Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The jamovi MAJOR module

I've been switching over most of my data analyses to jamovi (as a very tentative step toward learning R), as well as switching my instruction to jamovi. Overall, I love the interface, and will probably say more about it later. For now I just want to say a few brief words about the MAJOR module, which is meant to interface with Metafor, which is a meta-analytic package for R. MAJOR is very intuitive, and I've found it relatively easy so far to reproduce basic analyses from distributions from prior meta-analysis I've worked on. It produces helpful forest plots and funnel plots. It meets my basic needs. When it comes to publication bias, I wish there were more options available. As of now, MAJOR offers Fail-safe N (and my advice has been that friends do not let friends use Fail-safe N) and Egger's test to detect potential publication bias. I hope the developers of MAJOR plan on adding on more publication bias options, even if just trim-and-fill analyses (fixed and random). That said, meta-analysis has moved way beyond any of the above techniques, and I'd love to see other publication bias techniques included, (PET-PEESE comes to mind). That would be helpful. Otherwise, I am quite happy with what I've been able to do so far. Kudos to the developers of MAJOR for what they have done so far.

Friday, August 13, 2021

It's been quite a week

On August 6th, Tom Mars' temporary injunction against State Act 1002 of 2021 was a tentative success. The parents who sued the state with his representation were able to convince a judge to order a temporary injunction against the law, thus preventing its enactment for the time being. The law would have prevented local and state run agencies and governments from enforcing mask mandates. The law was signed by our Governor, Asa Hutchinson, last May. It seemed like the legislature and the Governor spiked the proverbial football at the time. Cases of COVID-19 had gone down and would continue to go down for a few more weeks. I thought the law was stupid at the time. It coincided with other laws which restricted any of my state's Governors from enacting common-sense state of emergency mandates. The optics of the Governor actually signing State Act 1002 of 2021 would look bad no matter what. Given the spike in cases that has led to a record number of children in ICUs and ventilators during yet another wave of COVID-19 cases, the whole thing smells of hubris. 

There was no good news or relief for those few school districts that had started school right around the end of July or the start of August. But once the temporary injunction was filed, the dominoes started to fall. A number of school districts across the state, including some that are considered to be "conservative" (whatever that might mean anymore) enacted mask mandates. My city's school district was one of those. University systems across the state enacted mask mandates over the course of this week. I think the city of Little Rock mandated masks on public indoor property. Private corporations with footprints in my state have not only enacted mask mandates of their own, but required their employees to show evidence of vaccination as a condition of employment. A standard of conservative governance in the past had been that policy decisions that had been mandated by Federal or state officials should be handed off to localities and private enterprise. Something has changed in the last few years. The conservative orthodoxy that I understood and even respected, albeit grudgingly, has been supplanted with something different. When it comes to public health and safety, apparently now the new orthodoxy is that the state can actively prevent local governments and state agencies, as well as private sector businesses from doing what is necessary to protect their employees, customers, etc. 

I have no doubt that our current state's Attorney General (Leslie Rutledge) will appeal the injunction against Act 1002. After all, she does have some political aspirations, including a run for the office of Governor. I am actually surprised she has waited as long as she has. I am no legal eagle, but based on how I understood the temporary injunction ruling, assuming the state's Supreme Court is even remotely functional, the law is dead in the water. We'll wait and see. Localities not wanting blood on their hands are not waiting. Nor are those in the private sector, even as our legislature plots to treat the corporations that employ the vast majority of our residents as ones that are only able to act under the whims of a command economy. We're not late-period USSR, or at least we should not be.

From what I've seen with parents on FB groups is that they're voting with their feet if they have the luxury of doing so (usually those with some financial means, which results in those who are relatively upper middle class). School districts that seem to be promoting health and safety my see an increase in students, and an increase to their funding. Colleges and universities that demonstrate a willingness to act in the interest of the health and well-being of their students will hopefully be rewarded for their efforts, regardless of how this current legal battle plays out. At least students and where relevant their parents will recall the systems who were willing to stand and be counted. 

In the meantime, we're recording consistently around 3k COVID-19 cases per day in my state, and the hospitalization rate and ventilator rate are both off the charts. Our vaccination rates have started to bump up a bit. I honestly don't know how much of that is due to the proverbial "fear of God" being put into some very reluctant folks given our current dire situation, and how much of that is due to private corporations and business just outright mandating vaccinations. 

Regardless, I am hoping that one of the lessons we learn from this debacle is that politicizing any efforts to mitigate a pandemic is simply an awful idea and should be avoided at all costs.

We got lucky, for now

Early last week, a lawyer, Tom Mars, filed a lawsuit in a state court to seek at least a temporary injunction against the Arkansas state legislature's efforts to forbid local state agencies (such as school boards) from independently mandating masks or facial coverings as a means of mitigating the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. The temporary injunction succeeded. I had expected our state's Attorney General to mount an immediate appeal to the state's Supreme Court. So far, that has not been forthcoming. I am under the impression that the Governor has sought outside legal counsel in order to make the next move. If the external counsel is smart, the state-level leaders (if we can call them that) have been informed that the nature of the temporary injunction is one that suggests that the Tom Mars suit will succeed on its merits. We'll have to wait and see.There is reason for optimism.

Not every state agency will issue a mask mandate, even as this latest wave of the pandemic ravages our state. But many will. My city's school district acted quickly and on Monday mandated masks for all who are faculty, staff or students in situations in which there are two or more people inside a building. This is pretty consistent with what was policy last academic year. That's as good as we could have expected. That mandate will be reviewed in late September. Depending on how things look, the mandate may be extended or it may be allowed to expire. My best guess, based upon projections by our own state health experts, is that we'll still want a mask mandate for yet another 60 days. I was glad to see that most of the state's university systems chose to put mask mandates in place. That was wise, given that I suspect that if the decision was placed in the hands of individual faculty senate bodies, there would have been gridlock, given that faculty themselves are polarized (which I realize is counter-intuitive to the usual narratives concerning faculty ideology).

The bottom line is that the vast majority of us are getting what we want and need. There are very understandably skittish students and parents (I and my youngest daughter among them) who needed assurances that students once more could have in-person events in as safe an environment as possible. We're probably a silent majority in our state and locality. Faculty and staff get assurances that they and their families will be kept as safe as is possible at the K-12, college, and university levels. For that, I am grateful. Ideally, we'd have some mandate on our university and college campuses regarding COVID-19 vaccination. Suggesting such an action is politically incorrect in this environment. I was never good at following party lines, and that is especially true with our current ruling party in my state. As it stands, our state legislators (at least those from the GOP, which is the majority party), are even trying to interfere in the decisions private businesses can make regarding vaccination mandates for employees, which seems maddening, given how much the GOP once fetishized all things private sector. 

This is just my opinion, and one should take it for what it is. I am convinced that an uncontrolled pandemic is bad for private businesses, for public universities and colleges, and for public schools.  Refusing to do even the minimum needed to keep students safe? Parents will look for, and pay for, other options. As someone who relies on private businesses for survival? I will patronize those businesses that do what is necessary to mitigate spread. A restaurant that offers an indoor dining experience in which there is physical distancing and a mask requirement for customers, and where employees are required to be vaccinated? They have my business, regardless the cost. That's a promise. I am sticking with our current medical practitioners largely because the larger system took this pandemic so seriously that all employees from doctors to CNAs have to be vaccinated. Our other system in my area seems to be fairly non-seriousness of the current threat. They've seen the last of us for a while. Part of living in a capitalist society is that we do get some choices, and those businesses and agencies that do due diligence to keep us safe will earn future business. Those who refuse will eventually lose out. States and regions refusing to protect their residents in the name of public safety will lose out. I wish corporations with some footprint in these states would do a better job of educating state legislators (including reminding them that their donations have been based on doing the bidding of these corporations), and that various levels of chambers of commerce would reach out and educate local political officials. I also wish that those same chambers of commerce would make it very clear that those unwilling to protect public heath, and hence protect the interests of the private sector, would be out of a political career as of November 2022. That's quite an ask. I can hope.

