Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Today's Science Granola. With Strawberries.

Two interesting things for science geeks.  Andrew Gelman writes about the problems with psychological studies and what the data might mean on his blog.  The particular study is about men's upper-body strength and how that supposedly affects men's political views in three countries.

It sounds like an evolutionary psychology take, doesn't it?  I've often thought that the problem with some ep studies is a lack of training in how to look for alternative explanations.  If your framework is upper-body strength, then you jump from that to various fuzzy measurements of biceps and so on you may sorta forget that there is a large group of researchers out there who spend their lives studying the variables which are most commonly correlated with political views, and you might also not realize that things such as biceps circumference might correlate with some of those variables (such as age, say, as Gelman notes). 

And you might also fail to think about how any exaggerations in self-reports of biceps size could correlate with political views, given that certain parties are based on the Strong Daddy or Brusque Masculinity ideals for men.  Finally, biceps size is something one can change by working out.  In general women are not urged to enlarge their biceps but men are, and it may well be the case that the message works more on those men who hold certain political views.

Gelman's general points are also about the problems that I fairly often see in these types of studies:  The unavailability of simple descriptive data on the sample, and the feeling I get that there's been some data fishing going on.  The latter doesn't mean intentional falsification or anything of the sort, but if a researcher begins with a particular framework it can be difficult not to view certain findings as important and others as OK to omit.

The second interesting study concerns self-control and behavior in children.  I have not looked at the actual study, but it might be worth a closer look.  This is because the researchers found larger gender differences in the US than in three Asian countries:

A new study shows there is a gender gap when it comes to behavior and self-control in American young children -- one that does not appear to exist in children in Asia.

In the United States, girls had higher levels of self-regulation than boys. Self-regulation is defined as children's ability to control their behavior and impulses, follow directions, and persist on a task. It has been linked to academic performance and college completion, in past studies by Oregon State University researchers.
In three Asian countries, the gender gap in the United States was not found when researchers directly assessed the self-regulation of 3-6 year olds. The results appear in the new issue of the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
"These findings suggest that although we often expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys, this may not be the case for Asian children," said Shannon Wanless, lead author of the study.
Something cultural appears to be going on here.  The overall results are more complicated (read the link), but they do remind us that behavior can be affected by societal norms and upbringing.

If the findings hold, they might offer a different way of looking into ways to improve boys' school performance.   The next step in following that embryo theory would be to look at the gender statistics on school completion etc. in those three Asian countries, China, Taiwan and South Korea.

And here are the promised strawberries: