Saturday, August 18, 2007

Even More Problems With Psychology Posted by olvlzl.

Many years ago, at a land grant university in New England, a callow young Freshman (not me, a friend) got into quite a bit of hot water by asking his Introductory Psych. teacher, in class, how a “study” which consisted of Yale students, back then all males in their late teens and early twenties, presumably unrepresentatively rich and white and weighted to those brought up in an upper class culture, could give us any relevant information about the population at large, as was implied by the supplemental reading. It immediately became clear that the student was not going to be getting an A in that class. Most of the “studies” in the class material used the men of the elite, single-sex universities of the time as subjects.

From the frontiers of the brave new psychology comes news of another “study” that correlates hand conformation with a lot more than what kind of winter gloves to buy.

In the August issue of British Journal of Psychology, a team of researchers led by psychologist Mark Brosnan of the University of Bath, England, have published findings that suggest women who are good at science and math have longer ring fingers than index fingers, which indicates a relatively high level of prenatal exposure to the male hormone testosterone. Conversely, longer index fingers indicate higher levels of the female hormone estrogen, according to the study, and a corresponding aptitude for verbal communication.

As Jody Kolodzey points out this is in keeping with an earlier study by another psychologist in California named Marc Breedlove correlating hands to sexual orientation.

Breedlove looked at relative finger length because it is influenced by androgen levels in the womb and thus is an approximate measure of fetal androgen levels.

"... this suggests that at least some lesbians were exposed to greater levels of fetal androgen than heterosexual women," Breedlove and his colleagues wrote.

And what were the rigorous methods that they used in these studies?

The study used standardized test scores of 75 British seven-year-old boys and girls and compared them to photocopies of the youngsters’ hands.

A gloriously generous sample of 75 photo copies of seven-year-olds' hands correlated with, perhaps, the first standardized test of its kind that they ever took. I wonder if they might have considered that if a few of the children out of the 75 had their performance inhibited by test anxiety their reliance on this test as an indication of life-long achievement could be, well, useless. It would also be interesting to know how good their teachers were and how many these seven-year-olds had benefited from. Did they all have the same teacher? My first grade math instruction was abysmal. I’d imagine we’d all have graded quite low on a standardized test given at age 7, even those of us who did well later in school.

Just on the sample size, the age of those whose well-ripened academic achievement is being correlated to photocopies of their hands and the possibility that an effective percentage of the children could have been sufficiently uncomfortable taking the standardized test in the first place, how many of you would take this seriously? As science? Which, I will guarantee you, will be taught in psychology classes as “science”. It’s clear that the media, including FOX was delighted to report this “science” breakthrough.

The earlier California study had a larger sample but, well, judge the data collection for yourself.

The Berkeley researchers based their conclusions on the hands of 720 volunteers they recruited at street fairs in San Francisco, volunteers who agreed to have their fingers measured and to answer a questionnaire about their birth order and sexual preferences, in exchange for a $1 lottery ticket.

Science, at a San Francisco street fair, with volunteers who were willing to trade their time for a lottery ticket. Just for starts, I wonder if a percentage of fair goers might have lied on the questionnaire for a lark. It was a carnival atmosphere, after all. Would you take science done under those conditions seriously? Just to come totally clean, I’ve got a real problem with self-reporting by volunteer subjects in science, just to start with.

How long will these be taken as seriously as the studies of Yalies mentioned in the beginning of this post? You can be certain that they will be taught as if they were science. That earlier study did figure in the reference material for at least one advanced psychology course as I discovered quite by accident last night. Just by chance, while researching this post, I browsed the Breedlove effort online and found it used in the supplementary course materials for Psychology 463 as taught by Kevin MacDonald Department of Psychology CSU-Long Beach Long Beach. As it happens, I’m familiar with MacDonald through reading about the infamous David Irving trial.*

You might want to think of the conclusions that might be reached about seeing the world through the lense of the Men of Yale or the neo-palmistry of seven-year-olds and consider the legs that this kind of “science” has in the media and in Psych. Courses around the world. Consider how it might be used. For it will be put to use. Either they should tighten their standards and throw out the junk or they should lose the prestige that comes with the title of "science". It has real life consequences.

* MacDonald was the major witness Irving (who, I should remind you conducted his own case) called on his behalf in the action he so infamously brought against Deborah Lipstadt. MacDonald tried to explain his motive in testifying for the Holocaust denier on the tired old saw of freedom to publish. Considering Irving’s ill-advised action clearly would have had the effect of suppressing Lipstadt’s book, "Denying the Holocaust", it’s hollow. In wondering about some other possible motives he might have been thought useful to Irving, you might want to think about MacDonald’s publications about the Jewish People which are widely regarded as anti-Semitic, his association with far-right racist groups.

You might want to read about the rather bizarre, even hysterical attempt to belatedly throw him out of the world of evolutionary psychology - including blaming him on just about every prominent opponent of that ideology - though MacDonald seems to be well entrenched in those circles. He's certainly published enough in the field. You can find him well represented on Wikipedia and on the web. I chose not to link to him