In the meantime, I have some tools now to keep my students and my family safe that I was not expecting even when I last posted. There is reason to hope. We got lucky, or so it appears. An angry group of parents of kids who have as of yet no access to a COVID-19 vaccine, who have immuno-compromized family, etc., we've had some tentative victories. Let's not get complacent. We've learned that our legislature is only willing to follow our system of economics and governance when it is convenient to our state legislature's party line (this should seem very similar to what those operating under the USSR during its period of collapse experienced). "Good" party members benefited for a while as those who were not suffered. Once we devolve to that point, it's no longer clear if there is even a social order. I don't follow party lines of any sort. So here we are. Benefit students. Accept that businesses who rely on public trust (all businesses, as it turns out) have what they need to build trust during what we hope is a once in a century pandemic.This is not rocket science, by any stretch.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

A bit of a postscript to the preceding

Some other observations:

There are times when I wish I had more legal expertise. The reason I say that is because I suspect we're not that many student (or faculty and staff) hospitalizations and deaths at institutions that either willingly refuse to mandate vaccines or masks during this particularly virulent phase of the pandemic (with an R0 of about 8 or 9, the Delta variant is already one of the most infectious viruses known to humanity), or whose hands were tied by state legislators and/or governors from someone attempting to file a lawsuit. Whether or not something like that can succeed is another matter, but I would not be surprised if some angry family members seek a legal remedy, under those tragic circumstances. Early on in the pandemic, we were essentially flying blind. At this juncture, we can see very clearly what is coming our way. Someone will be held accountable eventually for preventable risk.

 On the topic of risk, I would expect insurance premiums to go up. Insurers are going to price in risk as long as this pandemic continues, and try to recoup some of their lost profit margins from paying considerable portions of the bills of those who ended up hospitalized with COVID-19. I'm sure colleges and universities have some sort of insurance that they pay to shield them, and those premiums will go up. Smart insurers are going to jack up their rates in areas where vaccination rates are low and infections rates continue to remain high. 

There is stereotype about faculty being practically a hive mind. Those believing that have never been to a faculty committee meeting. I suspect that the divisions regarding how to deal with the pandemic (or simply to refuse to deal with the pandemic) are now very noticeable on college and university campuses. I will only provide an anecdote, but I think it will illustrate what I have in mind. I just rolled off a committee that among other things was tasked with providing some faculty-led guidance on how to find solutions to ease some of the suffering of our students. Although in ordinary years, I would cringe at solutions such as retroactive withdrawals or Pass/Fail options for students to select once they see their grade reports, These last three semesters have been very far from ordinary. Our campus offered those options for students for Spring and Summer 2020. Once the Fall semester was well underway, and it became obvious that a new wave of cases was building up, students approached us to offer these solutions once more. There was a lot of pushback from that committee, and in the end, we'd come up a couple votes shy of what the student leadership was telling us the students needed. Some of that pushback was expected - it amounted to "I walked uphill in the snow in 100 degree heat each way and I did just fine. These students can too." But some that pushback was really ideological and seemed to parrot talking points I've seen on Facebook groups aligned with Trump. I noticed that ideological pattern of pushback emerge on all matters concerning this pandemic as time went on. I'd already decided to roll off that particular committee simply because it was a significant time commitment, and I'd devoted about half of my career at my current university to serving on that committee. The toxicity that has emerged sealed it for me. When it comes to solutions that are pandemic related, this is a committee that might be able to produce half-measures or fail to act at all.* The ideologues are a minority but very vocal, and smart enough to sort out how to use parliamentary procedure to their advantage. All of that is to say that when it comes to things like revisiting mask mandates, if a lawsuit succeeds in my state to strike down a law that prevents our university from doing so, that decision about whether or not to mandate masks indoors will need to be made by senior administration. There is too much division among faculty. It's probably a safe assumption that the same applies among students as well. And it's probably not just my own campus. 

Once basic public health and safety measures got politicized early on during the pandemic, any hope for the public to more or less band together (the usual small groups of outliers notwithstanding) and use some good horse sense went away. Of course that politicization would spill over onto college and university campuses. After all, our campuses are merely microcosms of our own aching society. Regrettably, I can envision an era in which there are going to be sets of faculty on any given campus who simply cannot and will not work together. Whatever goodwill that once existed has vanished. That may be gone for a generation or two.

My professional opinion as an educator is that many in-person activities from instruction to recreation are potentially safe enough if those who make up the campus community are required to be vaccinated (medical and religious exceptions a given) and wear masks for now, at least indoors and in crowded outdoor environments. That may not quite be the normal we wanted, but it is what we could potentially achieve for the next couple semesters (for those of us on the semester system - folks on the quarter system can sort out their own math). I'd also recommend college and university systems offering generous leave for faculty and staff who either acquire COVID-19 (probably breakthrough cases if fully vaccinated) or must care for family who are infected, and generous absentee policies for students who test positive for COVID-19. We probably need at least retroactive W or Passing grade policies in place for a bit longer, with the understanding that once we are actually post-pandemic, those options are no longer available. Let's just say that one individual decision I've made is that if students feel sick, I want them to just stay home. I can get them back up to speed later. My stats assignments can be turned in using either SPSS (which my institution insists on using, much to my disappointment) or Jamovi. The latter can be used off campus with no problems. Any other workshop type activities I offer in my hybrid classes can be easily made up. Most, if not all, are already online. I could handle instructions for most basic assignments in an email in most cases. I could handle something in a Zoom office hour or appointment just as easily. Part of this social contract is that if I am feeling sick, I will also stay home. I have technology available that will allow me to do my job remotely, and will take advantage of that if needed. It's not exactly rocket science. COVID-19 is not through with us yet. We have to do what we can to keep each other safe and healthy, using good judgment and the guidance of the scientists who've done the lion's share of the work to figure out what is safe and what is not. Should be simple, right?

*Note - on nearly other matter within the scope of this committee, a lot of very good work got done this past academic year. Its leadership team were great at herding cats, and I can only imagine the migraines the rest of us caused them.

The plan is no plan

In fairness, my specific campus leadership are doing better within the constraints our legislators have imposed upon us as far as mask mandates, at least in terms of transparency, flexibility in how we manage our office hours and meetings, etc. Not so sure that's happening in the rest of the UA System, especially the flagship campus in Fayetteville, if this has any truth to it:

Also: A letter from a University of Arkansas staff member about preparations on campus for fall, with preventive hands tied by the legislature. An excerpt referring to a campus meeting:


I can sum it up in 6 letters. 1) NO PLAN and 2) for faculty members : WING IT. They don’t even have a plan for when they might pivot. Maybe they are waiting for the state or region to move to Allocation of Care (aka, incorrectly called Death Panels in the past) situations at the local hospitals.

It was absurd to watch all the participants (administrators) talk to each other face to face before it began online without masks. Then they virtue signaled, put on their masks, and sat six feet apart.

There have been numerous faculty who have sent emails up the food chain asking specific questions about our reopening that are getting ignored completely. It is not clear why we must be 100% open if that is a fear from the legislature or the U of A Board. Yes, all of us would love to be back to normal, but that is not the current state of the covid situation now. And yes, I wish everyone would get the vaccine. It is almost like we are playing the Hunger Games at the U of A by saying that you should just get vaccinated if you don’t like what is happening.

Many instructors are concerned as they have members of family under the age of 12. They don’t want to infect their children.

While I continue to pray that our students are more vaccinated than the state average and that nearly all of them will follow CDC guidance, I have to say that I bet we have at least 10 to 15+ classrooms around campus with more than 50 students absolutely jammed in shoulder to shoulder. There are two such classrooms in Hillside Auditorium (the largest), two in Chemistry, one in Gearhart (formerly Ozark), several in Science and Engineering, and probably several in Bell Engineering as well although I don’t think those rooms are as tight. There are also some in JB Hunt, perhaps Kimpel as well.

At some point, the question becomes, when will BOBBITT act? Are his hands tied for making safety decisions? These kids are going to spread Covid among themselves in this huge classes and then take it back to their families. Surely people are going to die from this decision to act like it is 2019 at the U of A.

So many faculty are perplexed. The instructors feel like they cannot ask questions or even comment as they fear for their jobs. It is a weird thing to ask about getting faculty N95 masks and have those emails outright ignored.



Then again, my experience with my state's legislators is that we faculty are the enemy. Not sure they're too thrilled with university students, either. Basically, my situation is that questions asked up the food chain do get answered, and I am grateful to have relatively good administrators here. They'll keep supplying PPE as needed, etc. We can't require masks or vaccines, but we are still allowed to make note that they are a good idea. I'd really say that, given the age of some of our buildings, trusting the ventilation systems is probably a really bad idea. But what do I know. 

Then again, there is a lawsuit being filed against the law preventing state agencies and school districts from mandating masks, and if that succeeds, then my system's board of directors will have to make some hard decisions. I'd say the rise in COVID-19 cases should make that decision easier. Better to have a plan very late in the game than continue to have no plan at all. Just good horse sense.

Monday, August 2, 2021

As we head into the next semester, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:

I think this is a good time to reflect on some evidence. Although this all comes from a post from the Arkansas Times' Arkansas Blog, a reliable independent paper that's been around a good long while, the evidence is sound.

