlier posting of mine about hippocampus activity during navigation decisions. Check that old post out, and wonder what's going on when this little critter pauses periodically:

Baked on Brains: Encephalon number 62

The latest Encephalon Carnival is out at the Mouse Trap. Sandy G has done a fine job, and whether you snort it, smoke it, shoot it up, or spoon it right onto the cortex, you should head on over.

Other Encephalon related news is that there is now a dedicated feed.

The next edition of this carnival comes out on February 2nd and is hosted by Shelley Batts at Of Two Minds. The carnival archive and schedule is here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I may be some time...

So I don't usually stoop to autobiography, but I'm facing a possibly blog-threatening event, and figured if it came to the worst, there should be a record. Some of my bestest friends constitute a "wine society" where we mostly gather to be humiliated at the abilities of the minority who taste wines with any sophistication, and enjoy each others' company. But not all of us even like wine that much - some of us mostly like each other. So there have been occasions where a few fortifying margaritas have kicked off proceedings, and for some time rumblings about a meeting focused on other booze.

Friday night is a cocktail evening. There's already a bewildering and lethal list forming, not to mention reckless talk of consuming digrizfizzes, and even "Swagger Slings". The latter contains:
1 bottle champagne
1 bottle claret
1 glass brandy
1 glass Grand Marnier
no ice

Apparently (quoting Kingsley Amis, whose "Everyday Drinking" I am ... er ... working my way through) the Swagger Sling tends to "put young ladies completely at their ease".

Blogging for Darwin

There's a blog swarm a'commin', and it is taking place from February 12th-15th of this year (2009), to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, which was February 12th, 1809.

Effortless Incitement will be participating. I'm not sure what I'll be doing yet, but I'll search the pile of stuff I'm planning on blogging for suitably Darwin celebratory hooks. To find out more about the swarm, click the image.

Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits

ResearchBlogging.orgWe like thinking that some things about us are achievements rather than endowments. This goes especially for things that we think we can justify or rationalise, including some of our beliefs and preferences. When we can give a plausible reason for something we believe, it's easy enough to suppose that we really *do* believe it for those reasons.

As several previous posts on this blog, and a giant pile of research from various fields, shows, it isn't that simple. There are all kinds of ways that our beliefs and preferences are sensitive things that don't seem like they should be relevant. In philosopher-speak we often have 'non-epistemic' reasons.

This paper suggests that political affiliation may be related in some way to what in the title is called physiological traits. You might more plainly say 'biology'. This isn't a crazy hypothesis at all. Risk aversion, aggression, and all kinds of other strategic dispositions are related to physiology. And the mixture of strategies in a population, as well as the connections between strategies and other properties of the individual are among the targets for natural selection. So there could well be interesting patterns here.

Douglas R. Oxley and a team of others, in a commendably interdisciplinary team of political scientists, psychologists and others, took on one aspect of the question about political attitudes and physiology. Here's the abstract:
Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals' experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

First a telephone survey identified individuals with strongly held political beliefs. These individuals then visited the lab and completed a survey including demographic information, and measures of specific political beliefs and personality traits. About two months later each individual made a second visit, during which the physiological measurements were made. The two measurements were skin conductance, and "orbicularis oculi startle blink electromyogram (EMG) response".

This study didn't attempt to study political beliefs in general. Subjects were asked about their level of support for 28 policies or political acts, and 18 were identified as "those most likely to be held by individuals particularly concerned with protecting the interests of the participantsí group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats." (So the list included military expenditure, opposition to foreign aid, etc.) The authors don't endorse the view that any of these positions actually have the protective consequences, merely that "given the common frames of the modern American policy, those most concerned about social protection will tend to be attracted to the particular policy positions listed."

The subjects were divided into two groups for the purposes of the skin conductance response test - those above, and those below, the group median score for concern to protect the social group. Skin conductance was measured during a picture viewing session, where 3 out of 33 pictures were of threatening images "(a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it)". Here are the results:

So there's a significant difference in skin conductance response for threatening images, associated with degree of support for measures aimed at protecting the individual's own social group. (This effect stood up to a further regression analysis controlling for gender, age, income, and education.)

The other physiological measure was the startle blink EMG response. This response habituates, but there are inter-individual differences in the hardness of the blink, which is regarded as indicating a higher level of fear. Subjects wore headphones while looking at a computer screen with a single point they were supposed to focus on. During the staring session each participant was subjected seven times to the threatening stimulus of an unexpected burst of loud white noise. Here are the results (with the same division into groups) in a series of overlapping three event clusters of stimuli, to show habituation:

A different way of looking at the eye blink data ignores the habituation, and presents mean blink amplitude for all seven threatening stimuli, again with the same group division:

So there you go. This is impressive and interesting stuff. And the authors are clear that there is very much that we don't know about the result and what explains it:
Our data [...] do not permit firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes at work. Particular physiological responses to threat could cause the adoption of certain political attitudes, or the holding of particular political attitudes could cause people to respond in a certain physiological way to environmental threats, but neither of these seems probable. More likely is that physiological responses to generic threats and political attitudes on policies related to protecting the social order may both derive from a common source. Parents could both socialize their children to hold certain political attitudes and condition them to respond in a certain way to threatening stimuli, but conditioning involuntary reflex responses takes immediate and sustained reinforcement and punishment, and it is unlikely that this conditioning varies systematically across political beliefs.

That seems about right. Behavioural genetics in other species suggests that fearfulness, or behaviours associated with it, have some heritable component. And there's independent evidence of various kinds for heritable components of personality (leading to the result I blogged a while ago showing a relationship between iris characteristics and personality). It's an empirical question how much variation in the physiological responses studied is genetic, but we know how to find that out. It will also be interesting to see what sorts of environmental and developmental contingencies (early malnutrition? season of birth? birth order?) bear on the development of the physiological traits.

