The Use and Abuse of Psychometrics

I had a very short time slot for my solo talk at SkepTech, so I decided to use it to give a very brief, simplified look at how the process of developing measurement tools in psychology limits what those tools can tell us.

The talk has made my fellow psych people happy, which means I didn’t get anything glaringly wrong. I haven’t yet heard much from people outside psychology, so I have no idea how this plays as an introduction to the topic.

The Use and Abuse of Psychometrics

Things I Learned: YouTube Edition

It’s good practice to say very publicly from time to time when you’ve gotten something wrong. I did that earlier today.

Thunderf00t has a new YouTube video up about how feminism is destroying all that is unholy. Ophelia has a bit of discussion of the details here.

When I clicked through to YouTube I saw something that made me laugh. The video showed 301 views and 1,798 upvoted.

I took a screen capture (which WordPress doesn’t want to load) and tweeted the picture, along with a comment about people evaluating the merits of the argument. A few people commented. A few people retweeted me. We all thought it was bizarre.

Then Rebecca let me know that YouTube just does that. Something about that many views triggering a review. (I’m paraphrasing, so any additional errors are mine, not hers.) The correct number won’t show up for several hours.

That’s both non-obvious and not nearly as funny.

So I took down the tweet and let the people who had retweeted it know what was going on. And now I tell you as a reminder (to myself as well) that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as you own up to it and learn.

Things I Learned: YouTube Edition

But Men Work More Hours

Jason’s back at blogging again, after a bit of a break to get all credentialed up. Easing back into the swing of things, he put up a post pointing to the “11 Signs You Might Be an MRA” t-shirt that was going around. As the first one of these “signs” is “You have no problem with the gender wage gap. But you hate having to pay for dates”, it of course brought out the standard reasons why the pay gap is totes not discriminatory. For example:

It’s not that we don’t have a problem with it, it’s that we’re aware that when you account for factors such as that men work for longer hours, it almost disappears. If women want a higher wage, they should make choices that will bring them a bigger paycheck.

Both the idea that the pay gap “almost disappears” and the question of choice have already been more than ably handled in the comments at Jason’s. I want, however, to pull apart this idea of working hours.
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But Men Work More Hours

The Evolution of Creationism

PZ’s talks on biology are okay and stuff. I mean, they’re educational and all, but…don’t tell PZ, but bio just doesn’t sing to me the way it does to a lot of people.

I just like this talk better. I saw it at the Midwest Science of Origins conference in Morris this past March. He’s been giving it locally but not at conferences, to the best of my knowledge. Luckily, he’s been captured on video.

It’s fascinating to watch how what were once fairly reasonable ideas, given the state of knowledge at the time, became sacred and entrenched. It’s appalling to see how contorted thinking became so that people could hold on to those ideas. At its root, creationism is like any other pseudoscience that grew out of ignorant beliefs too important to be shed, but it’s rare to get to see a history this complete.

The Evolution of Creationism

Portrait of Deceit

A long time ago, James Randi did something rather important for me. He lied. He didn’t lie to me, but he made it clear he would if it would help me sort out the truth. I’ve written before about how important this was to me.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was young and somewhat naive. Libraries had always been very good to me, sometimes when no one else was, and I trusted them. See, they had these sections labeled “nonfiction,” where I found confirmation that the world was a weird and wonderful place. Parapsychology, ghost stories–all of them had to be true because the library told me they weren’t made up stories. They weren’t fiction.

A high school psychology class reinforced that belief, talking about J. B. Rhine’s experiments. Experiments! Science confirmed what the library had told me. And as I went through college and learned more about science and experimental design, parapsychology garnered more legitimacy.

Then a friend gave me Flim Flam.

The experience was formative, but it isn’t something I share with enough other people. Get someone to read a book telling them that this sort of faked wonder is a business and that we’re all very good at fooling ourselves? Well, it’s hard enough getting people to simply read any book these days.

However, a small group of documentary filmmakers are working to bring Randi’s story to a broader medium–the big screen. They’ve set up a Kickstarter for the funds to help them complete their film An Honest Liar, which is already in progress. After just two days, they’re more than a quarter of the way to their goal.

I’m not the only person Randi’s lies have reached or helped. If you’re one of them, or if you just want to help them reach a broader audience, you may want to help out.

Portrait of Deceit

Readings in Evolutionary Psychology

I know you’re all still very interested in the subject of evolutionary psychology. Given that, I’ve collected a short selection of readings that may interest you. First, we start with the incomparable Scicurious and her Friday Weird Science feature.