So far, the evidence about vaccines looks sound. Even with the Delta variant surging through the US currently, there is still little need to worry about breakthrough infections (although some will happen), and even less need to panic about getting severely ill or hospitalized. That is good news. Obviously, the more people who get vaccinated, the better off all of us will be, especially any children 12 and under who are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. 

Masks also work. There is a reason we're seeing a return to mask mandates. They mitigate the spread of this novel coronavirus. To the extent that even asymptomatic carriers who were fully vaccinated may be capable of spreading this virus, it seems imperative wear masks indoors or in crowded outdoor areas. This is especially necessary in places where there the vaccine rate has been low.

Some of us will come back to work at colleges and universities required to wear masks for a bit longer. Some of our institutions may even require vaccinations for faculty, staff, and students. I live in a state that is taking the opposite approach. No public school or state agency can mandate masks (thanks to Act 1002 of 2021), and of course our state lagged behind much of the rest of the nation in terms of vaccination. This is far from an ideal environment in which to return to our classes and offices. Yet that is what we are going to be doing. Short of litigation that may or may not be pending to make the legislation null and void, all we can do is our best to survive. If our institutions will still allow for virtual meetings, or at least include a virtual option, then we should probably continue with that. We can advocate for mask usage, but that will probably have minimal effect. We can make sure we're using masks indoors for the time being, even if fully vaccinated. 

Really, we have the tools at our disposal in order to return to some sort of post-pandemic normal. Let's use them.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Public university and college faculty are the targets of the latest moral panic

About November of 2020, I received two sets of cryptic emails. The first set was forwarded from my Department Head, who needed to document the extent to which her faculty were utilizing Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project in their curriculum. The requests came from state legislators whose names I immediately recognized. I'll describe my answers in a moment. The other set of emails were for an FOI request. Those have to be handled expeditiously. In this case, the matter had to do with any personal emails I had received or sent regarding any activity with one of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) or one of the subcommittees on which I am a member. I complied in each case. Still I found the emails troubling, as they were harbingers of what would become a difficult Arkansas state legislative session for me and mine. 

At the time the emails started circulating, I had some idea about the 1619 Project, to the extent I had found some time to read a New York Times article about it. I had no idea what CRT was, and in a very fundamental sense felt some shame in being ignorant about it. I forwarded the few emails I had at that point regarding my work with one of the subcommittees on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion subcommittee to which I am attached (which has to do with facilities). I sent some emails back to my Department Head regarding the legislative request. I put two and two together and sorted out that the latest moral panic had to do with college and university faculty being too "woke" and "brainwashing" students with CRT. With regard to DEI, whatever I submitted is presumably public record. It will be boring. Most of our concerns are with ADA compliance, as far as my subcommittee goes. 

My emails to my Department Head were fairly straight to the point. I did not use the 1619 project in any of my course curriculum nor did I us CRT. In fact, it seemed odd that as someone who mostly teaches methods and stats courses, I'd do so, even if I knew what CRT was. In my methodology courses, when we cover the topic of research ethics, I do discuss the Tuskegee Syphilis study as an example of very obvious ethical and human rights violations. Those are simply the facts. I am intending to introduce more information on the use of questionable research practices among psychologists tied to the eugenics movement. My main interest is in exposing how extreme devotion to an ideology can blind behavioral scientists to the truth, to the point of cutting ethical corners. In my stats courses, I've been known to spend a moment on how some of the statistical techniques my students are learning are tied to the eugenics movement (Karl Pearson's contributions are obvious). I do so more as a means of communicating that the statistical techniques themselves, although they come from somewhat dystopian origins are worthwhile when used properly as a means of conveying truth. So far, this sounds as exciting as a visit to the dentist's office. When we cover stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination in Social Psychology, I do add some supplementary readings that cover structural racism and sexism. I do so since those are topics that seem to be of practical importance, but largely ignored by a Social Psychology that is more geared toward individual cognitive responses. That can potentially generate some discussion, as this is often a rare opportunity to be exposed to the possibility that one can engage in or benefit from discriminatory behavior quite unwittingly, and due simply to the way the proverbial "rules of the game" are set up. The introductory psych course is set up in such a way that our focus is simply getting students to learn a bit about how psychological science works and pick up on some jargon. Conditioning and Learning is set up so that our focus is largely concentrated on classical and operant conditioning. Not a lot of CRT in discussions about rats running in mazes. 

What I am sharing is hardly a secret. Unfortunately in the eyes of some zealous state legislators, my even mentioning the eugenics movement and its abuses as they pertain to facets of our methodology apparently makes me and others who might teach like me existential threats, who are merely describing facts that any historian of my field worth a darn could recite. Needless to say, this last regular legislative session was rough. We came very close to the legislature giving itself the power to dictate, at least to an extent, what we can teach. In particular, the legislature's majority party wanted to prohibit anything that appeared to be CRT instruction from happening. Given the historically low educational level of our average state legislator, I seriously doubt that any of them have a clue about CRT. Heck, I have a PhD in an area unrelated to where CRT originated, and I have no clear idea. I have little doubt that at least for the near term such efforts would have been tied up in the courts, and we'd likely continue about our business. Thankfully, even with GOP super-majorities in both houses of the state's General Assembly, they failed. Enough else bad happened during the session, including tangible efforts to discriminate against transgender students at the K-12 and college level. That's another story for another day, perhaps. This latest moral panic - that college and university faculty are "corrupting" students with CRT (previously it was Cultural Marxism) is just the latest example of a phenomenon that goes back at the very least to the events surrounding the trial and death of Socrates. These sorts of moral panics end up inflaming subsets of the population who might otherwise have gone about their business, much like I would prefer to go about my business.

I take this sort of thing seriously to the extent that there is a long history of authoritarian political parties and rulers succeeding in dictating what gets taught in the classroom or lab and what is not. The end result bears poorly not only for the academy but for real people who expect that their experts and educators are working to benefit them as opposed to staying in the good graces of despots. One bit of disinformation (a fancy way of saying lie or lies) is that your faculty are "left-wing" - itself a rather loaded term. Someone living on a diet of Fox News or Breitbart probably thinks we're all "communists" simply because some person in a suit paid huge sums of money to make such accusations says so. Such accusations certainly get ratings and clicks, which is great for the advertising business. But intellectually, it is the equivalent of empty calories. The reality is that there probably is a good deal of self-selection that goes on when people choose careers, and it probably is not a surprise that people that are liberal or moderately liberal tend to end up in service sector vocations such as education (including higher education). Beyond that, you probably will quickly realize that when you spend some time with us, you are dealing with a bunch of heterodox thinkers. There are very few of us, at least in my experience, who are willing to even consider toeing a party line. Personally, I think I am incapable of toeing a party line. By my own admission, I am generally liberal. One could probably have read this blog over the last few years and sorted that out. At least that is my hope. That said, how liberal or conservative I appear depends on the issue in question. My preference in primaries is for centrist candidates. That frustrates some of my activist friends and acquaintances. The fun part is that none of that ever even enters the classroom. I am mainly focused on making sure that my course content covers the program and university learning objectives necessary for my students to gain the knowledge base and skill set necessary for them to enter the workforce, graduate programs, and so on. I do that? I am doing my job. End of discussion. Given my teaching load, and the adjunct load on top of my main gig? I have no luxury but to stay focused on those learning objectives. That is my life, at least the professional side of my life. I am far from alone. Naturally, I could show those who are hellbent on avowing that those of us in the academy are enemies of the state are basically benefiting students, communities, and the state economy to no end. It's difficult to argue with ideologues. Instead, we're in the same predicament as Socrates, so many decades ago.

In the meantime, I can recount the frustration of friends and acquaintances from the latter days of the USSR as they recount their work lives. Working as an educator meant being a good party member, which meant stating things that were obviously false and omitting things that were true, in order to demonstrate that they were good party members. The prospects for those who did not demonstrate that they were good party members was not favorable. Struck me at the time as a lousy way to work and to live. I cannot even fathom the garbage science that resulted. I don't really wish to. 

My bottom line is that the last thing I need is a chiropractor or evangelist preacher telling me how to do my job. I have an accrediting body, instructional support staff, and great departmental leadership to keep me honest. That's all I need. There was a scene in the HBO series Chernobyl, in which a scientist tries to communicate with her SSR's party boss what was at stake when the nearby nuclear plant exploded. In the series, the local party boss had enough education to work at a shoe factory before getting to lead the Belarusian SSR. He didn't care. He got off on his power. That likely cost real lives. He seemed to enjoy the rough equivalent of "owning the libs" based on the narrative. It's that sort of thinking that has put our society in a precarious position now. This is the time to ignore party bosses - regardless of party - and listen to educators. We're more attuned to the needs of our students, and have devoted many years of our lives gaining the training to do the jobs we do now. In the meantime, elections have consequences. I really want folks in my state to have opportunities that will change their lives in a positive sense. The last thing I need are a bunch of party bosses standing in my way or in the way of my students. Moral panics are the most idiotic way to do so, if for no other reason than enough real people with real common sense will find themselves with no choice but to question what the party bosses are telling them, as they try to measure that nonsense against their own lived experience.


