Give me a lie detector test, please. I swear upon my mother’s grave . . . wait, she’s still alive–what else can I swear upon? At any rate, trust me when I tell you I have never voluntarily sat down to watch the FOX television program, “Lie to Me.” My wife enjoys the whole genre of detective-ish, who-the-hell-done-it shows. And sometimes I’m in the room. One of the shows I don’t mind so much is Lie To Me. Why? First, I’m a fan of the lead actor, Tim Roth. Second, I know something about the field of psychology. And, when I find bogus portrayals of what we know about human psychology . . . well, let’s just say I get excited. Who doesn’t like to get excited? My wife will often plead for me to “stick a sock in it.” Or something.
What gets me riled about the show? The blatant and largely bogus exaggeration of the meaning of human gestures. “Oh, he scratched his head, that must mean he’s unsure of what to say.” That, or maybe he has an itchy scalp.
Sure, clues are possible. And as good poker players know, individuals do have “tells” that can indicate whether or not they are bluffing about what cards they hold. After the person has been studied to determine his/her individual habits. But the entire field is far from something we could call hard science.
Imagine an infant making a distressed facial expression as daddy picks it up. Oh-oh, must mean something. Is baby afraid of daddy? Then the infant passes gas — or something more substantial.
My point: We are creatures with inner lives as well as outer. And our feelings about one will bleed into the other. As an illustration: many a time my wife has asked me about some topic, then questioned me about the facial expression I unknowingly exhibited while responding. “Oh, I was just thinking about this a-hole I encountered today.” And that influenced what my face “said.”
My skepticism over gesture-reading as strongly indicative motives has recently been fueled by a finding announced with this heading:
The news release summed up the study this way -
For decades many NLP [neuro-linguistic-programming] practitioners have claimed that when a person looks up to their right they are likely to be lying, whilst a glance up to their left is indicative of telling the truth.
Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire, UK) and Dr Caroline Watt (University of Edinburgh, UK) tested this idea by filming volunteers as they either lied or told the truth, and then carefully coded their eye movements. In a second study another group of participants was asked to watch the films and attempt to detect the lies on the basis of the volunteers’ eye movements.
The authors concluded that the claim of eye movement indicating truth-telling and lying is “unfounded.” They called on “the public and organisations to abandon this approach to lie detection.”
I’m just glad handwriting analysis (graphology) has long been rejected as pseudoscience. And that most personal correspondence these days is conducted via a keyboard and not a lone ink-chopstick. Otherwise I might get locked up as a lunatic, due to my extremely poor fine motor skills. “Cuff this guy, detective. He’s dangerous, very dangerous.”
Alas, at this point there doesn’t seem to be a reliable method for determining who is lying, who is telling the truth, and who is capable of what.
But wouldn’t it be nice.
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Imagine this headline to a new science finding:
Selective Brain Damage Modulates Human Groovyness, Research Reveals
And a lead sentence that reads:
New research provides fascinating insight into brain changes that might underlie alterations in feeling groovy and and hip attitudes.
My guess is that most people would (or should) react this way: “What?!”
How different, I ask, is the following title and lead sentence to an actual bit of news reporting:
New research provides fascinating insight into brain changes that might underlie alterations in spiritual and religious attitudes.
Here’s the problem: most people only assume they know what is meant by the term spirituality. Yet ask people to define it, and the responses will be as diverse and vague as they would be to a request for a definition of “groovyness.”
Although it is a popular word, spirituality is a lousy variable. Strong science and strong science writing gets specific, and the term spirituality is not.
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This may seem a little odd. Researchers working with a team of 27 “medical opinion leaders” have taken the time — from everyone’s otherwise busy schedules — to . . . define “gut feelings.”
What? Gut feelings are . . . gut feelings. Why go to all the trouble to define a term like that?
Answer: They were doing science. Good science. Physicians understand that one of the elements that influences their decision-making is . . . you guessed it . . . gut feelings. So to better understand this variable they will study it. Task one involves clearly defining the variable so that 1) every knows exactly what they’re talking about (they are “on the same page,” so to speak), and 2) the variable can be isolated and measured.
Sure, some of science involves an exciting, unstructured tinkering in a lab or in the field. But the bulk of it, the part that reflects “the scientific method” (methodological exploration?) is an extremely disciplined pursuit.
