Tuesday 12 August 2014

The moral compass of culchies

This time last year I reported on a study which slit the scientific method up the middle and exposed the wobbly bits: it was not a pretty site, but got us nearer to The Truth. Nosek and Motyl carried out the same experiment in political experimental psychology twice and got completely different results. [Golldarn but you could ask these trend-setters to have Smith & Jones names so we can google 'em easier: Nosyl & Motek?  Mojo and Botox?]  A difficult name did for Matthaei's place in history and share in a Nobel. N&M's result was a disappointing bust until they wrote up The Process and went viral. Experimental psychology is just so damned clever. The practitioners think up these nifty ways to expose how we think and gather up a load of data to test their hypotheses.  The results are important in deflating our own delusions of honorable behaviour in the real world. Three years ago Marc Hauser, poster-boy of the field, resigned his tenured position at Harvard because it was becoming clearer that he'd massaged his data to fit his hypothesis.  The über-trendy and self-regarding talk-shop Edge, where Hauser had been gabbing with the best of them for years, promptly purged him from their web-site as effectively Stalin air-brushed Trotsky out of all the party-photographs. There was a while where you could see what all the fuss was about but those repositories of historical truth have also been suppressed, so we can't make our own judgement of just how good this bloke was [at pulling the wool over his pals' eyes]. This happens a lot (twice is far too much) : The über-trendy and self-regarding talk-shop TED went and purged talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake from TEDxWhitechapel because they actually pushed the frontiers of science rather than talking about it. If that makes you want to find out more about the purgees, then you're probably on the right track [see Streisand Effect] in the pathless land.  Me, with my squidgy moral compass think that the actions at Edge were more shameful than Hauser's original sin.  As for TED, someone should give it a revolver, a chair and an empty room.

Phew that's the backstory. Now the contrary science. Contrary science is the only part that is worth reading about.  A million scientific papers a year get indexed in Pubmed the database of biomedical research papers. Most of them are tedious bits of sand in the cement: not even a brick in the wall. There is a well documented phenomenon in the history of science where one study finds something new and exciting (yay! progress); a replication is organised (different place, different researchers, different sample [size]) and finds no such effect; third study agrees with the first; seventh study agrees with second; fifth study has another take entirely. It is the zigzag path to truth. My pal El Asturiano reads http://io9.com/ and kindly filters and fillets it for me, but occasionally I find time to glance there myself.

And today I found this How Can Two Studies Say Cleanliness Makes You More And Less Forgiving? which cites two different studies in the sketchy field of Experimental Ethics where Nosek and Motyl (I'll get it right if I write it often enough) also made their famous contribution. The experimental details  are hidden behind paywalls at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and at Psychological Science neither of which should be confused with the Judean People's Science of Psychology or the wholly reprehensible Journal of Splitters' Psychology. That's okay, I guess. Scientific publishing is expensive and in today's on-line world  the Journal of Scientific Woowah has to get something for their fixed costs if they are going to share their (hmmm?) intellectual property. But which, if either or both, of these reports am I going to cough up $40 for?  The one with the best methodology of course. Trisha Greenhalgh has told us eloquently that if the methods, or in these cases the sample sizes, are suspect then we don't need to read the rest of the paper however exciting the conclusions. Shamefully, but normally, the Abstracts don't include any inkling of the sample size or the statistical tests used to come to these more or less opposite conclusions about the Lady Macbeth Effect. The only available variable is the authors' address, so I must conclude that the worzles (we call them culchies in Ireland) of Devon sampled by the PS report have a different moral compass to the street-wise Londoners published by JESP. Hold the Presses!

The replies on the io9 piece extend the argument in useful and informative ways.

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