Needless to say this paper generated some twitchy responses. On a crude reading (not that of the authors) it says conservatives are cowards. But that's not really what it says at all. People who have stronger startle responses tend to support more protective policies, sure, but the authors were careful to say their classification of political views was narrower than "conservative vs. liberal". I couldn't find serious write ups from a quick search, though, so no links. If you know of any substantial coverage, let me know, and I'll add links.

Finally, there's a related paper in Nature Neuroscience that anyone who has read this far might find interesting. The authors (David Amodio and colleagues) claim to show that "greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern." (Quoted from the abstract.)

D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627

Praxis number 6 is out!

Hooray! There's another edition of Praxis, over at PodBlack Cat. A cool carnival, at a cool blog, and one of my posts made the cut.

The next edition will be hosted at Mudphudder, and it should hit the pipes on February 15th.

The video below is irrelevant. But it came up high on a Google of 'praxis', and I rather like it. And I'm going to stick with regularly including images or videos that result from this semi-random procedure for a while, just to see what happens. It did give us the stainless steel rat brain slicer image for the post on the digrizfiz, after all.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Testosterone shifts the balance between sensitivity for punishment and reward in healthy young women

ResearchBlogging.orgAh, men. We just keep on finding out ways that we're crazy, on average, as compared to women. I've got a little pile of papers on male idiocy, and I'm going to try to write up a couple of them. This one is first for a bunch of reasons, among them:

(1) The journal it is in has a very cool name: Psychoneuroendocrinology. I really would like a paper in that on my CV.

(2) It reports a pretty cool experiment.

(3) I'd already read it.

In a nutshell, this team found that administration of testosterone made healthy young women demonstrably less risk averse and punishment sensitive. Here, as usual, is the full abstract:
Animal research has demonstrated reductions in punishment sensitivity and enhanced reward dependency after testosterone administration. In humans, elevated levels of testosterone have been associated with violent and antisocial behavior. Interestingly, extreme forms of violent and antisocial behavior can be observed in the psychopath. Moreover, it has been argued that reduced punishment sensitivity and heightened reward dependency are crucially involved in the etiology and maintenance of psychopathy. A task that has been proven to be capable of simulating punishment-reward contingencies is the IOWA gambling task. Decisions to choose from decks of cards become motivated by punishment and reward schedules inherent in the task. Importantly, clinical and subclinical psychopaths demonstrate a risky, disadvantageous pattern of decision-making in the task, indicating motivational imbalance (insensitivity for punishment and enhanced reward dependency). Here, in a double-blind placebo-controlled crossover design (n = 12), whether a single administration of testosterone would shift the motivational balance between the sensitivity for punishment and reward towards this tendency to choose disadvantageously was investigated. As hypothesized, subjects showed a more disadvantageous pattern of decision-making after testosterone compared to placebo administration. These findings not only provide the first direct evidence for the effects of testosterone on punishment-reward contingencies in humans, but they also give further insights into the hypothetical link between testosterone and psychopathy.

The paper does pretty much what it says on the box. The experiment was partly occasioned by existing work showing that testosterone affected punishment sensitivity and aggression in animals, which in turn suggests that it may play a role in psychopathy. Jack van Honk (of Utrecht University) and fellow researchers rounded up "12 healthy young women ranging in age from 20 to 25 years" and established absence of psychopathology and substance abuse by interview. Testing was conducted during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, "because of the low and stable levels of sex hormones during this period". Each subject received a single dose (0.5mg) of testosterone or a placebo, with the testosterone administration leading to a "10-fold increase in total testosterone". This dosage had been previously established to lead to "significantly elevated physiological responsiveness (vaginal pulse amplitude) in healthy young women after about 4 hours".

Yes, that's right: vaginal pulse amplitude. In case you were wondering (and who wouldn't be) this is the "only physiological response known to possess a
non-habitual nature, thus allowing multiple measures throughout the day". This non-habituating response also justified the 4 hour delay from administration to the other assessment. They don't say how they measured it.

Besides the physiological measure just described, subjects completed a mood assessment by self-report, and the IOWA gambling task. In this task subjects select cards from four decks paying hypothetical rewards and giving (sometimes) hypothetical penalties. Subjects get to chose 100 cards. Two decks are net advantageous, two net disadvantageous, but the 'bad' decks give larger payouts sometimes. Many take it that persistence with the 'bad' decks indicates low sensitivity to punishment or risk. Scoring usually (and here) divides the 100 draws into 5 blocks (of 20) and reflects the relative fraction of good and bad choices for the block.

I've got my doubts about the IOWA task, of which more shortly. That aside, the team found the following:

So more testosterone makes you madder, in the sense of sticking with high payout courses of action that on balance are net punishers, as compared to those less hopped up on the knacker water. Bear in mind that the 10-fold increase left the healthy young women with less of the stuff than the average male of the same age.

I should also mention that van Honk's group has done a pile of other work on testosterone and decision making. If there's a useful web page listing the work, it's been cunningly hidden, but I'm going to blog more of it, and citation indexes will help find it too.

Getting back to my worries about the IOWA task, I don't see why there are four decks instead of two (although this may not matter). I don't see why the instrument combines so many things in such a dirty way, since there are varying magnitudes and frequencies of both rewards and punishments, and the contingencies are unknown to the subject. As a good behaviourist I want to know why individual assessments for sensitivity to delay, and risk, and punishment aren't performed separately and rigorously, and why there isn't something real at stake for the subjects (whose choices don't in fact lead to real reward or punishment). There are some odd results with the IOWA task as well - Chiu and colleagues (2005) found that making new decks with the same net rates of reward but different frequencies of payment led to 'normal' subjects chosing differently, and higher levels of education leads to worsened performance on the IGT (Evans and Colleagues 2004).