The handsome stranger clutched her shoulders, supporting her as she swooned. The suddenness and violence of the robbery and her rescue disoriented Beverlee, and for a few moments she did not know where she was. But as she began to be conscious of her surroundings, she was increasingly aware of the tall, firm man she leaned against, of his  big hands clasped around her shoulders, warm through the thin linen of her chemise.

She looked up hesitantly through her lashes, and into the dark, deep eyes of her rescuer. As their eyes met, a shock seemed to pass through them both. He leapt backward, and for an instant Beverlee felt the loss of his touch, the coldness where his hands had touched her.  But the moment passed, and gathering himself, her rescuer spoke.

“Christmas” he said, flatly. “Bride baby cowboy doctor secret lady.” And each word sang deep in Beverlee’s spirit, tapping something deep in her she hadn’t known existed: the desire to find a long term mate that would provide food and shelter while she had loads of babies.

from the romance novel I will someday write.

Sci takes a look at the methods behind a study purporting to show that inherent tendencies in female mating strategies are reflected in Harlequin romance titles. Hey, now, come on. They looked at 15,000 titles. How can a sample size that large not represent good science? I doubt I’ll spoil much to let to you know that Sci will tell you. She’ll also be hilarious as she does it. 
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Readings in Evolutionary Psychology

In a Violent Context

In light of the discussion on Kate’s post about assuming mental illness in the case of a mass murder, this post and, particularly, Daniel’s are extremely relevant again. It really shouldn’t be that hard to think about why people who are not mentally ill might do terrible things. It happens all the time. Shootings like these are just one of the less typical ways it happens.

When the incomprehensible happens, we are much happier if we can reduce the event to a single cause, put it in its little pigeon hole where it can’t disturb us as much. Attributing mass violence like the shooting in Aurora, CO to mental illness fits this bias of ours very comfortably. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mental illness really is the answer–or the only answer.

Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology started a discussion on this topic when Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords and several others. With this new act of mass violence that we are attempting to explain away instead of understanding in all its dimensions, he’s focused his thoughts more. The questions he prompts are fascinating, particularly for those familiar with how much cultural context–what we collectively accept and reject as civilized behavior–determines diagnoses of mental illness.

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In a Violent Context

Chivalry Versus Civilization

I will give Emily Esfahani Smith this: She’s got a much lighter touch than anyone in the Schlafly family. After that, the comparisons start to get more even.

Phyllis Schlafly herself has long been arguing for a return to “traditional” gender relations. She’s also long been known for making rather bizarre claims in support of that argument. A couple of weeks ago, her niece, Suzanne Venker received lots of attention–and derision–for doing the same.

Then, yesterday, Esfahani Smith had a piece published in The Atlantic calling for a return to chivalry. Yes, chivalry. Yes, The Atlantic. Not only that, but people I would normally expect to react to appeals to tradition with at least suspicion weren’t incredulous.

So, well played Esfahani Smith. Well played. That said, let’s look at what you’re actually proposing.
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Chivalry Versus Civilization

Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis

There is a tendency in discussing evolutionary psychology toward confusion over what should be the proper null hypothesis. To put it simply, what do we assume* in the absence of evidence for an hypothesis?

This confusion is not specific to evolutionary psychology. It is a problem whenever we talk about studying topics in which many of us already consider ourselves experts. Being human, we are, of course, all experts on what that means. Or we think we are. So we think we know what base assumptions about humanity we should use absent any evidence to the contrary.

Picture of graffito by Banksy: caveman with fast food burger, fries, and shake
Detail of photo by Lord Jim of Banksy’s caveman. Some rights reserved.

The fact of the matter is, however, that we are not experts, not most of us. We haven’t studied the huge bodies of literature coming out of anthropology, psychology, and sociology that would be required to have to the first clue what kind of assumptions are warranted. Our assumptions are based on “Everybody knows” and some very simplified understanding of biology and living in a world in which variability is to a large degree defined as dysfunction. They are rarely nuanced or complex.

This means that when we hear someone arguing against a particular interpretation of data, when we hear someone say that a hypothesis was not supported, we tend to think that person is arguing for a null hypothesis that is…well, somewhat out there. Someone tells us that the data is insufficient to determine whether a particular difference observed between two groups is genetic, and far too many of us hear that person assert that there is no genetic influence on behavior. Genetic influence is treated as an all-or-nothing proposition.

I know. When I put it like that, it sounds a bit silly, but it happens with amazing regularity.
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Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis