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Permanent Zero

‘Email overload’ is one of those phrases everyone thinks they know the meaning of: “I get too many emails!”. Last autumn I met Steve Whittaker, who has a reasonable claim to have actually coined the phrase, way back in 1996. He explained to me that the point wasn’t to say that we get to much email, but that email is used for too many different things. We’re using it to send messages, receive messages, get notifications, schedule tasks, chat, delegate tasks, archive information and so on forever.

Shifting the focus from email as number of individual messages (too many!), to email as functions (still too many!) lets you see why the ‘Inbox Zero‘ idea doesn’t quite work. Inbox Zero appeals to my sense of being in control over my email, and it is better for me than not having a righteous scheduling system for my email, but it doesn’t split the multiple functions for which I use email.

Now, for you today, I’d like to share my newest strategy for managing my email, which is inspired by Whittaker’s ‘Email overload’ distinction.

The first thing to do is to separate off the single largest function of email – receiving messages – from the others. You need to stop emails arriving in your inbox, leaving you free to send and search without distraction. Create a filter and have all incoming mail moved to that folder. Now stare in satisfaction at “You have no new email!” in your inbox. Schedule a time to go to your received mail folder and kill as many emails as you can, using your favourite inbox zero strategies (protop: if you send emails at 4.30 you minimise the chances of someone replying that day). Now your workflow which only involves sending messages and dealing with old messages isn’t tangled up with the distraction of receiving new messages.

Next, separate off all email that isn’t personal correspondence. Set a second filter which removes all email without your email address in the ‘to’ or ‘cc’ fields. These are circulars. You can scan the titles and delete en mass.

If you are using gmail, you can import these filters (after editing to make relevant adjustments).
remove from inbox, unless sent to ‘exception’ address
remove all circulars
Right click to ‘save as’, they won’t show up in a browser. Note that my new folders begin with ‘A_’ so they are top of my alphabetised folder list.

Peak grain

Here, a graph of population size in England, 850-1550; a “speculative reconstruction” from Dyer’s “Making A Living in the Middle Ages”:

2015-01-20 20.03.51

Note the exuberant growth of 1150-1300. What a hundred years to be alive! The population more than doubled! Towns, cities, commerce, a relentless pace of change unlike anything come before

This growth slowed even before famine (1315-22) and plague (1348-50) caused such precipitous drops in population. Dyer isn’t clear why growth came to an end: perhaps crop yields collapsed, after a century of intensive farming – a generational shift in the ability to extract energy (and one more thing that makes the time analogous to our own).

And after 1350, what a world to live in. How did it feel? An end of days? The old regimes collapsing with new men free to make a new order amid the ruins? In 1381 a two month cry of freedom, Englishmen demanding an end to aristocracy and autonomous government by villages under the king. Where did that come from? And what remained of it after Wat Tyler and John Ball’s heads were on spikes?

Reference: Dyer, C. (2002). Making a living in the middle ages: the people of Britain 850-1520. Yale University Press.

Values vs Finances

I attended a University meeting recently, an open forum to discuss our strategy and vision. My small group spend most of its time talking about the conflict between values and finances. Values we might aspire to – things like helping fight climate change – and finances – the constraints from ‘the bottom line’, the need to recognise the costs of different actions. Something about how the group settled on this dichotomy disturbed me. It wasn’t that there weren’t intelligent people in the group, who make good points, but I left with the inarticulate feeling that there was something wrong with the framing around the discussion we had. I’ve been thinking about it for over a week, and I’m now a bit closer to figuring out some of the problems with the idea that values come into conflict with finances.

The first problem with this false opposition is that it positions values as a luxury, something we can only afford to think about if we service the necessity of finances. Rather, values are the necessity – and prior to any consideration of finances. How can you decide on any action unless you know what you want, and what you value? This is impossible for a person, or an institution. Sure, we have some givens – Universities teach and do research – but I’d argue they reflect implicit values which we need to articulate. Only once we know what values we share can we then start to decide what we want to do, and only then can we start to cost those actions.

The second problem with putting finances in opposition to values is that it reifies an abstract notion and gives the false impression that ‘finances’ are somehow simple and concrete. In fact, even if the University unwisely adopted the corporate directive to maximise profits that does not unpack into a clear decision strategy. Over the complex space of possible timescales, and possible strategies, and possible changes in the environment, it isn’t clear at all what actions will maximise profits. You need a sense of your mission even if you are trying to maximise profits – which we aren’t.

My sense is that in the discussion people referred to ‘finances’ as a proxy for external constraints. We’d like to teach for free, but lecturers and buildings cost money etc. My objection to vaguely referring to ‘finances’ is that it stops detailed discussion of specific external constraints – not all of which are financial (for example we’d like to recruit the best research staff from around the world, but visa restrictions hamper this).

My third and final issue with the opposition of values and finances is that it positions values as flexible – things we’ll set within whatever wiggle room finances affords us – but finances as fixed. But Universities are big enough players to change the environment within which they operate. We all are, especially though the power of collective action. Fees, funding, visa restrictions are all negotiable. We, as a society, and as a University which should play a role in shaping society, decide on how these things work. We should articulate our values and take part in doing that. I reject a fatalistic submission to the way the world is – which is often what homage to finances reflects. A ‘there is no alternative’ nihilism which promotes passivity.

Reflections on No Picnic

[A reconstruction of what I wanted to say, and what I actually did say, at the launch of the book ‘No Picnic’ on 27th May 2014. Hardcopies of the book and commentaries – including this one – are available by PayPalling £5 to webmaster@einekleine.com]

I’ve just left a University meeting where someone made an impassioned protest about the number of duties academics have. They were still despairing about the amount of work we’re asked to do, as I left to get to my bike so I could cycle here.

On the way I passed a new development of luxury student flats named “impact”. A cruel pun on the need to justify research, I wondered?

I work as an experimental psychologist, and so, as I rolled down the hill, my thoughts returned to the research that occupies so much of my time, research I’ve been doing on learning and learning curves.

But as I arrived at to No Picnic these thoughts also fell away and I turned to think about failure.

My failure.

You see, I was originally part of the Furnace Park project. In the book, Matt says some kind words about me not being able to continue being involved because I had a newborn daughter. And it’s true, I do have a daughter and that does fill up your time. But the truth is that it wasn’t just that which meant that I dropped out of the project. Really it was a question of priorities. I was focused on my research on learning curves, about writing grants and publishing papers, with a limited amount of work time. Furnace Park just…fell off the edge of the things I could do.

So I was thinking about my failure to be involved, and about the instrumentalism – the need for results – which structured my time so that I decided I couldn’t afford to be involved.

And instrumentalism turned my thoughts to my first academic job. You see I’m a recovering social psychologist, and my first job after my PhD was on a project looking at brownfield land. Brownfield land is previously used land, like Furnace Park. Previously used land can be polluted, but possible harm from that pollution is always a risk, rather than a certainty, and people think about risks in funny ways – hence my involvement as a psychologist.

One thing we looked at was who the public trusted to tell them about risk. Was it the media, local government, pressure groups or scientists? We found that the expertise of the person giving the information was nearly irrelevant – people trusted information from people they thought were on their side, regardless of whether they were qualified to judge the risks.

One day, as part of this project, I was on a site visit to a housing estate which had been built on or near polluted land. The residents of the estate were understandably upset when they discovered the extent of the pollution and were pressing for a clean-up – a clean-up of great expense and uncertain efficacy. I was being driven around the site by the chief planning officer at the local council.

“They say to me, Tom,”, he said, “they say to me ‘how much is a human life worth, eh? How much is a human life worth?'”

“What I don’t tell them is that according to us it is exactly four hundred and seventy five thousand pounds”

Instrumentalism!

Another thing I learnt from that project is that it is a myth that brownfield sites are barren and greenfield sites are always more important to protect because of the richness of the habitat. As you can see from places like Furnace Park, although left unused – often because unused – brownfield sites can become vibrant ecologies.

Thinking of this turned my mind to something Vaclav Havel once said. He was a Czech dissident in the days of the Soviet Union. He wrote samizdat – typed and illicitly copied essays which were clandestinely circulated. In those days you had to know the right people get hold of his writing (perhaps like the No Picnic book). In the 90s I could buy his writings in a book. Now you can find them all on the internet.

In one of his essays Havel writes about the value of art which isn’t aligned with the objectives of the state – purposeless culture. He says that, like the ecologies of the natural world, these ecologies of culture must be conserved and cultivated. You never know, he argued, where the thing you need most is going to come from. You never know when you’ll need to draw on the resources and wisdom stored in such a niche.

I couldn’t find that passage flicking through my copy of “Living in Truth” however.

Another passage that stuck in my mind concerns Havel’s writing on what he called the Post Totalitarian System. These, he said, were societies, both East and West, where the need for direct repression has passed. Here, he said, every person’s attention was kept nailed to floor of their self-interest. Control was maintained by material comforts, and the fear of sticking out.

I couldn’t find that passage either. Perhaps it is in his “Letters to Olga”

Instead, I found this passage, from his essay “Politics and Conscience”:

“As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché”

And that is the end of my meander in thought from the University, to learning, to instrumentalism, to ecology, to dissident publishing, and so to No Picnic. The book reminded me of the importance of spaces outside of the narrow instrumentalism that rules so much of my life, and it is a true testimony to a particular place, at a particular moment, with particular people. I look forward to reading it again.

An Open Letter to Andrew Dodman

Dear Andrew Dodman,
Director of Human Resources,
University of Sheffield

Our University has a problem with inequality. Standard undergraduate student fees have lept three-fold since 2012, with the average debts of a graduating student around £44,000 [1]. Our Vice Chancellor took home £370,000 last year, whilst the University benefits from the zero-hours and short-term contracts of many staff who are intimately involved to the administrative and intellectual life of the institution. In the middle, academics with open-ended contracts, of whom I am one, have suffered years of below inflation pay-rises [2].

This is the context for the current University and College Union (UCU) action short of a strike – a boycott on assessment by Union members, voted for by the largest turn out in the Union’s history, in support of protecting pensions – another area in which unjustified cuts are planned which will profit those who have, and squeeze those who have not. Directly these plans will reduce the pension for current staff, and it will also impact on the students and wider public to which the University is obligated, who will get less from demoralised, under-rewarded and over-managed University lecturers.

You have announced that all University of Sheffield staff participating in the action will be docked 25% pay. I would like to request that all the savings made from cutting my pay are redistributed to my students in the form of a fee rebate. The University shouldn’t profit from action staff are taking in the name of a fair reward for working here, and students deserve some compensation.

Yours

Tom

Tom Stafford
Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science
University of Sheffield

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/73-of-todays-students-will-still-be-paying-off-their-tuition-fees-in-their-50s-9249258.html

[2] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/v-c-pay-105000-rise-for-head-as-staff-denied-living-wage/2010736.article

Teaching critical thinking: What if? What if not?

I am teaching a course, where I ask students to critically review papers reporting psychology experiments. It is making me question how you try and teach a skill as fundamental as critical thinking. I am trying to do it by example, walking the students through my reading of each paper, showing them what I do and consider when looking at it, and then providing them with a model answer (which is identical in structure to the final coursework I will require of them).

Reading a few practice questions students have handed in, I’m struck that there is a habit I want my students to acquire, which they haven’t quite got yet, and which I don’t even know the name of. Which I why I write this here, to ask you – Kind Interwebs – if you know what it is I am about to talk about and how I can convey it best to people taking my course.

This habit is that of asking the skeptical follow up questions to every proposal they make. So, for example, most undergraduate psychology students will have up their sleeve a well rehearsed list of possible flaws in experiments. Things like: was the sample representative of the population? Are there confounds in the experiment which prevent you cleanly inferring the causation?

