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Science and Psychology Conference Friend’s House 3rd December 2019

Mike Cardwell discusses publication bias

The Science and Psychology Conference is an annual event organised by Psychology teacher and writer, Cara Flanagan. If there is a theme to this year’s day, it is that scientists need to hold the line against threats to credibility.

Pseudoscience, Academic Phil Banyard points out, is persuasive. The question people should be asking, at a time when information is as easily accessible as it is dubious, is what’s the evidence? Barnyard introduces a number of true or false statements, based on a number of unlikely study outcomes. There is one statement about the success of brain gym, which is the idea that movement during learning can aid learning performance. Then there is the claim that humans only use ten per cent of their brain. That means, says Banyard, that you could get brain damage to most areas with no impact on your cognition. Of course it is untrue. Still, there is apparently research to say that cows respond favourably to ‘Perfect Day’.

The point is that science requires empirical evidence. Many claims, especially in education, not only lack empirical evidence, but lack any potential for empirical evidence. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that eating five fruit and vegetable items a day will improve a person’s health. The sheer impracticality of running research on such a hypothesis is one reason why it cannot be trusted scientifically.

Part of the problem is that when people want something to be true, they are more likely to start believing it to be true. Cara Flanagan picks this point up in her talk about how biased thinking is the result of availability heuristsics (discussed at some length in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. What is available to you determines what you believe. The rate at which the police resolve murder cases is actually very high, but most people think it is lower since the high profile cases often get the most media attention.

One way out of this biased thinking mindset is to be sceptical. Instead of trying to prove that something is the case, it is better to set out to prove it is not the case. Popper’s falsifiability, the importance of trying to falsify or challenge evidence, is relatively new in scientific history. But it is clearly important; moreover, it involves a process. Following the murder of Kitty Genovese, witnessed by a number of bystanders who stood by and did nothing, Darley’s study demonstrated that participants were much more likely to aid a fellow telephone caller if the group was smaller. In a group of six, a caller who cries for help is less likely to receive help since the bigger group diffuses responsibility. The concept of diffusion of responsibility has been tested in a process, with a controlled study.

Mike Cardwell reveals some disconcerting statistics on publication bias in academia. In surveys, one in ten academics admitted to falsifying data, 58% excluded post-hoc data (presumably to make their findings significant) and 35% doubted the integrity of their own research. What’s best for the scientists might have replaced what’s best for science. Academics want to get published. In order to get published they reason that research which finds a difference or conforms to established thinking is more likely to achieve publication. in a new development, some journals have established a reputation for publishing null results, but there are more that favour research which will find the ‘right’ result.

When Peter Lovatt arrives on stage the tone changes a little. A trained dancer, Lovatt has specialised in the psychology of movement, finding that humans have an innate instinct to dance to music because motor neurons respond instinctively when they hear it. When we dance with someone research shows that we trust them more and are more likely to be helpful. Dancing is influenced by the endocrine system. Males with more testosterone dance differently (more furiously according to the videos), whilst lap dancers at peak fertility get higher tips from male audiences.

Magician Oliver Meech has found that psychology aids his magic routines. What people see and what they remember are two different things. As he teaches the audience how to make a pen disappear, he demonstrates the point that deceived audiences are simply being encouraged to focus on an object, through suggestion, that leads to them missing something else. In the classic example, a video in which basketball passes are counted means that the ‘Moonwalking Bear’ is typically missed completely.

In the afternoon there were two experiments with audience participation, including a twenty meter nerve impulse in a race against Usain Bolt and the way in which the left and right side of the face, when duplicated, offers a very different perception of a person’s likability. Andrew Newton’s Hypnosis act stole the show in terms of entertainment. Still, he was not sure of volunteers. Nicely structured, with a good blend of entertainment and knowledge, the Psychology and Science Conference finishes on a positive note.

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