Brian Nosek and his shades of grey

January 31, 2016

In this blog I have featured many psychological experiments, Stanley Milgram persuaded ordinary people to administer what they thought were 450-volt electric shocks to subjects in an educational experiment. Philip Zimbardo famously had 25 Stanford students play the roles of guards and prisoners in a two-week experiment that had to be suspended in under a week. And David Rosenhan managed to get eight sane people, including himself, admitted to various psychiatric hospitals in the USA, by briefly simulating auditory hallucinations.  What proved more difficult was to get them out. All these experiments have achieved iconic status in psychology.

Here is one experiment I haven’t featured before. A study observed that political moderates were better at perceiving shades of grey accurately than left-wing or right-wing extremists. It is an amazing result, and yet it does seem to have a ring of truth about it. The researchers could, perhaps should, have stopped there. They could have sent it in a renowned psychological journal, because this result was eminently publishable. However, they decided to run the test again with a very large sample. Alas, the result didn’t show the second time. Now there hopes of publishing a paper had gone up in smoke. They couldn’t send both studies to a journal – it just wouldn’t be published. Had they just sent the first one, it would have been far more likely to have been accepted.

So, how reliable are psychological experiments? Scientific claims are not based on someone in authority saying that it is true. Reputation is not decisive. What is important is that the findings can be independently reproduced; another scientist following the same procedure will achieve the same results.

Enter Brian Nosek a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, the man behind the study about the shades of grey. Nosek, a social psychologist and the co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science, was able to persuade 270 of his peers to take part in a study repeating 100 published psychological experiments that had been published in prestigious psychology journals in 2008 to see if they could get the same results a second time around. The Reproducibility Project, which began in 2011, was supposed to take between six and nine months. In reality it would last three years. The project was a curious enterprise. There were no eureka moments. This was not cutting-edge research that would lead to fame and glory. Nevertheless, it is vital that it be carried out.

The results were finally published in the prestigious Science magazine last summer. 97% of the 100 studies originally reported statistically significant results. This is what you’d expect. Many experiments fail to produce meaningful results, and they are not generally published. This is what is known as publication bias. It is also sometimes known as the “file drawer effect” – results that do not support their hypotheses will stay in the researchers’ file drawers. In the new study just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. This needs to be analysed; just because something fails to replicate doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some of these failures could be down to luck, or poor execution, or an inability to reproduce the conditions needed to show the effect. Nevertheless the results were not good.

What is going on is probably not fraud. The problems are more subtle than that. We must stop treating single studies as unassailable versions of the truth. There is a pressure to publish. It is novel findings that are sought, and there is little incentive for attempts at replicating findings, such as those carried out in the Reproducibility Project.  I also think that many of the studies should be true. There is something seductive about them. I remember reading one experiment that showed that if you hear that if you are holding something warm, such as a cup of coffee, you are more likely to perceive someone else as emotionally “warm”, and you are more likely to behave in a friendly, generous way. This may well be true but I would like to know whether or not it has been replicated.

And I fear that this lack of reproducibility is confined to psychology. Another study found that around $28 billion worth of research per year in medical fields is non-reproducible. Discoveries should be thoroughly examined and repeatedly observed before they are universally accepted. Published and true are not synonyms. Scepticism is what makes science so powerful.  We are now seeing reforms and they need to continue. There should be more transparent reporting, a clear hypothesis before any data is analysed, and sharing of the results so that they may be vetted.  I look forward to more work from the Center for Open Science in the future. There may not be much glory in it, but the researchers who do it, will be making the world a better place


To be or not to be in original pronunciation

January 31, 2016

This has nothing to do with my main post this week, but I think it’s quite interesting. This week I heard the BBC Word of Mouth podcast about Shakespearean English. It featured linguist David Crystal and his actor son, Ben. The latter performs Shakespeare in original pronunciation and in this clip he is standing on a balcony overlooking Tower Bridge in London, after taking part in a Kickstarter campaign to support a film of an OP Hamlet production. If you used to those monologues with classical actors, this will come as a bit of a shock.

And here are the two talking about OP:


Finland and phenomenon teaching

January 24, 2016

Finland is the exemplar of academic excellence. Ever since the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings first came into being, the Scandinavian country has been at or near the top. Researchers have been flooding there to see if they can discover the secret of the Finnish success.

Finland’s excellent performance system is accompanied by some fascinating statistics, many of which contradict the educational philosophy that I’m used to in the U.K. and Spain. Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven. In their first six years children are not measured at all; there is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken at the age of 16. Exams are rare in general, as is homework, which is not normal until they are well are well into their teens. The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world. Unlike the U.K. children are not streamed according to ability. And despite spending 30% less per student than the United States, 93% of Finns graduate from high school, and 66% of students go to college, higher than any other European country.

