Mind Over Matter

27 01 2010

My article on why it’s so hard to learn science and maths is featured in the 17th issue of BlueSci, Cambridge University’s science magazine.

Download the PDF here.

Should the media educate?

1 12 2009

On Thursday I attended a talk run by BlueSci magazine and featuring Michael Claessens, of the European Commission’s Research Directorate, to discuss why it’s continuing to be so hard to communicate science (including psychology) effectively through the media. It has to be said that, in my view, Claessens was pretty pessimistic about the results of thirty years (!) of active engagement with the popular media by science, even though regular checks of the baseline scientific literacy of the population has shown some improvements.

Claessens did point out that the media have no duty to educate anyone – they’re a business and they exist to sell themselves. The BBC are really the only notable exception to this fact, and it should be pointed out that the BBC produces some fantastic science and psychology programming. (Download some of All in the Mind if you have some spare time on your way to work.) They also have to deal with editorial policy, space constraints, sub-editors, the need for eye-grabbing and usually misleading headlines, and, often, a lack of time to find out what the facts actually are before going to press.

That’s why I love blogs. Claessens wasn’t quite so keen, but blogs don’t suffer from space constraints, or publishing deadlines, or subeditors. Blogs are free (normally). Blogs can build a community in and around their readers. Blogs can specialise in any area they choose, and have proved that they can build up huge readerships. Blogs don’t have a responsibility to educate either, but many of them do, or try to, and in most cases they do it for love. They also have the chance to build something over time, which is how you do education. Slowly, in pieces, over time.

Claessens talked about the need to communicate a simple message; something I struggle with – don’t we all? He concluded that sometimes science just isn’t simple. I don’t agree. To communicate something, anything, takes a story. Sometimes stories aren’t particularly simple, but if we can’t break something down into simpler components in order to tell someone else about it, isn’t that a deficiency in us? If science is “un-simple” and therefore can’t be communicated, how did we enlightened types ever manage to learn it in the first place?

That’s what gets me about this whole discussion, I think. Somewhere buried in it all is the assumption that there are the special clever people who understand science, and the other people, who don’t or can’t. I don’t buy it.

The Scientist’s Toolkit: Understanding the numbers

21 11 2009

Let’s say you’re reading a newspaper over the weekend. Let’s say you spot a front-page headline in this newspaper, all direly big, that says something along the lines of, “EATING YOGHURT DOUBLES YOUR RISK OF BRAIN CANCER!”

Assuming you pay attention, and go on to read the article, should you immediately stop eating yoghurt? After all, “doubling” is an awful lot. But when you read the small print in this kind of article, you’re likely to find out that 1) the baseline risk (i.e. the number of people, out of 1,000, who will get this illness in their lifetime) is extremely low; and 2) the correlation between eating yoghurt and brain cancer adds up to a slightly higher, but still extremely low risk. Let’s say that the number of people who will typically get brain cancer is something like 0.25 per thousand, or one person per four thousand. In the yoghurt-eating contingent, it is found that 0.5 people per thousand will go on to develop brain cancer, or one in two thousand – basically, one extra person per four thousand yoghurt eaters. The newspapers are perfectly entitled to report this as “RISK DOUBLES!”, and usually do.

Now, chances are that you didn’t make a vow to stay away from yoghurt when you read this article, because you’ve read too many like it, and possibly even muttered something about damned lies and statistics before you turned the page. That’s a shame, because we need statistics. Yes, they can be represented all kinds of ways, and some of those ways are more informative and useful than others, but it is statistics that we turn to when we need to know if a study or a programme worked, or whether crime rates really have changed, or if we should start excluding yoghurt from our diets. You need the toolkit to go up close and understand what the numbers are telling you.

There are some excellent resources online , for starters, try the Open University’s Statistics and the Media. And I recommend it so frequently, I feel like a broken record, but pick up Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science too – hilarious, fun to read, and the best simple primer on how to read, understand and criticise a science study that I’ve ever read.

Science is interesting – and if you don’t agree?

14 11 2009

Check out the clip below, in which Richard Dawkins is rebuked for his famously acerbic rhetorical style by Neil Tyson, an astrophysicist and US TV presenter. Dawkins responds in rather pithy form. (NB: Not safe for work.)

Tyson raises some very important points about the role of a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and their responsibility not to dismiss those who are already inclined to hear their message. Dawkins is disinclined to have much truck with anyone who doesn’t accept that science is both interesting and valuable, but on the whole I have to say that my sympathies in this debate are with Tyson, who is an eminent scientist and communicator of science himself.

Dawkins’ occupation of the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science has certainly done a great deal to raise the profile of the the professorship and of himself, and Marcus du Sautoy is undoubtedly already finding him a hard act to follow. But I find it hard to think of what Dawkins himself has done to increase the public understanding of science, other than to very publicly endorse atheism and criticise religion. And in his defence, the atheism issue is contentious enough that it becomes the one and only issue he is asked about in many contexts. Dawkins is a brilliant biologist and ethologist, and a brilliant communicator – his “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker” are readable, lucid, and extremely funny. (No, really. Try them if you don’t believe me – they’re readily understandable even to those who don’t have a science background.)

But I don’t believe that there is, or should be, anything in the world whose existence as a “good” thing we should accept without question, even science. And to take on the role of a communicator of science is to accept that there are those out there who are disinclined to look favourably on them. What is the point of communicating only to those who already agree with you? What is the use of writing people off completely?

My goal is to communicate to you that psychology is a science, a relevant and applied science, that has improved education, justice, work. If I can’t do that, then the failure is mine. If I didn’t believe that was possible, I wouldn’t try. If Dawkins really believed what he says in the above clip, then he should not have accepted the Professorship.

Common sense is often wrong

27 10 2009

Yeah, you heard me.

On growing up, and entering paid employment, one of the biggest disappointments I faced was discovering how little expertise there truly was in most of the working world. As a child, I blithely assumed that adults doing their jobs Really Knew all about their jobs. Turns out, most people use a combination of common sense, trial, and error.

There’s just one problem. Common sense is often wrong.

The human brain is an absolutely incredible processing device. At some things, like reading other people, it’s so fast and accurate that you can form an accurate impression of someone’s intelligence in less than 60 seconds, not to mention subconsciously process a host of other signals that the person is giving out. (Some correctly, some wrongly, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)  But at some things, unfortunately, we’re very bad. We’re inclined, for instance, only to seek out information that supports the view we already have (the confirmation bias). And to see what has happened in the past as far more predictable than it really was (hindsight bias). Add all of these up, and our intuitive psychology about how other people will react is, unfortunately, often way off base. For instance, you might think that taking young offenders to adult prisons to try and “scare them straight” is a good idea, right? Wrong. It increases reoffending rates, not decreases them.

For an example that affects every one of us in organizations: It’s often assumed that, if we pay people more to do particular things, they’ll do more of that thing. In reality, some research has shown that financial incentives erode people’s intrinsic motivation for tasks; the more you pay someone to do something, the more they assume that the task isn’t intrinsically worth doing – otherwise, why would you have to pay them? Studies have found a link between increased pay and increased performance quantity, but not performance quality – in other words, you can get people to do more of certain things, but not necessarily to do it better.

Beware of making decisions just because they’re “common sense”. It’s often not quite that simple.

Why is business so in love with NLP?

24 10 2009

On a recent trip through Stansted airport, I paused, as usual, to check out the airport bookshop in case I was struck by reading famine in-flight. The business and management section presented a familiar sight; increasingly, the top-selling books in this section feature the letters “NLP” in their titles. NLP for sales, NLP for coaching, NLP for work-life balance. Pop into the science or psychology section of a bookshop, however, and you won’t see those letters anywhere. Given that NLP has been consistently considered “pseudoscience” and thoroughly discredited by psychologists, why does it have such a stranglehold on the “business and management” section?

NLP stands for “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” – a system of techniques for changing and shaping human behaviour, which uses language, hypnosis, and behavioural techniques. Most sales training now draws on principles of NLP, such as building rapport through “pacing”, or consciously matching body language and rhythms (a technique found to have some success, but prone to coming across as too obvious and backfiring), or “eye accessing cues” – the idea that by tracking the direction of a person’s eye movements, an insight can be gained into their thoughts; unfortunately, also discredited in scientific studies. For further information, Wikipedia provides an excellent rundown of both NLP and the scientific studies conducted into its validity

When an idea proves strangely resilient despite being contradicted by the evidence, something interesting is going on. Why does the idea appeal so much? NLP offers a lot of things – a scientific-seeming framework and vocabulary, the promise of “quick and easy” change of control or behaviour. As Stuart Sutherland observes in his excellent book Irrationality, we are prone to accept science and neuroscience-sounding explanations and rate them as better than others, even if the “explanations” offered are irrelevant or nonsensical, so NLP taps into our general lack of understanding of the factors affecting our own and others’ behaviour, and offers an explanation that seems both plausible and excitingly full of potential. It’s worth noting, also, that most of the money made through NLP is made by charging for training in the techniques – top salespeople, on the whole, are not those who use NLP techniques the most.

Yet clearly it’s onto something. As we learn more about the brain through neuroscience, increasingly, it seems, we are what we do and think on a regular basis – we’re creatures of neural habit, and if we change the way we consistently think about things, we can change not only our behaviour but the structure of our brains. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been demonstrated to work in a clinical setting, works on a very similar base idea of changing unhelpful patterns of thought and replacing them with more useful ones. The genius of NLP seems to be that it combines a plausible, easy-to-learn framework with the germs of a truly exciting and effective idea. The problem is that its execution doesn’t, in fact, come through on this promise.

What this blog’s about

19 10 2009

“Oh, so you can read minds, right?”

By the way, saying that to a psychologist never gets old.

People believe so many things about psychology – it’s all “common sense”, or all pseudoscience, or of no practical use. What psychology is is really very simple. It’s the science of human behaviour. It’s taking the principles of science and of investigation and using them to help answer important questions, like “How can mental health issues be treated?”, and “How can I use salary and working environment to motivate my employees?” The answers to these questions might seem obvious, but the problem is, often they’re very different than you might expect. That’s what happens when you use the human brain to think about the human brain.

This blog is all about using science and psychology to answer the questions that are important to us as individuals and as organisations. People are very rarely individuals – they’re members of a society, a school, a team, an organisation. It also aims to counter the “bad science” that’s often presented in the media or accepted as normal. It’s about asking (and answering) interesting questions, and using research to help give us all the opportunity to be more effective and more fulfilled in our roles.

I hope you enjoy reading.