The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Science and Situationism Praised on Huffington Post Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 17, 2012

From Huffington Post and Cornell Sun (By Sebastian Deri):

As someone who was better at English and history than math and science in high school, what I chose to study in college was partly an effort to shy away from the latter fields and take refuge in “softer” subjects. “Leave the questions of science to the scientists, I am concerned with justice and morality,” we, who chose humanities, said! These two domains were exclusive — “non-overlapping magisteria” as Stephen Jay Gould might say. No meaningful dialogue between the disciplines was possible or necessary.

This attitude, however, is lazy and destructive — or at best, hopelessly antiquated.

The scientific study of human behavior is shedding new light on our actions and inner life. To ignore these insights is not just a mistake. It is criminal.

I’m on our school’s mock trial team and have done mock trial for seven years now. There was a point at the beginning when I really felt that I was crusading on the side of righteousness in a system optimized for delivering justice. But eventually, I came to realize the solutions being offered in the courtroom simply could not get to the heart of the matter in the way science could. This realization came not from inside a courtroom, but rather from a brain scientist writing in a magazine.

In an article in The Atlantic, “The Brain on Trial,” David Eagleman makes the case that we must wade out of the swamp of the medieval machinations of our legal system — obsessed with the ancient and largely useless preoccupation with assigning blame.

He cites a seemingly straightforward pedophilia case. Eagleman describes the case of a 40-year-old man who “developed an interest in child pornography” and began to make “subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter.” Eventually he was sent to prison. It was only after the discovery and successful removal of a tumor in his brain that he was able to abandon his pedophilia. Eagleman explains, “When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted… depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery.” Eagleman argues that “we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, because when modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we’ve learned into account.”

But, David Eagleman is a neuroscientist. Of course he would be inclined to make such a grandiose claim for his discipline. Well, we are hearing the same calls from within the law.

Jon Hanson is Law Professor at Harvard. He has a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a degree in law. Yet, eventually his studies in law — and specifically the tobacco industry — led him to abandon this field for the study social psychology, social cognition and other mind sciences.

He has since founded “The Project on Law and the Mind Sciences” at Harvard Law School and advocates for his version of the theory he calls “situationism.” As though it were coming straight from the mouth of Eagleman, Hanson writes that situationism “is premised on the social scientific insight that the naïve psychology… on which our laws and institutions are based is largely wrong. Situationists… seek first to establish a view of the human animal that is as realistic as possible before turning to legal theory or policy. To do so, situationists rely on the insights of scientific disciplines.”

And those insights are impossible to ignore. Take the MAO-A gene. Having a certain form of this gene (the low MAO-A gene), when combined with childhood mistreatment, significantly increases your chances of becoming violent. Yet, I have only ever heard of one case where such evidence was even up for discussion. In response to that evidence, the D.A. said, “The more of this information that you put before a jury, the [greater the] chances of confusing them.” In other words, the claim is not that such evidence is irrelevant, but rather we are too stupid to handle it. How condescending and pessimistic. Even the prosecution’s rebuttal expert claimed “it’s way too early to use this research in a court of law.” If we are ever to progress morally and socially we cannot afford to hold such views.

Not just our legal system, but our political system too could use an injection of scientific reasoning. Many political claims are testable scientific hypotheses and ought to be treated as such. To support the “war on drugs,” for example, under the claim that it reduces crime and drug use is to make a scientifically testable and falsifiable hypothesis. Of course, the data is messy and experiments hard to come by, but the very act of framing these as scientific questions will help us hack through this choking epistemic relativism in which everyone is entitled to an opinion by virtue of the fact that their justification may correspond to a possible version of reality. The world is not essentially unknowable. And the tools of science can help us peer into the eyes of reality. And from that reality, we should build our society.

I’m not worried that we run the risk of ignoring science as a great tool in our legal system, political debates or moral reasoning. Its encroachment into these domains is inevitable. The question is how quickly we’re going to embrace it rather than resist it at the cost of progress. With great gusto and speed, not only must scientists become lawyers, politicians and preachers but lawyers, politicians and preachers must become scientists.

Sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Allegations of Ideological Bias are Anti-Scientific

Posted by John Jost on September 22, 2011

Author’s prologue: In science, it doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or not; whether you are Black or White, a man or a woman; whether you are a religious person or an atheist; whether you are liberal or conservative, a socialist or a libertarian. The scientific community agrees to consider your truth claims on the merits, according to conventional standards of reason and evidence. Scientists do not—or at least they should not—simply engage in reflexive ideological critique. But increasingly, I encounter students and, more disturbingly, professors, journalists and others suspending their critical faculties and doubting or rejecting scientific findings on the basis of something they think they know about the ideological leanings of the researchers (either as individuals or as a community).