Finally, here's a semi-serious question, although it means I'll never be President of Harvard: Does the same protocol lead to any measurable difference in mathematical ability?


Chiu, Y-C., Lin, C-H., Huang, J-T., Lin, S., Lee, P-L, and Hsie, J-C. (2005). Immediate gain is long-term loss: Are there foresighted decision makers in Iowa Gambling Task? (Presentation at the third meeting of the Society for Neuroeconomics, Kiawah Island, September, 2005.)

Evans, C., Kemish, K., and Turnbull, O. (2004). Paradoxical effects of education on the Iowa Gambling Task. Brain and Cognition 54: 240–244.

J van Honk, Dennis J.L.G. Schuttera, Erno J. Hermansa, Peter Putmana, Adriaan Tuitena, Hans Koppeschaar (2004). Testosterone shifts the balance between sensitivity for punishment and reward in healthy young women Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29 (7), 937-943 DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2003.08.007

Postscript 24 January 2009: Here's a related piece on BBC News, by Simon Baron-Cohen. I doubt anyone knows any more about autism. Or that's what my mate Dave says.

Friday, January 9, 2009

African naturalist blogroll

Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment has compiled a blogroll of African blogs with a pro-science, or sceptical orientation. There aren't very many, but that's not so surprising on a continent with so little internet penetration. The blogroll is a useful service, and I'm reproducing it here:

Since Michael is the one doing the maintenance and updating, if you see a blog that you think belongs on the list (whether or not it's yours) you should contact him. Here is his most recent posting of the blogroll.

(I prefer 'naturalist' for one who takes science to be our best guide to how the world is. It's not clear what word is best here, because at least in SA English 'sceptical' doesn't carry the associations it does in much of the rest of the English-speaking blogosphere.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Undiluted detox bollocks in the Daily News

Today's Mercury (A Durban based daily rag) contains an article headed "A detox takes a lot of will-power, but it is definitely worth it" (page 8). The article rattles though a bunch of the usual bollocks, in breathlessly uncritical vein, with no evidence at all.

As scientifically minded blog readers will know, there's been a surge of recent criticism of the detox industry. Ben Goldacre has weighed in, as has David Colquhoun. This is well-deserved. The Mercury piece provoked my mate Dave to write in - here's his letter (I don't know yet whether they'll print it):
Dear Sir,

In your edition of 8 January you include an article headed "A detox takes a lot of will-power, but it is definitely worth it" (page 8). In the article you parrot a number of claims regularly made by the detox industry as though they are true. You give no evidence. In fact, you could give no evidence. No scientifically rigorous clinical trial has ever shown a measurable benefit of a "detox" regime, and the pseudoscientists who peddle them barely agree about what "detox" amounts to. Some of the purgative measures suggested are potentially dangerous. Vitamin supplementation gives either no benefit, or (again, according to clinical trials) in the case of high dosage anti-oxidant supplements can be positively harmful. Everyone should get a decent amount of exercise and eat healthily most of the time, perhaps especially after festive over-indulgence. That much is obvious. Your uncritical regurgitation of unsubstantiated pseudo-science passed of as journalism is shameful, and given that the topic is human health, dangerous.
If the letter is published and I notice, I'll post an update. It's hard to read the Mercury every day, so I might not notice. (The offending article, by the way, is cut and pasted from, according to the attribution, the Belfast Telegraph.)

*Note on the picture: As usual, I'm grabbing something that comes up high on a Google Images search for a keyword. This picture is from a gallery of frankly rather striking images at Dr Natura. Only the very strong of stomach should browse this gallery while consuming a chili dog.

Get on the (atheist) bus

As most readers of this blag will know already, an attempt to raise GBP5,500 for pro-atheist bus adverts in London was excessively successful, raising (to date) GBP135,000. There's a good write up by someone involved in the campaign -- indeed also its originator -- the writer Ariane Sherine on The Grauniad website here.

A few observations:

(1) The campaign is quite innocuous - the message on the adverts simply says "There's probably no God: Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life."

(2) The campaign was occasioned by a thoroughly non-innocuous one by some Christian nutters, that included a URL taking you to a website that advised that non-Christians "will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell … Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire prepared for the devil".

(3) The comment thread following Sherine's piece is mostly depressing reading. Anti-atheists grousing and grumping away, suggesting other uses for the money, and also -- it seems to me -- missing the point by complaining that nobody has been made into an atheist by the adverts.

It seems to me that the point of the adverts is not so much to make more atheists, and to make existing ones feel better. And this is worth doing. My mate Dave has spoken publicly a few times in defence of atheism, and on every single occasion some pro-God idiot has insisted that atheism is equivalent to Satanism, that atheists are opposed to all morality, etc., etc. That this is obviously fallacious self-serving dishonest hateful rubbish appears not to concern the religious. Atheists aren't Satanists - they don't have ANY imaginary friends. If you need a magical imaginary friend to be the basis of morality, then YOUR imaginary friend needs one of her, or his, or its own too, and so on ad infinitum. Being an avowed atheist is a ticket to ongoing, ignorant, bigoted abuse and this make a morale boost a fine thing. And maybe it makes some waverers feel a bit better about crossing the line - that would be good too.

Freedom of religion includes freedom to have no religion at all. People who have no religion are entitled to spend a tiny fraction of their money on advertising if they want to. And that is all there is to it.

Added 11 January: The Official Campaign Website has plenty of stories and pictures.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Doom Rickroller - funneh

Undiluted astrology bollocks in Sunday Tribune

Here's a useful rule of thumb: any publication with an astrology column shows thereby that it is willing to print utterly unwarranted bullshit. It should make you worry about the editors' ability to distinguish evidence from rubbish elsewhere in the publication.