It is nice, but inadequate, to write a review of a paper listing flaws like this. Doing so does not constitute a useful or interesting critical review (or, on my course, a gradeworthy one).

What I would like to encourage is my students to go the extra mile and, having spotted a potential flaw, assess it for plausibility, and consider what it would mean if the flaw was a significant one (i.e. how does it limit our interpretation of the current experiment, and what does it mean for future possible experiments?).

Here’s a concrete example: one paper I am teaching is one of my own, that looked at how students’ use of a course wiki predicted final exam score. A student suggested that because students knew their wiki use was being monitored, demand effects may have played a role (demand effects are a classic psychology experiment confound: participants distort their behaviour according to what they think you want to find). Now this is fair enough, but there are a number of follow up questions.

What is required for this to be the case?
That students were able and willing to alter their final exam score based on their wiki use, but not because of it, perhaps. This seems implausible

What is implied if it is the case? If the demand effect did hold, would it even mean that the wiki use wasn’t effective? For example, we might decide that since students can’t easily score higher on exams at a whim, even an effect via demand was an effect worth having

How could I test if it is the case? Demand effects may hold, but how could we tell if they do hold?

What if it isn’t the case? What are the differences between the two situations Imagine two worlds with and without demand effects. What are the crucial differences between them, and what implications do these differences have for our experiment interpretation or further research? If there are no major differences, maybe we don’t need to worry about demand effects.

I pick demand effects because I wanted to use a specific example, but my aim is to encourage students to deploy these questions about every possible flaw or improvement that they suggest. My question today, though, is is there a general principle which students could follow to guide them in asking these kind of skeptical follow up questions? It seems like there isn’t anything too domain specific about this, so even if you aren’t an expert in psychology experiments you could semi-independently develop this skill of probing the logical structure of claims about an interpretation. It also seems that, cognitively, such thinking puts a heavy demand on your working memory, since it consists of layers and iterations of hypotheticals and counter-factuals. This makes it extra hard, is there any way to make it easier?

If there is no general principle, it may be that me (and my students) are stuck with going through worked examples. I’m seeking short cuts up the mountain.

Quote #301

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing

David Cain, in Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed

Quote #300: Graeber on the popular appeal of the right

One of the perennial complaints of the progressive left is that so many working-class Americans vote against their own economic interests—actively supporting Republican candidates who promise to slash programs that provide their families with heating oil, who savage their schools and privatize their Medicare. To some degree the reason is simply that the scraps the Democratic Party is now willing to throw its “base” at this point are so paltry it’s hard not to see their offers as an insult: especially when it comes down to the Bill Clinton– or Barack Obama–style argument “we’re not really going to fight for you, but then, why should we? It’s not really in our self-interest when we know you have no choice but to vote for us anyway.” Still, while this may be a compelling reason to avoid voting altogether—and, indeed, most working Americans have long since given up on the electoral process—it doesn’t explain voting for the other side.

The only way to explain this is not that they are somehow confused about their self-interest, but that they are indignant at the very idea that self-interest is all that politics could ever be about. The rhetoric of austerity, of “shared sacrifice” to save one’s children from the terrible consequences of government debt, might be a cynical lie, just a way of distributing even more wealth to the 1 percent, but such rhetoric at least gives ordinary people a certain credit for nobility. At a time when, for most Americans, there really isn’t anything around them worth calling a “community,” at least this is something they can do for everybody else.

The moment we realize that most Americans are not cynics, the appeal of right-wing populism becomes much easier to understand. It comes, often enough, surrounded by the most vile sorts of racism, sexism, homophobia. But what lies behind it is a genuine indignation at being cut off from the means for doing good.