Saturday, July 10, 2021

Weapons Effect Theory

A little while ago, I made mention that I had noticed the weapons effect, which I had always considered to be a phenomenon, referred to as a theory. In a way I found it amusing. In another way, I think the argument in favor of a weapons effect theory does have some merit. A good theoretical model would at minimum offer an explanation regarding a phenomenon and generate testable hypotheses. In the case of the weapons effect, it would be a relatively narrow theory. Then again, so too was frustration-aggression theory (itself an outgrowth of what was merely a hypothesis). 

We know the origins of what we could call weapons effect theory. We look no further than Berkowitz and LePage (1967). As the details of that initial experiment are detailed elsewhere, I will simply state that Berkowitz and LePage (1967) appeared to demonstrate that under conditions of high provocation, individuals experiencing short-term exposure to weapons showed higher levels of aggression (measured in number of electric shocks given) than those who had not been exposed to weapons. It goes without saying that the claim was highly controversial at the time, and that there were critics who could not replicate the original finding. That story has been told many times (including by me - see Benjamin 2019 or Benjamin, 2021), and bears no repeating here. What probably matters most is that a meta-analysis by Carlson, Marcus-Newhall, and Miller (1990) was supposed to have settled the matter. Short-term exposure to weapons under conditions of high provocation or frustration seemed to lead to a noticeably higher level of aggression than any other condition. Armed with Fail-Safe N as a means of assessing publication bias, Carlson et al (1990) concluded that the case was effectively open and shut. The weapons effect was viable, and it was time to move on. After that, social psychologists and some fellow travelers looked toward underlying processes responsible for this purported effect. That's where theory comes in.

Although the Anderson, Benjamin, and Bartholow (1998) paper referenced Anderson's then General Affective Aggression Model (which would be later abbreviated to General Aggression Model or GAM), I think it is safe to say that what we we actually did was to articulate a distinctive weapons effect theoretical model. Among social cognition models, it is a potentially "warm" theory in the sense that anger and arousal are considered potential antecedents. However, anger (affect) and arousal have never been adequately tested. Rather, testing of the model primarily focuses on short-term exposure to weapons priming of aggressive cognitions - think of these as behavioral scripts and schemas that include all of our semantic and episodic memories and concepts of aggression and violence as well as procedural memories of how to behave aggressively or violently. These memories may be implicit or explicit. Once aggressive cognitions have been primed, primary and secondary threat appraisals are primed, increasing the likelihood that an individual will be biased to perceive stimuli as more threatening than they might have otherwise, along with appraisals of how to best respond. Depending at what happens at the level of appraisal, an aggressive behavioral response might be the end result. Although primarily focused on the situational antecedents, the model keeps the door open to individual differences that might serve as antecedents (including personality traits and life experience). See the figure below. Note that technically this figure is the property of Sage Publications (from Anderson et al,, 1998), and if I am asked to take it down, I will do so:



It's a simple theory, really. One sees a weapon, which facilitates an increase in accessibility of aggressive cognitions, setting up primary and secondary threat appraisals, culminating in increase of aggression. The potential for weapons to prime anger and increase physiological arousal exist as well. It is a model that explains a body of results on a phenomenon, and offers some potential hypothesis tests. So far, so good. So, how well does the weapons effect theory hold up? Depending on whom you read, the weapons effect theory is either sufficiently established that we what we really need to do is to further explore interactions of person variables and short-term exposure to weapons (an endeavor that has barely been undertaken, and then only in a very scattershot fashion), or the body of research suggests the theory is enough of a nothingburger as to be swept into the dustbin of history.

When I finally published my meta-analysis (Benjamin, Kepes, & Bushman, 2018), I think any astute reader would hone in on Table 2 and realize that depending on how how publication bias is assessed, that there is nothing to be concerned about (if one believes random-effects trim-and-fill analyses) or quite serious (e.g., PET-PEESE). Most concerning are studies examining aggressive behavioral outcomes. The effect sizes are arguably negligible. Even when we look at the intervening variables in the model that are the underlying processes responsible for the presumed relationship between short-term weapon exposure and aggression (accessibility to aggressive cognitions and hostile appraisals) we have to keep in mind that the effects for these outcome variables are often small. Establishing accessibility of aggressive cognition is difficult, and numerous methods of measuring accessibility of aggressive cognitions have been utilized with varying degrees of success. Although much of the earlier cognitive priming literature for the weapons effect relied on either reaction times to aggressive versus non-aggressive words in lexical decision tasks or pronunciation tasks, more contemporary studies appear to rely on variations of a word completion task developed by Anderson - an instrument whose validity has been recently questioned. I wonder how many unpublished studies slipped through the cracks. Research on mostly primary threat appraisal has been more of a success story. Much of that work seems to build on research comparing phylogenitic and ontogenetic threats, with weapons being an ontogenetic threat. When individuals are shown arrays of objects with guns or knives embedded, studies appear to find evidence that individuals respond more rapidly to those arrays that have nothing but neutral objects. Effect sizes are small-to-moderate. One must also consider the possibility that arrays including unexpected objects could be just as effective in decreasing reaction times. So, although the pattern of findings looks promising, it's probably far from settled. But ultimately, for a cognitively based theory of the weapons effect to work, there has to be some establishment that aggressive behavioral outcomes are consistently positive. So far, that has not been the case. However aggressive behavior has been operationally defined - number of electric shocks, shock/noise blast levels, amount of hot sauce doled out to a presumed victim, point subtraction, etc., the results have been inconsistent. Some experiments appear successful, but many others do not replicate - either directly or conceptually - the original finding. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear that we are measuring aggression with these operational definitions, nor can we necessarily include intention to harm from the body of research thus far. Furthermore, there has been a tendency for those who do find positive effects to oversell their findings, tying their analyses to not merely the mild forms of aggression that we might be measuring, but to tie that work to acts of violence such as shootings. The theoretical model is not one that was designed to address violence per se, which means that even if we could hone in on consistently reliable findings, we can only speak to a narrow range of possible aggressive behaviors in everyday life, and even then with a good deal of caution and humility. All that being said, we have  a social cognitive model that states that short term exposure to weapons can trigger an aggressive behavioral response, to the extent that aggressive cognitions and hostile appraisals are successfully primed. Without a solid body of evidence pointing to an increase in aggressive behavior in this body of research, the theory falls apart. Unless or until the behavioral outcome piece of the theory is settled, it is a weak theory at best. If research surfaces that debunks any priming effect of weapons on aggressive cognitions, then the theory goes from weak to effectively moot. At that point, why even discuss the matter further?


Left unanswered in the theoretical model is the role of arousal. My impression is that early on, arousal was looked at as a nuisance variable to be measured and ruled out. I know of one explicitly reported arousal study, and it was a pilot study used to select stimulus materials.  As a "warm" theory, I've been a bit taken aback at the lack of interest among those best positioned to examine arousal and affect to actually take the time to do so and report their findings. Nor has the moderating role of individual differences been adequately explored. Aside from some one-offs, very little is known about the role of personality or life events as a moderator of the relationship between short-term exposure to weapons and aggressive behavioral outcomes. 

Research from the last decade has been discouraging. In the last two or three years, we've seen published some ecological valid behavioral work that was either adequately sampled, but showed a small effect size, or what on the surface appeared to be a robust effect, but in which the sample small enough that the statistical test was underpowered. Let's just say that historically experiments testing hypotheses derived from this theory rarely have samples of 15 or more in each cell, and even a sample of 15 per cell is probably inadequate. More traditional experimental research (i.e, in the lab) in recent years appears to suggest the behavioral effect is minimal at best. For example Guo, Egan, and Zhang (2016) found no main effect of weapons on aggressive behavior, and instead used a subsample of individuals who scored as high in external locus of control in order to craft a narrative for their findings. That's just the published research. I am aware of unpublished behavioral experiments (based on personal communication) that have found either a null effect, or even a suppression effect. That should give any of us who either have researched the weapons effect theory or who utilize this theory as part of our pedagogy pause.