The Economist and The New York Times don't have horoscopes. Cosmopolitan and Hello magazine do. Go figure.

Daily newspapers might try to excuse themselves by saying that an astrology column is like a crossword, or a bridge column - only some readers like it, but they like it enough to care, and it doesn't do much harm. That strikes me as a weak excuse, but to invoke it the astrology rubbish needs to be carefully ring fenced.

The Sunday Tribune (South Africa, January 4, 2009) shows that it respects no such boundary.Page 8 includes an article under the headline "2009, Year of the ox, will be more stable". The article includes a bunch of the usual nebulous waffle, presented in a totally uncritical register. Key claims are asserted as fact, rather than opinion of an astrologer, for example that "The Chinese calendar moves in 60-year cycles, meaning the world will experience similar events in the new year to those that took place 60 years ago."

There is nothing in the article (zero, not a bit, bugger all) about whether there is any evidential basis for the claims made. Garbage is simply presented as news.

(For non-SA readers, the Sunday Tribune is not a generally nonsense publication. No alien abduction stories, relatively little superficial tosh about celebrities, and astrology generally coralled next to the funny pages. So this is a serious own goal.)

Carnival of the Africans #5

This is a somewhat belated notice, but Carnival of the Africans number 5 is out, over at 01 and the Universe. It's worth checking out, and our glorious leader Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment is to be praised for getting an African naturalistic/sceptical Blog Carnival going.

The next edition will be hosted by The Sceptic Detective.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The digrizfiz

Some time ago I was extensively involved in the testing of a formidable cocktail. The last time I checked, I was unable to smell the mixture with any equanimity, and this was a full 8 years after an episode culminating in what I knew (from experience) to be alcohol poisoning rather than the more humble hangover. That the road is thus blocked to me is a matter of some frustration, because the recipe is patently in need of refinement. The most pressing reason for this is that the current mixture is, frankly, pretty foul tasting.

In this brief posting I shall describe the recipe, make some observations about the effects of the cocktail, and call for further experiments.

The digrizfiz (yes, that is the correct spelling, and no it isn't capitalised) is named in honour of the Stainless Steel Rat in the series of science fiction books by Harry Harrison. The anti-hero of those diverting works goes by various names, most notably and commonly James Bolivar DiGriz.


In the canonical form the drink is served in a highball glass, with at most a few ice cubes, and comprises equal proportions of dry white sparkling wine, and bourbon. (It really is a waste to use genuine Champagne, which tends to be over-priced anyway.)

It is permissible, indeed advisable, to take it in a short glass, with a corresponding reduction in volume.


In dosages greater than or equal to two large ones, the digriz fiz is known to lead, inter alia, to accidental swimming face first into the side of swimming pools as fast as you can, leaping off low balconies, leaping into foliage including thorny shrubs, yelling, and ill-advised experiments in echolocation (involving sprinting with eyes closed making chirping noises).

The need for further research

(1) As already noted the digrizfiz tastes bad. It is possible that the addition of small quantities of something else (bitters, mint leaves, industrial solvents) would improve matters. No additions that take the result too far from the 50:50 sparkling wine and bourbon essence should be contemplated.

If it really makes a major positive difference, a different spirit could be contemplated, but this would mess with some of the key design principles of the digrizfiz, which includes a mixture of old world and new, and also the purported alcoholic drinking error of mixing grain with grape.

(2) If the taste problem is solved, and the drink becomes the sort of thing you can sip, instead of chucking back to get the experience over with, its tendency to warm up will be a problem. This may be an argument for making the short glass canonical, or even switching to a glass with a stem, that prevents the hand from warming the drink. This is a minor matter compared to the taste problem.


I was roused from my dogmatic slumbers to the extent of writing this posting because I'm reading Kingsley Amis's "Everyday Drinking". I'm reading that, in turn, because I thought some homework would help me form a credible plan to keep my New Year's resolution to consume more alcohol in 2009. Amis's book is splendid stuff, and it includes the following awesome recipe:
The Tigne Rose

1 tot gin
1 tot whisky
1 tot rum
1 tot vodka
1 tot brandy
The drink, we are told "owes its name to Tigne barracks, Malta, where it was offered as a Saturday lunchtime Apértif in the Sergeant's Mess of the 36th Heavy A.A. Regt., R.A., to all newly joined subalterns. The sometime 2nd Lieut. T.G. Rosenthal, R.A., from whom I had the recipe, says he put down three of them before walking unaided back to his room and falling into a reverie that lasted until Monday-morning parade."

Note on the picture: It is increasingly my policy to select an image for a blog post by taking one of the first things that come up for a Google Images search with a few key words relevant to the post. On this occasion the policy led to a very happy accident. The picture above is a bit of laboratory equipment, more specifically a Stainless Steel Rat Brain Slicer, made and sold by Zivic Instruments. If ever there was a brain slicer in a glass, the digrizfiz was it...

Proposal: The Journal of Null Results

There's a lot of research that gets 'done' but doesn't become 'real', because it isn't submitted for publication. One common reason for this is that there's a lot of research that in some sense fails to find anything. More specifically, what is found isn't far from the 'null hypothesis' that there is no interesting relationship between the variables measured, or no effect of the experimental manipulation.

Journals mostly have a strong preference for articles that do find something, which means something other than an outcome consistent with the null hypothesis. That is, they prefer 'positive' results.

There are arguments for this preference, but following it comes at a cost. First the cost: discovering that the null hypothesis holds in some specific case is not the same thing as discovering nothing. You discover nothing when you don't do any work at all, or do it badly (having no control condition for an intervention, or having too few subjects to do meaningful analysis, etc.) that you might as well have not done any. When you do work that likely could have found something if it was there, and don't, that's a modest discovery. It should be part of the scientific record. It's absence, among other things, confounds literature surveys and meta-analyses.

