Monday, January 24, 2011

I Knew You Were Going to Say That....

Did you hear about the recent ESP research published in a top psychology journal? No, that is actually not the start of a joke. There actually was a research article published by a highly respected psychologist in a highly respected journal which possibly provides evidence of ESP. You can read the article here. It's not a short article, but there it is for you to read.

You can read a variety of reactions throughout this long sentence.

My take on this whole controversy is a bit different. Controversy, you ask? Yes! Psychologists are a wee bit skeptical and like to point out that there are no such things as ghosts, witches, astrology, ESP, and other superstitions. They are interesting in the way they protect (or harm) one's psyche but have absolutely nothing to do with reality.

So my take is this: Is there ESP? Unlikely, but I still find this study quite interesting: students were able to pick out the correct location of a randomly assigned pornographic picture 53% of the time while they only got the regular non-naked pictures 50% of the time. (College students apparently have a "gift" of finding naked people doing things they'd like to be doing themselves.) However, as you can see this "gift" is not too strong. Picking the correct picture 50% of the time is what we'd expect by chance--just guessing. 53% is not a big gain over 50%. But with enough people, it can be a statistically significant improvement.

So here is what I think:
1) The most likely thing that will happen is that these data will not hold up in additional research. I'm can predict (!) this outcome because this is what happens the majority of the time there is a new research finding. I actually do not have in my hot little hands the percentage that makes up the majority of the time, but I think it approaches 90% of the time. 90% of the time is a little bit larger than 50% of the time. And what it means is that we are constantly refining our research to find the "truth" and the first finding is not likely at all to be the final say in what is actually true.

2) I disagree with every single criticism of people who say this research shouldn't have been published or there is something wrong with the peer review system (where researchers anonymously review others' research to determine if it's adequate for publication). The data are what the data are. These results are neutral (as long as they weren't faked). If the results of this study don't agree with what you think, too bad, so sad. If anonymous reviewers can't find a flaw, then the research should be published. I guarantee you that the editor gave special care to picking out people who do NOT believe in ESP to get the best feedback.

3) Here is what I do believe will happen from this study: we are going to find a flaw. It's either going to be a methodological flaw (there is an error in the design or enactment of the study) or there is a statistical flaw. And what is going to be so cool is that it's going to push our discipline ahead in our research and statistics. Why do I say that? Because those reviewers couldn't find a flaw--this research meets the standards for good research in its current form. So whatever mistake was made is not something we as a discipline know is a mistake. And that means growth in how we study. Sounds good to me.

4) Of course, I could be wrong and there is ESP. But I'm not convinced by this study. I'm not convinced by any one study of anything. Unless, of course, it's my study because mine are all brilliant and insightful and completely accurate descriptions of the truth in this world. (((cough, cough, cough, wiping tears from eyes)))

So I think this is pretty exciting. Something good is going to come from this. It's going to take a while--several years at the least before the next studies are designed, data collected, analyzed, vetted and published, but how exciting for psychology!

It's almost as exciting as a talking dog. Which is what I want to talk about next in research.

Friday, January 14, 2011

And No Stuffed Animals Were Burned!

Perhaps you have heard of Amy Chua's essay in the Wall Street Journal about the superiority of Chinese Mothers. If you haven't, I'm going to guess you don't have young children. Or you don't follow the Internets all that much, which means you aren't going to be reading this blog.

Although when I heard Ms. Chua on the Diane Rehm Show (and WOW, isn't Diane Rehm beautiful!), she suggested that her extreme parenting (calling her children garbage when they get an A- or less on a test, threatening to burn their stuffed animals if they don't play the piano well, no extra-curricular activities or friends), is a bit tongue-in-cheek, my understanding is that that is not true. A friend of a friend is Ms. Chua's neighbor, and indeed, can attest to the truth of the dinner party incident related in the article. She does berate her children and she limits their social activities in order that they will be The Best and win The Medal. She loves them and argues that she believes they are the best and they can win the medal and that is why she pushes them so hard.

Clearly, this is not our style. On the other hand, I think Dave and I can push Conor a little bit more, especially in skills we know he can do but he's afraid at failing at. So oddly enough, inspired by Ms. Chua, we had Conor sit down after dinner the other night and practice tying his shoes. He has not learned this yet and it's probably past time. So Dave and I hid in the kitchen and mouthed GARBAGE! GARBAGE! towards Conor (because we are apparently that kind of parent). Conor took a minute and then shouted out, "I DID IT!!!!" "YAY!" we shouted back. "Untie it and do it again!"