Bottom line? As a theoretical model, I am very uncertain that the weapons effect theory is on solid ground. If anything, I am likely to agree with those who would argue that it is not on solid ground at all, and that it is a theoretical model worth abandoning. There appear to be small to moderate effects when it comes to weapons priming aggressive cognitions and hostile threat appraisal. The effect on aggressive behavior appears potentially negligible. I say that as someone whose professional identity was in some significant sense tied to this particular theory. I also say this as someone who has, in the past taught history of psychology to undergraduates, and who has a keen interest in my area's history. The conditions that made a link between short-term exposure to weapons and the very mundane aggression we can observe in the lab are ones in which there was both an increase in violent media consumption (in which weapons were ubiquitous) and an increase in real life violence (something Berkowitz goes into in a 1968 paper) seemed plausible. Since that time, the concept of media violence and real life violence has been effectively debunked. Whether or not a weapons effect theory holds up in the sense that, say frustration-aggression appears to hold up is questionable at best. I think a registered replication report of the original Berkowitz and LePage (1967) would be wise, assuming it were ethically and logistically doable, if for no other reason than to settle the matter once and for all.

I published a meta-analysis, and now there is a retracted study in my database. Should I worry?

Since the title addresses a very real question for me, it's worth asking, as a soon-to-be-retracted article was included in our weapons effect database. Fortunately, Fanelli, Wong, and Moher (2021) address this very question: what impact do retracted studies have on the conclusions we can draw from our meta-analytic findings? In other words, what are the epistemic costs? The good news is not much. The authors took a sample of 50 or so meta-analyses that had included at least one retracted study. The positives are really positive - findings tend to remain robust even after a retracted study or studies are removed. This is especially important to the extent that this finding holds when the retraction was due to something suspect in the methodology or in the data analyses, and not some other issue such as plagiarism. One thing that the authors do note as that much of the problem of retracted studies appearing in meta-analyses is preventable. Many of of the meta-analyses Fanelli et al. (2021) included in their meta-meta-analysis had included studies that had been retracted well before the meta-analyses in question were published. They have their ideas of some systemic corrections that would help. I would recommend including the PubPeer web browser plug-in as one means of screening for potential retractions early on in the meta-analytic database search process. It won't catch everything, especially to the extent that it is underutilized by psychologists, but it could help a bit. I would also recommend searching through the Retraction Watch database. Those are individual actions we can take, and take now. 

Hat tip to Retraction Watch.

Friday, July 9, 2021

The US Republican Party in no Longer Conservative: It is Authoritarian

The data tell the tale. The mass media and still too many of the US intelligentsia refer to the Republican Party (GOP) as conservative, and its politicians and followers as conservatives. I would argue that the party leadership, its politicians, and its activist base abandoned conservatism a long time ago, and took a much more authoritarian turn. And before anyone tries to get too far into the weeds here, I published some research roughly six years ago (and I am far from alone I suspect) distinguishing at least some very substantial facets of conservatism from authoritarianism. That there are actual conservatives in the US who want nothing to do with the GOP in its current form should speak volumes. That I, not only as a professional but as a citizen, also find common cause with the same former GOP conservative dissidents should speak volumes as well. Then again, my personal and publicly political views tend to be at least somewhat heterodox, so there may be a few who frequent this blog who are not entirely surprised by my last statement. But enough of that. What are the data showing?

Last November, the Washington Post published an article in their Business section that had some very useful graphics. The graphics came from a project called V-Dem, which has been very useful in tracking trends regarding the state of democracy across the planet. Here are the graphics published by the Washington Post: 

 

In terms of commitment to democracy, the Democratic Party's policies and behaviors have been stable over several decades. That jibes with my own experiences as a citizen and voter. The GOP is different story. There seems to be some initial lean away from democracy toward the end of the Reagan era, then another noticeable lean away from democracy during the early GW Bush era. Toward the end of GW Bush's term, there is a bit of a move away from democracy. That turn against democracy seems a bit more pronounced around the time that Obama gets the nomination and the Presidency. There is another turn away from democracy once the Tea Party movement within the GOP consolidates its power about a decade ago. And then around the time that Trump rears his head, there is practically a wholesale abandonment of democracy as a set of policies and norms or as an ideal. I suspect that the numbers look worse in 2020, and probably will get worse for a while to come.



In terms of demonization of political opponents, again the Democratic Party shows minimal change. There is some fluctuation starting in 2008, which I suspect is related to John McCain's choice of running mate (he really should have stuck to his guns and chosen Joe Lieberman instead), and Trump's initial run. But notice that the Democratic Party, so far, seems to go back to baseline. Let's hope it continues. The GOP's devolution is striking. Starting with the 2008 electoral season and continuing to the present day, an argument can be made that the GOP leadership, from a policy and practices standpoint has decided that making their political opponents existential threats is an acceptable practice. Once opponents become existential threats, the next graphic is inevitable.




Inciting violence is something I would have never expected of either of our two major parties. And yet, here we are. Once again, the Democratic Party leaders refuse to go there. The GOP leaders on the other hand? Study Trump's speeches, rallies, his inner circle's pronouncements, and so on, and the devolution that takes place during the latter half of the 2010s seems obvious. We've experienced advocacy among Trump's inner circle for martial law if electoral votes did not go a certain way, efforts to commit violence against peaceful BLM protests (note that I am careful to state peaceful - acts of violence are crimes and will get treated as such), and of course the January 6th insurrection, which should be called for what it was: an attempted coup and an act of terrorism. 

The V-Dem data are stark. A major party within the US has gone down the same road as Fidesz in Hungary, a nation that is considered a failed democracy. You read that right. Hungary, a nation I visited seven years ago when there was still some faint hope, is now the EU's only dictatorship. If I were a professional advising the EU, I'd advise their leadership to cut bait. For whatever reason, the ruling party, apparently for at least a few generations, is bound and determined to go back to its alliance with Russia, much as it did when the USSR was running the show in eastern Europe. My impression is that much of eastern Europe is embracing democracy, and has found a place within the EU and NATO. That is a beacon of hope in a very turbulent time.

How does this data tie in more psychologically? It's not entirely clear. There seems to be a substantial cohort of authoritarians who believe the Big Lie that Trump is the rightful President and that his election was stolen from him. From what we know about authoritarianism as a theory, we know that those who are strongly authoritarian will take orders from those whom they consider legitimate leaders. We should not be surprised when one of the defense refrains from the 500 plus (and counting) defendants from the January 6, 2021 insurrection state that they really believed that they were ordered to be there by Trump. From what we know about authoritarians, authoritarian aggression is instigated by those who are identified as legitimate authoritarian leaders. Trump and his inner circle certainly can make that claim, especially to the extent that they contended prior to the 2020 election that the results were not legitimate, advocated violence (including a military coup), etc. About a quarter of the US adult population, and a much larger portion of the GOP base agree with those actions, and some certainly have participated. 

At this point, the bulk of the authoritarians in the US make up the GOP's rank and file. It's no surprise that the party policies have continued to become less and less democratic, and increasingly illiberal. Unlike conservatives (who really are distinct from authoritarians, as even some of my data suggest), authoritarians really do see those who are not with them as a threat, and will follow those whom they see as their legitimate leaders. We've seen that with the events of January 6th. We've seen it again in the way those representing the more authoritarian faction of the party have embraced conspiracy theories surround the last Presidential election, dismissed a very serious public health crisis, and even spread conspiracy theories about the very vaccines that would - if taken by enough of the population - lead us to a post-pandemic era, and engage in moral panics about phenomena that are truly much ado about nothing (your typical college class at a regional university or community college is not going to even mention critical race theory, for example). As long as a certain former President has an iron grip on the GOP, such trends will continue. The implications for GOP policy are clear. We'll see many of its elected officials try to legislate against threats that don't exist (voter fraud is very difficult to pull off with the safeguards in place as of the 2020 elections, CRT is not taught outside of a very few elective courses in largely elite universities), parrot the rhetoric of the former President in order to curry favor with the authoritarian portion of the base (who tend to be most active in primaries) in order to retain elected positions or to gain a chance at winning an election, and making appearances with white nationalist and other fringe militia group figureheads who would, in an earlier era, been avoided and remained marginalized. The GOP's elected officials are in the position taking increasingly antidemocratic actions at least in part because it appears to be the way to win at least primary elections, and if enough opposition votes can be suppressed, maintain a grip on power disproportionate to its overall popularity. There is at least a predictive relationship between the psychological makeup of the GOP base and its rapid movement away from the generally democratic policy positions it once embraced. I don't see that dynamic changing anytime too soon.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

Welcome, visitors from Sweden!

I was just checking my blog stats just out of curiosity, and it looks like a lot of the traffic is coming from Sweden. Although I am not sure quite what the impetus was for the mass influx of readers from Sweden, I don't mind. Welcome. I hope something I wrote was of value to you.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

A half a year has already gone by

Wow. Time flies. I am finishing up two summer courses and preparing to start another. I went to a virtual conference earlier in the spring and it was great to be able to share some data I'd been sitting on for a while. I attended a webinar on demand characteristics late last month, and got to catch the very end of SIPS a few days ago. In between I did my usual AP Psych exam reading. It's been busy.