This is not, of course, an original point. It has been made eloquently by various people. Among recent examples see this piece by Ben Goldacre. Here's one quotation about the loss represented by un-published trials:
We may never know what was in that unpublished data, but those missing numbers will cost lives in quantities larger than any emotive health story covered in any newspaper. Doctors need negative data to make prescribing decisions. Academics need to know which ideas have failed, so they can work out what to study next, and which to abandon. In their own way, academic journals are exactly as selective as the tabloid health pages.
Some have argued that failing to publish the results (no matter what they are) of any research involving human subjects is unethical. Here is an example in the BMJ. I think a stronger point could be made. At the very least, there is an obligation to make available the results of any science that is to any extent publicly supported. For one report on a survey attempting to figure out how many un-published research there is, see this report in Nature. While I'm throwing links around, some of what I say here is related to some points made in the article on The Future of Science (well worth reading) by Michael Nielsen.

The preference, on the other hand, makes sense for at least two reasons. One is that 'unexpected' results are regarded as better than expected ones, and confirming the null hypothesis is, from this perspective, a very boring an predictable thing to do. This preference is not unconditional - it's sometimes onside independently to duplicate a result, indeed it is often required. It's also not clear that 'unexpected' is a very important category - what is expected depends on prior beliefs, and so the very same empirical work might switch back and forth from being expected to unexpected as background theory changes, or other positive results get taken on board.

Another reason is scarcity of space. Even if null results are in some sense part of science, they're less likely to get cited or built on than positive results. They are indeed less interesting, and when space is scarce, as it mostly is with paper journals, and with finite time and patience on the part of reviewers irrespective of the medium of publication, a bias in favour of the interesting is rational.

The internet takes away the space scarcity problem, and it might be that the reviewer scarcity problem can be managed. So here is my at least semi-hare-brained proposal, in its first draft form:
  1. There should be a web-based Open Access Journal of Null Results.
  2. The journal should be non-disciplinary.
  3. Any scientific team or individual can submit a brief report of any research that led to a null result.
  4. Submissions should be publication quality in the following respects:
    (a) Authors and affiliations should be fully detailed.
    (b) The submission should have a proper title, abstract, account of methods, and data analysis.
    (c) Where appropriate to the discipline it should be made clear what ethical approval was obtained, and whether there were any conflicts of interest.
    (d) Where possible the primary data (excepting anything that violates consent or privacy protocols) should be archived with the submission.
  5. People or teams who submit should be asked to provide details of at least three peer-reviewed publications in the past five years by independent authors (i.e. with no overlap with the author list of the submission). These authors are then asked to briefly review the methods of the submission, and say whether in their view the research had a decent chance of finding anything if it was there. Submissions that pass this test have that fact noted on the journal, along with the names of the reviewers and the date at which their opinions were given. (So this is not a blind review process at all.) Submissions passed by two reviewers are considered peer-reviewed publications in the Journal.
  6. As far as possible, the operation runs automatically, with minimal volunteer human oversight.
I regard (4) as the most serious problem. Experiments with volunteer review haven't gone well (again, see Nielsen's The Future of Science), which is why I think reviews should be requested. But the proposed review system is a little unusual, and I think some careful debugging would be needed to make it fly.

I don't know who might host such a thing, or whether there are obvious flaws in this idea, or who might possibly foot the bill. I'm still not entirely recovered from New Year celebrations. But for now, let the blogosphere have its say...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Feisty column by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' column in The Guardian is a fine institution, used to take necessary swipes at bad science and bad reporting of science (sometimes regrettably in The Guardian itself). He's a tough-minded thinker and writer, with a special concern for issues relating to health. His first column for 2009 is a fine piece making, again, the crucial point that pseudo-science is harmful. He makes it with specific reference to HIV denialism, but the point goes more generally for any nonsense that encourages people to be guided by anything except the best available evidence.

Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction

ResearchBlogging.orgMost of us sometimes anthropomorphise things around us. We do this in various ways - talking to them, seeing similarities between them and proper agents, treating them as though they had beliefs or feelings. We also sometimes impute intentional explanations to non-intentional phenomena, such as the rain -- or the supernatural being -- that 'knew' there was a picnic on the go.

Most of us are also sometimes lonely. Do loneliness and anthropomorphising have anything to do with each other? The authors of this study hypothesised that they do, and went on to find that they do. Lonely people anthropomorphise more in two ways - they are more likely to anthropomorphise "nonhuman agents such as mechanical devices and nonhuman animals to make them appear more humanlike" and by "increasing belief in the existence of commonly anthropomorphized religious agents". Here's the abstract:
People are motivated to maintain social connection with others, and those who lack social connection with other humans may try to compensate by creating a sense of human connection with nonhuman agents. This may occur in at least two waysÑby anthropomorphizing nonhuman agents such as nonhuman animals and gadgets to make them appear more humanlike and by increasing belief in commonly anthropomorphized religious agents (such as God). Three studies support these hypotheses both among individuals who are chronically lonely (Study 1) and among those who are induced to feel lonely (Studies 2 and 3). Additional findings suggest that such results are not simply produced by any negative affective state (Study 3). These results have important implications not only for understanding when people are likely to treat nonhuman agents as humanlike (anthropomorphism), but also for understanding when people treat human agents as nonhuman (dehumanization).
Here's a run-down of main points of the three studies:

Study 1

20 volunteers completed an on-line survey which asked questions about anthropomorphic responses to four hypothetical gadgets, as well as assessing their level of loneliness. More lonely subjects on average gave higher ratings on anthropomorphic dimensions. This is correlation but not cause, a point that study 2 aimed to address.