Technically speaking, to experiment means to test a hypothesis. Drug x treats condition y; in rock layers x years-old you will find fossils of type y but not z. Etc. Before experimentation begins, however, scientists work with words. They generate a hypothesis. Prior or simultaneous to that crucial step is the definition of variables. Words and the precise use of them are fundamental to doing good science.
As for “gut feelings,” how was this variable defined? The news release informed me. The group of thinkers determined that there are two basic types of gut feelings, as the term pertains to practicing medicine. One type provides a “sense of alarm.” The other a “sense of reassurance.”
That might seem like a lot of fuss about a whole lot of basic nothing. But if you aren’t interested in dotting your Is and crossing your Ts, science probably isn’t for you.
The article tail contained this quote:
“Our next step will be to construct and validate a questionnaire as a tool to evaluate gut feelings as well as the diagnostic work-up and the contribution of major potential determinants like experience and contextual knowledge.”
What may come of this fuss over semantics? A better understanding of how to best make decisions when treating patients. That’s a fuss worth making.
Just a few brief thoughts about an article that hit my desk recently.
Right off the bat, the title struck me as odd:
From this atheist’s perspective, it seems the question is something of a schizophrenic one. Because ‘God’ exists in the mind — at least by an semi-stringent scientific standards we must conclude that — the question is really about protesting against an imagined entity. Which is kinda crazy.
But sure, from another perspective, we can see the study as an investigation of types of belief and the cognitive response to internal dissonance between ideas.
The survey finding -
The researchers discovered if a person views God as cruel, then protest toward God is seen as more acceptable.
But when people see God as a kind and loving authority figure, then protest seems less acceptable. “In this case, protest could appear disrespectful to a good and fair leader,” says Exline.
A couple things. First, isn’t this a bit obvious? From a social standpoint, protesting against a loving parenting or village elder or some other authority figure certainly makes less sense than protesting against a cruel one.
Second, the description seems to reflect a focus on the individual removed from his/her social groups. My guess is that there is an integral cultural component to the issue. People don’t pull their beliefs about a god out of a magic hat. They generally acquire them from others. Also, one’s religious social group likely also influences beliefs about what type of relationship with this god is normative and/or expected.
Finally, as you might expect, my larger issue is reflected in the lead sentence:
Is it OK to protest God’s actions—or inactions?
Ah . . . What god? Is this a precisely defined variable? Not only does the sentence assume the existence of a god, but also that this god performs actions, or at least can.
In the least, scientists should quit perpetuating the idea that “God” is a neatly circumscribed variable. Why not “a god,” “your/their god”…. I know, it’s more work. But science is work.
Isn’t it possible that what the finding basically tells us is that whether or not a person thinks it’s okay to protest against their god depends in part on what type of god a person believes? And right here we are back to my major issue. What type of god. Different types of ‘god’ does not equate to one GOD. Not in my book.
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Does living at home breed violence?
“Home” belongs in the same category as Mom, apple pie and baseball, doesn’t it?
New research suggests the benevolence of living at home with parents . . . depends. It depends upon the sex and age of the individual.
The news release to the study bore this title: Young men living at home with parents are more violent. Okay, they’ve discovered a correlation, but is the link between variables causal or inertly predictive or something else?
Here’s the data the correlation consists of -
Professor Jeremy Coid and Dr Ming Yang surveyed over 8000 men and women. Participants answered questions about violent behaviour over the past 5 years and mental health problems.
Their results showed for the first time that staying in the parental home is a stronger risk factor for young men’s violence than any other factor.
A “risk factor.” What’s a risk factor? Good question.
Is living at home the equivalent of a young, adult male’s non-religious madrasah? Here is how Coid interprets/explains his finding:
“And these [violent/antisocial behaviors] are more common among young men who do not have responsibilities of providing their own accommodation, supporting dependent children, or experiencing beneficial effects on their behaviour from living with a female partner.
“Young men who live at home are also more likely to receive financial support from their parents than in the past when the pattern was reversed. However, in this study their earnings or benefits were the same as those who had left home and taken on greater social responsibility. They therefore had more disposable income which may have partly explained why they had more problems with alcohol.”
So living at home may not be a malevolent social influence as much as it provides a haven for individuals needing a more constructive social environment and role within it.
But we cannot be as confident of the explanatory layer to this finding as we can the data it is based upon. And frankly, the data itself is not all that solid.
An interesting finding; a thought provoking conjecture. I await further research.