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from a book review I wrote for Science magazine (click here to access the review in its entirety). This excerpt specifically addresses Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” from his latest book, The Believing Brain, but I think that it applies much more widely to the rudderless post-postmodern predicament in which we find ourselves. The time has come for advocates of the social and behavioral sciences to stand by their methods and renounce allegations of ideological bias—whether they are sincerely offered or cynically proffered—as anti-scientific.

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Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” opens with an attack on a paper that I co-authored (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), so the author will not be surprised to learn that I found it to be the worst chapter in his book by far. He could have rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the now abundant scientific literature documenting significant differences between adherents of leftist (or liberal) and rightist (or conservative) belief systems in terms of personality and cognitive and motivational styles (e.g., Gerber Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009) as well as neurocognitive and other physiological structures and functions (Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Kanai, Feilden, Firth, & Rees, 2011; Oxley et al., 2008). Instead, he besmirches the entire enterprise of political psychology, perpetuating canards from the right-wing blogosphere and lazy, empirically unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias.” For example, Shermer writes:

Why are people conservative? Why do people vote Republican? The questions are typically posed without even a whiff of awareness of the inherent bias in asking it in this manner—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Much as medical scientists study cancer in order to cure the disease, liberal political scientists study political attitudes and voting behavior in order to cure people of the cancer of conservatism.

In passages such as this, Shermer is not merely hyperbolic, inflammatory, and wrong about the specifics of the scientific articles he purports to critique. (Given the above characterization, one doubts he even read them.) By resorting to ideological deconstruction and essentially ad hominem forms of attack, Shermer violates his own intellectual standards—succumbing to the tendency, which he scorns in others, to reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.

Shermer ought to know better, but he is enabled (and led considerably astray) by Jonathan Haidt, whose non-peer-reviewed internet provocation entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” provides the only data Shermer considers and, at the same time, a title to which he can object. What happened to the relentless thirst for empirical evidence and the evaluation of such evidence according to rigorous, established scientific criteria? When push comes to shove—as it often does with politics—Shermer sets the evidence aside and trades in stereotypical assumptions about the ideologies and personal backgrounds of the investigators. Consequently, the origins and dynamics of political beliefs will forever remain an unsolved mystery to readers of The Believing Brain.

The broader point, which I think is crucial to the future success of the social and behavioral sciences, is not that scientists themselves are somehow immune to cognitive or other sources of bias. It is that the scientific community is and should be ruthlessly committed to evaluating claims and settling disputes through the inspection and analysis of empirical data and through meaningful discussion and debate about how to properly interpret those data, using agreed upon methodological standards—and not through ideological deconstruction or all too convenient allegations  of bias. Resorting to such means is not only unscientific; it is profoundly anti-scientific.

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Read full review here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Big Tobacco still at it

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 6, 2011

From The Independent:

The world’s largest tobacco company is attempting to gain access to confidential information about British teenagers’ smoking habits.

Philip Morris International, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, is seeking to force a British university to reveal full details of its research involving confidential interviews with thousands of children aged between 11 and 16 about their attitudes towards smoking and cigarette packaging.

The demands from the tobacco company, made using the UK’s Freedom of Information law, have coincided with an internet hate campaign targeted at university researchers involved in smoking studies.

One of the academics has received anonymous abusive phone calls at her home at night. She believes they are prompted by an organised campaign by the tobacco industry to discredit her work, although there is no evidence that the cigarette companies are directly responsible. Philip Morris says it has a “legitimate interest” in the information, but researchers at Stirling University say that handing over highly sensitive data would be a gross breach of confidence that could jeopardise future studies.

The researchers also believe that the requests are having a chilling effect on co-operation with other academics who fear that sharing their own unpublished data with Stirling will lead to it being handed over to the tobacco industry.

Philip Morris International made its first Freedom of Information (FOI) request anonymously through a London law firm in September 2009. However, the Information Commissioner rejected the request on the grounds that that law firm, Clifford Chance, had to name its client.

Philip Morris then put in two further FOI requests under its own name seeking all of the raw data on which Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing has based its many studies on smoking knowledge, attitudes and behaviour in children and adults.

“They wanted everything we had ever done on this,” said Professor Gerard Hastings, the institute’s director.

“These are confidential comments about how youngsters feel about tobacco marketing. This is the sort of research that would get a tobacco company into trouble if it did it itself.” Professor Hastings added: “What is more, these kids have been reassured that only bona fide researchers will have access to their data. No way can Philip Morris fit into that definition.”