Recently, though, Finland has been slipping a bit. In the 2012 study they were down to 12th place. Now they are going to overhaul the educational system. The slip in the rankings may have worried the Finns but the motivations for change are deeper. The government believes that schools should teach what young people need to take their places in the workplaces of the future. In a previous post I mentioned how they were going to eliminate traditional handwriting classes. But this is just the beginning. As of August this year they are going to on what the Independent calls one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state”.

What they are going to do is introduce a methodology known as phenomenon teaching. They will not be getting rid of the traditional subject-based classes such as mathematics, history and biology, but they will be bringing in more interdisciplinary classes that draw from multiple subject areas. These lessons will be co-taught by teachers from different subject areas. This holistic approach could include topics such as the European Union, climate change or whatever the teachers and stunts think might be useful.  An article in the Independent explained the new system:

For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

The traditional sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned will be replaced by a more collaborative approach. Pupils will work in smaller groups solving problems while improving their communication skills.

I am a fan of this type of education. I like the idea of students researching topics. The days of students memorising facts should be behind us. I do have doubts though.  Firstly, Finland has a population of five and half million, three million less than London. Secondly, it will not be easy to implement in an education system based on different traditions. The best way is gradually. Spain has introduced a number of educational reforms since I came here in 1987. I am sceptical about the benefits. This is partly because I can’t even agree with myself about what the ideal educational system would be. If we look at the PISA rankings, we will see different recipes. Japan and Korea are also high on the list. I am sure their methodology is nothing like Finland’s.  Nevertheless, I have been impressed with Finland’s unique education system and will be following their experiment with great interest.


The PISA rankings explained

January 24, 2016

Here is how PISA works:


The story of breakfast

January 17, 2016

Breakfast literally means to break one’s fast, and has its origin in the Christian custom of fasting between supper Holy Communion the following morning. A related word that you probably don’t know is jentacular, an adjective which means of, or relating to breakfast. Alas, it has fallen into disuse. We would have to use something like breakfasty or breakfastish, but I don’t like them. This extract from John Murray’s 1820 The New Family Receipt-Book shows the majesty of this word:

To valetudinarians (a person of a weak or sickly constitution) and others the following method of making coffee for breakfast is earnestly recommended, as a most wholesome and pleasant jentacular beverage.”

Breakfasts vary and have varied throughout history and depending on the part of the world you are looking at The Romans didn’t really eat it, usually consuming only one meal a day around noon. The Romans thought that eating one meal a day was healthier; having two meals a day was gluttony. In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate. Nothing was supposed to be eaten before morning Mass. There were also restrictions on the consumption of meat, which could only be eaten for around half the days of the year. Collop Monday was the day before Shrove Tuesday. People wanted to use up meat, with pork and bacon being the most typical, before the start of Lent. The meat was often eaten with eggs, which also had to be used up. Thus bacon and eggs, precursor of the full English breakfast, was born.

It is thought that it wasn’t until the 17th Century that eating breakfast became prevalent among all social classes. With the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. In the 19th Century hunting parties became all the rage in aristocratic circles. These parties could go on for weeks and participants would want sustenance. Breakfasts of up to 24 dishes would be served. It was not just the upper classes. With the onset of Industrial Revolution working hours meant that factory workers and labourers needed a substantial early meal to sustain them at work.

The next important change came at the end of the 19th Century. It was in America where the breakfast cereal was born. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally left some boiled maize out and it went stale. He passed it through some rollers and baked it, creating the world’s first cornflake. Kellogg, who was a teetotal, vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist, was quite a character. In his sanatorium in Battle Creek, his pride and joy was an enema machine that would run water several gallons through the bowel. Every water enema was followed by a pint of yogurt — half was eaten, the other half was administered by … enema. The idea was to create a squeaky-clean intestine. This practice never really caught on.

Kellogg was also an advocate of sexual abstinence and an impassioned campaigner against masturbation; Kellogg thought that diet played a huge role in masturbation and one that was bland would put a dampener on all these sexual urges and prevent masturbation. He hoped that feeding children this plain cereal every morning would rid society of “self-abuse”

What began as a wacko religious, pseudo scientific health-food cure become a massive business. Will, Kellogg’s brother, was a more worldly man. He wanted to add sugar, and when John refused to countenance it, he started selling the cereals through his own business, which became the Kellogg Company.

The majority of modern cereals are basically modifications of the original types with added sugar or flavourings, or in new shapes. All Bran, which is in fact only 87% bran, was invented in the 1920s by John L. Kellogg, the original John Kellogg’s nephew. It was indeed a convenient way of using up bran left over from other products, and its laxative properties marked a return to the company’s health food origins.

