Etherless Learning

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Archive for October, 2010

Dealing with the "scientific impotence" excuse

Posted by Ming Ling on October 31, 2010

On “Five minutes with the discoverer of the Scientific Impotence Excuse“:

When people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings. They will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry [and embrace] the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science.

Anyone who seeks to educate, inform, or influence, take note of these techniques to avoid backfire or unwarranted discounting:

  1. Affirm people’s values first.
  2. Frame findings to be consistent with their values.
  3. Present findings in non-threatening ways.
  4. Speak with humility.
  5. Say “discover” instead of “disagree”.
  6. Decrease in-group/out-group salience.
  7. Provide an alternate target for negative emotions.
  8. Teach critical thinking and metacognition in safe settings.

What I really appreciated was the research-based guidance for how to address this resistance to scientific evidence, in the second section of the interview (as summarized above). Misunderstanding the distinction between evidence and belief contributes to the problem, but it may not be so obvious how to highlight that distinction productively. As Munro pointed out, Cohen, Aronson, and Steele’s (2000) research demonstrates one way to resolve this tension, as does some of his own research (which unfortunately didn’t get cited directly in the interview). I think this is an extremely important set of findings because it’s so tempting for people to come down hard on those who “just don’t understand,” lecturing authoritatively and perhaps conveying frustration or even attacking their perspectives.  Unfortunately, that can backfire. Instead, this research shows that a gentler approach can actually be more effective. I take heart in that.


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Bringing sex differences in the brain back down to size

Posted by Ming Ling on October 28, 2010

On “Not so fast — sex differences in the brain are overblown“:

People love to speculate about differences between the sexes, and many brain imaging studies have reported sex differences in brain structure or activity. But these results may not withstand the the tests of larger sample sizes or improved analysis techniques, and it’s too soon to know what such research says.

Cordelia Fine. From Scanner to Sound Bite: Issues in Interpreting and Reporting Sex Differences in the Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2010; 19 (5): 280 DOI: 10.1177/0963721410383248

Key problems:

  1. Small, nonrepresentative samples.
  2. Insufficient understanding of “how neural structures contribute to complex psychological phenomena” (and runaway speculation).
  3. Popular writers misunderstanding or misinterpreting findings.
  4. Popular consumption equating “in the brain” with “innate” and giving undue weight to brain studies.
Interesting tidbits from the CDIPS article: 

  • “The anterior cingulate, for example, is activated by so many tasks that one cognitive neuroscientist known to the author refers to this region as ‘the on button’ (Geoffrey Boynton, personal communication).”
    Hmm, I thought the ACC was the “oh, $@*&!” area.
  • One popular writer attempted to explain something by “working from an implicit metaphor of the brain as pinball machine”. Uh-oh, reasoning-by-analogy gone awry again!

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How feeling a lack of control influences learning

Posted by Ming Ling on October 26, 2010

Before you read any further, first think about a time that you felt in control of an important situation.

OK, got it? Now go ahead and visit “How people respond to feeling a lack of control” (Ed Yong’s summary and commentary on Whitson & Galinsky’s 2008 Science paper).

(I suspect the psychiatrists here will tell me that they already knew this phenomenon and have used it to help their patients develop healthier attitudes and more productive habits.)

I think it’s interesting to consider how this phenomenon could be related to Steele’s research on stereotype threat and Dweck’s research on beliefs about intelligence as fixed vs. malleable. Someone who feels less control over a threatening situation may be more susceptible to perceiving false patterns that interfere with deeper learning. Steele’s and Dweck’s (and their colleagues’) manipulations (of presenting them positive but not overly demanding stereotypes, or encouraging them to think of intelligence as malleable) strengthen students’ feelings of control. Such an approach could help learning, not just performance, and through a specific mechanism.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

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Sprouts, the topology game

Posted by Ming Ling on October 26, 2010

Topologists at play: the game of Sprouts

  1. Start with some dots on the paper. The more dots you have the longer the game takes so you will probably just want to start with two or three.
  2. Players take turns either connecting two of the dots with lines or drawing a line that loops back and connects a dot with itself.
  3. The lines can be straight or curved but they can’t cross themselves or any other lines.
  4. Each dot can have at most three lines connecting it.
  5. When you draw a line put a new dot in the middle.
  6. The first player who can’t draw a line loses.

Good game for kids to play after finishing a quiz, on a rainy day, or perhaps on a long car trip. They can even play a solitary version with two different colored markers.

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Critiquing the research on sex differences and fetal testosterone

Posted by Ming Ling on October 24, 2010

On “The Last Word on Fetal T: Rebecca Jordan-Young’s masterful critique of the research on the relationship between testosterone and sex difference“:

Try talking about whether single sex education is better for boys, or why there aren’t more female science professors at Harvard, or whether male financiers are innately more aggressive, and sooner or later someone will evoke that handy, biological explanation: fetal testosterone.

Gender differences exist along a continuum, their influences and causes subtle and complex, and more research still should be done.

P.S. A “continuum” does not imply a flat distribution.

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