Take two of the most familiar rallying cries of the populist right: hatred of the “cultural elite” and constant calls to “support our troops.” On the surface, it seems these would have nothing to do with each other. In fact, they are profoundly linked. It might seem strange that so many working-class Americans would resent that fraction of the 1 percent who work in the culture industry more than they do oil tycoons and HMO executives, but it actually represents a fairly realistic assessment of their situation: an air conditioner repairman from Nebraska is aware that while it is exceedingly unlikely that his child would ever become CEO of a large corporation, it could possibly happen; but it’s utterly unimaginable that she will ever become an international human rights lawyer or drama critic for The New York Times. Most obviously, if you wish to pursue a career that isn’t simply for the money—a career in the arts, in politics, social welfare, journalism, that is, a life dedicated to pursuing some value other than money, whether that be the pursuit of truth, beauty, charity—for the first year or two, your employers will simply refuse to pay you. As I myself discovered on graduating college, an impenetrable bastion of unpaid internships places any such careers permanently outside the reach of anyone who can’t fund several years’ free residence in a city like New York or San Francisco—which, most obviously, immediately eliminates any child of the working class. What this means in practice is that not only do the children of this (increasingly in-marrying, exclusive) class of sophisticates see most working-class Americans as so many knuckle-dragging cavemen, which is infuriating enough, but that they have developed a clever system to monopolize, for their own children, all lines of work where one can both earn a decent living and also pursue something selfless or noble. If an air conditioner repairman’s daughter does aspire to a career where she can serve some calling higher than herself, she really only has two realistic options: she can work for her local church, or she can join the army.

This was, I am convinced, the secret of the peculiar popular appeal of George W. Bush, a man born to one of the richest families in America: he talked, and acted, like a man that felt more comfortable around soldiers than professors. The militant anti-intellectualism of the populist right is more than merely a rejection of the authority of the professional-managerial class (who, for most working-class Americans, are more likely to have immediate power over their lives than CEOs), it’s also a protest against a class that they see as trying to monopolize for itself the means to live a life dedicated to anything other than material self-interest. Watching liberals express bewilderment that they thus seem to be acting against their own self-interest—by not accepting a few material scraps they are offered by Democratic candidates—presumably only makes matters worse.

David Graeber (2013), The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement., p123-125

link to June 2014

I’ve been listening to my tapes again

It’s now clear that CDs were a massive backwards move for personal music. My CDs are scratched, my CD players have conked out, one by one. I sit surrounded by dead storage media, while my tapes and tape players play as loud and clear as ever.

The popularity of low quality mp3s reveals the myth of fidelity that helped us buy into the CD hype. As with virtual reality, we let ourselves be fooled into believing that the primary thing that matters is high resolution (kbps, frames per second, pixels per inch, 3D, etc). CDs might have some sound quality edge over tape, but in terms of immersion quality is irrelevant. Fluidity of action drives immersion in VR. With music, the relationship we have to the production and consumption is primary; the history of obtaining, retaining, playing and enjoying.

With music, CDs accelerated us along that path that eroded music-as-object. This creates a vacuum in the emotional life of our music collections. The CD gives you shuffle, destroying the order the higher order of sequencing in favour of the individuality of tracks. You can skip in an instant, removing the distance tapes impose via effort of holding the forward key. CDs are fickle towards their digital memories, all too ready to give up to scratching, skipping or fatal “NO DISC” load failures. Frankly, less than 20 years after I bought my first CD, too many of them don’t f****ing work.

The tapes still work. I recognise my handwriting on the track listing, anticipate the start of each track from the end of the one that invariably came before. Certain artists are forever bound in my memory by accident of being taped onto opposite sites of the same tape. My hand knows the weight of a tape. Somewhere in my motor cortex a dedicated network of neurons store the pattern which allows me to stab STOP/EJECT, slip out a C90, spin it around between thumb and index finger, reinsert, slam shut holder and stab play, all within half a second.

Music-as-objects limits our choices. With a tape, if you want to skip more tracks you have to wait longer for the tape to wind forward. If you want to change your selection you need to stand up and find another tape you want to listen to. If you want to make a mix tape, you’ve only got 45 minutes a side, say, within which to do it.

The tape gives freedom through constraint in a way that is a release for anyone who has sat in front of Spotify, mouse over the search bar, thinking “a million million songs at my fingertips and I can’t think of anything I want to listen to”. Once, I could only listen to the music I had on tape (and a radio, without any pause or replay). Now I can spend 10 minutes listening to the first thirty seconds of 20 songs from a selection wider than the sky. It’s like a music diet consisting entirely of crisps.

Sometimes less is more.

ASMR: Don’t ask

A couple of years ago a nice man called Rhodri asked me about ASMR. I didn’t know anything about the phenomenon, but I was willing to comment as an experimental psychologist. The interesting thing to me was that this is a subjective experience that many people seemed to recognise, but it had no official name (until people started calling it ASMR and finding each other on the internet). “Could this be a real thing?” asked Rhodri. “Sure” I said, it’s perfectly possible that something could be real (common across people, not based on imaging or lies) and yet scientifically invisible. Maybe, I thought, now someone will look into this phenomenon and find ways of measuring it.

Since then, as far as I am aware, there hasn’t been any research on ASMR, but interest in the phenomenon grows and grows. I wrote a column about ASMR for the BBC. There’s even a wikipedia page, and yours truly is currently quoted near the top. Because of these I regularly have people with ASMR and assorted journalist types contacting me for my opinions on ASMR.

It makes me kind of sad to say, but I actually have no further opinions on ASMR. I don’t have anything extra to say than I said to Rhodri and in my column. I don’t follow the research on ASMR (if there is any now), and I have never done any research on ASMR. I only opened my big mouth in the first place because the thing that interests me is how subject experience is turned into social facts. As an experimental psychologist, that’s what I do and ASMR is an example of something that might be a real subjective experience that we can observe in the process of being turned into a socially accepted fact. That’s the thing that is interesting to me.

Regretfully, I have to refuse all opportunities to talk about ASMR itself because I literally have nothing more to say. Sorry.

Reason is no mere slave

“Human beings are not the perfectly rational creatures they would be if they strove for truth and consistency at all times. Nevertheless, if we can be motivated by a desire to eliminate inconsistency in our beliefs and actions, reason is no mere slave. We may use reason to enable us to satisfy our needs, but reason then develops its own motivating force”

Peter Singer (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, p. 143

On the epistemic costs of implicit bias

“…if you live in a society structured by racial categories that you disavow, either you must pay the epistemic cost of failing to encode certain sorts of base-rate or background information about cultural categories, or you must expend epistemic energy regulating the inevitable associations to which that information – encoded in ways to guarantee availability – gives rise”

Gendler, T. S. (2011). On the epistemic costs of implicit bias. Philosophical studies, 156(1), 33-63.

ur-quote on addiction and freewill

The craving for a drink in real dipsomaniacs, or for opium or chloral in those subjugated, is of a strength of which normal persons can form no conception. ‘Were a keg of rum in one corner of a room and were a cannon constantly discharging balls between me and it, I could not refrain from passing before that cannon in order to get the rum’; ‘If a bottle of brandy stood at one hand and the pit of hell yawned at the other, and I were convinced that I should be pushed in as sure as I took one glass, I could not refrain’: such statements abound in dipsomaniacs’ mouths.

William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), p. 543. Via Laurence. Thanks Laurence!

links for summer 2013

the extended self in interface design

As users become more familiar with an environment they situate themselves more profoundly. We believe that insights concerning the way agents become closely coupled with their environments have yet to be fully exploited in interface design

Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 7(2), 174-196.

Talking to journalists

Ed Yong has some excellent guidelines for scientists on giving comments to journalists, but I wanted to add a single piece of advice, one which will help whether you are talking to Ed or to less scrupulous journalists:

“Don’t be afraid to tell the journalist what the story is”

By this I mean you are allowed to not answer the question. This feels weird, since it violates conversational and academic rules, but the thing the journalist should be interested in is the real story. The questions just exist to get to that (which is why Ed says he often asks pretty vague questions). If you think the journalist is asking the wrong question, don’t answer it – tell them what the right question is.

