All posts filed under: Science

What Does Science Tell Us About the So-Called Ferguson Effect?

American policing is in the midst of a challenge to its legitimacy. The police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in the summer of 2014 led to a firestorm of social media attention focused on police use of force against minority citizens. Social media and cell phone video fueled the viral spread of similar incidents across the United States in months to come, making police shootings a national (and international) conversation rather than one constrained locally to the jurisdictions where specific incidents occurred. Rather than speculate about the impact of so important an issue, solid research should guide our understanding and policy responses. Ferguson and related incidents resulted in civil unrest, microscopic scrutiny of police behavior, lawsuits, and officer terminations. Websites where citizens could post cell phone video of police-citizen interactions gained popularity, such as Cop Block and Reddit’s Bad Cop No Donut. This led some commentators, law enforcement officials, including the FBI Director, and politicians  to warn the American public of an impending crime wave. More crime was argued to be the result of …

Taking the Wonder Out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science. The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was. One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling. …

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest. In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy …

Good news on rain forests: they bounce back strong

When you cut and burn a tropical forest, you’re left with a barren plain of cracked red mud, incapable of supporting life – the opposite of the teeming, hyperdiverse array of life that was destroyed. Once the trees are gone, the nutrients wash away and the soil degrades into a dense, brick-like layer so hardened that plant roots can’t get through it. This was the vision of tropical deforestation held in the popular imagination for many years, but the reality is more complex – and more hopeful. In recent decades, researchers have found that tropical forests are remarkably resilient. As long as some remnants are left when the forest is cleared to provide seeds and refuges for seed dispersers, tropical forests can grow back with astonishing speed. In a paper published this week in Nature, lead author Lourens Poorter and a team of international collaborators, including me, found that forests in Central and South America can quickly rebound without human intervention on land that has been cleared for cattle grazing or growing crops. This finding …

Alice in Blunder Land

A review of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger. New York, NY: Penguin (2015), 352 pages. “Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”¹ Alice Dreger is a bioethicist employed, until very recently, at Northwestern University. The fact that she felt compelled to resign over a point of ethical principle just underscores the points she makes in the book. She has long been a champion of two things. First: that driving spirit in science – the Galilean one – that sees truth as a spiritual goal and raises a middle finger to those that disagree. Second: The just treatment of those typically marginalized and ignored because their needs are inconvenient to wider society.² Galileo’s Middle Finger³ is therefore a series of gripping detective stories exploring the various blunders of scientists who did not see what was coming when they published, of pusillanimous bureaucrats terrified of their University brand being tarnished, of the politically over-zealous, …

Gossip is a social skill—not a character flaw

Let’s face it: gossips get a bad rap. Smugly looking down from a moral high ground – and secure in the knowledge that we don’t share their character flaw – we often dismiss those who are obsessed with the doings of others as shallow. Indeed, in its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others. Studies that I have conducted confirm that gossip can be used in cruel ways for selfish purposes. At the same time, how many can walk away from a juicy story about one of their acquaintances and keep it to themselves? Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret. When disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions. In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but …

Heritability and why Parents (but not Parenting) Matter

“…Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” — Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Like Alice, we’ve all pondered the question: “who am I?”  Moreover, we often couple it with the reasonable companion query: “how did I get to be this way.”  Not all of us are rich and famous, we can’t all bend guitar strings like Hendrix, and most of us will never have supermodel looks or the physical prowess of a professional athlete.  There is fascinating unity in all of us, though, concerning how we answer the question of “why am I this way” as opposed to some other possible version of myself.  Whether we credit them for our successes, or point at them as a hurdle that we had to clear, most of us implicate our parents when constructing a narrative about why we are the way that we are.  It’s not an unreasonable intuition.  But how we intuit about the world can mislead us; sometimes that “light at the end of your tunnel” is, …

How to Find a Parenting Effect

Like religion and politics, parenting can be an emotionally charged topic.  I argued previously that parenting did not represent a monolithic predictor of child development.1,2,3,4 More precisely, I stated that even if it was, most research on the subject would never allow you to know it because of a problem replete in the social sciences: genetic confounding.  The larger intent of my previous essay, in fact, was to address the perils of correlational research and encourage you to think carefully the next time you saw a headline proclaiming that X causes Y (e.g., bacon causes cancer). Parenting effects provided a suitable avenue for making that point given the proliferation of deeply confounded “parenting studies” which trade on unintelligible correlations between parenting styles and child outcomes. I want to take a slightly different approach this time around.  If parenting effects really existed, and you wanted to find them, where would you need to look? You know already where not to look; a correlation between a parenting style and child behavior, for instance, simply does not provide …

Why distance running is the perfect lab for studying sex differences in competitiveness

What are the psychological differences between women and men? What causes these differences, and are they shrinking over time? The dominant view – held by most scholars and policymakers – is that sex differences are slight and can be rather easily altered. Whether this view is true or not has implications for policy, such as Title IX, the federal law that aims to provide men and women with equal access to educational opportunities, including athletic opportunities. For the past decade, I have been investigating psychological sex differences by studying competitiveness in US distance runners. Distance running is ideal for study because the motivation to run varies greatly. While some runners are motivated by competition, most participate for other reasons, such as building social relationships, finding meaning in reaching their goals, and boosting their health and fitness. Distance running is also a great study subject because it is popular with both men and women and the incentives do not favor men. There are, for instance, more collegiate athletic scholarships for distance running available for women than …

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

The Sydney Symposium At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology. Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories. Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract …