Friday, March 10, 2023

Friendly reminder: Masks work

Since we are going to be dealing with COVID-19 for a while to come, it's useful to remind readers that the overwhelming evidence is that masks (especially N-95) work quite well. As we've known for a long while, COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne particles. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about fomites for that particular virus. The article I linked to offers plenty of evidence about how the virus spreads, including the current Omicron variant and subvariants, which are highly transmissible. There's some advice for reusing N-95 masks, which is helpful, given their expense. You will want to refresh your supply regularly. Even a poorly fitting N-95 mask is far better than being unmasked if there are people in the vicinity who have COVID-19. Chances are you're probably less likely to be exposed if you are outdoors than indoors, and while indoors, good ventilation matters. 

Masks, like other mitigation measures, became needlessly politicized in 2020, and we are paying the price globally as a consequence. Prevention measures generally are good common sense. If you can keep your face covered, you reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting COVID-19. That's a good thing. If you have the ability to physically distance when there is an outbreak (as there will continue to be for a while), you're better off doing so. Even though fomites are not an issue, I'd still advocate for good hand hygiene. Ultimately, though, you have to figure out your own situation and how much risk you can afford to take. Those with pre-existing health conditions or who are young at heart but not so much chronologically should probably mask up at minimum, at least indoors. If you can get vaccinated, it is in your best interest to do so. For the record, my spouse and I have both had our original two COVID vaccines, and any subsequent boosters made available to us. They're no guarantee, and I know my spouse did test positive for COVID-19 in early December 2022. However, thanks to detecting it early and getting her on Paxlovid, she had minimal symptoms and avoided hospitalization (and this is someone who can easily get bronchitis or pneumonia). 

Stick to solid science. Tune out the demagogues. You'll be better off, and so will anyone else in your life.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Welcome to another new year

Image Source: Getty Images

Another calendar year has come and gone. In many ways, it was a busy year. I have spent much of my time in the classroom (physically and virtually), have scored AP Psychology free recall question responses in person for the first time since 2019, and have chaired or attended my share of committee meetings. I attended a virtual conference with small-time social science organization that has been part of my extended family for a long time, and presented a paper on the replication crisis in the behavioral and social sciences. I caught portions of the SIPS conference, since I could attend virtually. I'm thinking my days of bankrolling a lot of travel for conferences are numbered, if not simply over. I don't have the personal budget, and my university (like similar comprehensive public regional universities) is too cash-strapped, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. I continue to adjunct, and probably will over the next few years unless circumstances change for the better.

This past year was one where, in spite of the chaos, I came to terms with some stark realities about my career. It's safe to say that the days when I could at least delude myself into thinking I could make one more move into the R-2 institutions and have at least some access to resources needed to do the work I had once set out to do are over, finished, kaput. It's pretty obvious if one checks any of my research profiles that I am just not all that prolific an author these days. I've put off projects that once upon a time would have excited me. 2022 was the year when I simply faced up to the fact that I just wasn't that person anymore. It's been a long journey, but I find some peace with the acceptance of my current circumstances. I won't have the resources, such as lab space, to run experiments, or even participate in multi-lab experiments or studies. I won't have the resources to bring undergraduate students to academic conferences. Within the confines of my limited resources, I can do a few other things, such as prepare students to be savvy consumers of research. I can help prepare them to use the skills they learn along the way in whatever career or vocation they end up choosing as time passes. As my own department changes, I can do what I can to shape and implement its vision. That's about it, really. 

With a plan to retire sometime between 70 and 75, I have about 13-18 years left to do what I can as an educator to leave my little corner of the psychological sciences in a better place. After that? My first publications were poems and haiku. I'll most likely go back to that, and focus much more on landscape photography. In the meantime, I'll keep this blog going, for any who might be interested. I still have plenty to say about the state of the science of psychology, and of the academic world itself.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

One thing mass shooters have in common

If you are someone who likes to place bets, one safe bet is that the next mass shooting perpetrator will have a history of domestic violence. The majority of mass shootings tend to be domestic violence-related. In other words, the perpetrator is attacking a spouse, an ex, and/or other family members. In other mass shooting incidents, the perpetrator may not be targeting partners or family, but have a history of domestic violence in their past. That often shows in police records, etc. So keep that in mind when looking for risk factors. 

The other factor that appears to interact with a history of domestic violence is consumption of violent rhetoric targeting specific social groups based on ethnicity, religion, gender/gender orientation, or sexual orientation. The recent mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs appears to be tied to hateful rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ community, as well as legislation discriminating against our LGBTQ peers. Words on social media and elsewhere have consequences, and risk triggering those who already have histories of violence, and I would suspect histories of holding authoritarian attitudes. In the case of the latter, authoritarian aggression is the real concern. Authoritarians who believe that their legitimate authority figures consider targeting a minority group for violence is acceptable are at risk to follow through, and at bare minimum are at risk to approve such behavior.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The struggle continues: Zheng and Zhang (2016) Pt. 4

Let's focus on Study 1 of Zheng and Zhang (2016). It should have been fairly simple, at least in terms of data reporting. However it happened, the authors honed into two video games that they thought were equivalent in terms of any confound aside from violent content, and merely needed to run a pilot study to demonstrate that they could back that up with solid evidence. It should have been a slam-dunk.