A minute passed. "I DID IT AGAIN!" "YAY! Do it one more time!" And Conor did. We told him he could have an ice cream sandwich if he tied both his shoes and went out to the garage freezer to get one. He struggled a bit, but did it. And no stuffed animals were burned.

But, yes, we were inspired to push him to do it. (A push as harsh as blowing on him) And we are actually inspired to do more of this You Can Do It, Just Practice parenting. (And you may be thinking we are incredibly slack. But no, we simply have 19 month old twins)

In any case, Ms. Chua's parenting style could be on to something name calling and toy destroying notwithstanding. Research suggests that everyone can become an expert/genius in something. Come again? Genes change and adapt to the environment. From the article, "This means that everything about us - our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities - are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of "innate" no longer holds together." We settle for mediocrity because we think we aren't innately talented enough when expertise actually comes from effort and self-discipline. According to this new research, even IQ (which has long been thought as an innate, stable trait) changes according to the environment.

I love this research. FINALLY, science is demonstrating that genes apart from the environment mean nothing and the environment has no effect on people outside of the genes a person is given.

This is huge to me, and probably not in the way you think. We think in terms of cause and effect. A causes B. Genes cause people to Be The Way They Are. But NO, others argue (and I have tended to be here). Environment is the stronger contributor to people becoming the way they are. But that's silly, too, because it's obvious that people have certain proclivities; you can't make an introvert an extrovert no matter how hard you try. So scientists have been asking the question, which is more important: nature or nurture.

As I've grown as a researcher and as a methodologist, I've realized that one of our main problems is that we have a hard time thinking in terms of interaction (genes and environment mutually cause people to be the way they are), particularly when the interaction is recursive---the interaction is continual and progressive. I think the next big leap in the way social and biological scientists think about why people are what they are and do what they do. It's hard to think this way. It takes some mental effort to really work through the theoretical logic (not to mention the analyses!) of research like this. But I think generations of researchers behind us are going to build on our mental efforts and find it easy--just like we all naturally think in causal terms, which wasn't the case before the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, witches caused everything.

And going back to the beginning of this entry, witches can "cause" genius, too. There is a lesson here, besides it's really fun to silently mouth "GARBAGE!" and "I am going to BURN all your stuffed animals if you don't tie your shoes!!!" at your children when they are doing something. For us, it's that our limits are self-imposed. We can do more than we think we can. And we want our children to know that they can do a lot of what they want, too. They just need to keep trying. And we'll support them, and not abuse them, along the way.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Happy New Year!

So much for my plan of posting every week!

I hope your new year is going well. December was a bit rough around here. The kids were sick the first two weeks and out of school the last two weeks. They started back this week (WOOOHOOOHOO) and I've finally had a break. But my "break" has involved getting caught up on work and prepping for my classes--including one that is a new prep for me and will be the last time the class is offered. Nothing like seeing lots of hard work go for naught.

In any case, there is so much to share with folks, well, actually just to put in this blog so I remember it. I will start with Christopher, since he has been the focus of our attention with his 18 month sleep regression--and subsequent waking up every 2 hours.

There is a spot on Christopher's cheek, just above his jaw, that is so soft and mushy that it is the best spot to kiss I've found on any human being. Kissing that spot (and I kiss it a lot) is one of the highlight's of my day.

Another Christopher feature, less kissable, is his habit of pooping while in down dog position. Oh, indeed-y, it is clearly obvious when Christopher is doing his thing when he looks like he's creating a new down dog/plank merge. Nonetheless, the poop I want to remember forever (truly) involves 5 to 10 minutes of dramatic down dog producing yoga one tiny, yet perfect, still solid and recognizable blueberry.

Have I mentioned how much he likes blueberries? He would gladly eat a complete pint if we let him. Apparently, he was so stuffed on that day that one popped out. (Pooped out!!)

Ah, yes. He is an adorable little boy. We actually call him Kisstopher frequently because of how much he likes to kiss and be kissed. His cousins have suggested that we drop that nickname before he hits high school. Well, I guess so. It actually might work to his advantage. But we'll wait.

I am seriously thinking of starting to blog more "other thing" topics here, such as psychological research (have you heard about that new ESP study? Fascinating!!) I'd also like to start talking more explicitly on the difficulties of being a working mother, even with the flexible job that I have. I'm not sure what audience these topics will attract, and if I really want those audiences to learn so much about my infertility, miscarriages and breastfeeding exploits. ALTHOUGH, I'm not ashamed of any of them and the more we talk about this stuff out in the open, the more it will be normal.

In any case, I'll actually have to BLOG. I want to. And if I'm doing it about work stuff, I'll feel less guilty doing it before all the kids have gone to sleep.