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Cancer Research UK funded the Stirling research into the smoking behaviour of British teenagers in order to answer basic questions about why 85 per cent of adult smokers started smoking when they were children. The researchers at Stirling have built up an extensive database of interviews with 5,500 teenagers to analyse their attitudes to cigarette marketing, packaging and shop displays. “It is a big dataset now because we’ve been in the field several times talking to between 1,000 and 2,000 young people each time – going down to the age of 11 and up to the age of 16,” Professor Hastings said. “These kids are often saying things they don’t want their parents to know. It’s very sensitive.”

Asked what would happen if he lost the fight against Philip Morris, Professor Hastings said: “It would be catastrophic. I don’t think that’s an outcome I would like to contemplate. It is morally repugnant to give data confidentially shared with us by children to an industry that is so rapacious.”

Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling, said that other universities in Britain and abroad are following the case with trepidation: “Our colleagues in the community… will not be willing necessarily to hand over information.”

Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing consists of 15 full-time researchers and operates with an annual staff budget of £650,000. Philip Morris International employs 78,000 people and has an annual turnover of £27.2bn.

Professor Hastings said that Philip Morris’s demands have taken up large amounts of time and resources, diverting his department’s attention from its primary role of investigating smoking behaviour. “We have spent a lot of time on this. A research unit like ours simply can’t afford this,” he said. “But for me the crux is the trust we have with young people. How easy will it be for us to get co-operation from young people in the future?

“Our funders will have to think carefully about the further funding of our research. I don’t think for one moment a cancer charity is going to take kindly to paying us hundreds of thousands of pounds to give aid and succour to a multinational tobacco corporation.”

* * *

Academics studying the smoking behaviour of British teenagers and adults have found themselves to be the targets of vitriolic attacks by the pro-smoking lobby.

University researchers have been sent hate emails and some have even received anonymous phone calls, which usually come after a series of blogs posted on pro-smoking websites, including at least one which is linked to the tobacco industry.

Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling University’s Institute for Social Marketing, says she was unprepared for the scale of the personal attacks aimed at discrediting her work on smoking behaviour and anti-smoking legislation.

“I’ve had a series of anonymous calls starting about a year ago,” Professor Bauld said. “These are phone calls in the evening when I’m at home with my children. It’s an unpleasant experience.

“It’s happened six or seven times and it’s always an unknown number. It’s usually after stuff has been posted on one of the main smokers’ websites.

“They don’t leave their name, they just say things like ‘Keep taking the money’, and ‘Who are you to try to intervene in other peoples’ lives’, using a couple of profanities.”

. . . . There is no evidence to suggest that tobacco companies are directly responsible for the anonymous phone calls. However, Professor Bauld has been identified as a legitimate target for criticism by Big Tobacco following her high-profile work on cigarettes and the impact of smoking bans. Her report for the Department of Health last March on the smoking ban in England found that there had been positive benefits to health and no evidence of any obvious negative impact on the hospitality industry, as the tobacco industry has repeatedly claimed.

Imperial Tobacco, the biggest cigarette company in Britain and makers of the best-selling Lambert & Butler brand, responded to Professor Bauld’s report with its own review, called The Bauld Truth. This report, which took just a few weeks to write, claimed that Professor Bauld’s study, conducted over three years, was “lazy and deliberately selective”. It claimed that she used “flawed evidence and failed to validate her findings”.

Professor Bauld said such personalised attacks were nothing new. Big Tobacco has a long history of aggressively dismissing scientific evidence linking smoking to ill health, she said. “These… are heavily peer-reviewed at every stage. Their methods are robust, whereas the evidence [the tobacco companies] draw on are not well-conducted studies,” Professor Bauld said.


Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Deep Capture, Marketing, Public Relations | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Constructed Situation of Race

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 2, 2010

Christian Sundquist’s interesting article,  “The Meaning of Race in the DNA Era: Science, History and the Law” (27 Temple Journal of Science, Technology & Environmental Law 231-265 (2008)) is now available on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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The meaning of “race” has changed dramatically over time. Early theories of race assigned social, intellectual, moral and physical values to perceived physical differences among groups of people. The perception that race should be defined in terms of genetic and biologic difference fueled the “race science” of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, during which time geneticists, physiognomists, eugenicists, anthropologists and others purported to find scientific justification for denying equal treatment to non-white persons. Nazi Germany applied these understandings of race in a manner which shocked the world, and following World War II the concept of race increasingly came to be understood as a socio-political construction with no biological meaning. Modern theories thus understand race as a social grouping of persons necessary to preserve unbalanced relationships of power.