If you restrict yourself to answering the wrong questions, the risk for everyone is that the (mistaken) framing stays in place, just with a few qualifications from you. For example, if the journalist is researching a study which says “fabulous brain training method boosts IQ” your comments that the study has flaws, or is a provisional result only, will lead to the headline “fabulous brain training method boosts IQ”. Or, if you are lucky, “fabulous brain training method might boost IQ”. And down in paragraph 4 will be some quote from you warning people not to get carried away.

Far better would be to give the journalist an alternative story, rather than some doubts. Tell them “no brain training method you can pay for works any better than free methods which are available to everyone”. Or “the brain is a machine which runs on blood, the best thing for your brain is physical exercise, not brain training”. This is news people can use. If you really disagree with a study, offering an alternative narrative is your best chance of that study being put in the correct context. “You don’t beat owt with nowt”, as they say.

This is what – I think – Ed is getting at when he says he wants the context from scientists, the “something interesting that I couldn’t have predicted”.

Further reading: George Lakoff “Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” (an actual book, so no hyperlink!)

Link: Ed Yong: “A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists

Surely the hoo-har about replication could only concern a non-cumulative science?

There’s a hoo-har in psychology right now about replication. Spurred on by some high profile fraud cases, awareness of the structural biases surrounding publication and perennial rumblings about statistical malpractice, many are asking if the effects reported in the literature are real. There are some laudable projects aimed at improving best practice in science – journals of null results, pre-registration for experiments, the Center for Open Science (see previous link), but it occurs to me that all of this ignores an important bit of context. At the risk of stating the obvious: you need to build in support for replications only to the extent that these do not happen as part of normal practice.

Cumulative science inherently supports replication. For most of science, what counts on news is based on what has been done before – not just in an abstract theoretical sense, but in the sense that it relies on those results being true to make the experiments work. Since I’m a psychologist, and my greatest expertise is in my own work, I’ll give you an example from this recent paper. It’s a study of action learning, but we use a stimulus control technique from colour psychophysics (and by ‘we’, I really mean Martin, who did all the hard stuff). As part of preparing the experiment we replicated some results using stimuli of this type. Only because this work had been done (thanks Petroc!) could we design our experiment; and if this work didn’t replicate, we would have found out in the course of preparing for our study of action learning. Previously in my career I’ve had occasion to do direct replications, and I’ve almost always found the effect reported. I haven’t agreed with the interpretation of why the effect happens, or I’ve found that my beliefs about the effect from just reading the literature were wrong, but the effect has been there.

It is important that replication is possible, but I’ve been bemused that there has been such a noise about creating space for additional formal replications. It makes me wonder what people believe about psychology. If a field was one where news was made by collecting isolated interesting phenomena, then I there would be more need for structures to support formal replication. Should I take the reverse lesson from this – the extent to which people call for structures to support formal replication is evidence of the lack of cumulative science in psychology?

Mea culpa musings (angry cyclist edition)

I screwed up. My latest column for BBC Future is about why cyclists enrage motorists. My argument is that cyclists offend the ‘moral order’ of the roads, evoking in motorists a feeling of outrage over perceived rule breaking.

Unfortunately, I included some loose words in my article that implied things I don’t believe and wasn’t arguing. Exhibit A:

Then along comes a cyclist, who seems to believe that the rules aren’t made for them, especially the ones that hop onto the pavement, run red lights, or go the wrong way down one-way streets.

This wrongly suggests both that I think the typical cyclists breaks the law (they don’t), and/or that motorists are enraged by cyclists’ law breaking. This is not the case, rather I am arguing that motorists are engaged by cyclists’ perceived rule breaking, where I mean rule in the sense of ‘convention’. Cyclists habitually, legally, and sensibly break conventions of car-driving such as waiting in queued traffic, moving at the speed limit or not under-taking.