While I am certainly pretty swamped much of the time, I am trying to take better care of myself. Work/life balance has always been something of a struggle for me, and I get the impression that for much of the last several years, I let work overtake the rest of my life. Lately, I've been trying to cut down on some of my work-related activities. I've rolled off some committees recently, and will likely roll of some more. Obviously, I'll take care of my teaching responsibilities. I am also accepting that with a 4/4 teaching load, it's not particularly realistic to have too ambitious of a research program. I do what I can, and am trying to do better at letting go. Other than that, I had become increasingly sedentary, which is somewhat out of character for me. Working remotely, in particular, in the midst of a pandemic turned me in to something of a shut-in, and that has had some unwanted, although thankfully minor, health implications. So, I've added regular power walks to my daily routine. That's brought me back down closer to a weight I would be comfortable with, and also means that some concerns doctors had last fall are no longer concerns. I've also made sure to just log off all the academic accounts at some point and decompress. That might mean watching a documentary instead, or binge-watching Rick and Morty. I've spent more time with my family in recent months than I had in ages, which is a really good thing. Now to see what the next half of the year brings.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Part of my ethos

There is a famous Wayne Gretzky quote that I treasure:

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Wayne Gretzky was not just talking about his particular sport, ice hockey, but of life itself. We cannot succeed if we don't at least try. I understand that there are plenty of facets of life that are way beyond our control. What we can control is the willingness to take our shots for those things we value most. 

I try to model that ethos by engaging students in my courses, and by pushing them to try some things that perhaps they find scary. Methodology and Statistics courses are ones in particular where students seem prone to miss shots that they could have taken, primarily out of fear. I do what I can to break everything down, and hopefully in the process make that material less scary. My bottom line is I want my students to take their shots (i.e., complete their assigned work). I want my students to at least try enough to learn from the experience, rather than to simply give up and fade away. In the process, I take my shots. I engage. If I see that a student is no longer showing up in my classes and labs, or is no longer logging on to an online course, I send emails. Sometimes I get responses that lead to completing coursework. Sometimes, I never get a reply. But if nothing else, I can say I tried.

In the meantime, there may be some major life changes coming my way - if not within the next few weeks, most likely within the next year or two. I'm taking a few shots of my own.

Reversals in Psychology

This blog post captures the essence of something I've been increasingly imparting to my students, especially over the last three or four years. Like any other scientific field, we're going to have reversals. Something we thought might be true turns out to be not only falsifiable, but just plain false. The author is fairly optimistic about Psychology. We're a bit more transparent, if less than ideal, than other fields, and that has enabled us to call ourselves out on our own bovine fecal matter. If nothing else, it's a reminder that many of our classics, which are still taught in textbooks and portrayed in pop culture as true, are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The current state of social psychology

I think this is a very useful post on Retraction Watch for understanding the current state of Social Psychology. The author, Augustine Brannigan, excerpted part of a book chapter that looks back at the replication crisis, but also looks forward. The various forms of data fraud and notorious incidents are very well-known at this point, as are Daryl Bem's infamous publication from 2011, as are the replication failures of social priming experiments. That Bem's experiment was not intended to be replicable but a form of persuasive argument is itself antithetical to what we are supposed to do in the sciences, as are other infamous classic experiments (by Sherif, Milgram, and Zimbardo). Brannigan is apt at pointing out the shortcomings of these classics, including the lack of clear hypotheses, control groups, etc. Brannigan also questions whether what we are doing as Social Psychologists is really particularly useful. The experimental approach that has "taken the social out of social psychology" is critiqued. I do think a more realistic appraisal of our field is to understand that many of the phenomena we study may be ephemeral. We probably should question when experimentation is appropriate and when we might wish to use other methods for understanding social phenomena. I suspect getting there will take some time. Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we are doing actual science and not merely making persuasive arguments, which turn out not to be all that persuasive.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

On mass shootings

I still use Mother Jones' relatively cautious count of mass shootings, as I noted a few years ago. It's relatively cautious in terms of how it operationally defines mass shootings. This year, so far, appears to be a return to the immediate pre-pandemic years of 2017-2019. One of the few positives that came from the various lockdowns and curfews that came to define 2020 was that there were fewer opportunities for those with the means to commit mass shootings to do so. Other facets of daily life in the US are going back to some semblance of normality. Regrettably, so too are mass shootings. As I also noted earlier, defining mass shootings has proven to be quite difficult and politically charged. While I think the risk in a number of circles regarding being victimized by a mass shooter incident can get overstated, it's pretty clear from the pattern of data I see from Mother Jones' database that the trend over the decades is one of increased risk. We would do well to commit ourselves to a sober analysis of the root causes of this increase in mass shootings, as well as viable solutions. I seriously doubt that the political will exists at either the legislative or judicial levels to limit access to military grade firearms, even if doing so is an obvious step in the right direction. If some of the root causes are economic, perhaps the best available solutions are economic, and thankfully are ones that a functional legislative branch could begin to address. We've seen some beginnings of addressing some potential economic causes in the American Relief Act that was passed and signed into law earlier this year. Whether or not remaining economic legislation happens is a bit up in the air at the moment. If nothing else, we might be able, after a few years, to see if we begin to see a trend of decreased mass shootings that might be attributable to tangible efforts to address economic inequality and misery. That might not decrease the number of firearms in circulation, but if it decreases their use in mass shooting incidents, we might be willing to accept that is as good as it gets. We might also keep an eye on how the Department of Homeland Security responds in the next few years. Thus far, domestic terrorists have not been treated as enemies of the state. If that changes, we may potentially see a dampening effect on mass shootings, to the extent that they had some ideological or ethnic origin. We shall see.

Monday, June 7, 2021

A weapons effect-related pet peeve

One of the periodic irritants I experience is that of finding documents such as this amicus brief that cites one of my weapons effect papers (see the footnote on page 22). This is probably not the first time that work I have authored or coauthored on some facet of the weapons effect has been misused, and it most certainly won't be the last. Even when I still had reason to believe that there appeared to be a reliable causal relation between short-term exposure to weapons such as firearms and aggressive behavior, it was with the understanding that the behavioral effects we were measuring in the lab were fairly mild. If at any time I made more of the findings either collected or summarized, mea culpa. There is, even under the best case scenario in which research unequivocally shows a solid causal link between short-term exposure to weapons and lab-based measures of aggression, no reasonable way to jump to the conclusion that the same sort of exposure would produce violent behavior (primarily gun violence, which is what the attorneys are focused on in their amicus brief). 

 Even if I am fairly sympathetic to what these attorneys wished to accomplish, I really wish they would have consulted with me first. If nothing else, I would have pointed them to the meta-analysis (Benjamin et al., 2018) and suggested that positive findings in the literature needed to be taken with a grain of salt. I've been pretty clear about that since (see Benjamin, 2019, or Benjamin, 2021 for more details). Based on some preliminary meta-analytic work I've done pre-pandemic, I have reason to believe that many of the positive findings regarding the weapons effect can be chalked up to an experimenter allegiance effect. The upshot is that folks really need to be careful when they interpret this literature. The evidence is ambiguous, at best, and any suggestions that short-term exposure to weapons could explain gun violence probably have historical origins in a moral panic over media violence that has been on-going since at least the 1960s. 

In the meantime, since this appears to be a mess for which I bear some responsibility, I also bear some responsibility for cleaning it up. That's probably part of my life's work going forward, whether I like it or not. There are only a small handful of social psychologists who are legitimate experts when it comes to this body of work. I am, regrettably, one of them, and I am probably the one who is the proverbial skunk at the picnic. That can happen when the available data require one to be a skeptic. If folks really want to discuss this body of research with me, I'll do so. I will try to be less prickly or non-responsive, especially if I am convinced that whoever is contacting me is doing so in good faith. I may or may not tell you the story you want to hear, but I will tell you the story you need to hear - i.e., the truth as we currently understand it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Is there a brain drain in the science reform movement?

