Sunday, May 7, 2017

How to explain the Trump era? Psychologists have some ideas.

Vox recently posted an article, 7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics. Some of these are concepts I've touched on briefly, such as Chris Crandall's recent work on normative shifts. Some others I haven't. If I have some time, I'll elaborate on some of these concepts more, but for now I will simply state that the article itself is interesting and thought provoking.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Beware "scholars" with fake credentials

Political Scientist Andrew Richards, a professor at University of North Carolina, recently published a damning exposé of White House insider "Dr." Sebastian Gorka. It is certainly worth reading in whole in order to gain some insight into how this particular fraud managed to fly under the radar.

On paper, perhaps, Gorka's credentials would have appeared legitimate: his dissertation was awarded in 2007 while he was enrolled at Corvinus University of Budapest. Unfortunately as Dr. Richards digs beneath the surface, it becomes quite apparent that there is less than meets the eye when it comes to Gorka's alleged expertise and scholarship. Richards summarizes the shoddy work contained within the dissertation, and also goes into the composition of the dissertation committee itself, which appeared to have at least two individuals who had obtained no more than a Bachelor's level degree and one Ph.D. who was a personal friend of Gorka's. In addition, it is not clear when exactly Gorka attended Corvinus University, nor if he was even present when the dissertation was accepted by his committee. Dr. Richards' statement that Gorka essentially was awarded a title from the equivalent of Trump University is sadly appropriate. In essence, the late Hunter S. Thompson would have had about as much right to claim the title of "Doctor" as Sebastian Gorka. The one thing Gorka was adept at, for a while, was to market himself as an anti-terrorism expert, based on a dodgy degree, and target those who were easy marks: media outlets, politicians, and audience members who were looking for an "expert" who would confirm their most deeply-held prejudices under the ruse of offering expert opinion.

What this sad affair says for the legitimacy of any degree awarded from Corvinus University I certainly am in no position to offer a judgment. Perhaps this was an isolated incident at an institution that normally offers better quality control. Or not. At the moment, I would defer to someone with some expertise on the status of Corvinus as an institution. The matter certainly does not help the institution's reputation.

For those curious, Dr. Richards does shed some light on the process of awarding a Ph.D., and the typical composition of a dissertation committee. His description is generally fairly similar to my own experience. The bottom line is that all committee members have the degree that they may or may not be willing to confer upon the Ph.D. candidate, depending on how the dissertation process up to and including the defense plays out. A good outside member is typically someone from a different department at the institution, and is present to assure that the process was above board. None of that appeared to be the case for Gorka. And given his lack of credentials, those seeking insights into terrorism and strategies for combating terrorism would be well advised to look elsewhere for legitimate experts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Today We March For Science

Once I learned that there would be a March for Science event, I knew I'd have to be involved somehow. My initial modest hope was that there would at least be a satellite event in our state's capital, Little Rock. To my pleasant surprise, Fort Smith ended up holding one of the satellite events. Our event would likely be dwarfed by the larger events worldwide, but that Fort Smith is now a viable host for events like this is itself a sign of the times we live in. I know many of the organizers, as they are primarily on faculty with me. There was a good deal of support thanks to our local Indivisible chapter and Western Arkansas TOGETHER WE WILL. Many of us at today's event were scientists and science educators. Many more were fellow travelers. We share a common concern: the state of support for our sciences in the US.

It seems obscene that now that we're well into the 21st century that we would need to hold rallies in order to remind the public that we exist and that we matter. And yet here we are. The level of hostility toward the sciences in the US seems to be at an all time high. Nor has there been more than lip service paid to science education, it would seem. As the Dean from our university's STEM College acknowledged, the proportion of students majoring in a science discipline is woefully small compared to other developed nations as well as those that are developing (China, Singapore, etc.). As I recall E. O. Wilson writing in Letters to a Young Scientist, there is good reason to be optimistic about the continued development of the sciences globally. Regrettably, the US appears to be in the process of abdicating its leadership role in the sciences. That will not bode well for us in the long run. We march in part to remind our fellow Americans of that reality. We march to remind our fellow human beings of how integral the sciences are to our civilization.

Scientists are often hesitant to get involved in public life and would prefer to let the data speak for themselves. The reality is that our data do not speak for themselves. They need advocates. How we go about our work needs to be better communicated to the public. We test hypotheses based on theoretical models. We search for converging evidence over time. In many cases, such as with climate change or many media violence cues, there is considerable converging evidence supporting that those phenomena are real and that they should concern us. The qualifications for working in the sciences needs to be better communicated. There are plenty of misconceptions about the level of IQ (only one small facet of intelligence) needed to become a scientist. Wilson himself once noted that he was not the smartest man in the room - and yet he went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work. He worked hard, persisted, and learned how to network with those who had expertise where he did not. That is what the vast majority of us do. Even better, we don't need to be math geniuses to succeed in most sciences (there are exceptions). The level of mathematics competency in my discipline is relatively doable for practically any college or university student - unless one wants to be a quantitative psychologist, in which case plan on a heavy mathematics course load in order to truly understand the intricacies of theoretical statistics. But generally, to repeat, one need develop a minimal level of fluency in mathematics and conduct research that will contribute to humanity.

I'd love to say that we could be nonpartisan. The facts on the ground in the US suggest something different. Those of us who work in the sciences are well aware of politicians who are hostile to us and well aware of which party has shown considerable hostility to our work. We are well aware of who has tried to cut funding for fundamental work in the sciences, and we are well aware of who has written off our work as trivial, or who has accused some of our work as being little more than a hoax. We know who might want to scrub the archives of "inconvenient" scientific truths. As a researcher, I am comfortable working with colleagues from all walks of life. There is a red line though that may never be crossed: we seek and report the truth regardless of how it affects a party's polling numbers or corporate quarterly reports.

It is a shame that we need to have science marches, but if we must, I am thankful to know that I am in good company. I hope we can continue to work together to advocate for our work. If we don't, no one else will.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Is Most Published Research Really False?

That is the title of a recent chapter published in the Annual Review of Statistics and its Applications by Leek and Jager (2017). I am just now digesting this particular chapter, but at first glance, it appears that the talk about a reproducibility or replicability crisis in various scientific fields is a bit overblown. Why does this matter? We as scientists and consumers of science need reasonable assurance that the work produced by our fellow researchers is sound methodologically. If it is not, then we are in serious trouble. Leek and Jager hardly offer a rosy view of the state of research in a variety of fields, including mine. Their coverage of the OSF-sponsored replication attempt of 100 psychology articles published in 2008 (which sparked a good deal of consternation a couple years ago when it was published) discusses not only its contentions, but the weaknesses inherent in its attempts to replicate the studies its teams of researchers took on. The impression I get is that there is no real crisis, but we do need to step up our game a bit and make certain that the methods we use are appropriate, and that we are transparent in providing descriptions of our work (for replication) as well as data and code (for reproducibility). Not only do we need to communicate more clearly with the public (as I noted earlier) but we need to communicate more clearly with each other, and make certain that any statistical methodology we use is used wisely.

Preventing our slide into authoritarianism

The US is not an authoritarian state - yet. Are we at risk? Arguably so. Amy Siskind has been keeping track of subtle changes in the US since the election. Her latest Facebook post is here. Since the devolution of a state into authoritarianism is likely to be subtle, we may not realize we have crossed the proverbial Rubicon until it is too late. As scientists and scholars, we also have an obligation to be vigilant, as our ability to conduct our work with any degree of validity requires a free and open society that allows for a free and open exchange of data and ideas. It is also worth noting that there is a subset of American scientists who have signed loyalty oaths to the US Constitution, typically as a prerequisite for obtaining employment in various state and Federal agencies. I am among those who has signed such an oath, and I take my allegiance to the US Constitution and all it stands for quite seriously. Even if one has never signed a loyalty oath, I would advise making clear one's opposition to any noticeable apparent threats to our Constitutional order in the months and years to come. This is something any of us can and should do, regardless of our diverse and sometimes divergent ideological or partisan preferences.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Academics need to communicate more with the public

This article was on my Facebook feed earlier today, and I thought I would share it with you: Academics can change the world - but only if the stop talking only to their peers. The article is balanced enough to highlight how our collective knowledge base fails to reach the general public, yet takes into consideration how the academic world itself makes it difficult to take the time to communicate with the public. As an individual, I can certainly attest to the difficulty in balancing my workload and sharing new findings with non-academics. There are no real structural incentives to do so. That needs to change.

In the meantime, I will continue to use my blog to communicate my work as I can. I do have a few ground rules that I follow. One is that I will avoid dropping a bunch of statistics on you. Two, I am hesitant to say much about work that is on-going or is currently under review. I think I can provide broad summaries without too much difficulty. The main reason I say that is simply because reviewers and editors can and do get offended if they think they are reading work previously published elsewhere. So I may say in ordinary language that I ran an experiment that tested some phenomenon, and here is what I found and why it might matter. I am not publishing the details of the methodology, which frankly bores most readers, and am not publishing the data analyses. So I should stay in the good graces of those who review my work and the work of my coauthors.

Note too that what I share is truly on my own time. Again, just the nature of the beast. That means posts are often going to be irregular. I do have some fresh work on the weapons effect that I will share with you all in the near future.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Marijuana and Aggression: What Does Research Tell Us?

Current Attorney General Jefferson Sessions recently stated that there was a connection between marijuana and violence. That is his rationale apparently for making sure that marijuana remains illegal, even as more and more states legalize not only marijuana for medical use but recreational use as well. The argument might be plausible if there were an actual increase violent crime rates in states where marijuana had been legalized. However, the crime rate data suggest a different interpretation:

Denver saw a 2.2 percent drop in violent crime rates in the year after the first legal recreational cannabis sales in Colorado. Overall property crime dropped by 8.9 percent in the same period there, according to figures from the Drug Policy Alliance. In Washington, violent crime rates dropped by 10 percent from 2011 to 2014. Voters legalized recreational marijuana there in 2012.

Medical marijuana laws, which have a longer track record for academics than recreational pot legalization, are also associated with stable or falling violent crime rates.

Any violence associated with this particular drug is apparently connected with factors such as turf wars and deals gone bad that are common with the activity of trafficking the drug illegally. So in this case it isn't the drug itself causing violence, but rather the consequences of the illegal drug trade. This is something many of us who study aggression and violence from various disciplines would have known for ages.

Nor does experimental research suggest a link between marijuana intoxication and aggressive behavior in general. Note that in lab research, we don't measure violence, but we can measure physical aggression by having participants believe that they are delivering electric shock to another person. The higher the shock level, the more aggressively the participants behave. Myerscough and Taylor (1985) found evidence that participants who were given higher doses of TCH (the active ingredient in marijuana) were generally non-aggressive across provocation levels, suggesting that marijuana did not facilitate aggressive behavior. That followed up an earlier experiment in Taylor's lab suggesting that although alcohol intoxication facilitated aggression when participants were provoked, THC did not facilitate aggression under conditions of provocation.

More recently, Perna et al. (2016) showed that particpants who reported being either heavy alcohol or marijuana users showed an increase in aggression following alcohol intoxication and a decrease in aggression following marijuana intoxication. In addition, participants' subjective aggression was measured, showing that alcohol increased participants subjective aggression but that increase was not found among those in the marijuana condition. Perna et al. (2016) also provide a useful summary of the research literature, suggesting that much of the literature on marijuana and aggression (to the extent it exists) is largely hampered by very small samples, failure to include placebo conditions, and so on. The samples in the Perna et al (2016) experiment are also a bit smaller than I would want to see. However, as a generally well-designed exploratory experiment, it does suggest that we think twice before accepting the pronouncements of a politician on faith. The findings are also generally consistent with much of the earlier experimental and cross-sectional research that I am aware of.