Exhibit A has now been changed in the article to the more pleasing:

Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see are the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren’t allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

So, my bad and apologies for this. I should have been a lot clearer than I was. I’m just grateful that a few people understood what I was getting at (if you read the whole article I hope the correct interpretation is supported by the rest of the phrasing I use). The amount and vehemence of feedback has been quite surprising. Lots of people thought I was a frustrated driver who hated cyclists. In fact, the bike is my main form of transport. I’ve ridden nearly every day for over ten years (and been hit by a car once). For this article I was trying not to sound like the self-righteous cycling proto-fascist I feel like sometimes. I obviously succeeded. Perhaps too well.

Other people thought I was claiming that this was the only factor affecting road-user’s attitudes. I don’t think this. Obviously selective memory (for bad cyclists or drivers), in- group/out-group effects and the asymmetry in vulnerability all play a role. I did write a version of the article which laid out the conceptual space a bit clearer, but I decided it was boring to read, and really I wanted to talk about evolutionary game theory and make a novel – and, I thought, interesting – claim.

I sometimes think I should get “Telling the truth, just not the whole truth” translated into Latin so I can use it as the motto for the column. Each one I write someone comes back to me with something I missed out. If I tried to be comprehensive I’d end up with a textbook, instead of a 800 word magazine column. I don’t want to write textbooks, so I’m reasonably happy with leaving things out, but I do worry that there is a line you cross when telling some of the truth amounts to a deception or distortion of the whole truth. I’m trying, each time, not to cross that line. Feedback on how to manage this is welcome.

There were many other comments of all shades. You can ‘enjoy’ some of them on the BBC Future facebook page here. If you did leave a comment on email/facebook/twitter I’m sorry I couldn’t respond to all of them. I hope this post clarifies things a bit.

Links for January 2013

Bootstrap: corrected

So, previously on this blog (here, and here) I was playing around with the bootstrap as a way of testing if two samples are drawn from a different underlying distribution, by simulating samples with known differences and throwing different tests at the samples. The problem was that I was using the wrong bootstrap test. Tim was kind enough to look at what I’d done and point out that I should have concatenated my two sets of numbers and the pulled two samples from that set, calculated the mean difference and then used that statistic to constructed a probability distribution function against which I could compare my measured statistic (ie the difference of means) to perform a hypothesis test (viz. ‘what are the chances that I could have got this difference of means if the two distributions are not different?’). For people who prefer to think in code, the corrected bootstrap is at the end of this post.

Using the correct bootstrap method, this is what you get:

So what you can see is that, basically, the bootstrap is little improvement over the t-test. Perhaps a marginal amount. As Cosma pointed out, the ex-gaussian / reaction time distributions I’m using look pretty normal at lower sample sizes, so it isn’t too surprising that the t-test is robust. Using the median rather than the mean damages the sensitivity of the bootstrap (contra my previous, erroneous, results). My intuition is that the mean, as a statistic, is influenced by the whole distribution in a way the median isn’t, so it a better summary statistic (statisticians, you can tell me if this makes sense). The mean test is far more sensitive, but, as discussed previously, this is because it has an unacceptably high false alarm rate which is insufficiently penalised by d-prime.

Update: Cosma’s notes on the bootstrap are here and recommened if you want the fundamentals and are already degree-level comfortable with statistical theory.

Corrected boostrap function:

function H=bootstrap(s1,s2,samples,alpha,method)

difference=mean(s2)-mean(s1);

for i=1:samples
    
    sstar=[s1 s2];
    
    boot1=sstar(ceil(rand(1,length(s1))*length(sstar)));
    boot2=sstar(ceil(rand(1,length(s2))*length(sstar)));
    
    if method==1
        a(i)=mean(boot1)-mean(boot2);
    else
        a(i)=median(boot1)-median(boot2);    
    end
    
end

CI=prctile(a,[100*alpha/2,100*(1-alpha/2)]);

H = CI(1)>difference | CI(2)