Not so fast.

The good news is that, unlike Study 2, the analyses of the age data are actually mathematically plausible. That's swell. I noticed that the authors had some Likert-style questions to rate the games on a variety of dimensions, which makes sense. The scaling was reported to be on a 1 to 5 scale, in which 1 meant very low and 5 meant very high for each dimension. My intention was to focus on Tables 1 and 2. If a 1 to 5 Likert scale was used for each of the items used to rate the games, there were some problems. One glaring problem is that there is no way that there could be means above 5. And yet, for Violent Content and Violent Images dimensions, the mean was definitely above 5 in each case. That does not compute. I have no idea what scaling was used on the questionnaires actually used. I can perhaps assume a 1 to 7 Likert scale. Certainly doing so would make some means and standard deviations that seemed mathematically impossible seem at least with in the realm of plausibility. But there is no way to know. We do not have the data. We do not have any of the materials and protocols. We have to take everything on faith. I had intended to have a set of images of SPRITE analyses on Table 1 and Table 2, but didn't see the point. 

Then we have the usual problem with degrees of freedom. With a 2x2 mixed ANOVA, with game type as a repeated measure and "gender" as a between-subjects factor, the degrees of freedom would not have deviated much from the sample size of 220. I think we can all agree with that. Degrees of freedom below 100 would be impossible. And yet the analyses reported do just that. It does not help much that Table 1 is mislabeled as t-test results. If we assumed paired sample t-tests, degrees of freedom for each item would have been 219. Again, the reported degrees of freedom do not compute.

What I can say with some certainty is that Zheng and Zhang (2016) should not be included in any meta-analysis addressing violent video games and aggression or media violence and aggression. My efforts to address some of these issues with the editorial staff never went very far. It's so funny how problems with a published paper lead editorial staff to go on vacation. I get it. I'd rather be out of town and away from email contact when someone emails (with evidence) concerns about a published paper. Unfortunately, if the data and analyses cannot be trusted, we have a problem. This is precisely the sort of paper that, once published, ends up included in meta-analyses. Meta-analysts who would rather exclude findings that are, at best, questionable will be pressured to include such papers anyway. How much that biases the overall findings is clearly a concern. And yet the attitude seems to be to let it go. The attitude is that the status quo is sufficient. One flawed study surely could not hurt that much? We simply don't know. The same lab persisted, with samples of over 3,000, to publish research relevant to media violence researchers. Several of those papers ended up retracted. Others probably should have been, but probably won't due to whatever political reasons one might imagine. 

All I can say is the truth is there. I've tried to lay it out. If someone wants to run with it and help make our science a bit better, I welcome you and your efforts.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The NeverEnding Story: Zheng and Zhang (2016) Pt. 3

Whenever I have a few seconds of spare time and feel like torturing myself, I go back to reading a paper I have blogged about previously (see here and here). Each reading reveals more errors, and my remarks over the previous blog posts reflect that. Initially I thought Study 1 was probably okay or less problematic than Study 2. However, Study 1 is every bit as problematic as Study 2. I think I was so overwhelmed by the insane amount of errors in Study 2 that I had no energy left to devote to Study 1. And I do want to circle around to Study 1. But first, I want to add one more remark to Study 2.

With regard to Study 2, I focused on the very odd reporting of degrees of freedom (df) for each statistical analysis, given that the experiment had 240 participants. I showed that if we were to believe those df to be correct (hint: we shouldn't), there were several decision errors. And to top it off, the authors try to write off what appears to be a statistically significant 3-way interaction as non-significant. That would still be the case even if the appropriate df were reported. The so-called main effect of violent video games on reaction time to aggressive versus non-aggressive goal words was inadequate. As noted before, not only were the df undoubtedly wrong, but the analysis does not compare the difference in reaction times between the treatment and control conditions. I would have expected either a 2x2 ANOVA demonstrating the interaction or the authors to compute the differences (in milliseconds) between aggressive and non-aggressive goal words for both the treatment and control groups, and then to compute the appropriate one-way ANOVA or t-test. Anderson et al (1998) took this latter approach and were quite successful. At least the authors offered means for that main analysis. In subsequent analyses, the authors quickly dispense with reporting means at all. In no case do the authors report standard deviations. That's the capsule summary of my critique up to this point. Now to add the proverbial cherry on top: the one time that the authors do report the mean and standard deviation together was when reporting the age of the participants, and even then the authors manage to make a mess of things. 

