News: What scientific ideas are ready for retirement?

which scientific ideas are ready for retirement?; APA interrogation decision; the ‘next big thing’ in psychology; HM’s brain; and more

Edging out redundant ideas

The self does not exist. Neither does common sense, repression or artificial intelligence. We can’t study culture. And humans aren’t innately social beings. In fact, they aren’t innately anything. This is according to contributors to this year’s annual question: ‘What scientific idea is ready for retirement?’

Once again, the list of Edge respondents is crowded with psychologists. Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol (winner of the Society’s 2013 Public Engagement and Media Award) thinks we should retire the notion of a ‘free willing self’, which he believes is an illusion. ‘By abandoning the free willing self, we are forced to re-examine the factors that are really behind our thoughts and behavior … Only then will we begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.’

The self should be joined on the scrap-heap by common sense, according to Robert Provine (University of Maryland). He believes the idea we are ‘intelligent, conscious and alert’ is another illusion. What about repression? ‘Traumatic experiences…rarely get banished into the unconscious, like a ghost in a closet’, writes David Myers (Hope College). ‘Traumas more commonly get etched on the mind as persistent, haunting memories.’

The retirement of artificial intelligence is proposed by Roger Schank (Engines for Education Inc). ‘I declare Artificial Intelligence dead,’ he writes. ‘You will never have a friendly household robot with whom you can have deep meaningful conversations.’ Ditching the study of culture seems even more extreme. Yet Pascal Boyer says ‘culture’ is the social science equivalent of phlogiston. ‘[A] belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups – what ought to be the domain of social sciences,’ he says.

Other contributors challenged received wisdom about human nature. Adam Wyatz (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) writes that ‘our social capacities are largely non-automatic, ingroup-focused, and finite’ contradicting the notion that we are, by nature, social. Similarly, the journalist David Berreby argues we should ditch the notion that people are sheep. Most participants in Asch’s conformity research ‘did not agree with the majority, most of the time’, he writes. And Milgram’s research – ‘Exhibit A for the “people are sheep” model’ – he argues was really about trust in the experimenter.

If we aren’t innately social, are we innately anything? Alison Gopnik (UC, Berkeley) believes it’s time for the notion of human innateness to go. Citing epigenetics, Bayesian models of human learning, and new thinking on the evolution of human cognition, she argues that ‘almost everything we do is not just the result of the interaction of nature and nurture, it is both simultaneously.’

Two more surprising suggestions: Paul Bloom (Yale University) believes we should give up the idea that science can maximise our happiness. The question of which is a happier life – one characterised by modest levels of happiness or another that is a balance of joy and misery – cannot be solved experimentally, he writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about our happiness levels anyway. June Gruber (also at Yale) argues we ought to retire the idea that sadness is always bad, and happiness always good. The former focuses our thinking and alerts us to problems, while the latter can foster selfishness, distractibility and risk taking.

Influenced perhaps by recent travails in psychology and other sciences, other contributors focused their retirement suggestions on aspects of the way science itself is actually conducted. Adam Alter says we should lose the idea that replication is a safety net. Just as seat-belts risk encouraging more reckless driving, Alter says too much faith in replication can breed careless research. ‘Each experiment becomes less valuable and less definitive, so instead of striving to craft the cleanest, most informative experiment, the incentives weigh in favor of running many unpolished experiments instead,’ he argues.

Gary Marcus said we should stop pretending that Big Data is magic. It’s great for detecting correlations, he writes, but not for identifying causal laws. ‘Big Data shouldn't be our first port of call; it should be where we go once we know what are looking for,’ he said. Meanwhile, Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University, takes aim at statistical significance. ‘It was designed to help researchers distinguish a real effect from a statistical fluke,’ he says, ‘but it has become a quantitative justification  for dressing nonsense up in the
mantle of respectability.’