The unfortunate historical role that science has played in the creation and maintenance of racial categories is, however, being reprised in the context of the modern genetic study of race. Race is increasingly viewed as being reducible through genetic testing to a biological essence. Private DNA testing companies promise to discover one’s true racial background, biomedical companies have begun to develop and market “racial” drugs, and the courts in the United States routinely admit estimates of race based on DNA analysis. Race, however, remains a purely social construct devoid of any biological or genetic meaning. This Article thus argues that the prevailing socio-political understanding of race is being threatened by an ascendance of modern “race science” which serves to legitimate culturally-learned folk notions of racial difference.

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You can download the article for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Nicole Stephens on ‘Choice, Social Class, and Agency’,” The Blame Frame – Abstract,” ‘Situation’ Trumps ‘Disposition’- Part II” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, History, Ideology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 8, 2009

Situationist PodcastA BBC podcast of an interview with Situationist Contributor Brian Nosek about Project Implicit’s recent gender-science stereotypes article is available at the BBC World Service’s Science in Action series.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts about gender and science, see The Situation of Gender and Science,The Behavioral Consequences of Unconscious Bias,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Education, Implicit Associations, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Gender and Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2009

Men and ScienceRachana Dixit wrote a worthwhile article in Daily Progress summarizing recent research illustrating the implicit links between gender and science.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

A new study has found that both men and women hold unspoken stereotypes that males are more easily linked with science than females.

The work’s authors say the stereotypes may contribute to continuing underachievement and under-participation among girls and women in science, furthering the idea that science is a male career.

“I think this is pervasive in our culture, but it is changing,” said [Situationist Contributor] Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia psychology professor who led the study. . . .

The findings suggest that 70 percent of respondents harbored implicit stereotypes associating science with males more than with females. About 500,000 people from 34 countries — with roughly half from the United States — took part in the experiment.

The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is a part of Project Implicit, a publicly accessible research project headed by Nosek, Harvard University professor and [Situationist Contributor] Mahzarin Banaji and University of Washington professor Tony Greenwald.

* * *

The study attempted to measure gender bias in science without explicitly asking about the subject. For this study, respondents were asked to sort out four categories — male and female names and science and humanities words. During the first test, participants grouped male names with science words and female names with humanities words; the second time, they did the opposite.

Nosek said the study found that the test-takers could link male names and science words faster than female names and science words. The time difference was generally used to gauge the bias, he said. The gender stereotype could determine how women engage in science disciplines, and gaps in achievement could also reinforce the biases that exist, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, he added.

“It can go both ways,” Nosek said.

In comparing science and math test scores from the separate Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the implicit bias data showed that boys performed better in math and science in countries whose residents stereotyped the most. The implicit thinking measured in the study may also indicate a country’s health in promoting science to both genders, Nosek said.


* * *

Nosek said the investigators are trying to figure out when the stereotypes start pervading people’s psyches. Early data suggest that it could be as early as elementary school.

Getting rid of the stereotypes, Nosek said, will be a tricky thing.

“Even becoming aware of them doesn’t make them disappear,” he said. “Changing them is not so simple.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts about gender and science, see “The Behavioral Consequences of Unconscious Bias,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Faith in God or Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2008

God versus ScienceFrom Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor for University of Illinois News Bureau:

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A person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

What’s more, those views can be manipulated, the researchers found. After using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person’s religious background or views, says University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research.

The study[, titled “Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations”] appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Preston and her colleague, Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, wanted to explore how information about science influences a belief in God, and how religious teaching can also cause people to doubt certain scientific theories.

“As far as I know, no one has looked experimentally at an opposition between belief in science and religion,” Preston said.

“It seemed to me that both science and religion as systems were very good at explaining a lot, accounting for a lot of the information that we have in our environment,” she said. “But if they are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can’t possibly both explain everything.”

The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis,” a scientific theory of the origin of life. Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories “raised more questions than they answered.”

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to “list six things that you think God can explain.” The others were asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God.”

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

“What they didn’t realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word,” Preston said. “So right before the word ‘awful’ came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either ‘God’ or ‘science’ or a control word.”

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, “science,” more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found. Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word “God,” Preston said.

“It was like they didn’t want to say no to God,” she said.

“What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief,” she said. “When God isn’t being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value.”

“On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap,” she said.

The most obvious implication of the research is that “to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space,” Preston said. “However, religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It’s never going to be settled.”

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters,” “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “With God on Our Side . . .,” and “The Blame Frame – Abstract.”

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These helpful suggestions from a reader:  “Ms. Yates’ article would have been clearer if a) it had explicitly described the evaluation task as classifying a positive or negative word  as positive or negative, b) it had mentioned that those asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God” were a control group.  Without these clarifications, a layperson attempting to analyze the argument could quickly become confused, especially when trying to leap from the experiment as described to the quoted conclusions of Dr. Preston.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Life | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

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