Friday, September 11, 2009

What Good Is Research...

Someone asked me recently what good is scientific research if "scientists are always changing their minds?" This is an honest question and one that many people wonder about. Unfortunately, the question, itself, is imbedded with several misconceptions about science.

When scientists "change their minds" it is not the same as when the rest of us change our minds. We can change our minds for many reasons. Our emotions might override our reason. This is something we learn to do in childhood. Children will often tell their best friend they "hate" them because the other child may have taken a toy without asking and won’t give it back. Our physical sensations can also take control of our intelligence. Maybe someone who would like to go shopping changes their mind because they are having a panic attack about going.

The influence of others can get us to change our minds. It can be from a trusted friend or family member. People in authority can easily get us to change our minds, especially if they speak with a great amount confidence and certainty. Con artists can get us to part with our money even though we don’t want to.

Science tries to avoid all these methods for mind-changing. Science began and still is dependent on only one source for change. Scientists rely on data or information that is reliable and valid. This information is collected in a highly systematic fashion so as to eliminate other sources of error. A simple example would be finding out the outside air temperature. Whatever instrument a scientist would use to measure temperature would need to be reliable and valid. To be reliable, the instrument must be able to accurately record the same temperature each time it is used. If it were an electronic thermometer and were turned off after every reading and then turned on to a different temperature, this would not be a reliable reading.

A valid measurement means that an instrument reads what it is meant to read. If the electronic thermometer was giving the same reading each time it was turned off an then on (reliable) but the results were really reading air pressure, then the thermometer would not be a valid instrument for deciding what the temperature was.

For an idea to be accepted, a scientist must collect data for a long time, sometimes decades. Then she must make sense of the data usually with complicated statistics. The next step is to turn it into a paper for acceptance in a professional journal. This is not an easy task. The papers are accepted or rejected by experts in the same field who read the article before publication and criticize it unrelentingly. Often the readers send it back to the author asking for corrections of mistakes they have found. When the readers are satisfied the paper contains the correct methodology and has come to conclusions warranted by the data, the paper is finally published in what is called a peer-reviewed journal.

When the article is finally published, the media may pick it up if they think the findings might be of interest to the general public. This can cause problems because the published paper is not the end point. Once it is published, the entire scientific community gets to study it, analyze it, and criticize it as they choose. Can you imagine your most cherished ideas going through a process like this?

Next, other scientists in the same field of interest will collect similar data and analyze it from a different perspective to see if they get the same results. If they do, then the scientific community is a bit more convinced the original ideas are acceptable. The end result is always based on the data, not what the scientists think. Until the data speak loud and clear, scientists will disagree on its meaning. Even then, with time, even newer data may come along and modify the earlier conclusions.

The average person would have difficulty with such a process regarding their most heart-felt beliefs. We often identify with our beliefs so much that our beliefs define who we are. For someone to come along and challenge our beliefs often feels as if they are attacking us personally. Imagine what it would be like if really smart strangers were constantly asking you to validate your beliefs and maybe even asking questions you might not even understand? Having a thick skin is a prerequisite for being a scientist.

Okay — let’s take a look at some of the research that psychologists have conducted recently. Growing older seems to have more disadvantages as the years proceed. Are there any advantages? It seems there might be, namely experience. What could experience possible offer seniors when memory seems to be less efficient and reflexes slow down? Let’s pick an occupation where age would seem to have no benefits over youth. How about being an air-traffic controller? This is a job where being alert, having quick reflexes and a good memory would seem to be paramount. Two psychologists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign decided to look into this question. They compared older and younger ACTs on fairly complicated tasks involved with the job. They also looked at simple mental abilities. What they found was that even though the younger people had an advantage regarding cognitive abilities, the older controllers, because of experience, were able to mentally compensate for mental agility that had declined due to age. It appears the older, more experienced people could do their job just as well at the young 'uns along side of them.

How important are grandparents? Other than spoiling children and being free babysitters, what do they offer to grandchildren? It seems they offer a lot, especially to children who are being raised in single-parent families. There also seems to be an advantage for children in step-family households. A study that looked at 1,315 adolescents found that spending time with a grandparent could offset the negative effects of not living in a nuclear family of origin. Specifically, these adolescents had fewer behavior problems and were more pro-social than teens who were not able to have a grandparent to stay connected with. The researchers suggested that maybe grandparents can offset any negative effects of children struggling with the effects of losing an intact set of parents.

Our DNA is involved in every aspect of our lives. This mechanism that Darwin didn’t know about is being more understood each day. Is it possible that traumatic events can have an effect on our DNA? In other words, can our genetic makeup be effected by what goes on around us? Many lay people think our DNA is like an unchangeable script that determines and drives our behavior. Continued research is showing that this is not so. A study at the University of Montreal looked at the DNA of people who were suicide victims and had also been abused as children. They found these people "exhibited changes in the DNA of the hormonal stress gene NR3CI." These changes had an effect on how the gene operated or how it was "expressed." Similar changes were not seen in a group of people who had not been abused as children or people who had died of natural causes. This is another corroboration of how our DNA can affect us as it is modified by what happens around us and to us.

Sometimes our kids look like one of us. Sometimes they don't. Parents are often at a loss to explain how their kid doesn't even resemble anyone on the family tree. So what, you might say? As I keep reminding you, psychologists love peeking into areas of human behavior that might appear insignificant and trivial. Dutch psychologists wondered if these differences might have any effect on any aspect of family life. We know that some men are overly concerned whether or not a child is really theirs. It seems that fewer women have this concern. When the researchers studied ninety Dutch parents, they found that Dads can indeed be affected by the possibility that they may be raising someone else’s child. It seems that Dads were more emotionally connected with their children if they believed their kids looked like them. Perhaps male brains have evolved this way over time because of a number of issues such as inheritance matters and the continuation of the family line.

"Girls gone wild" is an expression describing the hormonal chase that takes place in college age youth. With nature demanding that babies be made as soon as possible, it is common knowledge that college males are continually prowling for female sexual partners. Enter alcohol. It is an age-old assumption that booze can loosen up the most reluctant female in order to delight a male’s fantasy. How true is this? As with so many psychology studies that explode common myths, research at Loyola University found that college females were way off target in how much they believed their male counterparts expected them to drink. They asked males how much they would like girls who they were dating to drink. Then they asked the girls how much they thought the boys wanted them to drink. The results were surprising. It seems the girls were overestimating how much the boys actually expected. In fact they found out that the majority of the girls overestimated this by as much as fifty percent. This finding was not just a curious case of wrongful second guessing. The researchers also discovered that this inaccuracy can lead to dangerous behavior. The young women who were poorest at estimating how much they were expected to drink were more likely to binge-drink and to experience the associated negative consequences of alcohol.

Impulsiveness is something that many people have experienced. Like all human behavior, the frequency and intensity of this characteristic will vary from person to person. Sometimes, when we see this in young children it can either be cute or drive us to distraction. A study at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center along with the University of Montreal were interested in the following question: what might be the downside of early impulsiveness as these children age? They studied five-year olds and then went back and looked at their behaviors six years later. They found a relationship between early impulsiveness (inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity) and a higher likelihood of involvement in gambling behaviors. The eleven year olds were more likely to play cards, bingo, or video poker. Although these kids were not throwing money at these games, the researchers saw a tendency in that direction because they were engaging in "gambling-related activities." If this research holds up, then it would be even more important to use psychology tools such as behavior analysis to teach children more control over their impulsive behavior.

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