And we shouldn’t assume that science is self-correcting, warns Alex Holcombe (University of Sydney). It’s too easy to publish statistical flukes, he says, and too difficult to publish negative results. There is cause for optimism, he believes, with the introduction of registered reports (papers accepted based on their methods, not their results) and the rise of post-publication peer-review via online commenting and blogging. ‘But hiring, promotion, and grant committees typically don't value the contributions made by individual researchers using these tools,’ he says. ‘As long as this continues, progress may be slow… New reforms and innovations need our active support – only then can science live up to its self-correcting tagline.’ cj

Read all 175 answers at: What did you think of their suggestions, and what scientific idea do you think should be retired? Send your thoughts to [email protected]

APA explains interrogation decision

The Guardian has published a letter (see written in December by the American Psychological Association’s Director of Adjudications, Dr Lindsay Childress-Beatty, in which she explains why the organisation will not be taking any disciplinary action against Dr John Leso, a military psychologist who allegedly designed and participated in interrogations at Guantánamo Bay.

Addressing the complainant – Dr Trudy Bond (a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility) – Childress-Beatty notes that the APA ethics committee considered all the available evidence, including the fact Leso argued against the use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ practices and in favour of ‘rapport-building approaches’.
Although the APA has made various statements against torture, it continues to receive criticism for failing to prohibit psychologists’ involvement in interrogation (see News, January 2014). The complaint by Bond against Leso is just the latest attempt by individuals and campaign groups to bring to justice those psychologists allegedly involved in torture (see cj


New smartphone apps

Researchers are continuing to exploit new smartphone technology in new ways for good causes. Grand Challenges Canada, funded by the Canadian government, has just announced seed funding for a $300 device and app that turns a smartphone into a portable EEG tool.

It’s hoped the technology will allow the routine diagnosis of epilepsy in developing countries. Researchers at the University of Ottawa are to trial the device in Bhutan, a country with not a single neurologist (see Project leader Farrah Mateen said: ‘We particularly look forward to introducing the device in settings where children suffering seizures and related disorders are subjected to discrimination, and to study whether better diagnosis reduces stigma and increases social integration.’

Meanwhile New Scientist reports that researchers in South Korea have designed an app to aid children’s language development. TalkBetter listens to parent-child exchanges and gives the parent real-time advice on how to speak in a more helpful way for the child, for example by speaking more slowly. Pilot testing with 13 parents has been promising, and a full trial is now underway. cj


Frith Prize winner
Dr Jennifer Cook at City University London has been awarded the 2014 Experimental Psychology Society’s Frith Prize for her doctoral research into action observation and imitation in autism. The Frith Prize, inaugurated in 2011 thanks to a gift from Chris and Uta Frith, recognises experimental psychologists at the start of their career who have produced an exceptional body of work in their PhD thesis.

Force for happiness
Senior officers in the British military are to receive lessons in mindfulness, according to The Sunday Times. The newspaper reports that a day-long session was due to be held in Whitehall in February, with the morning hosted by Action for Happiness, and the afternoon by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, part of the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry. The MoD is quoted saying they are ‘always looking for new ways we can ensure that military personnel get the support and assistance to deal with extreme pressures in their careers’.

Google buys AI company
Google has purchased DeepMind Technologies, a British artificial intelligence company founded by cognitive neuroscientist Demis Hassabis in 2011. Before leaving academia, Hassabis worked alongside Chartered Psychologist Professor Eleanor Maguire at UCL, and others, investigating memory and amnesia, and the decoding of brain scan images. Google has not revealed why it purchased the company, although there is speculation the move will benefit Google’s image search tool.

Comic psychosis findings
A survey of hundreds of comedians in the UK, USA and Australia has found that they scored above average on all four psychotic traits that were measured in a questionnaire: unusual experiences, cognitive disorganisation, introvertive anhedonia, and impulsive non-conformity (British Journal of Psychiatry: Co-author Gordon Claridge said: ‘The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.’ cj


Imagining success

A group of experts led by Chartered Psychologist Dr Tadhg MacIntyre (University of Limerick) has published an expert statement on the use of mental imagery in sport, exercise and rehabilitation:

Produced on behalf of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, the statement explains that a significant evidence-base’ shows that imagery is multimodal (i.e. involving many senses), and that there is a high degree of overlap between the neural structures and mechanisms involved in imagery, perception and motor control. The statement makes 12 recommendations for how practitioners can optimise the use of mental imagery with their clients. This includes encouraging clients to ensure ‘temporal congruence’ between their imagined and real actions; using multimodal imagery where possible, especially incorporating the sensory modalities relevant to the
skill in question; testing clients’ imagery abilities; recognising that experts are  more likely to benefit from imagery than novices, but not assuming that experts will be proficient at imagery; and producing individualised imagery scripts for clients and agreement on desired outcomes at the outset.