Recall that the authors had a sample of 240 children ranging in age from 9 to 12 years for Study 2. The mean age for the participants was 11.66 with a standard deviation of 1.23. Since age can be treated as integer data, I used a post-peer-review tool called SPRITE to make sure that the mean age and standard deviation were mathematically possible. To do so, I entered the range of possible ages (as provided by the authors), the target mean and standard deviation, and the maximum number of distributions to generate. To my chagrin, I got an error message. Specifically, I was informed by SPRITE that the target standard deviation I had provided, based on what the authors reported, was too large. The largest mathematically plausible standard deviation was 1.17. Even something as elementary as the mean and standard deviation of participants' age gets messed up. You can try SPRITE for yourself and determine if what I am finding is correct. My guess is you will. Below is the result I obtained. I prefer to show my work.

So Study 2 is not to be trusted at all. What about Study 1? It's a mess for its own reasons. I'll circle back to that in a future post.

Friday, July 29, 2022

A Blast From the Past: Retractions and Meta-Analysis Edition

I stumbled across this article, Media and aggression research retracted under scrutiny, and found it to be an interesting short read. The article's author chronicles some recent retractions, and what had been another on-going investigation of several papers coauthored by Qian Zhang of Southwest University. I've written enough about his work over the last few years. I think referring to many of Zhang's papers having "been called into question" is a fair assessment. 

Part of the story chronicles Samuel West, who included one of Zhang's papers in his meta-analysis at the request of a reviewer. His meta-analysis would undergo another round of peer review around the time he learned of that particular Zhang paper being under investigation at the same journal. Ouch. West certainly has legitimate concerns about including a potentially dodgy finding in his meta-analysis. In this case, the paper by Zhang and colleagues was not retracted, but I am sure West has his misgivings about including the paper in his database in the first place. I can certainly empathize. My most recent published meta-analysis included one of Zhang's papers that would eventually get retracted early this year. That said, there are plenty of papers generated from Zhang's lab with obvious problems, or, in the case of his more recent work, have problems that are more cleverly hidden. I agree with Amy Orben that the fact that problematic studies continue to remain in journals and meta-analyses is "a major problem" when we think about how politicized media violence research is. Requiring archiving of data, data analyses, and research protocols probably helps to the extent that it is required - at least anything that might be incorrect or fraudulent can more easily be sniffed out. Otherwise, one can only hope for sleuths with enough time on their hands and no concerns for career repercussions for blowing the whistle on published papers that should have never seen the light of day. Good luck with that.

I do take issue with Zhang's characterization of Hilgard as someone who is "just trying to make his name based just on claiming that everyone else does bad research." I get that Zhang is a bit sore about the retractions, and Hilgard was the person who contacted Zhang and a plethora of journal editors regarding the papers in question. That said, there was plenty of chatter about Zhang's work in 2018 and onward, and there were probably several of us who just wanted to know that we hadn't gone insane, and that the obvious data errors, including degrees of freedom that were inaccurate, means and standard deviations that were mathematically impossible, and tables that made no sense really were what we thought they were. Hilgard was far and away better connected to the sphere of media violence research as an active researcher himself, and had the data analytic know-how and the connections that come with being at a R-1 university to do what needed to be done. Aside from that, Hilgard made plenty of positive contributions to the methodology side of psychological science, and from interacting with him online and in person over the years, I'll simply say he's a good person to know. 

I think this article is somewhat helpful in pointing out that even those who believe there is a link between violent content in media (such as video games) and aggression can view Zhang's work and see it for what it is, and express an appropriate level of skepticism. At the end of the day, one can take a philosophical perspective that there is "no one right way to look at the data" and that's all well and good. But at the end of the day, if the analyses show decision errors, and the means and standard deviations forming the basis for those analyses are simply mathematically impossible, the only reasonable conclusion that can be made is that the data and analyses in their present form cannot be accepted as valid. 

The only bone I really have to pick is that the author characterizes the body of media violence research as asking the question of whether or not "violent entertainment causes violence". Although I am aware that there are researchers in this area of inquiry who would draw that conclusion, there are plenty of other investigators who view what we can learn based on our available methods much more cautiously (a lot of aggression is mild, after all). There are also plenty of skeptics who doubt that there is any link between media violence and even the mild forms of aggression that we can measure. As far as I am aware, there is no link between exposure to violent content in mass media and violent behavior in everyday life. All that said, this is a useful article that captures a series of events that I know quite intimately. 

Suddenly, I am in the mood for some cartoon violence. I think I'll watch some early episodes of Rick and Morty. Goodnight.

Monday, July 25, 2022

The 50th anniversary of the article that brought an end to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Here's an article I strongly recommend reading. The study itself is something I and my colleagues in my department discuss in our methods courses as an example of flagrantly unethical research. Although not a psychology study by any stretch, it is a cautionary tale of the abuses that have occurred (and can potentially occur) that exploit marginalized people.