I do like a good full English breakfast and I never say no a bowl of porridge. Nevertheless, there are many traditions and rituals around the world. In Spain it is typical to have two breakfasts, a small one at home. France of course has its croissants and café au lait in France, and Spain its chocolate and churros. Traditional Indian breakfasts include dal, rice, breads, samosas, and fruit.  In the Middle East bread, yoghurt, fruit, and preserves are staples. I have never been to Mexico, but I like the sound of a traditional Mexican breakfast, which consists of Huevos Rancheros eggs accompanied by beans with chile and tortillas. I’m not quite so sure about elephant’s foot. In 1790, François Le Vaillant was given an elephant’s foot for breakfast while visiting the Hottentot (Khoi) tribe of south-western Africa. This is how he described it in his journal:

“…it exhaled such a savoury odour, that I soon tasted and found it to be delicious. I … could not conceive that so gross and heavy an animal as the Elephant, would afford such delicate food. “Never,” said I, “can our modern epicures have such a dainty at their tables; let forced fruits and the contributions of various countries contribute to their luxury, yet cannot they procure so excellent a dish as I have now before me.”

Now I’m going to jenticulate. But I think I’ll give elephant’s foot a miss.


Morecombe and Wise breakfast sketch

January 17, 2016

A bit of nostalgia from the early 1970s.


How a housewife became a hussy

January 10, 2016

In a couple of previous posts I looked at language and gender. Now I want to come back to this fascinating subject. In my first post I looked at the feminine endings ess and ette, which came into English via French. I pointed out that the word suffragette had originally been coined by The Daily Mail as a derogatory term to describe the more radical and militant elements of the women’s suffrage movement.

There are many word pairs in English where the male and female words have diverged, with the female word having a markedly more negative meaning. Examples include master and mistress or governor and governess. “Mistress” came into English from the French “maistresse” in the fourteenth century and referred to a woman who was in charge of a household or a child. But by the early fifteenth century it was being used to refer to the “kept woman of a married man.”

Linguists talk about a process called pejoration, a type of semantic change in which a word’s meaning becomes more negative. Spinster is a good example of this process. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary the word was first used for a female spinner of thread. As spinning was often done by unmarried women it came to be used for an unmarried woman in legal documents from 1600s to early 1900s. And by the early eighteenth century it had become a generic term for a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it.

It is in the domain of sex where we find the most egregious examples of how we use language to put women in their place. Broad, hussy, floozy, jezebel, minx, slut, strumpet, tart, tramp, trollop, vamp, wench and whore – there certainly are a lot of words for “loose” women in English. Linguist Julia Stanley claimed there were 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only 20 for a sexually promiscuous man. And many of those for men, such as stud, womanizer, rake and player, do not have the same negative connotations. This linguistic curiosity reflects the mores of society; it has been alright for a mans to go out and sleep with anyone he chooses, but a woman who does the same is beyond the pale

Many of the words I listed above have interesting etymologies. Take the word hussy. It comes from the Middle English “husewif”, and it meant the mistress of a household. It gradually expanded to include any woman or girl. By the middle of the seventeenth century was being used in its current derogatory sense to refer to an impudent or immoral girl or woman. Wench has undergone a similar transformation. In the twelfth century, “wenchel” was a child and by the thirteenth century it had become “wenche” meaning “girl or young woman.” “Wench” was then used to refer to a servant, particularly female servants. And by the mid-fourteenth century it was being used in the sense of a woman of loose morals. And as late as the 1800s the word “slut” meant lazy and unkempt. I could give many more examples, but you get the idea.

When we communicate with others we are not thinking the history of our language, and how words have evolved over the centuries. But there is no doubt that the words we use reflect the shared assumptions and biases of our society. I think it is a good idea to reflect about the words we choose.

It would be nice to think that we have got beyond this asymmetric labelling. But, I don’t we have. In recent years we have the phenomenon of slut-shaming. The term first started appearing in feminist blogging circles some ten years ago. Slut-shaming refers to the practice of criticising a woman for engaging in certain sexual behaviours that traditional society disapproves of. The idea is to make such women feel guilty and inferior. As we have seen there is a long tradition of such epithets, but it has gained a new virulence with the Internet. Women aren’t just the targets of slut-shaming, they can also engage in it as well.

In the end we can get to victim-blaming. In a talk to university students Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer suggested that young women should avoid “dressing like sluts” as a precaution against sexual assault. This led to a famous march held in the Canadian city.

The model has been copied in many other cities making it one of feminism’s most successful campaigns in recent years. I don’t always agree with feminist initiatives. In this blog I have argued for the legalisation of prostitution and I have also criticised feminists’ attitudes to the burden of proof in rape cases. However, in this case I fully support the feminist agenda. To conclude I have a quote Leora Tanenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation:

“Boys will treat girls with respect… when we have one standard for both sexes–that is, when we have sexual equality.”