Study 2

Here the loneliness variable was an experimental manipulation, rather than a self-report measure of general level of loneliness. Subjects comprised avowed believers in God, and avowed non-believers. In a standard social psychology paradigm all completed the 90-question Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, and were the told their actual extroversion score (to increase credibility) and offered a putative prediction relating to their future life. Half of each group (believers and non) were told that they would be lonely later, and half that they would not. All subjects then completed a set of questions about their belief in supernatural agents and processes of various kinds (ghosts, curses, miracles). Believers who received the "future lonely" manipulation had increased belief in supernatural agency compared to believers in the "future not lonely" condition, and than non-believers in general.

One reasonable concern here is that it is generally bad to be told that you'll be lonely, and so the measured response is to negative affect, rather than loneliness specifically. Study 3 attempted to address this worry.

Study 3

Subjects watched video clips, being asked to empathise with the protagonists. The clips were chosen to evoke one of three conditions: Disconnectedness, fear, and a 'control' clip showing positive (non-fear, non-lonely) social interaction.

Following the viewing subjects completed the same degree of belief in supernatural agents test as used in Study 2, and to think of a pet they owned or knew and pick from a list of 14 traits the 3 that they felt best described the pet in question. The list included anthropomorphic traits and non-anthropomorphic ones. Finally, subjects were shown a series of 20 ambiguous figures and asked to say what they saw in each one. The figures were designed so that some suggested faces (see figure below).

It was found that subjects in the disconnected condition reported stronger belief in supernatural agents than those in the other conditions, including the fear condition. Participants in the disconnected condition were also more likely to select anthropomorphic traits for the pet they were imagining than participants in the other two conditions. Finally, participants in the fear condition spontaneously reported seeing more faces than participants in the other two conditions, suggesting that as predicted that fear is distinguishable from loneliness in this respect.

So there you go. This doesn't tell us everything about loneliness or anthropomorphising. (See an earlier article on this blog about how loneliness is associated with feeling cold.) It tells us something useful about both, and about one of the sources of religious belief. This work is related to, and should be read alongside, recent reports that loss of control leads to increased degree of superstition. There are all kinds of things that might make us fumble for Gods, and there are more ways of feeling weak and needy than plain loneliness.

Nicholas Epley, Scott Akalis, Adam Waytz, John T. Cacioppo (2008). Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds Psychological Science, 19 (2), 114-120 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02056.x

The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation

ResearchBlogging.orgI've previously reported on a few studies showing some of the ways that taste evaluation isn't a simple response to the physical properties of what is tasted. Actually, now that I check I've only blagged about one so far: We've seen how the same wine (at least when delivered as sips that aren't being paid for) is preferred when it is thought to cost more. But there will be more on this topic, because I enjoy running interference at my wine tasting group.

This paper reports an attempt to find out whether a sense of congruence with an individual's values makes a difference to how good something tastes to that individual. The answer turns out to be yes. Here's the abstract:
We suggest that consumers assess the taste of a food or beverage by comparing the human values symbolized by the product to their human value priorities. When there is value-symbol congruency, they experience a better taste and aroma and develop a more favorable attitude and behavior intention; incongruence has the opposite effect. Participants in two taste tests were told the correct identity of a product or misinformed. Participants who endorsed the values symbolized by the product (that they thought they were tasting) evaluated the product more favorably. The implications for marketing strategy, self-congruity theory, and the assimilation effect are discussed.
This certainly isn't a crazy hypothesis. As the authors of this study note, we've known for ages that people rate the very same carbonates water more highly when they're told it's Perrier (Nevid 1981). Also, the effects aren't always consistent, because different people have different expectations - differing for example over whether 'healthy' or 'organic' food will taste better or worse.

To test the hypothesis in this case two different taste tests were set up, one for a food and one for a drink.

In the food case omnivorous participants tasted a vegetarian meat substitute (chosen to be least distinguishable from actual meat) sometimes thinking that it was meat, and sometimes that it was substitute. It had been previously established that in the relevant population the vegetarian versus meat eating distinction was associated with low versus high preference for 'social power'.

In the drink case two colas, one a brand Cola (Pepsi) found to have high association with an 'exciting life' and another store branded (in this case Australian Woolworth's) were offered. The colas had been previously found to be indistinguishable in blind tests, and subjects again sometimes drank falsely believing they were drinking another cola.

All participants completed a value questionnaire (to assess their values with reference to social power, and exciting lives) and a multi-scale taste assessment of the products they had tasted. The scales were combined to give a single linear taste assessment for each subject. Participants were randomly assigned to taste what they were told they were tasting, or to taste under a misconception. They were also asked about attitude and purchase intention, current food and drink consumption, social desirability bias, and asked whether they believed they had been drinking or eating what they had been told.

First, it was found that:

In the drink category participants irrespective of condition preferred Pepsi to the Woolworth's. (In the actual experiment they had a cup of it. It's not clear whether the earlier test that found them indistinguishable had been a sip test.)

In the food test participants showed no main effect of actual product in their taste evaluations.

More significantly, the main predictions were confirmed: "low social power participants gave the food a higher taste evaluation when they believed they had tasted a vegetarian alternative and gave the food a lower rating when they believed they had tasted a sausage roll (b = .42, t = 4.1, p < .001). High social power participants showed the opposite tendency, though to a lesser degree (b = .11, t = .9, p = NS)."

And: "participants who valued excitement and enjoying life had a more favorable attitude and purchase intention when they believed they had tasted Pepsi than when they believed they had tasted Woolworth (b = .44, t = 4.5, p < .001)."