The answer, according to Alexander Danvers, appears to be yes, there is indeed a brain drain. There are plenty of reasons why we appear to be losing our best and brightest, at a time when we arguably need them the most. There doesn't appear to be much of an incentive for reformers to do their work, including post-peer review necessary to weed out grossly incompetent and fraudulent research. Nor is there much of an incentive to develop or engage in the sort of necessary work of conducting replication research, developing and validating our measures in a way that would inspire confidence, etc. Certainly the grant money isn't there for such work. And gaining a reputation for engaging in reform-minded research activities is a terrible way to get promoted, given the way the power structure in the academic world currently works. There simply are not enough mid and late career scholars willing to defend this necessary work, and those who carry out that work. There's also the question of whether what we do in my field has much meaning. That's certainly a question that haunted Joe Hilgard as he contemplated his eventual exit from academic life. Indeed, one might make more of a difference as a data scientist in any of a number of industries. And although I am quite happy for my peers who have found more lucrative and rewarding careers outside of the academic world, I can't help but wonder how that bodes for the future of reform. How much of what some very driven and competent reformers within psychology will become normative? How much will get set aside as the publish-or-perish model of scholarly life continues to dominate, and those who have profited from the old status quo continue to call the proverbial shots? Could independent research centers like IGDORE Institute be a way of sidestepping at least some of the current power structure? In the meantime, on a more personal note, I am having to accept that at least some subset of the people I met at SIPS in 2019 and again virtually in 2020 are ones who will not be around once I can finance another international conference trip in a couple years. I'll miss them. Hopefully some newer members at SIPS will be ready to carry the torch further. We shall see. Whatever happens, we need to make sure that there are incentives in place to keep our best minds with us. Otherwise, my field is one that will deserve to slip into irrelevance.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Interesting article on academic bullying

I stumbled upon this article on academic bullying on Twitter thanks to Charlie Ebersole. Needless to say, it is a discouraging document to read. That said, it is quite valuable, as in a real important and tangible sense, you are getting to read something of an oral history of the experience of early career researchers (primarily graduate students and post-docs). I agree with Dr. Ebersole that this is a very difficult issue, and one where those with actual power seem unwilling to confront what is going on in their own departments and universities. As someone who went to two different graduate programs (one for my MA in Experimental Psychology and the other for a PhD in Social Psychology), I can say that I had very different experiences in each program. My experience at CSU Fullerton was very positive. I had a helpful advisor and mentor, and I learned a lot from not only my advisor, but the other faculty with whom I worked. I would not trade that experience for anything. My experience at University of Missouri during the late 1990s was a bit different, and I will spare you the details.I did certainly learn a few lessons, although perhaps not the ones that I had expected when I began. Somehow, a culture of keeping one's head down and remaining passively silent is not one conducive to intellectual or emotional well-being, and I can certainly empathize with those who left their situations embittered. I made a promise to myself that I would never treat early career researchers (grad students and post-docs, in particular) negatively, but would instead be constructive and nurturing. I never quite had the opportunity to put that in practice. Such is life. I try to practice a form of patience and grace with my undergrads instead, and also serve as someone to share potential red flags to be on the lookout for just in case any of them do go into research-oriented graduate programs. That is perhaps good enough.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Yes, the US Republican Party Remains an Authoritarian Party

This post is intended as a follow-up to a couple of posts I published in the days and weeks prior to the US Presidential election:

Does the Republican Party seem more authoritiarian than it once did?

What will a post-Trump Republican Party look like?

At the time, I was making use of findings from the V-Dem Institute's research, and included a link to the summary of its findings. The gist was that although the US Democratic Party's positions appeared to be fairly similar to what they were at the start of this century (with a few fluctuations, such as in terms of LGBTQ rights) the Republican Party's positions were had evolved into those more akin to authoritarian ruling parties in failed democracies such as Hungary (Fidesz) and Turkey (Justice and Development Party, otherwise known as AKP). In each instance, the party in question started the century as relatively democratic, and somewhat conservative. 

Given that the US Republican Party's trajectory over the last couple decades, I was skeptical that the party would begin a shift away from its increasingly authoritarian turn. Biden (the Democratic Party candidate) did win the Presidential election, and the Republican Party lost its control of the US Senate (although barely, which was about what one would reasonably expect). That said, the Republican Party managed to pick up seats in the US House of Representatives, narrowing the Democratic Party's majority in that chamber, and did well enough in state and local elections to where one could say that the party didn't receive the sort of convincing defeat necessary to engage in a serious dialog about how to move forward. Regrettably, my skepticism has been rewarded.

I've been focused on overt behavior of the Republican Party's leaders' and members' overt behaviors over the last several months, and I've been trying to take care to place those actions in the broader context of a party whose turn away from democratic norms and values has been noticeable for a relatively long period of time. 

One of the markers I look at is how a party's leaders and members react to a loss of a major election. Parties and their rank and file members committed to democracy will understandably express disappointment at a loss, without questioning or outright rejecting the legitimacy of the outcome. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's loss to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican Party's leaders conducted a postmortem, that prescribed more inclusiveness, and a better effort at messaging. In the aftermath of 2020's election, the reaction was much different. Trump's loss was not accepted, either by Trump himself or by a significant portion of his base. Instead, the message was that of a stolen election, in spite of a lack of evidence of any tampering of the voting machines. Even multiple recounts in several swing states, which merely confirmed the initial count, were rejected by Trump and his Republican followers. Then again, Trump had been grooming his followers to expect any loss to be illegitimate since he began to make his first campaign appearances and rallies in 2015. Those baseless allegation of massive voter fraud were enabled by numerous authoritarian or authoritarian leaning news sites and channels, social media influencers (including Trump himself, who had amassed an enormous following on Twitter), and known right-wing social media and chat outlets like Parler in the run-up to the 2020 election and in the aftermath of the election. Slogans such as "stop the steal" became commonplace over the last couple months of 2020. 

In a functioning democracy, we might expect some members of a party that lost an election to engage in protests, and some party members who may be more on the fringes of that party to try to make threats or to in some way deny an election's legitimacy. Usually, they are safely ignored. 2020 was different. There was considerable coverage of efforts to intimidate those employed to tally the votes during recounts, as well as election officials at county and state levels. Efforts included armed protests outside of county election offices (e.g, Maricopa County in Arizona) and to forcibly enter election offices (e.g., Wayne County, Michigan). Trump apparently contacted election officials at various levels in order to influence them to refuse to certify the results in swing states that Biden won. In some cases, that worked, as when a couple Wayne County officials chose initially to not certify the county's results, and when a couple Michigan state officials chose not to certify the results (although thankfully, there was a majority to certify the votes in that instance). There is a recorded phone call of Trump making an effort to persuade the Georgia Secretary of State to "find" enough votes to declare Trump the winner, in spite of the fact that recounts in that state consistently found Trump to have lost. Between those efforts by Trump and various followers, the numerous law suits filed to overturn the results, and the belligerent rhetoric as the last months of 2020 unfolded, I can understand how my counterparts outside the US might be gravely concerned about the health of our own democratic government. I am sure plenty of us who reside in the US, across the partisan and ideological spectrum, are gravely concerned as well.

One of the markers of a functioning democracy is a peaceful transition of power from one government to the next, or in our case from one Presidency to the next. What happens when a candidate or a sitting President signals that he would refuse to accept a loss, and would do whatever possible to hold on to power? We actually got to see how that plays out on January 6th, which was the culmination of Trump's efforts to hang on to power, based on what at that time was the Big Lie: Trump's allegations that the election was "stolen" from him. Between Election Night and January 6th, efforts to organize not only a mass rally but an attack on the US Capitol Building were ongoing, apparently with a belief by those involved that they were doing Trump's bidding. A good number belonged to organized militias, and others were willing followers. The events that day are well-documented, along with the tangible threats to the lives of VP Pence, Speaker Pelosi, and well, anyone else who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, that act of terrorism failed. What we witnessed was what Altemeyer and other authoritarianism researchers call authoritarian aggression - aggressive and violent acts perpetrated based on the demands of perceived authoritarian leaders (in this case Trump). And yet, when the time to resume the certification of the electoral vote came, a majority of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives still voted to reject certifying electors in several states Biden had won. In the months that have followed, those elected officials who have spoken up against the Big Lie have been censured, and where possible purged from the Republican Party, or will be at least purged from their elected positions in 2022. Trump seems to want to downplay the attack on the Capitol, and party members have willingly gone along. Clearly, the majority of Republican voters still believe in the Big Lie. After all, even if Trump has lost most of the levers of his influence (including his social media accounts), there are plenty of party leaders and media outlets willing to continue to keep that myth alive. In other words, we are witnessing authoritarian submission in action. Given that most of us seem to live in media bubbles, perhaps that should not be too surprising. Whether two thirds of Republican voters continue to believe in the Big Lie over the next several years is something to watch, and a marker of how legitimate Trump and other allied leaders are perceived by their party's base. Unconventional efforts to continue auditing votes in swing counties across the country by private sector entities with no tangible record of electoral experience (which at best will create an unnecessary expense for counties that have to replace voting machines that can no longer be used) will perhaps continue to perpetuate the voter fraud myth for the foreseeable future. 

If a major terrorist attack happens in a functioning democracy, there is typically a consensus across political parties and rank and file voters and members to investigate. Our 9/11 Commission in the early oughts is a prime example. In the spring of 2021, Trump has made it very clear he does not want a similar bipartisan commission to be formed to investigate the events of the January 6th Capitol Building attack. Republican officials who might have once supported such a commission have walked back their support, and for now, such a bipartisan commission appears unlikely to be formed. Many legislators who were very much in the line of fire have had to engage in quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. Objective observers will likely agree that the insurrectionists were not merely tourists. However, to note that the objective of the events of January 6th was an attempted overthrow of the government within the Republican Party at this time is likely to lead to punishment. Even casual conversations with rank and file Republican voters can be revealing. Those who know very well what we all witnessed through televised footage and social media footage are often hesitant to speak too loudly, as doing so may not be good for their ability to keep businesses open, remain in good standing in their communities, or with people they have counted on as friends and family. Others, many, continue to make excuses, appearing to parrot whatever talking points have been given. Authoritarians do tend to follow the dictates of their perceived legitimate leaders to a letter. We call that authoritarian submission.

Reliably Republican friendly news outlets, like Fox, learned the hard way that telling the truth about the election would cause a loss of viewers, at least for a while. After all, Fox was among the first to call Arizona for Biden, preventing Trump from preemptively declaring himself the victor on Election Night. Other outlets reaped the spoils for a while. Fox has learned its lesson, no doubt, and any Decision Desk journalists who were responsible for what Trump and followers consider an outrage - namely dare to make an honest call based on the vote counted and where remaining outstanding ballots were located - were purged.

Somewhere I read recently that both major US parties once had some authoritarians among the membership, and they were distributed just evenly enough to where most, outside social science researchers and perhaps FBI agents would pay them no mind. What we've seen in the at least the past half decade, and perhaps somewhat longer is a shift in which authoritarians have largely coalesced around one of the two major parties, are taking up leadership positions at various levels within the party, and the party is shifting more toward the illiberalism of a number of its counterparts internationally. In spite of rhetoric advocating freedom and liberty, it is clear that there is no room for dissent within the party in its current form. Those whose psychology might lead them to hold somewhat heterodox views are increasingly learning that they are not welcome. 

We've also seen that the Big Lie is one that can be used to justify efforts to suppress voter turnout, as there are hundreds of bills, a number of which have passed, that will make it more difficult for citizens to vote, which presumably will favor a party that has determined that its best chance to victory in 2022 and 2024 is to appease Trump and appeal to Trump's base. We might also look at whether or not efforts to intimidate voters and poll workers increases over the next electoral cycles. That is something that should concern us all, regardless of our own leanings.

Whether the Republican Party can pull itself from the brink is doubtful. The base of the party has its leader who still has a strong grip on power within the party. Breaking the former President's grip on the party would be a necessary first step toward the long road to moderation. Personally, I would find such a development a welcome one, as a functioning moderate-conservative party committed to governance, democracy, and acceptance of heterodox views within its own leadership and membership to counterbalance the functioning moderate-liberal party that has already demonstrated such commitment is necessary for the continued stability of the US. In the meantime, we should be aware of what is going on. Authoritarian Nightmare, by John Dean and Bob Altemeyer (2020) would be a good contemporary start. Altemeyer's ebook, The Authoritarians, would also be a useful primer.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Recent Vox article on the Psychological Science Accelerator

 Vox has been covering the replication crisis for some time. This time, Vox has an article on the Psychological Science Accelerator, its foundation, successes (so far), and some tangible challenges (including funding). This is worth a read, if for nothing else one can get an idea of what an approach to open science looks like in practice.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Another from the "too good to be true" department

I imagine many of us saw the news story about a study suggesting that glasses wearers were less susceptible to contracting COVID-19 than those who don't wear glasses. As someone who wears bifocals, and hence is bespectacled from the moment I get up until the moment I go to sleep, I really wanted to believe that were true. As with so many claims of this type it isn't. A self-selected small sample of in-patients does not lend much confidence to the claim. Short of just getting one of the vaccines once it is made available to you, about all you can do is mask up, wash your hands (a lot) and keep hand sanitizer available for when soap and water are not readily available, physically distance as much as possible, and open the windows when feasible. Let's stick to what's realistic, and be thankful that the vaccines that are now circulating appear to work. We're going to live with this particular coronavirus for a good long time, it appears, but at least if we do what we can to prevent catching and spreading it, we will get to a point where it can be easily contained and treated, and whatever normality becomes in the 2020s can begin.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Research Confidential: How Self-Correcting is Science?

The question is arguably rhetorical. Science in and of itself is not self-correcting. It takes living, breathing human beings to notice something is wrong, take the time and make the effort to report what is wrong to relevant stakeholders (e.g., journal editors, relevant university adminstrations, etc.), and then have good reason to believe that the relevant stakeholders will show due diligence, correct or retract flawed papers as needed, and otherwise hold those responsible for the flaws, whether due to sheer incompetence or fraud, accountable. In an ideal world, that is how it would work. In this world, it's considerably more complicated, and often more than a bit disheartening.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are quite aware of our favorite media violence researcher who is notorious for some of the worst papers published in that particular niche area of psychology - Qian Zhang of Southwest University. I have documented, over the last couple years or so, some of the most insane tables with means, standard deviations, and test statistics that simply are impossible to interpret. I have reported test statistics that, based on the degrees of freedom reported, would have to be incorrect. I have reported discrepancies between degrees of freedom for test statistics and the sample size reported. I have documented evidence of potential plagiarism and self-plagiarism - the latter due to the tendency for Zhang to rely heavily on copying and pasting from one paper to another. I have also found some amusing typos that resulted from Zhang's tendency to copy and paste tables from paper to paper. I've tagged Zhang's work as I have documented here (for your convenience) and on PubPeer under a pseudonym. 

Dr. Joe Hilgard has gone considerable further than have I. He's blogged about his own experiences in documenting problems with Zhang's work in great detail, and the efforts he's made to contact journal editors along with officials at Zhang's university, offering painstaking evidence of the problems he has discovered. You can read about Joe Hilgard's efforts, and the decidedly mixed and disappointing outcome of his efforts here. You should really take to the time to read Hilgard's post as it is thorough and damning. The short version? Some journal editors responded rather well, and in one case very quickly to retract two papers that were clearly unsound. Other journal editors have either stonewalled or ignored Hilgard's concerns. Zhang's university cleared him of wrongdoing, chalking it all up to Zhang being "deficient in statistical knowledge and research methods." So in other words, the university writes it off as "the guy's merely an idiot, but hey, let's just give him a remedial stats course and call it even." I agree with Hilgard that the university's failure to take action is not that surprising, as universities seem to be in the business of taking care of their own, especially if the researcher in question might be bringing in grants or other forms of prestige. So the guy maybe fudges some numbers and has no idea what random assignment means. There's nothing to see here. Move along.

My take on the matter is that the most charitable view that one could take based on the body of Qian Zhang's work is that this is a researcher who is grossly incompetent, but that a more probably defensible case can be made that his activities are on some level fraudulent. I am more inclined to the latter less charitable view. I've seen too much. Regardless, this is research that should have never made it past peer review. I agree with Hilgard that this body of research is very problematic given that as long as it remains published, it will distort our understanding of what is actually happening with stimuli such as video games that contain violent content on outcome variables such as aggressive behavior or cognition. Meta-analyses are especially vulnerable given that some of the reported findings by Zhang rely on large samples. Those results could artificially inflate effect sizes, leading meta-analysts and those consuming meta-analyses to believe that an overall effect is stronger than it actually is. 

This is one of the dark alleys I mentioned a few years ago. And given what Hilgard has experienced and what I've experienced in my own way, it's one that few leave with any sense of hope for the state of this particular are of psychological inquiry. If blatantly problematic papers, ones where the problems are so obvious that a beginning methods student could discover them, cannot be retracted within a short window of time, what is going on with work in which potentially fraudulent data analyses are more cleverly presented? What else is out there that cannot be trusted? That is something that should cause us all to lose some sleep.

One final thought for anyone thinking of collaborating with Zhang: don't. If you absolutely cannot help yourself, insist on seeing the data before agreeing to be part of that particular project. I'd say that is a safe practice regardless of the situation. If I take on a statistician for a project, or someone who is at least better versed in a particular statistical method than I am, I insist on sending the data set or database, and I expect that the statistician on the project will double check my work and ask difficult questions as needed. That can save a lot of grief, assuming that the statistician involved is actually looking at what is being sent. One of the tragedies for some of Zhang's coauthors is that they've never had access to the data sets to which they lent their names and reputations, nor were they apparently allowed access. That is not how we do science, folks.

In the meantime, more papers are in the pipeline to be published by this particular author, and it will become more of a struggle to keep up with the dross that is likely to be found in any of those papers. Again, that is something that should cause us all to lose some sleep.