Monday, January 04, 2016

Start-Of-The-Year Post: On Shampoo Labels, Research Problems And On Alphas and Betas

Like a trial run, if you wish, to see if the gears are too rusty by now.

1.  I bought a new bottle of shampoo, not because the labels offer me chances for stupid posts (like this one)  but because I ran out of shampoo.

But the labels are fun.  The new bottle says "used by professionals," by which it probably doesn't mean engineers or lab analysts or flea trainers but hairdressers and barbers.  It fails to tell us if those professionals use this particular shampoo on their own heads or only on the heads of their customers, or if they wash floors with it.

The bottle then continues:  With Volume Control Complex.

Poor bottle.  I can't afford to send it with its complex to a shrink, but my hair doesn't have a lot of volume it needs to control.  Just enough to fill the various war helmets my Echidne role requires.  So we, the shampoo and I, should get on just fine, if I am gentle and understanding*.

2.  I should erase the above but I won't because this is my blog and you, sweet readers, don't pay me enough for the weird (though still ladylike) side of me to stay quiet.  Though my warm thanks to those of you who gave me year-end presents!

3.  This article is worth reading if you are interested in the difficulties of doing psychological research or if you are interested in having a critical-but-open-mind** about social science research.

The article is about oxytocin, but similar problems exist in many of the fields I follow:  the tendency to only publish positive findings while all the others are left in the file drawers, the actual meaning of statistical significance in many studies,  and the problems in getting studies reproduced, including some very famous ones.

Those are relevant worries for anyone who analyzes what research is popularized and why.  It's not sexy or click-breeding to write about earlier famous studies which turned out to be nothing at all, compared to some new hot-out-of-the-oven study which finally and conclusively explains how we are (using evolutionary psychology arguments, probably)!  Except that of course those earlier studies explained the very same thing.  Or thought they did.

4.  Finally, just a repeat reminder (from 2013) that alpha wolves do not exist in the wild.  Wolf packs are extended families, and the so-called alpha couple are just the parents of most of the wolves in the pack.

The repeat reminders are needed, because the alpha wolf idea has bred a whole Internet subculture around the thesis that some men are alphas (and keep large harems of beautiful women) while other men are betas (and never get to reproduce).  There are even how-to-books which purport to teach those poor beta guys how to pretend to be alpha and so to "fool" women into their beds.

The supposed basic theory*** derives from early studies of wolves under captivity (and therefore not in their natural habitat).  But the practice looks a lot more like hunting where women are viewed as prey animals.


*  Is shampoo necessary?  What would happen if I washed my tresses with soap?  Or with beer?  And why do I feel I'm lying when calling my hair "tresses?"

**  Imagine an open maw with sharp teeth.

*** Even if wolves in the wild behaved in the manner the early research supposed we shouldn't just draw equivalencies to humans because the species are pretty different.  But I've noticed that human borrowing from research into other animals is very selective, mostly to support traditional ideas humans already believe about homo sapiens.  An example can be found here, which was a response to this post.