These results are analyses factoring in various elements of the different questionnaires - you should read the paper for the details, which would slow down the exposition here. This is further evidence that taste evaluation is not a simple or direct response to the physical properties of the thing tasted, but depends in significant ways on the symbolic and other associations of the thing tasted. I reckon you could find similar effects for foods presented as being 'local' or 'foreign' for people with strongly nationalist or xenophobic tendencies.


Nevid, Jeffrey S. (1981), Effects of Brand Labeling on Ratings of Product Quality, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 53, 407-10.

Michael W. Allen, Richa Gupta, Arnaud Monnier (2008). The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (2), 294-308 DOI: 10.1086/590319

Friday, January 2, 2009

BPSDB - Bio-energy bollocks

There's a recent story in The Guardian about how Michael Flately is back on his toes and ready for more Celtic prancing following a baffling illness. He credits this to a visit to some bozos at the Plexus Bio-Energy Clinic, who(accoding to their website) use a system that "represents the integration of a network of powerful and effective healing techniques that work by rebalancing the life energy within". For good measure we're told that they have "achieved exceptional results in the treatment of a wide range of conditions often in cases that have proved difficult to treat by conventional means alone".

The website includes a section on "scientific research". This is where you'd hope to find reports of respectable clinical trials. You know, double-blinded ones with placebo groups and decent statistical analysis. Unsurprisingly, there's none of that. The section on scientific research is a bunch of waffle, much of it pointing back to the Plexus clinic itself (so providing no independent evidence of effectiveness at all). The final paragraph is a choice bit of junk that is worth quoting in full:
Einstein with his new model of the universe, determined that energy and matter are one – thus transforming the classical western duality. Soon the Subatomic World of "leptons" and "quarks" emerged to challenge the existing concept of the atom as the final building block of matter. The Subatomic World seems to be a complex web of inter-relationships – one could say – a "holistic pattern".

This is confused gibberish. It is confused about atoms. After all, plenty of physicists realised that atoms were not truly atomic before Einstein. (His illustrious 1905 year included work on already established sub-atomic phenomena, including the photo-electric effect.) It is confused about leptons and quarks and what they have to do with Einstein. Be clear, though, that the various upheavals in physics say bugger all about 'bio-energy' and that the talk of a "holistic pattern" is gratuitious bullshit.

If I don't start dealing with my actual work in the next day or two, I might write to these folks and ask them if they know of, or are planning, any of the sort of clinical trial that would provide evidence of an effect greater than placebo. It won't be easy bothering, because what they do say about evidence would make it very surprising if the answer was yes. At least, unlike Roger Coghill, they're not offering incentives to kill babies as a sort of rhetorical pseudo-evidence.

Reversal of cocaine addiction by environmental enrichment

Addiction is one of those topics where there's a lot of morally hysterical yelling that generates plenty of heat but no illumination. It's also an area where we're making rapid and interesting scientific progress. One battle that was -- to my mind -- won a long time ago involved getting addiction taken seriously as in key respects a behaviour like any other. That doesn't mean addictive behaviour isn't odd in some respects, but rather that like any other behaviour it is sensitive to opportunity cost.

This was a tough sell partly because much muddled thinking about addiction sees the activity of the addict as a departure from her normal agency - the addict was roughly supposed to be periodically and unconditionally enslaved to something else. A body of empirical work was done showing that consumption by addicts was sensitive to price - when booze costs more, drunks drink less. And also sensitive to opportunity cost - when booze costs the same, but additional substitutable products become available, so that what is being given up by drinking is more, drunks also drink less. The introduction to Rudy Vuchinich and Nick Heather's 2003 anthology Choice, Behavioral Economics and Addiction (Pergamon) provides a terrific overview of the relevant theory and results.

This paper adds very importantly to what we know. The paper reports that mice addicted to cocaine lose addictive symptoms when exposed to an "enriched environment" during withdrawal. Here's the abstract:
Environmental conditions can dramatically influence the behavioral and neurochemical effects of drugs of abuse. For example, stress increases the reinforcing effects of drugs and plays an important role in determining the vulnerability to develop drug addiction. On the other hand, positive conditions, such as environmental enrichment, can reduce the reinforcing effects of psychostimulants and may provide protection against the development of drug addiction. However, whether environmental enrichment can be used to "treat" drug addiction has not been investigated. In this study, we first exposed mice to drugs and induced addiction-related behaviors and only afterward exposed them to enriched environments. We found that 30 days of environmental enrichment completely eliminates behavioral sensitization and conditioned place preference to cocaine. In addition, housing mice in enriched environments after the development of conditioned place preference prevents cocaine-induced reinstatement of conditioned place preference and reduces activation of the brain circuitry involved in cocaine-induced reinstatement. Altogether, these results demonstrate that environmental enrichment can eliminate already established addiction-related behaviors in mice and suggest that environmental stimulation may be a fundamental factor in facilitating abstinence and preventing relapse to cocaine addiction.
So what did they do? Well, the addicted a group of mice to cocaine, and the split them into two sub-groups during withdrawal. Those in the "enriched environment" had larger enclosures with nicer shelters, a running wheel, and access to toys that were changed weekly.

They studied three different measures of addiction, each in a separate experiment:

(1) Behavioural sensitisation, which is a measure of the increase in effects of cocaine following chronic administration.
(2) Location preference, which is a measure of the extent to which a previously learned spatial association continues to elicit drug-seeking behaviour.
(3) The propensity of cocaine administration to lead to relapse after withdrawal.

The result was dramatic - after 30 days of exposure to the "enriched environment" addiction behavior of all three kinds had disappeared.

In contrast, the mice in the non-enriched environment still showed measurable addiction on each model after 30 days.

What has been found here isn't that availability of substitutable 'alternatives' makes a difference to the course of addiction. First, we knew that already. Second, the mice in the "enriched environment" weren't chosing between play and cocaine, so that the availability of play raised the opportunity cost of cocaine. They had more options during withdrawal.

