Sunday, January 13, 2008

Science (Reporting?) Fails To Imitate Life. Posted by olvlzl.

Well, Duh! .... I mean Duh!

A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking.

OK. So we aren’t told in the article how they are using their hands, called “nature’s abacus” by an elementary teacher I know. In the half hour I’ve been searching online I haven’t found out the answer to that either. Maybe they mention that in the published study but excuse my suspicions ....

In one study, Beilock and Holt had college hockey players, along with a non-hockey-player control group, read a sentence, sometimes hockey-related, sometimes not. Then the subjects would be shown a picture and asked if it corresponded with the sentence. Hockey players and non-hockey players alike almost invariably answered correctly, but on the hockey-related sentences the response times of the hockey players were significantly faster than the nonplayers.

Um, hum. No one in the world would guess that hockey players would be faster at that than non-players. Yes, I’m having a little bit of fun with this.

As happy as I am to have the predominant dogma about brains as computers made of meat challenged, I’ve got no faith that this kind of jumping to conclusions is the way to find reality. A lot of that is the fault of the media. We’ve gone over that here before. But the scientists don’t do much in the way of bringing things distorted in the media back to what their published papers really show. The article is full of partial descriptions of studies like these, the media has been presenting science like this for as long as they’ve been covering it. Scientists have a responsibility to not go out on a limb themselves but they also have the responsibility to bring things back to reality when the public is being coaxed out there too. Complaining that their work has been misrepresented only after that has been brought up to them isn’t the most efficient way of promoting the public’s understanding of science. It’s responsible for a good part of the cynicism the public has about science.


Why would anyone who looks at a person who is thinking and acting while living in a physical body try to find out how that happens through reductionist hacking away at the parts and ignoring the whole system? When the thinking is observable only as the expression of the whole person, why would anyone get away with ignoring that most obvious fact? That doing so makes it possible for a “study” to be done, a paper published, a theory or, God help us, an entire “school” of “science” set up doesn’t make it an honest endeavor. When there isn’t the exigency of a mental illness or harmful actions that have to be dealt with somehow, it’s not even defensible on the basis of necessity. And how can anyone who practices this kind of reductionism of convenience get away with making generalizations about “human nature”?

"It's a revolutionary idea," says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. "In the embodied view, if you're going to explain cognition it's not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what's going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what's going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment."

Why, after more than a century of the allegedly scientific study of these things, with the “findings” allowed to have a direct and sometimes harmful effect on people, should the most basic fact about the phenomena constitute a revolutionary idea? What does that tell us about the practices of the behavioral sciences and why it is safe to remain skeptical of them?