‘This statement was developed with a backdrop of almost 70 years of mental practice research and three decades of neuroscientific investigations into mental imagery,’ Dr MacIntyre told us. ‘Our research team comprised practitioners, neuroscientists and applied psychologists, and in developing this statement we sought the views of our peer networks in both research and applied domains. Our combined efforts should influence the training and practice of practitioners, coaches, and performers alike.’

In other sports psychology news, a study has uncovered widespread used of cognitive-enhancing drugs by amateur triathletes (PLoS One: Pavel Dietz at Johannes Gutenberg University and his colleagues surveyed nearly three thousand athletes in Germany and found that just over 15 per cent admitted using pharmacy products to give themselves a mental edge, including beta-blockers and modafinil. Use of ‘cognitive doping’ was higher in athletes who also admitted to physical doping, suggesting a general propensity for enhancement. cj


Youth mental health concerns

The charity YoungMinds has launched a new campaign to improve young people’s mental health called Young Minds Vs. Backed by Labour leader Ed Miliband, the campaign follows a poll by Young Minds of over 2000 children and young people, which found over half have been bullied, and one third don’t know where to turn to for help when they are depressed or anxious.

‘We are sitting on a mental health time-bomb, and that’s why we have launched YoungMinds Vs which is creating a mass movement of children and young people  campaigning online and in their communities for better mental health and emotional well-being,’ said Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds.

The launch of the YoungMinds campaign follows a recent report from the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition that claimed local authorities in England are failing to prioritise children and young people’s mental health (see News, February 2014). Another charity, the Prince’s Trust, has also issued a new warning about young people’s mental health, especially those dealing with long-term unemployment. Among a sample of 2000 16- to 25-year-olds, the Trust identified 166 people who had been unemployed and not in education for more than six months; 40 per cent of this group faced serious symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts.

Meanwhile the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has announced that it is to make youth mental health a priority. Dr Maureen Baker, RCGP Chair, said her organisation is proposing changes in GPs’ training to better equip them to deal with common mental health problems among young people. ‘The College is…recommending that in future, as part of an enhanced four-year training programme, all GP trainees should receive specialist-led training in both child health and mental health’. cj

The Department for International Development (DFID) and the ESRC have a research programme on Education and Development: raising learning outcomes in education systems in developing countries. The current call is focused on the theme ‘effective teaching’. Three different types of grant can be applied for; small grants/pilot projects (up to £150,000 for one year), medium grants (between £200,000 and £500,000 for two to three year) and large grants (up to £1 million for up to five years). Full details of the thematic and geographical focus of the programme are given in the call specification. The closing date for applications is 25 March 2014.

The National Institute for Health Research invites application for research into:
I    Relapse prevention interventions for smoking cessation: interventions to prevent relapse and enhance quit rates, including enhanced behavioural support and pharmacotherapy
I    Early warning signs of relapse in schizophrenia: how feasible is a study to investigate the clinical and cost-effectiveness of an intervention to recognise and promptly manage the early warning signs of recurrence in schizophrenia with the aim of preventing relapse
Both research topics have been identified as opportunities for collaboration between Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council and the UK NIHR, and joint applications can be made. The closing date for applications for both topics is 8 May 2014.

The Waterloo Foundation, under its Child Development Fund, has funding of up to £50,000 for research into child development factors under parents’ influence, such diet, sleep and parenting behaviours. The Foundation is particularly interested in research that explores the co-occurrence  of different developmental deficits and that finds ways to assist parents to alleviate these. There is also an expectation that researchers will plan to widely disseminate their research findings. The closing date for applications is 4 July 2014.

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