The authors suggest two possible mechanisms. First, the "enriched environment" was less stressful, and stress is know to mediate relapse and drug-seeking. Second, the "enriched environment" provided opportunities to learn a wider range of reward-seeking behaviours, which reduced the power of the previously learned patterns relative to controls which had fewer such opportunities. These are not mutually exclusive, and both seem highly plausible (there's also independent evidence for each).

There's plenty more to be found out, but this is a very useful addition to our understanding. For another brief notice of the same research see this on Science Daily.

ResearchBlogging.orgM. Solinas, C. Chauvet, N. Thiriet, R. El Rawas, M. Jaber (2008). From the Cover: Reversal of cocaine addiction by environmental enrichment Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (44), 17145-17150 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806889105

Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women’s Math Performance

ResearchBlogging.orgHosting the December 2008 Praxis Carnival got me thinking again (partly courtesy of submissions by PodBlack Cat and Dr Isis) about the representation of women in science. When a seasonal clean out of one of the many folders filled with PDFs that I "really ought to read some time" turned up this paper, I figured to blag it.

It's not controversial that in many sciences, including mathematics, women are under-represented compared to the ratios in the population at large. There's a lot of discussion over the questions of what precise mix of factors might explain this imbalance, and what sorts of policies might reduce it.

This study looked at women's performance at mathematics. The subjects completed a test including two mathematics sections separated by a reading comprehension section. The middle section was an experimental manipulation, with one of the following four essays:

(G) This essay argued that there were mathematics-related sex differences, and that the explanation was genetic.

(E) This essay argued that there were mathematics-related sex differences, and that the explanation was experiential.

(NS) This essay argued that there were no mathematics-related sex differences.

(S) This essay primed the question of sex without making reference to differences in mathematical ability.

The hypothesis was that in the second test participants in condition (G) and (S) would underperform those in condition (E) and (NS). This is just what they found, a result that was replicated in a schematically similar study where the manipulation was heard, rather than read. See the figure below.

This isn't surprising at all - it's consistent with a pile of established social psychology on the effectiveness of stereotypes. But it's definitely important.

Among other notices of this little paper, see The CIRTL Cafe.

I. Dar-Nimrod, S. J. Heine (2006). Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance Science, 314 (5798), 435-435 DOI: 10.1126/science.1131100

The Caterer

You can now buy volume 3 of the ill-fated and enraging Jeff Lint comic "The Caterer" in a reprint edition. And I, for one, think that you should. I've got several copies. Here's some of the boilerplate that the peeps in marketing came up with:
Described by Alan Moore as “the holy barnacle of failure”, The Caterer dragged Pearl into a legal hell when its hero spent the whole of Issue 9 on a killing spree in Disneyland. The smirking Jack Marsden became a cult figure and role model for enigmatic idiots in the mid-70s. His style and catchphrases were such an insider code that hundreds of people got beaten up by baffled or enraged onlookers.
Add it to your cart here.

BPSDB - Therapy as an alchemical process

Here's some supremely nebulous tosh, among other things illustrating that peer-review on its own can easily be an empty charade. It's by no means clear what is being asserted here, and it's even less clear what reasons are being given. Here, to start with, is the abstract:
In psychology, we can look at human beings either in their thing-like aspects or in their person-like aspects. One of the best places in which human beings can be studied as persons is in the arena of psychotherapy. Unfortunately, the prevalence of schoolism has meant that the findings of different schools of psychotherapy have not been integrated or indeed brought together in any way. But if we can take a wider view, we can see that there is actually a common path which therapy takes, which is common to all the schools. This paper is an attempt to outline this path. In doing so, I have found the fullest statement of it to be found in alchemical writings, but I have also found that as far as it goes, objective empirical research finds the same set of phases, and this suggests that alchemy may also be right about what goes beyond the orthodox research. It is rare to find something which unites the interests of the researcher and the practitioner, but here we have something which promises to do just that.
Ah, right. A generous reader might suppose that some serious metholological or maybe even metaphysical point is being made with the thing-person distinction. Nope. I looked in vain in the paper for any significant content being given to the putative distinction. The same point goes for other pseudo-distinctions drawn along the way, such as between understanding and explanation. Sigh.

The main positive claim seems to be that if you take a nebulous and vague enough conception of the therapeutic process you find it analogous to a nebulous and vague conception of medieval alchemy.

So, for example, therapy begins with the "Materia Prima" which is "what needs to be worked on, and is the most important and mysterious substance of all" (Oi! You at the back! Stop sniggering!). Presumably 'substances' are more like persons than things. Or not. Maybe things are like cheese, and persons are like dragons. Or something. Buggered if I can tell, and I've read this, and a pile of psychotherapy literature, and more renaissance neo-Platonist bullshit from primary texts than most.

And so it continues, for a series of stages.

Suppose that it really was the case that suitably vague conceptions of the therapeutic process and alchemy were in some sense analogous? So the f**k what?

The paper doesn't say. One tempting response is given by Wodehouse:
"Very good," I said coldly. "In that case, tinkerty-tonk." And I meant it to sting. (Right Ho, Jeeves - 1934).
It's also worth pointing that that other things being equal being found to stand in some relation of analogy with a false, superseded, bollocks theory (to the extent that Alchemy was a 'theory' at all) is hardly good news. At least not to anyone who cares about whether her beliefs are true.

Maybe the real analogy is that peddlers of bollocks to the gullible can still turn patients into gold, even if hardly anyone (and nobody with a clue) takes substance alchemy seriously.

John Rowan (2001). Therapy as an alchemical process International Journal of Psychotherapy, 6 (3), 273-288 DOI: 10.1080/14698490120112129