Thursday, October 19, 2017

John Oliver on science

I love this humorous clip from John Oliver's HBO series. Oliver touches on a number of key topics, from some of the questionable research practices that have led to some legitimate concerns that we will be wrestling with for some time to come, as well as how poorly science gets portrayed in the mass media.

Monday, October 9, 2017

More on violent video games and aggression

Just to drive home the point about how to best make sense of the impact of violent video games on aggressive behavioral outcomes, here is an entertaining clip from one of my favorite series, Spaced:

Please note that this is actually a fair (and humorous) portrayal of the short-term impacts of playing violent video games. In this case, when interrupted during game play (think of that as a form of high frustration) Tim is considerably more rude to Daisy, his flatmate, than he would ordinarily be - a fact that Daisy clearly recognizes. In other words, yes, there is a real short-term impact of playing violent video games on aggressive behavioral outcomes, but those behavioral outcomes are likely quite mundane. Although I do think that these are outcomes that could be potentially damaging to interpersonal relationships, and that is a conclusion that I am confident the research would allow me to make, I don't see any substantial risk of violent video game play and actual real world violence. If you are a gamer, there is no need to panic. If you live with a gamer, as I do, expect that occasionally they will behave like jerks if they misattribute their arousal to a minor frustration rather than to the content of the game itself. So yes, the research findings on video game violence and aggression are real, but please, be responsible when interpreting those findings. I'd rather the research invite healthy skepticism rather than cynicism. In the meantime, I'm eager to get the latest version of Wolfenstein.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Thinking straight about media violence

I am a bit swamped, so this will be a very brief post. As one can sort out relatively easily, my area of expertise is aggression, and much of my work has examined the influence of aggressive or violent cues on various outcomes (usually cognition). Although I am at a primarily teaching oriented university, and carry a heavy teaching load (at least four courses, each an individual prep, per semester - plus summer), I do try to conduct research when I can and certainly make a point of staying current with the state of research in my area of expertise. One conclusion I am drawing is that much of the research in these areas became needlessly politicized probably long ago. Violent video games come easily to mind, but I could point to research on practically any other aggression-inducing cue. To wit, there is a faction who is convinced that violent video games are terribly harmful and another faction of individuals who are convinced that violent video games have no effect whatsoever. Here's my quick take, based on reading a number of original reports, contributing to some of that research myself, and reading far too many meta-analyses and critiques and counter-critiques of said meta-analyses: it is possible to acknowledge that there is a real tangible effect of video game violence on aggressive cognitive and behavioral outcomes (and I make that conclusion taking into consideration the very real problem of publication bias) and also acknowledge that video game violence is highly unlikely to be an antecedent to real life violence. My reading of the literature has led me to conclude that following scenario is likely the most plausible short term effect of playing video games: if one happens to interrupt a gamer while playing their favorite game, they will probably say some very regrettable things to you that they would not otherwise say, because aggressive thoughts have been primed by their immediate stimuli, they have been provoked (in this case interrupted while trying to concentrate) and attribute their arousal to the interruption. In other words, yes, one will act incrementally more aggressive than they might have otherwise, but that these behavioral outcomes that we observe in the lab, field, and in our daily lives fall far short of mass shootings and social collapse. Should we be concerned about the impact that video game play has? Of course. Should we panic? For goodness sake, no. I'll have more to say later, and I will want to expand a bit more broadly to other situational cues. More to come. Stay tuned.

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.